Strong opinions, weakly held

Tag: food (page 1 of 6)

Skip the organic, read the labels

Today’s New York Times has a long article about organic foods, more specifically, about how the FDA-approved “Certified Organic” designation has been co-opted almost completely by industrial food producers, diluting it to the point of meaninglessness. This does not come as a surprise to me. As soon as “organic” became an adjective that people would pay a premium for, it became inevitable that corporations in the food business would want a piece of the action. Now they’re busily diluting the definition of organic so that they can more easily adapt it to their industrial production methods.

Beyond doing things like going to the farmer’s market and buying food from the producers themselves, I have another trick for buying “whole foods” whether I’m at Whole Foods or any other grocery store. I read the list of ingredients. If it has ingredients that I don’t recognize, or don’t seem to belong in whatever it is that I’m buying, I skip it. Sometimes I wind up buying mass market brands, sometimes high end “organic” foods, and sometimes it’s store brand.

The first time I tried this approach was buying honey mustard. I was shocked to find that most of the honey mustards on the shelf didn’t even contain honey, most of them instead contained high fructose corn syrup and lots of other weird ingredients that I don’t recognize. I finally found a bottle of mustard that had a list of ingredients that included ground mustard, vinegar, and honey, and no strange ingredients we don’t have in the cabinet at home. To get back to mass market brands, French’s Mustard is delightfully simple (and awesome).

I realize that familiar ingredients can be produced in unpleasant ways, but there’s a limit to what can be practically achieved in our modern society. The best favor you can do for yourself if you’re not going to restrict yourself to food you or people you know grew is to stick to reading the labels.

What the economy of the future looks like

Matthew Yglesias makes the argument that Chipotle is the Apple of fast food. America may not be manufacturing consumer electronics, but it is manufacturing more burritos. It’s an interesting and provocative piece.

For what it’s worth, I love Chipotle. Specifically, the carnitas burrito with rice, black beans, cheese, corn salsa, and hot salsa.

El Bulli and the impetus to create

As I was watching last night’s No Reservations episode on the last days of El Bulli, the world’s greatest restaurant, I wondered a bit about the future of Ferran Adria and the foundation that he is working on to continue the groundbreaking work he did at the restaurant.

For those who are a bit in the dark, El Bulli was a restaurant in rural Spain where chef Ferran Adria created and popularized many of the molecular gastronomy techniques that make up the foundation of modern cooking.

The restaurant closed for good this weekend, to be replaced by some sort of creativity center. What I wonder about, though, is whether the closing of the restaurant will, in the end, stifle Adria’s creativity in some way.

For many people, myself included, the greatest impetus to create is the necessity of delivering something. Everything else aside, Ferran Adria knew that every summer when El Bulli opened for the year, the people lucky enough to get reservations would expect to encounter a menu more interesting and impressive than the last. In addition to his annual deadline, Adria’s creativity was always constrained by the fact that the dishes he created had to be replicated by other chefs every night for dozens of diners. It will be interesting to see what he produces without that framework.

As the old saying goes, real artists ship. I’m reminded of this post on the dangers of producing concept products.

More on McDonald’s oatmeal

Ezra Klein has a good response to the Mark Bittman piece on McDonald’s oatmeal that I linked to earlier in the week. Here’s his conclusion:

That gets to the part of this that I think Bittman is really right about, though. His post is basically an attempt to shame McDonald’s into making its “healthy” options, like oatmeal, less unhealthy. And that seems to me to be the key to better eating: better eating out, and better snacking. My lunchtime diet has gotten a lot better since Devon and Blakely opened on 15th and H, as I can now get soup that isn’t terrible. I’d eat less of Kelly’s chocolate if the other choice wasn’t Oreos in the vending machine. My hunch is that a lot of people are willing to opt for a slightly healthier option when they eat out during the day. The success chains like McDonald’s have had with faux-healthy foods suggests I’m right. But when they quietly make the seemingly healthy options into unhealthy foods, they’re making it very difficult for consumers to make better choices.

This problem goes far beyond McDonald’s. Not many products marketed as “healthy” at the grocery store are really that healthy. For example, take a look at this Special K Protein Shake (for weight loss). Each bottle has 18 grams of sugar, almost as much as a normal size bag of Peanut M&M’s. The idea behind these is that you should skip breakfast and drink this bottle of sugary goo instead. Kellogg should also be ashamed.

I have no idea whether shaming works, but Matthew Yglesias is hopeful that offering “healthy” food that’s not healthy instead of obviously unhealthy food is a step on the path toward offering food that’s actually healthy. Maybe he’s right.

What we can learn from McDonald’s oatmeal

Cookbook author and food activist Mark Bittman has a piece in the New York Times taking McDonald’s to task for adding oatmeal to its menu as an ostensibly healthy breakfast alternative and then loading it up with fat and chemicals to the point that from a nutritional standpoint it’s not significantly better than a sausage biscuit.

To me, this says less about McDonald’s than it does about the typical McDonald’s diner. If the restaurant could sell oatmeal that’s actually healthy in the same volume as the unhealthy oatmeal that they offer, they would probably do so. What we can infer from the composition of McDonald’s oatmeal is that the people who order it want to feel like they’re making a positive choice, but that when it comes down to it, their main interest is in eating something that satisfies their craving for fast food. That’s why they’re eating McDonald’s as opposed to making a bowl of cheap, healthy oatmeal in their own home.

This is, I think, a large problem with food activism in general. Food activists want to believe that most people are bamboozled into eating unhealthy diets of processed foods and that a little education will go a long way toward getting people to change their habits. I think it’s much more likely that people appreciate the convenience of processed foods and that food scientists and market researchers in the food industry have a very good idea of exactly which kinds of products people will be eager to buy. McDonald’s makes the oatmeal that they can sell.

Mark Bittman’s food manifesto

Mark Bittman has a list of food-related political reforms that would improve Americans’ diets and be good for the environment. Here’s how he introduces them:

… we’ve come to recognize that our diet is unhealthful and unsafe. Many food production workers labor in difficult, even deplorable, conditions, and animals are produced as if they were widgets. It would be hard to devise a more wasteful, damaging, unsustainable system.

It’s unlikely that any of them will be enacted, but it’s nice to dream.

The Line Diet, revisited

A year ago I wrote a long post about the Line Diet that turned out to be one of the most popular of the year. Not only did a lot of people respond to it, but several people gave it a try, and found that it worked for them. I actually heard from four different people who all lost over 30 pounds in 2010 after they read the post, so that’s kind of cool. I’ve been Line Dieting for about 16 months, and I’ve lost 55 pounds or so.

Oddly enough, I still don’t want to be in the diet advice business, other than to say what has worked for me personally. Here’s what I wrote last year about that, and I’m sticking with it:

People should be on the diet that enables them to manage their food consumption and achieve their goals. If it works for you, do it. If it doesn’t, do something else. Some people eat one or two meals a day and feel fine, other people need to eat five meals a day to keep from going around hungry all the time. The world is full of people who want to tell you that one way works better than others, but everybody is different. The only thing that matters is whether the way you’re eating is helping you get to where you want to be. On that same note, if you’re not really committed to managing how much you eat, no diet is going to work for you. Just skip it until you’re ready to commit, you’ll be happier.

I also still haven’t bothered with calorie counting in any form, which I consider a badge of honor. That said, it works very well for others. Matthew Yglesias lost 70 pounds in 10 months by carefully counting calories.

Beyond eating light when the scale says to, I’ve made a few other big changes to my eating habits that have helped a bunch:

  • Eating lunch out really sparingly. Lunches out were a killer for me.
  • Almost never having seconds at dinner. My wife is a great cook, and it’s very easy for me to eat a lot at dinner. I just don’t eat seconds any more.
  • Telling my wife to serve me what she’d serve herself. In other words, putting less food on my plate in general.
  • Almost never eating until I’m really full. I don’t miss the overstuffed feeling that I had all too often after eating before I started on the Line Diet.

I still haven’t cut anything out of my diet categorically, although I do eat a lot less of some things that I really love. I also started working out, but that’s a separate post.

I’m still using the Bang Bang Diet iPhone application. The only thing I wish it offered is a way to display a weighted average rather than the absolute weights for each day.

2010 Recipes of the Year

Here are the recipes of the year for 2010 — the best things we cooked this year and that we’ll certainly be cooking again next year.

The first is this carnitas recipe, courtesy of Rick Bayless. I love carnitas at Mexican restaurants, and had always thought of them as deep fried chunks of pork. This simple recipe takes the fryer completely out of the equation. You need pork, salt, water, and an oven, and the results are sublime. Use the cooking times as a rough guide rather than an absolute rule. It is important to cook both covered and uncovered because it uncovered the whole time would dry out the pork. Once you’re out of the covered phase, the trick is just to be sure to cook it until all the water evaporates. He recommends using pork shoulder roast, but we found that it works just as well with country style spare ribs, which you can get at any grocery store here and don’t require as much carving. Needless to say, the results are great on a fresh corn tortilla, but they’re also great alone, or on white bread.

In November, Ruth Reichl posted a recipe for au gratin potatoes under the title The Best Potato Dish, Ever. I have always liked au gratin potatoes, although not as much as I like mashed potatoes. The problem is that in most cases, the potatoes are not uniformly done, especially those that don’t get coated with cream and stick to their neighbors when baking. Also, when the cheese is mixed with the cream during baking, it can separate and come out with an unpleasant texture. Not good. This recipe avoids those problems by calling for you to boil the potatoes in the cream you’re going to bake them in before baking. Then you dump the whole thing into the pan for baking. We used a mixture of half heavy cream and half whole milk to boil the potatoes, which we sliced thinly on a mandolin. We used mozzarella cheese on top because that’s what we had. Do not skip the nutmeg. The resulting dish is just incredibly rich and luscious, and holds together incredibly well. Is it better than the best mashed potatoes? I’m not sure. It’s certainly the best version of au gratin potatoes you’re likely to eat. This is the kind of dish that gets you invited back if you bring it to a dinner party, and it reheats very well.

Here’s one for my vegan friends. Mario Batali’s Tuscan bean soup is both tasty and healthy, and doesn’t even ask for chicken stock. The ingredients are cheap and it’s pretty easy to make as long as you can chop up vegetables. It holds up well in the refrigerator for at least a couple of weeks. The key to simplifying this recipe is using canned beans. Just be sure to rinse them. Both times we made it we left a different vegetable due to shoddy work in copying the recipe to the grocery shopping list and it didn’t suffer either time. We also substituted turnip greens for the black cabbage the first time, and kale for the black cabbage the second time. It didn’t matter, the soup was fantastic. The recipe does not mention rosemary in the ingredient list, but does in the instructions, and you’ll want to be sure to use it. Using fresh rather than dried herbs make a big difference. This recipe can also be found in Mario Batili’s cookbook, Molto Mario, which is excellent cover to cover.

Deep thoughts on meat

As a meat eater, I feel obligated to think about the ethics of the habit. Given that we can easily survive without meat, I think it’s important to be conscious of the fact that it’s a luxury that we indulge in at the expense of the lives of other animals.

In this month’s Atlantic, James McWilliams argues that eating the meat of animals raised in a “free range” is not more ethical than eating factory farmed meat:

But this position—the idea that free-range is automatically a responsible choice simply because it’s more attentive to animal welfare—is morally blurred. Better does not mean acceptable. Consumers of free-range meat who oppose factory farming on welfare grounds (however partial) cannot escape an inconvenient question: Doesn’t killing an animal we don’t need constitute the very thing that factory farming perpetuates—which is to say, harm? This, as I see it, is the free-range albatross.

After reading it, you should read Heath Putnam’s response. He’s a pig farmer in Washington, and consistently writes interesting stuff on the practices of farmers and the ethics of them.

Two additional thoughts. The first is that from an animal welfare standpoint, eating dairy foods is no more ethical than eating meat, mainly because meat is an unavoidable by product of dairy farming. Only female animals produce milk and eggs, and half of the offspring of farm animals are male. Many male dairy calves become veal, male goats on a goat farm become meat, and male chicks on big egg farms become fertilizer.

The second is that without farming most of the animals on farms just wouldn’t exist. So when we talk about the lost potential for happiness and fulfillment among farm animals when they are slaughtered, we’re talking about animals that would not exist at all were it not for farming.

Heath Putnam says we should eat what tastes good. I continue to agree with him, at least for now.

On Community Supported Agriculture

This year, like many people it seems, we took the plunge and subscribed to a summer CSA. CSA stands for community supported agriculture and the idea behind it is simple. You pay for a subscription and in return you get a weekly delivery of locally produced food. There are a lot of variations on the model. Some CSAs let you pick what goes into your box, others choose for you. Some include food produced at a single farm while others gather food from multiple local producers and create the boxes. Around here there are CSAs that include vegetables, fruit, bread, eggs, and meat. There’s even a seafood CSA.

The CSA we joined was associated with a single farm, included vegetables and eggs, and required us to pay in advance last winter for the whole summer. There are plenty of others that let you pay every week.

The first question everybody asks is whether you can tell the difference between vegetables from the CSA and the vegetables from the supermarket. My answer is, I don’t know, because most of the vegetables we got through the CSA we don’t normally buy at the supermarket. Our main reason for joining the CSA was to break us out of our food routine. One of the great triumphs of the summer was an awesome dish out of spaghetti squash. I had never eaten that vegetable at all before. And many of the other vegetables we got were not on our regular shopping list, even relatively mundane things like yellow squash and zucchini.

The more common vegetables we got were really good. The tomatoes that arrived through the summer were fantastic — as good as you get in a really good restaurant. We braised some turnip greens that we got through the CSA and they came out better than any I’ve eaten at restaurants. Early in the season we made a lot of great, simple salads with the mesclun greens that came from the CSA. Overall, the quality was high. What we really appreciated, though, was the variety.

You may have heard the most common complaint about CSAs, and I’ll echo it: vegetable fatigue. This comes in two forms. The first is that someone brings you a box of vegetables every week, many of which may be unfamiliar to you, and you feel guilty if you can’t find a way to cook all of them before they go bad. We wasted very few vegetables over the course of the summer, but handling the constant influx of vegetables wore on us at times. I was happy to have a friend who likes cucumber more than we do.

The second form is fatigue with specific vegetables. On a farm, some vegetables grow better than others from year to year. When a particular vegetable is growing well, you’ll see it for many weeks in a row. For us, that meant a lot of squash over the summer. It also meant five straight weeks of okra toward the end of the season. I like okra, but nobody likes okra that much.

I think we’ll be better prepared to deal with vegetable fatigue next year. We now have a list of really good recipes for vegetables that we didn’t have going into the season and we’ll have a better idea of which vegetables will be arriving as the season progresses. I’m already looking forward to certain vegetables with short seasons that we won’t see again until next year.

That brings me to the final really cool thing about the CSA — learning more about which vegetables grow in which seasons. I had no idea that when it starts getting hot, you’re done with greens until the fall. When the lettuce was gone, it was gone. And around here, it’s gone before the tomatoes start to ripen. The traditional American salad of tomatoes, lettuce, and cucumbers is a testament to the climate of California and our ability to ship fresh vegetables coast to coast. There was no overlap between lettuce and tomatoes in our CSA. Suddenly, Middle Eastern salads like fattoush and Italian salads like insalata Caprese and panzanella make sense. They’re made using ingredients that all grow at the same time.

Spending the summer as a CSA subscriber was a lot more educational than I would have predicted. It’s a great way to expose yourself to varieties of produce that you may otherwise never get to try. At the same time, it’s a commitment to learning and cooking new recipes that many people may not have the time, energy, or interest to take on. If it’s something you think you might enjoy, I’d encourage you to give it a try.

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