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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 2008-2015Slow 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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Happy 4th!

rawblueberrypie-2pounder-med

The raw blueberry pie right before we cut into it.

If you have to do a pie in the middle of summer, say, if you’re bringing something to a Fourth of July outing, this might be the kind you want. It only takes a few minutes to put together (other than picking over the blueberries to make sure you’re not leaving any stems in). And Trader Joe’s is selling two-pound containers of blueberries for a moderate price, about $6, at least in southern California. That’s enough for a pretty big pie. So I got two boxes for my daughter’s birthday party last week and discovered that just one box was about a third more than my old newspaper recipe called for. Well…we can always use a few blueberries around the house! And the pie ingredients are so simple it’s not hard to scale up a bit and still have it work out nicely. Very nicely, in fact.

The syrup you start the filling with can be boiled up in a minute or so in the microwave, so you don’t have to heat up your house or stand over a stove. Then you just stir in the starch slurry and some lime juice to thicken it, and start folding in the raw berries. When they’re all in, you pour it into the crust and let it cool until set.

And I’m not sure you actually have to run an oven for a graham cracker crust, although I did for about 10 minutes–I think it makes the sugars melt a bit with the butter, so the resulting caramel, if you can call it that, binds the crumbs together and then hardens slightly when it cools and the crust stays crisp a little longer. But maybe that’s just fantasy. If you want to keep the oven off, you’ve got my vote. If you want to buy a frozen graham cracker crust-lined pie tin (or two; with this amount of filling you could probably do 2 standard smaller pies), that’s your call too.

I don’t usually buy graham crackers at all, but for this I think it’s worth doing the crust at home–it takes maybe 2-3 minutes to grind up enough for a crust and press it into a pan, and it’s a little more versatile than the commercial versions. I can put in a bit less sugar and butter than the standard crust recipes do, skip the salt, throw in a little almond meal if I feel like it, and add a couple of pinches of cinnamon and ginger to spice things up. Leftover crackers are handy for making impromptu ice cream sandwiches, if you can keep your kids away from them until you’re ready to do that.

Here’s my scaled-up version for a two-pound box (909 g. approximately) of fresh blueberries. That’s about 300 grams more blueberries than the old 4-cup recipe I copied from my mother-in-law, so it needs somewhat more in the way of crust and sugar, but not actually that much more–go by taste and be conservative. This version is sweet but fresh, which is the joy of keeping most of the blueberries raw. It won’t make you feel like you’ve just eaten half a jar of jam. Continue reading

Sleepover fare

My daughter who loves vegetables and will often eat them ahead of whatever else is on the plate at supper suddenly became selfconscious yesterday about serving them to her friends at her birthday sleepover–no, no, no, Mom, none of my friends will eat them, and they probably don’t want fish, we want pizza. Not your pizza. Pizza from the good takeout place in Sierra Madre. And no anchovies this time.

We’ve known these girls since kindergarten–or earlier. They eat vegetables. But pizza it was. With some raw veggies for snack thrown in beforehand.

Our experience with the standard kid party fare is not very happy. Chips, soda, candy, popcorn–and that’s just the open bowls sitting around. Then pizza, cake, ice cream, possibly more candy.You’ve got to wonder what kind of parents actively choose such a menu–and the answer these days is, most people. All of these things are pretty addictive–everyone grabs for seconds without thinking.

Our daughter has been to a few of these parties and discovered the hard way that everything she knows how to do as a Type I diabetic flies out the window the instant she gets there. All her friends are grabbing handfuls of these very high-carb, mostly processed foods which we never get at home (except for ice cream), and the behavior is as addictive as the snacks. Even when she plans a strategy ahead of time with a goal for a limited reasonable maximum of carb grams and she calculates insulin for everything meticulously, she ends up pretty high hours later–as in, at 3 a.m., long after the insulin for the food has run its course.

It’s extremely hard to calculate carbs accurately enough with most processed snack foods at a party to avoid big glucose spikes later on. Even if you do everything right. There’s just something about junk foods–either you end up eating three meals’ worth of carbs in an hour of snacking without even feeling it because your friends are eating that way and it seems normal at the time, or these foods really digest a lot differently from standard things like bread or pasta. If it’s happening to our daughter, who can see the ugly results by getting a fingerstick three or four hours down the road, when she’s antsy and fractious and can’t sleep at 3 a.m., you know it’s also putting an extra burden on your kid who has a working pancreas.

So it might be a good idea to get fresh with the standard teen birthday party menu–if you’re doing pizza, skip the bags of chips and soda, add some veg and lighten up on dessert.

Salad was not achieved despite best intentions only because there was no room to get through to the kitchen where the vegetables of the week were lounging in the fridge. With the girls suddenly launching into “girl tawk” over pizza (a less appetizing combo would be difficult to imagine), and since we don’t have a separate den, our living room and dining room quickly became no-parent territory. My husband and I sidled up, grabbed some pizza and some carrot sticks and hid out in our bedroom so as not to intrude or have to hear any of it–win/win.

So given the awkwardness of getting past them and into the kitchen, vegetabalia last night was reduced to the bag of sugar snap peas and a bag of baby carrots we’d put out for a snack–not up to par, really, but it worked out fine. The girls ate them happily enough and didn’t notice the lack of or even seem to miss chips, cheetos, popcorn, potato chips, pretzels, goldfish etc. They were all too busy watching “Big Bang Theory” episodes and gossiping nonstop. It just goes to show you–the party is not in the bag [of chips, as per the tv ads], it’s in the participants.

I’d made a rather large and beautiful raw blueberry pie for dessert–chocolate cake after pizza just seems so wrong when it’s so hot out, and besides it’s summer with a vengeance. All indications (pretested and verified by my kid) were that both the crust and the filling were up to snuff. My daughter calculated for her best chances of being happy and more or less within range at her own party so she could have a piece with her friends, and she stopped worrying about the lack of junk food. I mean, pizza serves perfectly well as its own form of junk food–you don’t need any extra.

Plus you don’t want to be crunching too loudly when Sheldon and Leonard are going at it over whichever comic book hero’s superpower is the more mathematically sound.

 

 

 

What not to put in your cake

Marijuana use is being legalized–or sought out for legalization–in an increasing number of states, despite the federal government’s stance against it. The key argument in favor is a plea for the well-being of those whose terminal or debilitating illnesses–or the drug regimens for treating them–cause pain and nausea that respond better to marijuana than anything else on the market.

But who’s fooling whom? Along with the increase in legalization and dispensaries comes a host of new products to capitalize on the expanding market: candies, cakes and other sweets laced with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). You can’t tell me that’s exclusively, or even mostly, for medical use.

And–no surprise here–most of them are being mislabeled.

Marijuana is not a well-characterized, easily dosable drug. It’s a whole-plant or at least whole-leaf drug, with hundreds of chemical compounds in both the leaves and the smoke. Even THC, its primary active ingredient, appears difficult to measure and dose correctly given that its signal effect is a general distortion of sensory perception and mental function, not stimulation or blockage of a specific molecular receptor or other well-defined cellular target.

Given the vagueness of both dosing and effect, it’s not really a surprise that standardization and labeling are still inaccurate at best. Which is now a relevant issue: if you’re going to call marijuana a pharmaceutical in order to get it legalized, you’re going to have to treat it by the same standards and be able to quantify it. That could be a challenge–especially given the professionalism and laboratory expertise with which it’s typically handled.

The current attempts are not particularly encouraging, if a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association is any indicator. About 75 percent of the product labels are off; 15 percent or so underestimations and the rest overestimations of THC dose per serving.

Add to that the products themselves–pink and green-colored pound cakes (at least as shown in the article in The Scientist). Who but a stoner–or worse, a little kid who happened upon them–could find those appetizing, even without the added attraction?

And you can see the key problem here–it’s bad enough that people who take marijuana in any form are likely to get the munchies and be completely indiscriminate about what they eat while high. It’s a lot worse if the food available is also laced with yet more THC. Or if an adult buys a colorful cake product and leaves it where a kid can get at it.

And yes, I am being intentionally insulting about it. I’ve worked as a lab tech in pharmacology and natural products research labs and interviewed numerous experts in pharmaceutical and diagnostics industries as well as medical and forensic toxicologists. It’s time for the marijuana legalization proponents and industry to grow up, pull up their socks, and stop potschkying around. Or sampling their own wares.

If you’re serious about treating THC as a respectable therapeutic pharmaceutical, and not just a recreational drug accompanied by a wink and a sheepish laugh, then put up or shut up. Treat it as a proper drug and keep it in a recognizably unappetizing drug form–a plain pill would do–and make sure the dosing is precise and minimal. And that access is limited to patients who actually need it and that the effect is genuinely beneficial. That requires clinical trials.

We don’t put methotrexate or doxorubicin, two of the major chemotherapy drugs, in candies for cancer patients. We don’t put morphine or antibiotics in cake or leave them around casually on a kitchen counter. There’s a serious reason for that.

[Note: I’ve turned comments off for this post, not because I don’t usually welcome comments–and even arguments–but because the ones I’ve seen so far appear to be using the opportunity to recommend their preferred homebrew remedy–not really relevant to the question: “Do drugs belong in cake?”]

 

Chain-restaurant excess strikes again

The Center for Science in the Public Interest has found itself swamped for choice in its 2015 Xtreme Eating “awards” list.

What’s the highest calorie chain-restaurant meal in America? (LA Times online, 6/3/15)

The entries are frightening–typically 1-2 days’ worth of calories, 3 days’ worth of saturated fat and sodium, huge oversized amounts of food. One steakhouse platter with so much hamburger meat–not even steak–seven burgers, each piece topped with cheese or at least cheez–it’s like eating several Double Whoppers at once. Ice cream float-type concoctions with no actual pie but pie crust pieces crumbled on them. They start at 32 ounces. Which is clearly the new 20 ounces if you actually read through the horrible meal descriptions, because another chain’s sweet tea is only offered in a 32 oz size as well. That’s a quart. For one person. There’s a 900-calorie margarita in there somewhere at 24 ounces.

I’m sure Michael Jacobson, CSPI’s president, never dreamed there’d be something fully twice as bad on any restaurant menu as fettucine Alfredo, which he termed “a heart attack on a plate” only what, 20 or so years ago?

What the hell is going on here?  The chains may be cutting down slightly on artificial colors and trans-fats and GMO ingredients, but they’re serving meals with an entire day’s worth of calories embedded in the endless parade of glop that is routinely slathered on otherwise reasonable-sounding main ingredients like chicken breast (note: a top offender for hidden sodium in the “healthy” chain offerings, especially on salads). “Special” sauces, breadings, cheese, frying oil, stuffings, dips, and less-announced coatings (the problem with the chicken) that add surprising amounts of sweet, salt and/or fat. Chipotle isn’t on CSPI’s wall of shame over this, but it’s just as true of them as of any of the others–their meals typically run 500-800 calories for a burrito without chips, guacamole or salsa (not to mention sour cream and added cheese), and the same number of milligrams of sodium.

The meal insults listed on CSPI’s site consist of huge portions that could more normally serve four people, not one. Dishes are never less than 3″ high and cover every square millimeter of the plate. Burgers are multiplied–if one or two are okay, six or seven must be even better. Vegetables have disappeared, of course.

Accessories double or triple the calorie, fat and sodium counts of the full “meal”: caesar salad, fries, biscuits, half-gallon drinks, whole quarts of ice-cream-related desserts. Why is this gargantuan approach even appealing?

They didn’t list Baskin-Robbins 31 Flavors, but maybe they should have–a couple of years ago I took my daughter there for a post-diabetes-diagnosis ice cream cone so we could do something normal for summer, albeit with a shot of insulin (it was a new experience) and we got the entire brochure of offerings when we asked for the nutrition info. The single cone, no lightweight for any of the flavors at about 250-300 calories (double or triple what it would be for Dreyer’s/Edy’s half-the-fat, our standby) and 25-30 grams of carb (also double the D/E per serving), turned out to be a best bet. Some of the sundaes were getting to the 20 oz. range, with over 1500 calories and two days’ worth of carb and fat. The soft serves were actually the worst nutritionally, much higher in calories, carb and fat than they look for the volume you get–and especially given how plain the flavors always are.

Overall, the picture of chain food is not lookin’ good. It’s a nightmare of shameful, pointless stuntlike excess, the stuff parodied in Wall-E and Idiocracy among other movies from the past decade. Only as one of the CSPI judges remarked, it’s become the new normal, and much faster than the screenwriters imagined. Maybe we should all look at the before pictures of the participants on The Biggest Loser, as shown in all the accompanying guidebooks (see your local Friends of the Library bookstore) and ask ourselves if we really want to do that. Because that’s a lot of work.

This always happens right before vacation…

Finally, finally, we are going to the East Coast. We’ve had to put off seeing my mom and my sister (and assorted boys) twice since December due to incessant snow, none of which hit Los Angeles in the slightest. So as soon as school lets out, we’re packing for an ungodly wake-up call the next morning and getting out of SoCal for a bit more than a week. The cat gets a hotel/spa vacation without all the schlepping around between Bahston and New Yawk. We get the do-we-have-enough-clean-undies-to-make-it version.

So good, already. But as in many of my tangled big-event preparation schemes, I have a slight problem with the fridge:

Stuffed fridge right before traveling

The problem, part I…Note the tomatoes: 10+, excessively ripe, and the invisible 6 or so red peppers behind them. Not to mention the huge bag with 7-8 bunches of fresh herbs…

fridgedoor

Part II, the door…Note the huge bag of nectarines, lower left, the chiles just behind the mushrooms and two bags of apricots at right, just because…

AAAgh…just a little insane. Suffice it to say, it’s been an enthusiastic week or so vegetable-shopping-wise because the Fresno tomatoes are back in my local greengrocer’s, along with a lot of other produce, and I’ve gone overboard on a number of items, not least of which are lemon basil, mint, dill and tarragon (which I haven’t even decided if I like). The market beckons, the low prices for herbs and vegetables even more so, and the sun’s finally come out again after a month of gray days. And I’m a purple thumb as a gardener, so the greengrocer’s wares beckon even more strongly. How could I not want it all? But a little thought for the calendar might not have gone amiss.

So I’m in trouble again. We leave in 4 days. There are a maximum of three humans in the house (depends how we’re behaving at any given moment). Nobody but me really gets into gazpacho the way they should–though they will go with salads (the coarse-cut version of gazpacho). And it’s a sorry day when you have to threaten people with apricots and nectarines three meals a day. We should be reveling in the produce section, not roiling in it. If we were staying here, this would be an ideal scenario for the next week and a half, Continue reading

Parsley Doesn’t Count

It’s nearly June, the big northeast snowfest that lasted into April is pretty much over, and all the May and June issues of the big food magazines are showing…almost no fresh vegetables on the covers. Or inside. Oh, you do see some green–but it’s garnish. Flat-leaf parsley, a little cilantro, a sprig of basil maybe, chopped or torn over the cover dish to make it pretty. But very few actual vegetables–take a little walk with me down the newsstand for a sec.

magcovers

All magazine cover thumbnails shown have been lifted shamelessly–they’re not mine, they’re the property of their respective publishers–and pasted together here solely for parody value and critical review of the food literature.

Saveur? Fried chicken. Seriously. Cooking Light? Hotdog special–one with a slice of pickle and tomato, another with avocado, to represent Vietnamese and Mexican, respectively.  Whoo-don’t you feel like a world traveler now. Food and Wine? Burgers by Bobby Flay. Bon Appétit? Another burger. Food Network? They don’t even pretend. Ice cream cone. With whipped cream and a cherry on top. On a cone.

The women’s mags are leaning toward desserts: Martha Stewart–cake. Southern Living, Allrecipes–pie. Better Homes & Gardens and BHG Diabetic Living both feature watermelon and ice cream or sorbet assortments. All of it very pink.

Eating Well cover Vegetarian Times cover

But even EatingWell and Vegetarian Times aren’t doing all that much vegetabalia on their green-looking covers. EW has a vegetable serving platter with a nice looking bunch of raw green beans and tomatoes at the bottom, but more than half of the platter is canned  beans or dip. Not that I’m against those, but they really aren’t fresh veg.  VT has a grilled veg and quinoa salad platter that looks wholesome enough, but if you zoom in for a closer look you realize it’s not mostly veg either. If you took a quarter of it for yourself, you’d only get 3 or 4 thin slices of pepper and zucchini on your plate along with the grain. Most of the green you see in the picture is a token sprinkling of arugula and basil sprigs strewn over the top–a strategy that’s being used and abused in the less veg-forward pubs to make steak or pork loin or mac ‘n’ cheese look like they have something fresh and healthy about them.

Lucky Peach and Cook’s Illustrated both go for graphics rather than photos. LP has a cartoony poster graphic of garden lushness for “The Plant Issue”–do they really have vegetabalia inside? Cook’s Illustrated has a pastel of radishes.

It’s as though they all decided to try to look summery without  including actual bulk greens–the signature of summer (well, other than watermelon). I’ve complained about this before, I know, but back then I was talking about friends who don’t cook much and are somewhat veg-phobic, not about upscale food media. For years the food glam world has been touting local sourcing, farmers’ markets, heirloom this and that, Provençal and Spanish and Italian and Middle Eastern cuisines, which are full of vegetables one way and another. But they really are no longer practicing what they preach. They’ve shrunk their focus down to the meager American fast food paradigm while pretending otherwise. And charging you between 4 and 10 dollars an issue.

But vegetables are so easy to ruin, you say. The green ones turn brownish olive if you hold them too long after cooking. If you’re going to hang around a whole hour waiting for the photographer to get the right shot, you’re going to have to cook a couple of batches in a row. Strewing a couple of sprigs of cilantro or parsley over something is so much easier!

The other reason we’re not seeing vegetables on the magazine covers: editorial production lag. Monthly magazines typically take anything from 2-6 months to produce from start to finish, so they work ahead. The May and June issues probably went to press two months ago, when it had barely stopped snowing in the northeast (per my mother and sister). Summer vegetables are not bountiful in March and April under those conditions–at least not in New York and Boston. But the editors could have put together something decent and thematic for the covers if they wanted to–I’m pretty sure I could have sent them a likely looking CARE package from my local greengrocer’s if they’d only asked and were willing to foot the overnight shipping.

A weekly haul from my greengrocer's comes in under $30 even with coffee, spices and special items.

Eat your heart out, foodie magazines! Time to gloat. A typical weekly haul from my greengrocer comes in at under $30 even with a pound of coffee or tehina or yogurt (not shown, obviously), bagged spices, dried beans, and  specials on fruit or nuts. When the tomatoes are better I stagger out the door with 5-10 lbs. at a time, but on the other hand the snow peas were a serious bargain this time around.

There are plenty of good vegetables around. Fresno tomatoes are back in my Armenian grocery (for which, oh! be joyful), we have green and romano beans, we have lettuces and purslane and bunches of fresh basil and dill and mint and za’atar (and yes, parsley, Continue reading

Persian Posh and Jewish Soul: Two Veg-Friendly Cookbooks for Spring

"The New Middle Eastern Vegetarian" (aka "Veggiestan" in the UK) by Sally Butcher, cover photo from amazon.co.uk "Jewish Soul Food: From Minsk to Marrakesh" by Janna Gur. Cover photo from amazon.com

 

Passover week didn’t exactly go the way I’d hoped, with loads of new vegetable dishes to play with and experiments in microwave gastronomy that would wow the most cynical reader…

After the optimistic start with the chocolate almond torte and the microwave shakshouka for one, I suddenly caught a bug–my husband caught it first, suffered a day or so, got better and then kindly passed it to me, and I ended up sick for the better part of the week. We all agree we got it from a kid he was sitting next to at seder. Now that our kid’s a teenager, we’re no longer used to it. Clearly we’ve gone soft.

So I was–shall we say–less than enthusiastic about cooking the last week or so, and ended up with lots of ideas that stayed in my head while I stayed in bed, attempting to keep up on tea, rice, poached eggs and applesauce. And feeling really embarrassed that every time I opened the fridge and saw all the beautiful vegetables I’d bought for the week, I peered at them suspiciously–how much trouble would they cause me? Was it really a crappy virus or was it maybe secretly food poisoning, even though everyone else was able to eat? Maybe tomorrow–and closed the fridge door again and groaned. It took a couple of extra days to start looking at vegetables with any enthusiasm at all.

This, I thought, is what most of the country thinks about fresh vegetables if a dolled-up superstar chef isn’t holding one on the cover of a glossy magazine (or even if he is). Maybe with a little less queasiness or dizziness than I experienced, but with that lurking suspicion that vegetables have dirt on them, that you have to wash them off and then cut them up and do something to them, that they’re not sterile and wrapped in plastic for your protection, and that it’s all too much bother. What a lousy, paranoid way to live.

So anyway, now that I’m better the vegetables are looking good again, and the (four or five) leftover matzah boxes have been relegated to a top shelf for sometime when I’m not sick of them and want to experiment a bit for next year.

Two bright and sun-filled new (or newish, anyway) cookbooks that make lavish and hearty use of vegetables were languishing on my desk for the entire week of Passover (and two weeks before that, when I was too busy to do more than look at them wistfully). Sally Butcher’s Veggiestan is a collection of pan-Middle Eastern vegetarian recipes that centers on her husband’s family Persian cuisine and their experience as the proprietors of a Persian specialty grocery in London. Jewish Soul Food: From Minsk to Marrakesh is Israeli food writer/editor Janna Gur’s second major English-language cookbook, and it focuses on Jewish “grandma” food from all the cultures Israel is home to.

Both books run something along the lines of Yotam Ottolenghi’s approach to food–appealing, vegetable-filled, exotic, and fun to cook and eat. But the food is generally simpler and homier, more traditional and with fewer trendy/haute touches or UK-specific ingredients like salsify or seabeans that you just can’t find most places in the US. Butcher and Gur each have a foot in both professional and home cooking, which may make the difference. The recipes here are not chefly so much as cookable. Eminently cookable, and they make me want to run right out and try so many things (especially if I can stuff any of the steps into the microwave) that I’m just going to have to get them both and give back my overdue library copies.

The authors share an approach to traditional and modern Middle Eastern food that is enthusiastic, knowledgeable, ecumenical and–I’m not sure how to say it exactly, but  neighborly comes close. Reading these books is like hanging out in the farmer’s market and the kitchen with a friend who knows how to make all the dishes your grandmother might have made but never showed you.

Veggiestan is the original 2011 UK title of Butcher’s mid-sized cookbook, now out in trade paperback,  but the publishers thought that title would be too controversial for the US (land of “freedom Continue reading

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