Saturday, October 13, 2012

Carbohydrates: The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly

Carbohydrates play a predominant role in human diets, comprising some 40-75% of energy intake. Carbohydrates are formed in plants when carbons are bonded with oxygen and hydrogen to form chains of varying complexity. The complexity of the chains determines the carbohydrate classification. Mono-and disaccharides are “simple” carbohydrates. Polysaccharides are classified as “complex.”

However, all carbohydrates are broken down into monosaccharides before being converted to glucose. Glucose is necessary for brain function, the maintenance of the central nervous system, and intense physical activity. Unfortunately, for most, carbohydrate consumption often exceeds daily needs; additionally, carbohydrate consumption is dominated by two sources that have undeniably negative health consequences: refined flours and sugars.

Refined flours, made from refined grains, do not contain the germ and bran of the seed and thus are absent in many important nutrients. They simply contain the endosperm, a source of carbohydrate, plant protein, and some B Vitamins. Refined sugar, like beet and cane sugar and high fructose corn syrup, have a well-documented negative, potentially toxic effect on human health. These carbohydrates are what may be called “bad” carbs.

Can one food be inherently “good” while another is “bad”? I think this attitude in itself is unhealthy. The point of dividing carbohydrates into these categories is to highlight the potential health impact of eating well-documented “good,” “bad,” and “ugly” foods. Armed with the knowledge, you can make decisions that positively influence your life.

The Good: Vegetables

Vegetables are our best source of carbohydrates. Not only do vegetables provide an easily absorbed form of carbohydrate, they provide important phytonutrients, or “plant nutrients,” the pigments and bitter tasting compounds found in plants. Once assumed to be of benefit to plants only (in terms of self-protection and growth), these nutrients have proved to be tremendously beneficial to humans, too. Under scientific scrutiny, phytonutrients have turned out to be potent antioxidants, which, in humans, can help prevent cancer, reduce inflammation, and protect your cells from the oxidizing stress of modern life.

Of course, vegetables vary in carbohydrate content; the healthiest vegetables, indeed the healthiest foods on the planet, also happen to be low-carbohydrate vegetables: green vegetables like kale, lettuce, spinach, and herbs; cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage; onions and garlic; and popular summer vegetables like cucumbers, zucchini, tomatoes, and peppers.

High-carbohydrate vegetables include potatoes, sweet potatoes, beets, carrots, winter squash, and jicama. These higher-carbohydrate vegetables can also play an important role in the diet—to a point.

Last year, Dr. Mercola reported on a public debate between two nutritional experts, Dr. Paul Jaminet and Dr. Ron Rosedale. Dr. Rosedale, citing evidence on the negative, potentially toxic, consequences of glucose, stated that the notion of a “safe starch” does not exist, and that all starchy carbohydrates should be avoided. Dr. Jaminet, on the other hand, believed some people need a small amount of starchy vegetables  in their diets. The debate is fascinating, as it speaks directly to the role carbohydrates play in the maintenance of health. After all, as stated above, glucose is necessary. Those on ultra-low carbohydrate diets might experience symptoms similar to Dr. Mercola himself, a long-time advocate of ultra-low carbohydrate diets:

"When I eliminated…grains and starchy vegetables, I actually experienced…negative effects. My energy levels declined considerably, and my cholesterol…normally about 150, rose to over 200…I was suffering a glucose deficiency and this can trigger lipoprotein abnormalities. It also seemed to worsen my kidney function."

After evaluating Dr. Jaminet’s and Dr. Rosedale’s debate, Dr. Mercola now recommends the following:

"My conclusion is that there is a certain minimum carbohydrate threshold that you should not drop below. The sweet spot for most is 20 to 30 percent of your diet as carbs, but most likely 25 to 30 percent. Most of those calories can come from non-starchy vegetables, but you'll probably need some starchy carbs, such as white potatoes…carrots and squash."

Perhaps the primary benefit of high-carbohydrate vegetables is their ease of digestibility. Most people eat, enjoy, and fully digest, high-starch vegetables like potatoes or sweet potatoes.

Unfortunately, the same cannot necessarily be said of grains. For those who suffer sensitivity to grains, high-starch vegetables just might be a key to health.

Whole Grains

Many experts agree that whole grains are the healthiest carbohydrate choice. The usable part of a grain is called the kernel, and the kernel is comprised of three major parts—the germ, bran and starchy endosperm. For a grain to be considered “whole,” it must contain the germ, bran and starchy endosperm. Each part of the grain contributes different nutrients. The germ contains B Vitamins, Vitamin E, trace minerals, essential fatty acids, and phytochemicals. The bran contains fiber, B Vitamins, and trace minerals. The endosperm contains plant protein and some B Vitamins.

Despite the popularity of this view, convincing evidence exists to suggest grains, and whole grains, might not be the best choice for some people. Why? Anti-nutrients. To avoid insects, foraging animals, and humans,  plant species have evolved certain protective anti-nutrients. Mark’s Daily Apple has posted some intriguing reports on anti-nutrients. As the site states:

"A workable balance developed between plants that were able to safeguard their species’ survival and the “pest” patrons that were able to benefit from the plants’ nutrition but learned to partake more sensibly from their supply. Given that our primal forefolk foraged widely and ate a surprisingly diverse diet, the system worked."

Lectins, an anit-nutrient, are widespread in the plant kingdom, but virtually unknown by consumers: the people eating the lectins. This is unfortunate. Dr. Mercola notes:

"Certain lectins, including those in wheat, bind to receptor sites on your intestinal mucosal cells and interfere with the absorption of nutrients across your intestinal wall and into your blood…Lectins can promote inflammation, stimulate a hyper-immune response, and increase blood viscosity."

Another pervasive anti-nutrient is gluten. “Gluten” from the Latin word for glue, is the substance that binds bread and baked goods together. Wheat, rye, and barley include gluten. If you are sensitive to gluten, it might interfere with the breakdown and absorption of nutrients, including nutrients from other foods in the same meal.

A Few Special Grains

Quinoa: A recently rediscovered ancient “grain” native to South America, quinoa is actually a seed. Once called “the gold of the Incas,” quinoa was known to increase the stamina of Incan warriors. Not only is quinoa high in protein, but the protein it supplies is complete protein, meaning that it includes all nine essential amino acids. Quinoa is especially well-endowed with the amino acid lysine, which is essential for tissue growth and repair.

Buckwheat: Energizing and nutritious, buckwheat, a fruit, is available throughout the year and can be served as an alternative to rice or made into porridge. It has been shown to benefit blood sugar control as well as the cardiovascular system. It is also a potent anti-cancer food.

Spelt: A wonderfully nutritious and ancient grain with a deep nutlike flavor, spelt is a cousin to wheat that is recently receiving renewed recognition. Spelt is an ancient grain that traces its heritage back long before many wheat hybrids. Many of its benefits come from this fact: it offers a broader spectrum of nutrients compared to many of its more inbred cousins in the Triticum (wheat) family. Spelt features a host of different nutrients. It is an excellent source of vitamin B2, a very good source of manganese, and a good source of niacin, thiamin, and copper.

Insulin & Carbohydrates

Insulin is a hormone central to regulating carbohydrate and fat metabolism in the body. Insulin causes cells in the liver, muscle, and fat tissue to take up glucose from the blood. This glucose is then stored as glycogen or fat in the liver and muscles. Insulin's primary role, then, is not necessarily to lower sugar, but to take the extra energy and store it for future times of need. Your body produces insulin in response to carbohydrate consumption—the more carbohydrates (including the sugars in carbohydrates) you eat, the more insulin your body produces and the more glycogen and/or fat is stores in your liver and muscles.

Bad Carbohydrates

Since your body produces insulin in response to carbohydrate consumption, and since insulin is a storage hormone that stores glucose as fat in the liver and muscles, the “bad” carbohydrates might be considered those that stimulate the highest secretion of insulin. This means two things: any carbohydrate, if eaten in excess, can be considered bad; likewise, any carbohydrate that produces a correspondingly large production of insulin can be considered bad. As discussed above, these latter bad carbohydrates include refined grains and sugars, but they might also include fruit, eaten to excess.

The Ugly: Fructose

Your body metabolizes fructose in a much different way than glucose. The entire burden of metabolizing fructose falls on your liver. People are consuming fructose in enormous quantities, which has made the negative effects much more profound. Once again, Dr. Mercola:

"Glucose is the form of energy you were designed to run on. Every cell in your body, every bacterium…uses glucose for energy. If you received your fructose only from vegetables and fruits (where it originates)…you’d consume about 15 grams per day—a far cry from the 73 grams per day the typical adolescent gets from sweetened drinks. In vegetables and fruits, it’s mixed in with fiber, vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and beneficial phytonutrients, all which moderate any negative metabolic effects. It isn’t that fructose itself is bad -- it is the MASSIVE DOSES you’re exposed to that make it dangerous."

Friday, November 12, 2010

Dinner Lovesong

Tonight, as every night, Karen and I will share a home-cooked dinner.

Tonight, I will eat chicken. Of 365 dinners a year, I eat chicken about 350 times. Roast whole chicken. Grilled chicken legs. Roast chicken breast. Tonight, I eat roast half chicken.

On any given night, Karen might eat chicken for dinner, yet she might eat something else. Macadamia-crusted tilapia. White beans simmered with a Parmigiana rind. Pan-seared Chilean sea bass. Spaghetti. The "Florence" pizza from Arpeggios. Tonight, though, Karen will eat braised chickpeas.

Tonight, we will share mashed potatoes. Of 365 dinners, I eat potatoes about 180 times. Roasted red potatoes. Boiled fingerlings with herbs and olive oil. Mashed potatoes. Karen shares the potato habit, adding her own flourishes: she adorns roasted potatoes with thin slices of butter; to mashed potatoes, she adds a pat of butter.

On alternate nights, we eat sweet potatoes. Baked sweets. Mashed sweets. Roasted sweets.

Karen might eat rice. As I said, she might eat pasta, or pizza.

But for me, that's it--potatoes or sweet potatoes, every single night of my life. I enjoy eating the same things day after day, with small variances, and that's what vegetables and wine are for.

Tonight, we share coconut braised greens. Living seasonally, we experience variety in vegetables. Still, we eat coconut braised greens about 3 times a week. We eat steamed broccoli 3 times a week. Of course, I feel obliged to hand toss the warm broccoli with salt, fresh ground pepper, and olive oil. This is how you treat broccoli--with love. Summertime, I might pan-sear zucchini. Springtime, I might steam peas or asparagus. Autumn, I might split one acorn squash in half, dab the flesh with oil, and roast. Perhaps, feeling nostalgic for July, I'll pan-sear zucchini.

Most nights, we drink wine. Of 365 dinners, we drink wine 335 times. Weekdays call for something like Coppola Rosso. Weekends call for Coppola Claret or Rosenblum Syrah.

I'm finicky about food, refusing to eat what I deem to be lowly ingredients, but I remain a willfully oblivious wine-drinker. I simply cannot afford a refined wine palate.

As it is, I find most cheap red wines benefit from a jaunt in the fridge. I like wine nearly chilled. Karen likes wine room temperature. Nightly, we play the same game: I put the wine in the fridge, she takes it out. I put it in, she takes it out.

Each week, once a week, my wife jubilantly orders a small Florence pizza from Arpeggios. Sharing the festive mood, I'll make myself something special: chicken, maybe, and potatoes.

We've shared this small, strange life for 15 years. To me, marriage is not about growing old together. Marriage is about growing weird together.

The view from my seat: Karen and her pizza.

We invite others to share our weirdness. Friends and family come over all the time. Cogan, fresh from traffic, full of anxiety on a Tuesday. Charlie, cool and early, with a bottle, on a Friday. JJ, stoned and feast-ready, on a Saturday. My mom, decked in one of her immaculate coats, inquisitive and calm on a Sunday.

I place the wine, red or white in the fridge. I assign small tasks. I toss what seems like an excessive plume of salt into the greens. Then I'll throw open the oven, squint into the bellowing smoke, and jab a thermometer into the chicken. Friends have just come to accept: an invitation to my place means chicken.

I eat the same thing every night, and yet I look forward to dinner all day. To me, dinner is the point. Dinner absolves the day's hassles. Dinner redeems the day's failures. Without dinner, the day has no structure, no purpose. Dinner is not only food--it is communion, with others, with ourselves. Immersed in our daytime ambitions and jobs and twitter accounts, we might lose sight of those we love; we might lose sight of ourselves. Dinner saves us. When we sit down to dinner, we settle back into ourselves; we become human again.

Roast Half Chicken for One

My wife refuses to eat chicken every night, so often I enjoy roasting a half chicken for myself. This recipe accounts for two successive nights of half roast chicken.

6 tablespoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons pure cane sugar
One 3-4 pound organic or free-range chicken
2 teaspoons olive oil
Fresh ground pepper
1 teaspoon dried thyme

To make the brine: dissolve the kosher salt, sugar, and 4 cups water in a gallon bag. Place the chicken in the bag and brine for 2 hours (can be brined up to 8 hours).

Take the bird out of the brine, rinse, and pat dry. For crispier skin, allow the bird to air-dry after brining for at least 4-8 hours and up to two days.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Place one of your oven racks one the bottom rung.

Working with kitchen shears, split the chicken in half. (Here's a nice tutorial). Save the other half for a successive dinner.

Rub the chicken skin with the olive oil. Sprinkle fresh ground pepper and dried thyme over the skin.

Place the chicken skin-side down in a grill pan and roast on the bottom rack of the oven for 20 minutes. Flip the chicken and continue roasting, skin-side up for 8-10 minutes, until a thermometer inserted in the breast registers 160 degrees.

Let the chicken rest for 5-10 minutes on a cutting board.

Cut it up, into pieces: legs, wings, breasts.

Serves 1.

Pan-Seared Summer Squash with Basil and Lemon Vinaigrette

I originally developed this recipe for Whole Foods Market. Thick rounds of summer squash seared in a piping hot pan — cast iron is best — until just blackened, then tossed with a fragrant fresh basil and lemon vinaigrette. This is a summer recipe that adapts easily to most seasons. In Philly, we get local zukes (hothouse) throughout the fall, even into the winter. 

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon lemon zest
2 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 large green zucchini

For the vinaigrette, in a small bowl, mix together olive oil, lemon juice, lemon zest, fresh basil and salt.

For the zucchini, slice zucchini into large rounds. Warm a 10-inch skillet (cast iron is best) until very hot. Place zucchini in pan and sear over high heat, until blackened, 2 to 3 minutes. Flip onto other side and sear additional 2 to 3 minutes, until both sides are blackened.

Place zucchini on a large platter. Spoon vinaigrette over zucchini. Serve warm.

Serves 4.

Friday, March 05, 2010

"Well-Done" Steak? Please.

How do you like your steak? The answer is medium-rare. Maybe rare. There is no other answer. A well-done steak is a misnomer: there is nothing "well-done" about it; there is nothing steak-like about it. A well-done steak is no longer a steak. It's an "edible substance." Don't get me wrong. I do not consider a well-done steak edible. Some do, though. Dogs, for example.

Do you "prefer" your steak well-done? If so, you should know: cooks hate you. And happily, science justifies this hatred in several ways.

First, steak is prized, above all else, for its juiciness. In On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee writes:

"Food Scientists who have studied the subjective sensation of juiciness find that it consists of two phases: the initial impression of moisture as you bite into a food, and the continued release of moisture as you chew. Juiciness at first bite comes from the meat's own free water, while continued juiciness comes from the meat's fat and flavor, both of which stimulate the flow of our own saliva."

Well-done steak is almost devoid of what McGee calls "free-water"--or juices. McGee writes elsewhere: Well-done steak has "nearly all of its proteins denatured, is frankly stiff to the touch, little juice is apparent, and both juice and interior are a dull tan or gray."

Little juice is apparent. Quite simply, a well-done steak has no "initial impression of moisture" and "no continued release of moisture."

Second, steak is prized for its flavor. Cooking, of course, intensifies the flavor and aroma of food. Specifically, in steak, what is called the Maillard Reaction or "browning reaction" (the crust on a steak), might account for as many as six hundred flavor components. These components are present in well-done steak and certainly contribute to the "taste" of a well-done steak. And, in theory, because it is cooked longer, a well-done steak might have a deeper Maillard Reaction than a rare or medium-rare steak.

However, taste is very complex. The deliciousness of a steak comes from a variety of aromas and flavors, from the crust to the middle. Juiciness and tenderness are very important. Well done meat might have a deeper Maillard Reaction, but it misses many other flavor components. The ideal steak boasts tremendous flavor from a browned crust and a tender, juicy interior. This is why people who like the taste of food like medium-rare steak.

Third, it's a well-known fact that cooking meat at high temperatures creates unhealthy chemicals such as HCAs and PAHs. The longer you cook a steak the more unhealthy chemicals are produced. A recent study even showed that those who eat well-done steak are 60-70% more likely to develop pancreatic cancer then those who eat medium-rare steak.

The notion that "undercooked" meat is somehow unhealthy is nonsense. Yes, most meats must be cooked to 160 degrees or higher to guarantee the rapid destruction of bacteria, but bacteria do not exist inside intact steaks or chops. Bacteria exist on the outside of meat, and these bacteria are easily killed in searing. (Incidentally, ground beef is more risky because the interior and exterior have been commingled).

Of course, there are other, very important factors that determine the health value of steak, even beyond how it’s cooked. For example, conventional meat is loaded with pesticides, hormones, antibiotics and other chemicals. A far better choice is all-natural beef; better yet, grassfed beef.

As a human, I know I should not condemn a person for a simple preference. But I will say, as a cook, I have a very hard time not strongly disliking the person who orders a well-done steak. Perhaps "hate" is a strong word. But if you "prefer" your steak well-done you really should know: some cooks really do hate you. Or maybe not. Anthony Bourdain puts it this way in Kitchen Confidential:

"So what happens when the chef finds a tough, slightly skanky end-cut of sirloin that's been repeatedly pushed to the back of the pile? He can throw it out, but that's a total loss. He can feed it to the family, which is the same as throwing it out. Or he can "save for well-done"—serve it to some rube who prefers his meat or fish incinerated into a flavorless, leathery hunk of carbon, who won't be able to tell if what he's eating is food or flotsam. Ordinarily, a proud chef would hate this customer, hold him in contempt for destroying his fine food. But not in this case. The dumb bastard is paying for the privilege of eating his garbage! What's not to like?"

The Perfect Pan-Seared Steak

This recipe combines time-tested methodology with intuitive logic. The result: a perfectly seared steak, cooked to medium-rare. I wait until after cooking to add salt and pepper; salting brings moisture to the surface of the meat and might interfere with browning.

2 boneless strip or rib-eye steaks (1 to 1 1/4 inch thick; about 8 ounces)
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper, for finishing
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil or raw butter, for finishing

Remove your steaks from the refrigerator 30-60 minutes before cooking.

Heat a heavy-bottomed 12-inch skillet over high heat until hot. Gently place the steaks in the pan, leaving a 1/2 space between the steaks. Reduce the heat to medium-high and cook until steak is well-browned, about 4 minutes. Using tongs, flip the steaks and continue to cook for 4 minutes until steak is medium-rare.

Transfer the steaks to a cutting board. Spread 1 tablespoon olive oil or butter over each steak. Let rest for five minutes. Before serving, season liberally with sea salt and fresh ground pepper.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Three Kickass Chickpea Recipes

When we lived in Barcelona, Karen and I visited the market every day. Our favorite destination, La Boqueria, was the pride of local Catalans. We loved to browse the stalls, to smell the imported fruits and vegetables, stopping at pleasure to sample a slice of carambola, a handful of plump red grapes, or a small piece of bacalao (salted codfish).

So Many Mushrooms

Karen and I, however, opted to do our real shopping elsewhere. For produce we stopped at the modest open air stalls just outside La Boqueria on the Placa de Sant Galdric, where each morning local farmers pulled their trucks right up to the curb and unloaded boxes of fruits and vegetables onto the pavement. At noon, when most of the food was eaten on the spot or bought by loyal customers, the farmers swept the refuse lettuce greens, onion peels, and fruit rinds into a big pile in the middle of the square. They left the green mountain for the birds and a set of healthy bums who seemingly subsisted on nothing but scraps.

For everything else we shopped at the market right across the street from our flat in Sant Antoni, the Sant Antoni market. Here we'd buy a pound of wild salmon, I remember fondly, for two dollars. At Sant Antoni, too, we found the world's absolute greatest chickpeas.

Walk into the market right off our street, Tamarit, and turn left: there you'll find the world's greatest chickpeas. I'd often buy a pound or more and eat them, simply dressed with olive oil and sea salt, for lunch. The chickpeas were cooked to perfection in giant pressure cookers: they were astonishingly creamy and every single chickpea tasted luxurious, as if each was lovingly enrobed in butter.

Sometimes I'd make a chickpea stew, with wild salmon or cod--still a staple of my wife's diet. Actually, the recipes below have been staples of me and my wife's diets for years. I use canned chickpeas. Home-cooked chickpeas are frustratingly hard to make. They can take hours to cook and sometimes they seem to never, ever cook through. A good pressure cooker is the best, but it's a bit of a pain in the ass. The best chickpeas I've found, besides Sant Antoni's, are Eden Food's. I use Eden's beans whenever I cook with any beans--they are FAR superior to any other brand. (Don't give me some stupid shit about Goya: Goya adds unnecessary additives to its products; Goya sucks).

Moroccan Braised Chickpeas and Chard

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion, thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 tablespoon preserved lemon, chopped
1/2 teaspoon saffron, soaked in 1 tablespoon hot water
1 Parmigiano Reggiano rind, optional
2 15 ounce cans cooked chickpeas (do not drain)
1 cup water
1 bunch Swiss chard, stems and center ribs removed, and leaves coarsely chopped
Sea salt & fresh ground pepper

Heat oil in heavy large pot over medium heat. Add onion and a pinch of sea salt; sauté until tender, about 6-8 minutes. Add garlic and sauté one minute. Add cumin and paprika and sauté one minute. Add preserved lemon, saffron, Parmigiano rind, and chickpeas with reserved liquid from the chickpea can, and water. Bring to a boil.

Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, about 15 minutes, until luxuriously fragrant. Add the Swiss chard leaves and simmer, uncovered, 5 minutes.

Season to taste with extra sea salt and fresh ground pepper.

Serve warm with crusty bread, roasted potatoes, or rice.


Chickpea Soup with Saffron and Mushroom-Almond Garnish

I originally published this recipe

For Soup:

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
½ pound Fingerling Potatoes, sliced into ¼ inch rounds
1/2 cup dry white wine
6 cups vegetable broth
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper
2 15 ounce cans cooked chickpeas, drained
1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper

For Garnish:

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 cups crimini or white-button mushrooms, quartered
½ cup toasted almonds, chopped
¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped

Heat oil in heavy large pot over medium heat. Add onion and garlic; sauté until tender, about 6-8 minutes. Add saffron and stir one minute. Add potatoes, increase heat to medium-high and sauté for 4-6 minutes, until potatoes are browned. Add wine and scrape any brown bits that have accumulated at the bottom of the pan.

Add vegetable broth, chickpeas, and parsley and bring to boil.

Reduce heat, cover, and simmer until potatoes are very tender, about 20 minutes.

Allow soup to cool. In a blender puree two cups soup. Add puree back into soup. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for five minutes to warm.

Meanwhile, make garnish: Warm oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and lemon juice and sauté until mushrooms release their juices, 4-6 minutes. Toss with almonds and parsley, sauté for one minute, and set aside.

To serve soup: ladle a cup into each bowl and spoon a few tablespoons mushroom-almond garnish on top.


Cod and Chickpea Stew

I originally published this recipe
here. I make this dish for my wife almost every week.

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
1 large yellow bell pepper, thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 cup white wine
1/4 teaspoon saffron, soaked in 1 tablespoon hot water
2 cups canned chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 pound cod, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 cup vegetable broth or water

In a wide, heavy sauté pan, warm oil over medium heat. Add onion and pepper and sauté until onions are translucent, 5 to 7 minutes. Add paprika and cumin and sauté for 1 minute. Add wine and saffron. Stir well. Add chickpeas, cod and vegetable broth. Simmer until fish is just cooked through and just flakes with a fork, 8 to 10 minutes. Serve warm.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Cupcakes: A Little Bit of Naughtiness

Can cupcakes possibly be healthy? I think this question is important. To me, this question strikes at the very root of our food culture.

I think cupcakes are adorable little confections. A New York Times article calls them "happy-food." I think of a cupcake and I envision the joy of frosting, the pleasure of licking something sweet, the smile on my little niece's face when I hand her a mini-cupcake.

Of course, I do not eat cupcakes. I am much too fanatical, too wildly opposed to eating a food that lacks any nutritional value whatsoever. And cupcakes, decidedly and obviously, lack nutrition.

Perhaps this is why, as the Times article suggests, cupcakes get such a bad rap.

"Cupcakes," the article states, "have recently been marched to the front lines of the fat wars, banned from a growing number of classroom birthday parties because of their sugar, fat and empty calories, a poster food of the child obesity crisis."

And yet, I have to admit, this trend disturbs me. Have we lost all sense of perspective? Have we so messed up our relationship with food that we now consider even cupcakes utterly unhealthy?

What makes a food healthy after all? Isn't this question at least as much psychological as physiological? When we eat, do we not nourish body and soul?

A cupcake is a small indiscretion. (I love how cupcakes have become sex-symbols for some bakers, how the idea of eating a cupcake in the middle of the afternoon equates so perfectly to the idea of a mid-afternoon quickie...a little bit of naughtiness!)

A little bit of naughtiness...

So is it really so bad to eat a cupcake? (A cupcake, after all, lovingly prepared, is not FoodCrack.)

The time article states the question this way: "can emotional value, on occasion, legitimately outweigh nutritional value?"

I think so, on occasion. (I'm not writing an article in defense of cupcake gluttony. I'm merely saying, Hey a cupcake ain't so bad!) I take my cue from an unlikely source, Paul Pritchford, the author of Healing with Whole Foods.

Pritchford writes:

"Do not be so rigid or self-righteous about your diet as to annoy anyone. A bad relationship is more poisonous than one of Grandma's sugar cookies. If you desire such a treat, it is better to have it than stuff yourself with rice to suppress the desire. This causes mental anguish and arrogance."

This, coming form a guy who suggests, as an optimum practice, eating a small dessert only after a "meal" of a "celery and lettuce-based salad."

Friday, July 24, 2009

Water, Water Everywhere

We recently celebrated our youngest child’s first birthday. Like all of our children, he was born by Cesarean section. Trying to remember images from his morning of birth, I envision the sound of liquid falling on a cold tile floor: the doctor breaking my wife’s water. I recall thinking that, at whatever stage, life is messy, usually oozing some sort of fluid.

It may sound strange, but I think about the symbolism of water, about how life originates in water on almost every level of existence. I write this in the waning weeks of Summer, our season of beaches and pools, of pilgrimages to various sources of water.

This summer seems tame compared to the last one, when skyrocketing oil costs, food shortages, and commodity price gouging grabbed daily headlines. Few saw these things as harbingers of doom. Although the world has had a big-time consciousness-raising as a result of the economic ruin that followed, we're still left asking ourselves how to best deal with the problem.

So far, I find the reaction of our world leaders disheartening, generally falling into two main categories: 1) those who do not understand the situation and are therefore unable to do anything about it; and 2) those who understand the situation but, for political reasons, are unwilling to make the necessary hard sacrifices surrounding issues of scale and sustainability.

Few seem to realize: it’s impossible to solve a problem with the same kind of thinking that caused the problem in the first place, that a psychic shift must occur before any real change can happen.

Meanwhile the cost of maintaining world civilization continues to spiral kaleidoscopically out of control.

Times like this I think about water: the planet's most precious commodity and natural resource. Because here's the thing: this current financial panic will pale in comparison to the bedlam set off by the crisis of a global water shortage. It'll be horrific, like something out of The Stand. I picture mass riots, looting, dead bodies hanging wreath-like from the light posts in major cities. I think of of Frank Herbert’s novel Dune.

More than anything else in the world, we are dependent on water.

Because it has the perfect combination of atmosphere and distance from the Sun, Earth is the only body in our solar system known to have water, although there's plenty of theories about Mars and Europa.

More importantly, Earth has an abundance of liquid water--life's crucial ingredient. Any closer to the sun and Earth would be a fried, scalded piece of rock like Mercury or Venus. Any further and it would be a frozen wasteland like Mars or the Gas Giants. As Nature's womb, all biotic life either originates or is somehow incubated in water. Whether a placenta, an egg, a seed, or an ocean, life usually begins in some type of warm, water-filled space. Cells, the building blocks of life, are self-contained universes of water. Even our brains, the physical hosts to our metaphysical faculties of mind and consciousness, float in the cerebrospinal fluid—a sort of protective brine that also serves as a liquid semi-conductor for the brain’s electro-chemical pathways.

Many spiritual systems capture this idea in the symbolism of water ceremonies, which are often rites of passage. In them, the person emerges from the water in a new state of being, similar to being reborn or renewed. In Judaism, there is the idea of mikvah, which is the epitome of this concept. After years of study, I had to immerse in a mikvah as the final stage of my Jewish conversion process. Christian baptism is a distant an echo of the same idea. During last month’s solar eclipse over Asia, thousands of Hindu pilgrims in India submerged themselves in the Ganges river in an act of ritual purification.

Then there is the mysticism of water, which is bound up in the idea of "triad" or "three". In mysticism, numbers are more than simply numbers—they are representative concepts. The idea or concept behind “three” is that it is a blending of the previous two elements into a unique new entity. Like a child formed from the union of two parents, “three” represents harmony and balance, the reconciliation of the disparate “one” and “two” into the new transcendent “three”. Three is always the magic number.

This idea is reflected in the physical form of the water molecule itself, as it is composed of three molecules and has certain qualities that other liquids don’t.

Earth, the water planet, is also third from the sun.

Also, in a mind-blowing blend of kabbalah and science, the atomic weight of the water molecule is 18--gematria, the Hebrew word meaning "life".

But in my opinion water’s ultimate role on our destiny is yet unrealized. Recent events have brought the issue of energy and its availability to the forefront of global consciousness. Unless we are able to discover and use alternative energy sources, our petroleum-fueled civilization seems destined for obsolescence.

It makes sense to me that, as our planet's most abundant resource, water has a clear potential to become the clean, cheap, and ubiquitous energy source to fuel us far into the future. Perhaps the answer to this lies in cold fusion or some other type of as-yet-to-be discovered technology.

But it is Summer again, and you take your first dive in the ocean, plunging through a wave as it crests over you. Come back up and push the hair away from your forehead with a sweep of both hands. Slowly bring your tongue to your lips. You know this taste--sodium and silica. In an instant, cellular memory kicks alive and takes you back to those first sentient moments when you came out of the Water. You've never forgotten.

Turn around, see the people on the beach, the children sitting in the sand. Tilt your head upwards, squint into the solar disc high above. Your ears now form an obtuse angle to the flatness of the water's surface, allowing you to hear the ambient rush of waves both in front and behind you like the sound of something large moving through a narrow tunnel. Your stare follows the invisible arc formed from the waters edge, to the sun, then back down the the horizon, and even though you live far away from here, in an inland city or town, you identify with this place. If only for this moment, you see yourself, here, in the same way a cloud overhead sees its own shadow passing over the water. A gull screams. You turn around again. Head back for the beach. Even the ocean still knows how to call you by name.

Green Tea Poached Wild Salmon

In this recipe, water becomes the cooking medium, adding a subtle nuance of taste to fresh salmon. Use the poaching liquid to make a delicately flavored sauce to complement the richness of this fish. Serve with rice and Swiss chard.

4 bags green tea
4 cloves garlic, crushed
4 (1/2-inch-thick) slices ginger
4 thin slices lemon
2 tablespoons tamari
1 tablespoon mirin
1 teaspoon arrowroot powder
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
4 (6-ounce) skinless wild salmon fillets
Salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1/4 cup chopped green onions

Place tea bags in a teapot or glass container. Bring 2 cups water to a boil. Remove from heat and let cool for one minute. Pour hot water over tea bags, cover and steep tea for 3 minutes. Remove tea bags from water. Add garlic, ginger, lemon, tamari and mirin to tea and set aside. In a small bowl, dissolve arrowroot powder in 2 tablespoons water. Set aside.

In a large skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add salmon and sear for 2 minutes, or until browned. Flip salmon and add tea mixture to skillet. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer gently for 8 to 10 minutes, or until center of salmon is opaque and flakes easily. Remove salmon to a plate, season lightly with salt and pepper and tent with foil to keep warm. Add dissolved arrowroot to poaching liquid and bring to a boil, stirring constantly, until slightly thickened, 1 to 2 minutes. Strain liquid into a small bowl. Drizzle strained liquid and sesame oil over salmon and garnish with green onions.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Early Inspirations; Cooking as Love Poetry

My life as a cook commenced at the age of twenty-one, on a curb in Florence. It was a warm afternoon in early April and I had just discovered an open-air creperie on one of the hidden streets around the San Lorenzo market. Poking my head under the blue awning, I ordered a crepe with Belgian chocolate. A greasy, good-looking woman with a full mouth poured the batter onto a cooking stone, spread the batter thin with her spatula, and flipped the crepe onto another stone. Fluid in her movements, she barely paid attention as she spread the chocolate on the crepe, as the butter sizzled and melted on the stone.

I paid for the crepe and sat on the curb where a line of students were laughing and waiting. I took a bite. Suddenly, powerfully, I was stirred. I took another bite, a wide mouthed chomp of pure boldness. Chocolate oozed onto my lips. The crepe was delicious, perhaps the most delicious crepe in Florence—no, in the world! I looked at the greasy crepe lady. She certainly was good-looking. Suddenly, I felt an inexplicable urge: I wanted to make my own crepe. And I knew only this: it must be the most delicious crepe in the world.

I'm still working on it. Ten years later, I have yet to reproduce the most delicious crepe in the world. But the pursuit has inspired me. I just can't shake the indomitable bug that bit me that afternoon: the desire to create food.

That afternoon, I walked back to my pensioni, burdened with flour, fresh eggs, and a handful of chocolate chips. I spent several hours in the kitchen, trying to create, or rather re-create, the perfect crepe. Of course, I failed. And yet I did not suffer the sorrow of my failure. Later, lying in my bed, stuffed with batter and chocolate, I felt absolutely happy: I had spent the afternoon immersed in a creative venture, and the experience had vivified me.

This is the joy of cooking: the creative venture. I'm a writer. I'm also a cook. Both are forms of creative expression. Often, to me, cooking is the most powerful form of creative expression—an expression of love for those you cook for. When you mix the batter for a crepe, you are really writing a love poem.


You make us cry without hurting us.
I have praised everything that exists,
but to me, onion, you are
more beautiful than a bird
of dazzling feathers,
heavenly globe, platinum goblet,
unmoving dance
of the snowy anemone

and the fragrance of the earth lives
in your crystalline nature.

~Pablo Neruda, on onions


Naturally, I spent the rest of my days in Florence exploring my new passion. In the morning, I walked to the Mercato Centrale, bought fresh produce from the Tuscan countryside. Later, I made my back to the pensioni, stopping at the local market for flour, olive oil, eggs. I was learning to make fresh pasta and other Tuscan specialties: minestrone di fagioli, ribollita, fresh pasta. I shared the food with the people at the pensioni, mostly students from Europe and South America. Everyone seemed to love the food, but more than once someone asked: What is this?

The question was valid. I was making traditional Tuscan recipes, but I was not making them traditionally. In place of semolina flour in the pasta dough I was using whole wheat; and yes, that was tempeh in the marinara sauce, not beef.

It’s a habit from my early childhood days that’s still with me. I’m staunch health-food enthusiast. By the time I had gone to Italy I had already experienced a lifetime of brown rice, of Moosewood recipes, of organic broccoli and honey-flavored sweets. My mother raised me with a special attention to my diet; she also sent me to a school that favored whole food cooking, the Waldorf School. I lost touch with this impulse throughout my teenage years. But when I was twenty, in college, and in the midst a dismal semester eating in the student cafeteria, I came across a surprising fact in the cafeteria kitchen: a box of hamburger patties stamped with the following label, Grade F, But Edible.

I soon discovered a desire for healthy cooking.

And so when I cooked in Italy they asked: What is this?

And yes, the question has followed me, from Florence to Philadelphia, from Philadelphia to Paris, from Paris to Barcelona, from Barcelona back to Philadelphia: What is this?

Variously, I answer: chickpea flour; spelt berries; risotto with lima beans; brown rice paella; tempeh Rueben sandwiches. The names spill out of my mouth like a foreign language, and yet the food always receives raves reviews. And this is what I have learned: people love good-tasting food, period—no matter what the ingredients. My philosophy then is simple. Why not make the ingredients as fresh, as uncomplicated and as healthy as possible?

This philosophy dominates my cooking style to this very day. What I have learned traveling across Europe, cooking abroad and at home, is that almost all traditional cuisines share this fundamental goal: to nurture the body and soul, simply.

In America, this lesson seems to have been lost. And yet, it only takes one tasty, nourishing meal to remind us that food is integral to our existence, in the most profound ways. A knowledge and respect of healthful ingredients seems essential for the modern cook. Since leaving Florence, nearly seven years ago my cooking style and diet has often veered into disparate territories—macrobiotics, veganism, an entire summer devoted to fish, a winter devoted to goat cheese—in pursuit of the perfect way to eat. But I have learned that there is no perfect way to eat, just as there is no perfect crepe. What is important is the joy of eating, the love of good food.

Red Lentil and Sweet Potato Hummus

This is a typical, What is this? sort of dish. I originally developed it for Whole Foods Market. If you make it, you can rate the recipe here.

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion chopped
1 medium sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon paprika
3 ½ cups water
1 ½ cup lentils
¼ cup white miso
¼ cup lemon juice
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

For garnish:

Extra virgin olive oil
Freshly chopped cilantro

In a large saucepan over medium-high heat warm the oil. Add the onion and sauté, stirring occasionally, until onion softens 5-7 minutes.

Add the garlic, sweet potato, cumin and paprika and sauté 1-2 minutes. Add water and lentils, bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer until lentils and sweet potatoes are soft, 16-18 minutes. Let cool.

In a blender or food processor, puree red lentil-sweet potato mixture with white miso, lemon juice and 1 teaspoon salt. Season to taste with additional salt and freshly ground pepper.

Serve, in a bowl, with Pita bread, for dipping, drizzled with additional olive oil and, if desired, chopped cilantro.