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    This simple roast eggplant, pepper and onion salad is one of the first microwave recipes I ever posted and one of the most versatile.

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    Copyright 2008-13Slow Food Fast. All writing and images on this blog unless otherwise attributed or set in quotes are the sole property of Slow Food Fast. Please contact DebbieN via the comments form for permissions before reprinting or reproducing any of the material on this blog.

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    SlowFoodFast sometimes addresses general public health topics related to nutrition, heart disease, blood pressure, and diabetes. Because this is a blog with a personal point of view, my health and food politics entries often include my opinions on the trends I see, and I try to be as blatant as possible about that. None of these articles should be construed as specific medical advice for an individual case. I do try to keep to findings from well-vetted research sources and large, well-controlled studies, and I try not to sensationalize the science (though if they actually come up with a real cure for Type I diabetes in the next couple of years, I'm gonna be dancing in the streets with a hat that would put Carmen Miranda to shame. Consider yourself warned).

Artificial sweeteners causing glucose intolerance

A new study on artificial sweeteners published in Nature goes a long way toward explaining one of the most puzzling findings about sweetened drinks in recent years: that regular consumption of even diet sodas is associated with an increased incidence of obesity and Type II diabetes. Surely, if the sweeteners have no calories and negligible carbohydrate, this shouldn’t be happening? Surely people should be losing weight? But the national statistics have shown that it is, and they’re not.

According to a news summary in The Scientist (Sugar Substitutes, Gut Bacteria, and Glucose Intolerance), researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, demonstrated that repeatedly consuming zero-calorie sweeteners like saccharin, sucralose and aspartame (e.g., Sweet ‘N’ Low, Splenda, and NutraSweet) increases a person’s glucose intolerance by causing changes to his or her gut bacteria.

The researchers did extensive testing on mice first–fed them artificially sweetened water for several weeks and compared glucose tolerance and gut flora with those of control groups that received either glucose solution or plain water. The experimental mice had much higher rates of glucose intolerance than either of the control groups, including the one that was fed glucose solution.

They also had very different gut bacteria composition, which the researchers thought might be causing the changes in glucose tolerance. Wiping out the gut bacteria of control mice with antibiotics and then repopulating with the gut bacteria from sweetener-fed mice caused glucose intolerance in the normally fed mice.

The researchers repeated their experiments on healthy human subjects, and they got the same dramatic results. The timeframe for measurable changes in glucose tolerance was within as little as six days for one of the tests.

Admittedly, the researchers were dosing their subjects with sweetener concentrations at the highest levels currently deemed safe by the FDA. So if you only consume these sweeteners occasionally and in small quantity–say, chewing sugarless gum once in a while–you might not be causing a drastic change in your gut bacteria or glucose tolerance.

But so many people in the US consume diet sodas and artificially sweetened teas and so on in large quantity on a daily basis that it’s possible they’re coming close to the levels used in these experiments. If you consume even half the maximum defined “safe” daily level, you might well be impairing your glucose tolerance significantly. But there may not be a safe level. There’s no saying what level–if any–of sweetener per day is low enough not to change gut bacteria and raise glucose intolerance–it may be a matter of dose or it may be a matter of how long and how regularly people consume these sweeteners.

Glucose tolerance is a measure of your body’s ability to supply insulin quickly and at the right level whenever you eat or drink something with starches or sugars. Part of the gut’s function is to release glucose into the bloodstream, but Continue reading

Stuffed cabbage in the microwave

stuffed Nappa cabbage rolls-unsauced

I was originally going to call this post “Nappa 9-1-1″ because it’s about salvaging a cabbage quickly and semi-artfully from the back of my fridge, but realized how bad that would be once I read the recent earthquake damage assessments up in the real city of Napa from the 6.0 earthquake a couple of weeks ago. Things are still kind of rough up there. The Napa Valley Vintners association have donated an impressive amount–$10M–and have instructions on how to donate to the local community disaster relief fund. You can find a number of local funds to donate to online at norcalwine.com.

I love bringing home a bag (or more) of produce from my local greengrocer each week–especially in the summer, when Fresno tomatoes are in and brilliant red, green beans are green and snappy, apricots and plums and pluots are spilling ripely out of the bins at under a dollar a pound, and herbs like purple basil and tarragon and mint and za’atar are 75 cents a bunch. You can’t help but feel like you’re going to be a great cook that day, just by cutting up a few vegetables and sprinkling on some oil and vinegar and strewing herbs (and feta or Alfonso olives) on top.

I always mean to use up all my vegetables before they start showing their age, but occasionally I get caught with something unintended at the back of the fridge. This week it was a Nappa cabbage, which is longer and less sulfurous (when lightly cooked) than the more traditional green and Savoy cabbages. A little closer to bok choy. So I peeled back the rusted layers, hoping that some of the inner leaves could be salvaged, at least, and I got fairly lucky.

But what to do with them? Chop and eat raw as a salad? Always an option. But I’d bought the cabbage in the first place to try out a quick microwave version of stuffed cabbage that would fulfill a couple of challenges I’d posed myself:

1. Vegetarian (not a big beef fan, personally)–I’m using the lentil/rice stuffing I developed for stuffed eggplants and onions  three years ago (has it already been that long???), because I actually made stuffed onions again last week and had some leftover stuffing in the fridge.

2. Microwaveable in a few minutes (to combat cooked cabbage stench and do it as more fresh-tasting than long-cooked)

3. Non-stinky, and not drowning in cloying sweet-and-sour tomato sauce (my two overwhelming childhood objections to holishkes)

4. Bridges the cultural/culinary gap between European and Syrian Jewish versions of stuffed cabbage by spicing the filling AND adding garlic and onions. It can be done, and should. And yet, I’m not stewing it to death (actually, that means overturning both Euro and Syrian traditional cooking methods in equal measures).

5. Fulfills the Prunes and Lentils Challenge, or at least hints at what’s possible, since today I had (gasp) no prunes left and had to resort to leftover tamarind sauce from the aforementioned batch of stuffed onions… close enough for folk music.

Stuffed cabbage rolls, as I’ve noted before, are popular throughout at least eastern Europe and Syria. Most versions contain meat–beef for Jews, beef or lamb for Arabs, some mixture of pork and beef for European Christians. But I’ve also seen some really beautiful-looking vegetarian ones in Nur Ilkin’s The Turkish Cookbook, and those were stuffed–of all things–with whole cooked chestnuts.

Cabbage lends itself to enveloping stuffings almost as well as grape leaves, and it’s easier to work with, cheaper, and (big bonus) unbrined.

In addition to meat or lentil fillings, you could try something like curry-spiced or Mexican-style beans and/or vegetables, a mu shu or samosa filling, whole cooked grains like brown rice or bulgur with or without dried cranberries or raisins and sunflower seeds or chopped nuts, maybe even fish (though I’m shying away from Joan Nathan’s recommendation for wrapping up gefilte fish and giving them the stuffed cabbage treatment). Perhaps for fish I’d want smoked (fake or real) whitefish salad. Or sausage–real or vegetarian, smoky and spicy.

It seems to me for sauces you could go well beyond sweet-and-sour traditional: a garlicky tomato sauce, a mustard vinaigrette, a smoky salsa with or without tamarind sauce, a chili-paste or z’khug-laden soy/molasses/vinegar/sesame oil dipping sauce with ginger and scallions, a polished herb and wine-type tomato sauce with prunes or mushrooms and onions, even (maybe definitely?) Korean or Thai peanut dipping sauce, especially if you stuffed your Nappa cabbage leaves with a combination of pressed tofu and/or omelet strips, spinach leaves, maybe some sprouts and shiitake mushrooms.

Whatever version you do, this can either be a quick path to dinner (use the big leaves and more filling per leaf) or to a platter of appetizers (using the small inner leaves).

Microwaving doesn’t develop every possible flavor (in the case of cabbage, I’m childish enough to say that’s a good thing), but it’s a quick way to play around with a classic at least on a trial basis. You could always do the huge foil-covered pan in the oven thing if you decide to scale up and go old-school.

Stuffed Vegetarian Cabbage Rolls

  • 1 head Nappa cabbage, washed and with the core cut out
  • 1 lb (2 cups, more or less) of (in this case) allspice/cinnamon-spiced lentil hashu (made w/cooked rice or bulgur, not uncooked) OR peppery lentil mititei-style sausage filling (substituting 1/3 c. cooked rice for the wheat gluten), or your choice of savory/spicy filling, preferably one that includes some garlic….
  • 1/2 c. sauce–in this case, 1/4 c. tamarind sauce plus a tablespoon of chipotle salsa and a few tablespoons of water. OR–just tamarind sauce, or just smoky salsa, or tamarind with a bit of tomato paste and a spoonful of sugar, or peanut dipping sauce, or dim sum dipping sauce, or Asian-type prune sauce, or prune and wine sauce with some tomato paste mixed in. Or mustard/garlic vinaigrette (as a dipping sauce, not necessarily to cook with)…YEESH! too many choices…

 

Microwaved cabbage leaves, ready for rolling

Microwaved cabbage leaves, ready for rolling

1. Separate the cabbage leaves, put in a microwave container, drizzle on a quarter-inch of water and put on a lid. Microwave 2-3 minutes until the leaves are just tender enough to roll without snapping the center.

rolling stuffed cabbage

Start the cabbage roll with the filling at the stem end

2. Drain the leaves and lay them out on a plate for stuffing and rolling. Put a tablespoon of fairly stiff filling an inch or so from the stem end of the leaf and pack it into a little sausage shape. Roll the stem end over the filling gently but as tightly as you can manage, then tuck the side frills of the leaf over the ends and continue rolling toward the top of the leaf. Place seam-side down in a microwave container or casserole. Roll up all the leaves and pack them into the container fairly tightly.

stuffed cabbage rolls with tamarind sauce

3. If the filling is completely cooked already (the rice in the lentil stuffing is not raw or par-cooked), just drizzle a bit of your sauce of choice over the stuffed cabbage rolls, maybe with a tiny drizzle of water in the bottom of the container. Put a lid on and microwave another 2-3 minutes or until just cooked through and steaming hot. If the flavor is still too raw or radishy for you, obviously you can cook it further, going a minute or so at a time, until it smells and tastes right to you.

Drain and serve with a little more sauce on the side.

FDA warning on powdered caffeine

The Washington Post carried a story yesterday on a new FDA warning about powdered caffeine’s potential for a lethal overdose. Caffeine is relatively unregulated as a dietary supplement and companies have been selling it mixed into “energy” drinks and “shots”, inhalers and other forms, including pure powder, through Amazon.com and other internet venues.

Most of the stupids (I mean, more politely, naive consumers) who buy caffeine-laced “energy” products are teenage boys and young men–no great surprise. Guys in that age range tend to have trouble getting up in the morning and being alert for class. The proliferation of the iPad, the smart phone, and game apps isn’t helping. A cheap, legal and potent stimulant seems like just the thing to counteract the effect of late nights and early exams. Combine that with a pitch about “energy” and fitness–mostly in the form of weightlifting and bodybuilding, a sector rife with dietary supplement abuse marketing, and wishful thinking about instant “buffness”, as my now-teenage daughter scoffs–and you’ve got a really bad deal.

But it doesn’t take much of the purified caffeine powder to overdose and the difference between stimulated and dead can be as little as a few milligrams–much too hard to measure accurately with a teaspoon or even most kitchen scales.

Caffeine is far from harmless even in limited doses (otherwise, why would we bother to drink coffee?) And it’s definitely a drug–I had to work with it in the lab way back in my radioactive youth. And it’s really inexpensive.

Why the “dietary supplement” label is still allowed to cloak quasi-drug and drug products from FDA control is a mystery to me. It’s a bad deal for everyone eventually, because as more of the supplement compounds are discovered to have harmful effects–think anabolic steroids or some of the “smart” drinks and relaxants added to “energy” drinks over the past decade–Congress ends up having to legislate against them one by one, and the FDA has to go through a torturous combination of warning letters and negotiations with the companies involved and attempt to draw up new regulations–a very expensive and drawn-out process. And it’s usually piecemeal and illogical–caffeine levels in soda are regulated, pure powdered caffeine is not.

In the meantime, hospitalizations from caffeinated energy drinks and other easily abused products have doubled since 2007, and there have been a number of deaths from caffeine overdose, including the Indiana teenager whose parents had no idea he was buying and consuming powdered caffeine when he died at the end of May, and whose case spurred the FDA’s attention this time. The state of Oregon is also currently going after 5-Hour Energy in a lawsuit over false advertising claims about ingredients that actually do nothing much, when the real stimulant effect is due to a dose of caffeine.

But even if you’re not a naive teenage boy, the whole caffeine-laden environment has expanded beyond anything that makes sense. More and more people are finding themselves overdosed (not lethally, usually) but with the shakes or dizziness. Between the Starbucks venti and proliferation of 20-ounce sodas as the new normal serving size, there’s a new source of trouble, because caffeine is showing up in foods we don’t expect to contain it.

Food companies are adding caffeine to candy and snacks these days as never before–even in oatmeal and pancake syrup. The FDA is taking the “negotiate with the companies and hope they back down” approach, as they did with Wrigley for its Alert caffeinated chewing gum a year ago. They don’t currently have the impetus to forbid adding caffeine to foods as they did with alcoholic caffeinated beverages a couple of years ago–the “blackout in a can” as Charles Schumer put it–but they’re at least making noises about getting it back out of foods that children and teenagers are likely to eat. I like the coffee cup graphic up on their Q&A page about it, but will it really change anyone’s mind or make them look harder at the ingredient lists if they’re already buying these products?

Why put caffeine powder in non-coffee foods in the first place? It doesn’t taste like much or stimulate the tastebuds, exactly. But the combination of mental stimulation via caffeine with eating a particular snack food is probably intended to make lackluster processed foods more attractive and even addictive in either the literal or marketing sense. Given the price of caffeine powder compared with almost anything else the companies could add, I’d be willing to lay odds on who’s going to be even more addicted to caffeine than the consumers. Cue the Pavlov effect.

Breaking the Rules: Fish with Red Wine

tilapia fillets Veracruz-style, with smoky salsa, onions, garlic, alfonso olives, red wine and fresh za'atar or "wild thyme"

One way to cook fish well using red wine

Wine is something I drink mostly for taste, not volume–I can’t really hack a lot of alcohol at once, blame my ancestors–but I do like wine tastings, even though I have to limit myself to about three small sips per glass if I don’t want to wobble out the winery door. Focusing on the flavors in a wine, and comparing several side by side, sharpens your palate and makes you think very specifically about what you’re experiencing. It’s rewarding even for someone with my drinking limits.

I also like to cook with wine, maybe more often than I like to drink much of it. Decent wine has such a complex combination of flavors that when you figure out how to do it well, cooking with wine can make even rapidly cooked dishes come off like serious Slow Food.

We hear a lot about long-cooking stews and coq au vin and so on, but many simpler and less time-consuming dishes benefit from smaller amounts of wine. Adding a couple of spoonfuls of dry white wine to mustard vinaigrette tempers the sourness, the garlic and the mustard sharpness a little and gives the sauce a quiet depth. And if my experiment with giant favas marinated in rosé and rosemary was any indication, we should be thinking about wine a lot more often and a lot more creatively as a cooking ingredient.

So I’ve been on the lookout lately for clear and simple techniques for cooking with wine without wasting it, and for doing it in less than a three-hour stew, because to me that’s slow-food-slow in large crowd-feeding quantities, to be attempted a maximum of once a year. I want better, more sophisticated-tasting food fast, using at most half a cup to a cup of wine, not a whole bottle, and preferably without huge cleanup.

But these days, when so much of the cookbook aisle in your local independent bookstore is taken over by Food Network Channel collateral, cooking with wine is almost a lost art. Most of the popular TV chefs aren’t even doing it anymore. Everyone’s gone sorta-Asian (but without Martin Yan’s shaoxing wine-wielding expertise or sense of humor) or sorta-Middle Eastern or bacon-filled-Tex/Mex or wishful-thinking-Indian-or-Moroccan wannabe (if I hear the words “ras el hanout” mispronounced one more time by any TV chef, anywhere…)

Most of those cuisines don’t include wine as a regular ingredient because of religious restrictions against alcohol, which I fully respect, or, in the Tex/Mex case, because wine doesn’t go with football (the true religion of Texas, although if you see the documentary Somm, you might be surprised at how many American master sommeliers and exam candidates are former football players.)

The new vegan and vegetarian cookbooks don’t consider wine at all, as far as I can tell, even though there are plenty of  vegan-approved wines and organic wines touted throughout Whole Foods (and even a few at Trader Joe’s). And a number of seitan and bean or lentil dishes (and certainly Roman-style lentil soup) would probably do all the better for a tinge of red, white, or rosé, either in the sauce or as a marinade ingredient.

Even the French- and Italian-trained chefs don’t use wine on TV very much, and if they do they don’t really explain it–why they chose that particular type of wine, how much to use and why, how to get the best flavor out of it in the dish, what else you could make using the same technique. Or else they’re kind of wasteful about it, using a whole bottle of wine for a single dish. Most people cooking for themselves would balk at that. Should balk at that.

It bothers me that I don’t actually see a lot of solid advice about cooking with wine, or at least not specific techniques that make sense in a home kitchen with a standard family budget.

Where am I going to get this advice? Not from the churn-a-minute Food Network chefs, clearly. Not from Harold McGee, either. To my great surprise, he devotes a total of about three paragraphs to “cooking with alcohol” in his food science books. The most interesting thing he says, other than to make sure and boil out the alcohol (duh) is that tannins will concentrate unpleasantly if you boil down a tannic red wine, but adding a protein to pick them up will tame them.

But since most of my uses for wine so far are to do with fish, I guess I’m already doing that…

As you might expect from some of my odd microwave-centric ideas, I tend to cook fish with wine in ways that probably seem unorthodox to anyone professional. For one thing, I cook several kinds of fish with red wine (sound of Francophile traditionalists screaming, then fainting in shock). Continue reading

Tipping the scales at Whole Foods

From The Los Angeles Times today:

Whole Foods paying $800,000 for overcharging in California

Pricing violations included not zeroing out the container weight when weighing prepared items from the food bar, shorting weights on packaged goods, and other problems.

This of course is bad practice toward consumers, but it doesn’t really address the critical issues with Whole Foods.

Yes, Whole Foods has been fined for pricing violations in California. The court injunction will mean five years of oversight and audits. But the real problem is beyond court remedies: everything’s overpriced and the customers seem to like it that way.

Produce prices that can rise to $10/lb for things like cherries when other nearby supermarkets are charging maybe $4-5. Fish prices in the $30/lb range. Whole Foods trades on a reputation for sourcing more variety than the average chain supermarket, and it does achieve that, but not everything it carries is really so exclusive that it justifies a higher price tag.

And in any case, the real money (other than the food bar, which is up to about $8/lb. across the board, whether for roasted eggplant and peppers or for things like canned kidney beans and flaked tuna and cucumber slices) is in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals parading as dietary supplements (and vice versa). Whenever I go into Whole Foods for a small coffee and a roll, the person ahead of me in line is inevitably ringing up more than 100 bucks worth of things like holistic soap bars at $5-10 apiece (compare “Ivory” bath bar 10-pack at about $6 at the local Ralph’s/Kroger’s) and cases of “vitamin waters” at about $4 per bottle, and dietary supplements with a $40-50 fantasy surcharge per bottle. And maybe a scrawny bunch of kale that they’re not sure how to deal with.

An Appreciation of Lox

bagel with nova lox

Homemade bagel with nova from a local Los Angeles smoked fish company

 

For its annual Mother’s Day brunch, the Men’s Club at our synagogue always serves a surprisingly lavish spread with the woiks–lox, bagels, fruit salad, eggs and mimosas. Although I’m not a huge fan of big and slightly-kitschy gatherings featuring big and slightly-kitschy piano acts, I really deserved someone else making me a lox-and-eggs Sunday brunch right about then. But at the last minute I had to miss it in order to hock my kid about her last oversized ridiculous semester projects for 8th grade (due the next day, naturally). Better mothers complained to the principal, who just smiled nicely but did nothing useful. I just figured we’d get through it all so my daughter never had to be an 8th grader again. It worked–salutatorian, even–so, moving on but not required to give a speech: win/win.

But the lost lox! and the not having to cook or do dishes for Mother’s Day! Then I agreed to chaperone a school science camping trip the last week before graduation and  ended up with sand, grime, KP duty, outdoor showers, iffy Boy Scout Camp-style food, and not just one but 32 whole teenagers preoccupied with their hair and late to class.

So now that it’s all over I’m in serious need of payback.

My local Armenian greengrocer has locally-smoked nova lox (they have sable, too–I was tempted) and I had a bowl of dough in the fridge just sitting there waiting to be used up–so I made a few impromptu bagels the last Sunday morning of the school year, as soon as I’d gotten all the sand back out of everything and my kid was done with classes for the year. The bagels weren’t quite as dense as they ought to be because I used my standard pizza/pita/calzone dough instead of the genuine classic, but they did well enough because the dough was several days old, cold-proofed and straight from the fridge, and I boiled them before baking. And there was lox. Throw in a few once-over-medium eggs and some shmear and some fruit and hot coffee and you’ve got the ideal late-spring/early-summer breakfast, even if you have to make it yourself.

Now I know lox is a high-salt item–even the Nova. I anticipate it not for the salt, which I always think we could do with a little less of, but because it’s lox. A delicacy. Something to enjoy on the rare occasion when you get to celebrate. Something to treat with respect.

I’m not going to apologize for enjoying it, either. In the modern world of food publishing, people are forgetting how to do that. Even Jews. Maybe especially Jews, some of whom act as though our traditional deli and “appetizing” (bagels, cream cheese and smoked fish of all kinds) is suddenly something to shove under a rug or apologize for liking on the grounds that it’s not organic or locally sourced or Whole Foods or food-mag-trendy enough, and because it doesn’t include bacon or pancetta. Or kale.

The idea that enjoying lox simply because it’s lox isn’t cool enough anymore has gained a lot of traction in the past few years of foodieism. A couple of years ago, Martha Rose Shulman committed a serious travesty in the New York Times with “Lavash Pizza with Smoked Salmon” (she didn’t even call it lox). Toasted lavash is perfectly good for other things, but not for lox. Too fragile, and frankly too flavorless. I mean, why not rice cakes, as long as you’re being tasteless? But it wasn’t just the bread choice.

Somehow Shulman had abandoned the Joy of Lox. Shulman actually called her lox on lavash “a great way to work more salmon, rich in omega-3 fats, into your diet.” I have to ask, are most of us really having that much trouble “working in” more salmon? More to the point, does any lox fanatic really want to be thinking about fatty acids of any kind while eating it?

But at least she wasn’t agonizing over it as too Jewish. Mark Bittman pulled this inexplicable self-flagellation-in-print a few weeks ago in the New York Times, apologizing publicly for eating lox and bagels on a Sunday morning. In New York, yet. (Maybe it’s because he moved to Connecticut?) He’s kvetching about skipping his morning run, his usually-so-virtuous-but-betrayed-just-this-once-by-shameful-genetic-temptation stance on (gasp) farm-raised salmon, his devouring of shmear, which he says is too bland for the calories to like officially. He even had the nerve to blame his decision to eat it all on a sudden mental breakdown. And then he went further and called bagels and lox “comfort food.” As though it were in the same low-grade category as mac and cheese or mashed potatoes from a box.

Vey ist mir! I mean, come on. I’m pretty sure Woody Allen still eats lox without apologizing for it.

Bittman should be apologizing for being ashamed of enjoying lox (all the while glupping it). Along with apologizing for promoting pancetta and guanciale while professing a greener and more affordable diet. And for forgetting to add garlic to his recipes. That’s almost worse than deprecating lox.

More recently, Melissa Clark met with one of the scions of Russ & Daughters, which by now you’d think was the only serious lox and whitefish emporium left–it’s the subject of a documentary I just missed at the last LA Jewish film festival. The two laid out a spread for at least thirty or forty very lucky people, by my standards, but I think they were doing it mostly for a few family and friends–maybe 10-15 people–and posing it all on the table for the camera. It was beautiful but way too much. At least, though, she was both thrilled and nostalgic, the right way to be when faced with a complete beauty pageant of smoked fish.

Altogether, I could only think Shulman, Bittman and Clark all grew up in big cities with too much lox around. Because when I was a kid in the small-town South, we could only get lox twice a year when one or another set of grandparents came down from New York.

Other people’s grandparents bring toys. Ours brought pastrami, corned beef, half-sour kosher dills, pickled green tomatoes, real bagels, serious breads you just couldn’t get down South, and lox. All of them were special, not just to us but to our grandparents–real deli was part nostalgia, part roots, part pride, part simply great eats.

Pastrami and corned beef to go with the pickles and the tough, chewy pumpernickel and rye with the union label pasted on the end (you were supposed to fight for it)–these were the working people’s foods of their youth on the Lower East Side and the Bronx,  and they still loved them. And so did we.

My mother’s parents, born in the shtetls of Poland and Ukraine, came to America as children and, thank G-d [only instance of poverty being worthwhile], couldn’t afford to go back when their parents got homesick.

Fast forward to the ’70s: My Grandma Thel, short, plump but ladylike, coiffed, and wearing those pale oxford pumps I used to think of as librarian shoes, would step off the little regional plane in Charlottesville loaded down with huge grocery bags full of chewy, crackle-crusted bagels, Jewish kornbroyt or “corn bread” (a heavy European wholegrain sourdough; no actual cornmeal except what’s dusted on the baking sheets to keep the loaves from sticking), rye bread laced with bitter caraway seeds, sometimes a babka, and always, a huge half-wheel of her own light chocolate-flecked sponge cake (for which I’ve inherited the recipe but haven’t tried it yet–will post when I get it right). I hope the other passengers were smart enough to be jealous. The aromas alone should have clued them in. Grandpa Abe, of vishniak fame, was a lucky man.

On the drive home from the airport, Grandma Thel would tell me and my sister how she just managed to argue another customer at Andell’s or Goodman’s out of the last loaf of kornbroyt with seeds because she was bringing it down to her very special grandchildren so we would grow up knowing the real thing, and that the other lady Continue reading

The CDC tries defining “powerhouse” veggies

carrotsareveryhealthytom-ABS“Carrots are very healthy!” “Mmmhm, very healthy, Tom. Good for your eyes. Vitamin A I think.” A six-year-old’s view of carrots and nutrition, courtesy of my daughter from several years ago, and (obviously) influenced by the best of the cartoon world…

The Centers for Disease Control seems to have taken up the nutrition density scoring gauntlet to rate high-value fruits and vegetables for their “powerhouse” value. A research paper in this month’s Preventing Chronic Disease journal derives a nutrient density formula that’s not a million miles away from the ANDI scoring scheme Whole Foods was touting a couple of summers ago. The author presents a table of 41 plain, raw and unadorned fruits and vegetables that made the cut by delivering more than 10 percent of your recommended daily value of a combo of 17 major nutrients for 100 grams of raw weight and/or (this part wasn’t quite as clear) 100 kcal worth of food.

The fact that the CDC is now publishing this kind of study lends nutrient density scoring more legitimacy than perhaps it really deserves.

On the plus side:

  • The author, Jennifer Noia of William Paterson University in New Jersey, is an actual trained nutrition researcher with a Ph.D. in the field.
  • She’s not making a pitch or selling special dietary supplements. Her stated goal is to help the CDC develop practical guidelines for public health reduction of cancers and cardiovascular disease by rating vegetables and fruits for their general nutrition-worthiness.
  • She doesn’t bias her formula in favor or disfavor of her favorite name-dropping superfoods or taboos, as Joel Fuhrman and the admirers who started the ANDI scoring empire did.
  • Avocado doesn’t score big; it’s not even included (too caloric for what it delivers).
  • Noia does not include trendy components with questionable or untested nutritional value, things like  selenium, antioxidants (unspecified groups of) and phytochemicals (unspecified groups of) among the 17 well-tested nutrients she counts in for the composite formula.

So far, so good.

But the specific method she derives is still kind of muddled, and the logic behind the nutrient density comparisons is too.

First, are we going for 100 grams or 100 kcal (also known outside the lab as “100 calories”) as the standard amount of each food for comparison? The article switches back and forth without clarifying and the formula does not normalize to one or the other as a uniform standard.

Second, how does that amount, whichever one is in use, compare with a likely normal serving of the specific fruit or vegetable? Arugula’s way up near the top for nutrient density–but if you ate 100 grams of it, or worse yet 100 calories’ worth, at a sitting, you’d be trying to eat an entire plateful or maybe several platefuls of it. Very bitter. Most people include a small handful, maybe a quarter cup per serving, in a mixed salad for interest, or (as I do) on a sandwich. With mustard or vinaigrette and some other veggies.

Same for watercress. And both are expensive per serving compared with romaine, bok choy, Chinese cabbage, turnip greens…parsley??? Who’s going to eat 100 grams OR 100 calories’ worth of parsley? Scallions? Maybe if you grill them, but then again, 100 grams? 100 calories?

The list is also a little arbitrary and incomplete in terms of what’s included. Green beans make no appearance on the list, for good or ill. Maybe it’s because they don’t deliver a ton of vitamins per se, even though they have some fiber and potassium and are low in calories. Mostly, though, they don’t happen to fit into one of the four broad categories (cruciferous, leafy greens, citrus, and yellow/orange) included in the selected list. That’s not a nutrition criterion, it’s a plant classification criterion, even though it is based on some generalizations that those four categories are the most nutrient-dense of the common vegetables and fruits. But at least the author acknowledges that limitation in her study and isn’t saying green beans have no worth in one’s diet.

Of what is included in the list, the rankings by nutrient density score are a bit counterintuitive. Broccoli and cauliflower are, perhaps disappointingly, rated a lot lower on the scale than watercress–in the 20-25  range, not the 100 (maximum score). So are carrots and tomatoes.

One of the reasons for this is, as Dr. Noia writes, “As some foods are excellent sources of a particular nutrient but contain few other nutrients, percent DVs were capped at 100 so that any one nutrient would not contribute unduly to the total score.”

So the scoring formula is purposely handicapped toward well-rounded performers. Is that realistic or meaningful? Some of the foods that scored lower within each of the four broad categories  may provide large amounts of one critical nutrient–vitamin C or A, or fiber, or potassium, or iron–but perhaps not loads of B vitamins or calcium.

Well–that’s the way it is. Very few single vegetables–and almost no fruits–deliver so many different nutrients at high density in an edible portion. It’s why we eat a variety of vegetables and fruits and don’t just gravitate toward one impossible or hard-to-eat-exclusively jack-of-all-trades food.

And that’s the major flaw in this approach to defining nutrient-worthiness through a catch-all formula. The author of this study, the ANDI Score folks, Dr. Fuhrman and countless others really are looking for a magic bean. They want “AND”, not “OR”, a vegetable or fruit that delivers everything by itself. Even if they think they’re making it simpler for the average consumer to get better nutrition advice, they’re working from a false premise.

Still, at least Dr. Noia isn’t overreaching as much as the commercial popularizers of “superfoods” schemes. She admits the list is limited, and that the formula she’s derived from previously validated major studies is still preliminary. The correlation between her nutrient density score and established nutrients with some cardiovascular disease and/or cancer-prevention effect is predictably high–well, there’s a lot of overlap to begin with, so what it really tells you isn’t a great deal.

But there is some value in looking at the list of what scored at least a 10 out of 100. What can you really learn from this list?

First, “Bitter is Better.” Sort of, anyway. You wouldn’t want to make a whole dish of arugula or watercress, but you might want to throw a good handful or so into your salad or sandwich or pasta.

Notably, though, “More Expensive and Trendy isn’t Necessarily More Nutritious.” Kale isn’t as high up on the list as ordinary unglamorous spinach or turnip greens, or even darker leafy lettuces–isn’t that interesting?

Third, “Green is Good.” Darker greens are closer to the top of the list, and even between broccoli and cauliflower there’s a slight pan-nutrient decrease, though it’s not meaningful enough to start shunning cauliflower. Which I happen to like nearly as much as broccoli, and sometimes in combination with it. And although brussels sprouts are marginally more nutritious than cauliflower, they’re also more of a pain to peel and trim, and there’s a lot more waste.

The real Green Effect here has to do with calories. You notice that none of the citrus or berry fruits are up in the top 10 in the list. Apples and bananas don’t make the list at all, and melon is right out. So are summer stone fruits. Even apricots, which have a fair amount of vitamin A. That’s because the greens on the list are very low-calorie, with almost no carbohydrate or sugar. And because the nutrient density scoring formula accounts for nutrients per 100 calories (at least sometimes, when there are countable calories involved), fruits are naturally going to score lower.

From the perspective of diabetes prevention and weight control, this is a reasonable way of looking at how we get critical vitamins and minerals. The common phrase “fruits and vegetables” leads people to assume that fruits should be thought of first when you shop, and vegetables are kind of an afterthought. But it’s obvious from this kind of scoring that fruits should be considered dessert rather than the major source of vitamins and minerals.

However–given that citrus fruits, berries and stone fruits deliver large doses of vitamins C and A respectively, plus potassium and vitamin E and fiber on occasion, they shouldn’t be shunned for not “doing it all” and doing it carb-free. We need some carbohydrates, and if you eat an orange, a half a grapefruit, or even a nectarine at breakfast instead of a piece of coffeecake, so much the better. Just notice that you’re also eating some carbohydrate in the form of fruit and don’t eat three at a time. Or dump sugar and butter on it and still think it’s righteous because it’s nominally fruit.

I think we can all handle that. Even without calling anything a superfood.

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