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    Half-sour cucumbers, hold the salt

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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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    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).

Thanks

I want to give a quick thanks to Dr. Marion Nestle, who took the time to let her readers and colleagues know about Sunday’s Dietary Guidelines post in her Twitter feed and on her blog, foodpolitics.com, which I’ve read with interest ever since starting this blog. The response has been overwhelmingly positive and I appreciate it very much.

USDA Dietary Guidelines released…a full year later

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s scientific report, essentially the major draft of the USDA “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” guidelines, was finished last February. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020 has finally been released in its official form to the public–but it’s only available online at health.gov as of this week, with promises of an eventual PDF.

To that end, because the Health.gov site doesn’t yet have a downloadable version, I’ve pulled the text and images of the final “Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020” into a quick-and-dirty two PDFs you can download below for free. It’s not perfect–the pages don’t all flow with gorgeous layout and some of the graphics were so oversized I had to kind of select-cut-and-paste them in sections to get the charts to fit. I think I’ve got it all in there, though, including most of the helpful nutrition and diet charts in the appendices (with notes where I didn’t catch on that there was more to a chart than first appeared).

What can I say–“Enjoy.” Ummm….well, anyhow, here they are:

Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020–this includes the Table of Contents, Intro, Executive Summary, and body of the report (Chapters 1-3).

USDA DGA 2015-20 Final-IntroandChapters (PDF, 3.4 MB)

Appendices (14 of them) for the Dietary Guidelines –I couldn’t get Adobe to stick this on the end of the document nicely, so it’s separate but useful.

USDA DGA 2015-20 Final Appendices (PDF, 263 KB)

The original Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Scientific Report from last February is available here.

What was the holdup? What are the differences from the health-basis-only recommendations of the DG Advisory Committee’s version last year?

Given the shoddy job major media gave the advisory committee’s scientific report last winter and spring, perhaps the best thing to do this time around is skip the media coverage hyperbole and compare the two reports directly and see what gives.

Professor Marion Nestle digs in with dissatisfaction as to some of the likely buyoffs this time around–she deems that the big meat, egg, sugar, etc. producing industries have won some victories in what wasn’t said. She also complains, as I do, that the online version is full of stupid bells and whistles. It’s hard to navigate, there are a lot of windows and figures that are actually slide shows and you have to know to click on them to get the rest of the information. Hopefully the PDFs above will be more readable.

Nestle’s take is more political than mine (for a change? not really). She notices more of the inconsistencies with naming food categories only when they’re favorable, and using nutrient names (sugar, saturated fat, sodium) as substitutes for the big-business food categories that are poor nutritionally.

I’m less incensed about most of that– and ironically a little more optimistic about what was included. Continue reading

Another reason to avoid processed and fast food

In the past five or ten years, obesity and diabetes researchers have started taking a closer look at environmental factors that have unexpectedly strong disruptive effects on our appetite, food consumption levels and metabolism, even at levels currently deemed safe by the Food and Drug Administration. The potential of artificial sweeteners to lower glucose tolerance in less than a week by shifting the balance of gut bacteria is only one unnerving example.

Environmental chemicals like fungicides, pesticides and plasticizers (BPA and the like) have long been of concern for cancer, endocrine disruption and infertility. Some extensive and carefully conducted studies now reveal that some of these chemicals can also increase fat cell development and storage as well as insulin resistance. Low levels of exposure directly increase the rate of obesity in rats, and  population studies, though not as extensive, show that exposure also tracks with obesity in humans.

These common chemicals are now being considered obesogens–chemicals that cause obesity or at least make people more prone to it. And these are effects that may end up being passed down.

In the rat studies, the effects lasted for several generations, and that also seems to tally with earlier findings on environmental endocrine disruptors and male infertility. Some of the tests that were conducted on rats in the obesogen study were too invasive to perform on human subjects, and a human generation is a lot longer than a rat generation–20+ years vs. 6 weeks–so it may be hard to trace inheritance in humans just yet.

Well–so what does it mean for us while we wait for the perfect definitive human study to come along?

To my mind, it means taking a harder look at how we choose the food we eat. We can’t remove all pesticide residues from the environment but we can probably eat fewer things wrapped pristinely in plastic and cut down our reliance on plastic utensils and disposable containers.

As I look around my kitchen, I realize just how often I reach for plastic sandwich bags–daily for lunches, but also for leftovers, herbs, halves of onions or lemons, cheese, vegetables. Stacking plastic storage containers keep soup, salad, rice or beans–or this week, an overload of stuffed shells, since I finally got my cook-once-eat-six-times-or-so batch cooking mojo figured out. And almost everything else in my fridge and on my shelves is in contact with plastic at one time or another.

Plastic wrappings pervade most of the supermarket offerings–overwraps on plastic-coated juice boxes, plastic see-through windows on cardboard pasta boxes, sacks of dried beans and rice, loaves of bread, plastic inner bags for boxed cereals and snacks, and plastic linings on the insides of tin cans. Also, of course, all those bottles of soda and energy drinks and vitamin waters and juices and milk. And yogurt. To say nothing of fast food, vending machine food, and so on.

Plastic is everywhere because it’s cheap, light, flexible, avoids breakage in shipping, and it helps you keep your food dry if you want it dry or moist if you want to keep it from drying out. You can keep everything separate and clean and airtight even when stored side by side. You can store it in the freezer and take some types of plastic containers right to the microwave. If you want to give up plastic, either for health reasons or environmental ones, you have to give up some of those advantages too.

Your next best bets are glass, which is heavy and breakable and no longer reliably tempered borosilicate, at least not in the US. Or perhaps stainless steel, at least for cold containers–maybe a stainless steel kit for lunches? I don’t know–if you don’t take strict care of it, or if it’s in contact with wet or acidic foods for long periods, it may rust. Storing salads or tomato-based items might be a problem. Ceramic bowls and containers–also heavy and breakable, and some of the food-approved glazes still leach measurable amounts of copper and other metals.

I do occasionally see someone from the homesteading and health food store generation, or else in Amish or Mennonite-style dress, loading up on bulk buy drygoods at Whole Foods with their own glass jars and cotton drawstring bags. And I always admire them for it, but I also think that’s an awful lot of stuff to trundle around to the store and get the clerks to okay. It is not easy to do and it’s obvious they’ve saved up for a monthly trip to stock up because you wouldn’t want to have to do it more than that often, especially when you have young children in tow, even very well behaved young children as they often do (another thing to admire them for; my daughter used to go and play hide-and-seek in the corner grocery when she was that young. At least she knew not to take anything).

But back to plastics and food storage. The obesogen phenomenon is intriguing but probably not the main source of the current obesity epidemic. Common sense says people might have slightly more propensity for developing fat cells but they’d still be small cells if people weren’t overfeeding them by eating more calories than they used to. That’s the major trend, by far. It’s still the food itself that matters most.

Processed and fast food still dominate as popular items of diet, and they’re very high-calorie-density compared with most nonstarchy bulk vegetables, which never seem to be recommended first on any popular weight loss and fitness show anymore (cough–Dr. Continue reading

Green Beans Get Serious

If you’ve gone to the supermarket the last couple of weeks, and seen huge haystacks of green beans on sale for under a dollar a pound, you might be wondering to yourself how much green bean casserole can any one family take? Pretty bad that Thanksgiving only has one sanctioned green bean recipe, and that no one can think of anything better to do with them over the holidays.

Not that I’m against plain and simple green beans, as long as they’re actually still green. Fresh, lightly steamed or microwaved or stir-fried, not boiled to death. Although frankly, I often prefer them raw and fresh as something to just wash and nosh, like carrot sticks or celery.

Even frozen green beans are fine if you treat them gently and cook them a bit less than you would fresh ones–the freezing and thawing break down all vegetables slightly, and you don’t want them to go to mush or turn brown.

Just not the dank, slimy brown horrors that emerged from a can every once in a while when I was a kid, and which my mother insisted, against all reason, had once been something living. Canned green beans are the zombies of the green bean world.

But with a bounty of cheap greens in winter, what to do with them is a pretty good question, and one that begs a three-minute solution, especially when most green vegetables are getting harder to come by. You want to stock up but you don’t want to be eating the same old, same old for a month.

My best solution for a quick green bean dish–other than the grab-and-go raw snack vegetable business above–is of course to wash and trim the tough ends from a bunch of green beans (I usually grab about a pound at a time). Stick them in a covered container or between two microwaveable stoneware or Corelle dinner plates with a drizzle of water (anything from a couple of tablespoons up to about a quarter-inch in depth) .

Three minutes on HIGH should cook a pound of rinsed and trimmed green beans to that crisp-tender ideal where they’re still green and just cooked but still have a bit of bite to them. Basically like blanched or steamed, but without the big stockpot of boiling water (which I hate to wait for and which seems a waste), the strainer, or the ice water bath (another wasted bowl).

And you can do it right before dinner as a last-minute thought, just enough for that meal so they stay green. Drain and serve them ASAP for best results. Don’t give ’em a chance to go brown.

If you want to keep them green for later, microwave them a little less, maybe 1.5-2.5 minutes per pound, just until they begin to turn jewel green, rinse them under a cold tap as soon as they’re done, drain and chill. Do not add anything acidic to them until just before you serve them so they don’t turn olive-brown.

Yes, it’s pretty plain–which is handy if you want it versatile. You can serve them hot with a mustard garlic vinaigrette or other salad-type dressing to dip into or drizzle over them. Or the richer (but not saturated-fat) sauces, tehina with lemon and garlic (and either water or plain yogurt), or Asian peanut sauce with chile, garlic and ginger are also good.

If you want something a little fancier-looking and vaguely French (we’re going for “day in Monet’s Garden,” not “tacky tourist café with haricots verts side dish that turns out to be nothing more than buttered overcooked green beans”) you can arrange the green beans in a covered stoneware platter or bowl, with thinly sliced onions and a bit of thyme and minced garlic strewn around to get a fairly nice-looking and savory microwave-to-table kind of dish that still only takes a few minutes to throw together and zap to perfection.

greenbeanswithstuffedcriminimushrooms

Slice some mushrooms over the green beans or nestle mushroom Continue reading

Lackluster “Secrets” from the Eating Lab

I’ve just read Dr. Traci Mann’s popular book, Secrets from the Eating Lab, which came out in April (and is hence a “new book” at my library at the moment…). I had some real hopes for this book on dieting, obesity, and the psychology of eating. Mann has some fame in behavioral psychology, and her lab at the University of Minnesota is influential. Plus she just wrote an op-ed that Oprah Winfrey’s investment in WeightWatchers is a smart business move because diet failure, which leads to repeat customers, is a built-in and stated profit strategy for the company. Mann points out it’s the same logic that runs casinos. Big revelation? probably not, but still a good point and illustrative of the circular logic in popular American diet culture.

So about Secrets from the Eating Lab. The tone of the book is personable and it’s a quick read–a couple of hours will cover it. But…it’s not really a very good book and it makes Mann look a little like the huge parade of airheaded “pundits” who show up on Fox News and Good Morning America and Dr. Oz to talk about emotional eating right before presenting a plate of “healthy treats” that turn out to be brownies.

OK, it wasn’t quite that brainless. I even liked a lot of what Mann had to say about how to live an integrated life and not obsess over weight. But the book is a very good example of why someone who’s reasonably expert in one facet of diet research may not be the right person to interpret other areas for the public.

The behavioral studies are interesting and entertaining. Although the findings are not altogether news anymore, the lab setups she and her team used to demonstrate them are fun to read about. A sample of the psych experiment findings, which are the strongest part of Mann’s book:

  • The eating style of your companions is likely to influence you pretty strongly when you eat as a group. Her lab tested this in an entertaining series of experiments.
  • “Determination and willpower” is more wishful thinking than a successful diet strategy for a lot of people, and structuring your environment is more effective.
  • Keeping a bowl of treats even more than arm’s length away from you reduces your likelihood of grazing, and if you actually have to get up and walk to get more, you probably won’t.
  • People eat more when distracted with screentime or eating while driving or whatever than when focusing on their food.
  • Smaller plates lead to greater satisfaction with less food.
  • Offering vegetables at the school cafeteria before serving the rest of lunch, and without competition from french fries, gains a much higher rate of takers than when there are other foods available.
  • Announcing foods as “healthy” is a turn-off.
  • Most intriguingly, “comfort food” is no more effective than any other food, or even no food, for recovery after an emotional shock.

All of these findings mesh with common sense, and few of her recommendations are implemented as regularly as one would like in daily life at school or work. But the behavioral studies from her lab are only a small part of the book, one or two chapters in the middle. Where Mann runs into trouble is nearly everywhere else. Put bluntly, she’s way out of her depth in the larger world of academic obesity research, and neither she nor most of her readers or even, crucially, her book editor seem to know it.

The main themes of Secrets from the Eating Lab are 1. that diets don’t work, 2. obesity is not the deadly killer everyone assumes it is, and 3. therefore you should stop obsessing and be healthy in other ways, for example by exercising to relieve stress.

These claims are stated as blanket facts rather than opinions she wants to explore, even when she bolsters them with studies. Outside of her own lab’s experimental framework she makes fundamental and glaring mistatements and assumptions of fact that can easily be disproven. The result is not markedly better than what you might expect from a modestly competent high school debate team’s background prep for the season topics, “Do Diets Work?” and “Does Obesity Kill?”

In the “diets don’t work” chapter, Mann scours the literature for a largeish number of diet studies in which subjects attempted to lose weight, then winnows the 300 or so studies down to about 26 that meet her criteria of a randomized controlled study with reasonable participant recruitment and retention. Although some studies demonstrated short-term weight loss or differential success between two test diets over the course of weeks, months or a year, longer followup revealed no net loss and a large degree of regained weight among participants, and most of the studies had a lot of dropouts before completion. Moreover, most were less than carefully conducted and relied on self-reported weight and diet recall from the subjects rather than weigh-ins and so on.

Well, fair enough. But she doesn’t look at more recent and stringent work, as a nutrition researcher would be expected to. And she doesn’t really explore what the behavioral environments of the experiments might have contributed–something she might have been able to lend better insight into. Continue reading

How to fly with a pie

Happy Chanukah–tonight was the first night–and as per usual, a belated Happy Thanksgiving too. I hope everyone ate nice, had fun, enjoyed and helped do the dishes wherever you gathered.

Now that it’s over, I have a few more additions to the list of things I’ve learned–good or bad–about How To Travel With Food ™. Because my in-laws, who usually host Thanksgiving, are traveling in Africa (!!!–think elephants coming up to their cabin porch), my ex-brother-in-law invited all the rest of us to join him for the weekend instead. In Sonoma. At what turned out to be not a cabin with or without elephants, but a luxurious private residence he’d booked for the group as a vacation rental. And it was out and out marvelous. If a little weird and unsettling in its own way.

Sonoma-Kenwood.jpg

When we were still deciding how to reach Sonoma from Pasadena, we realized with dismay that it’s about 10 or 11 hours by car at the best of times, and Thanksgiving week is not the best of times. When we lived on the east coast, a trip like that would have us thinking airplane automatically, but out here we usually just suffer. My niece and her boyfriend drove up from San Luis Obispo, usually 4 hours north of us, and it took them 9 hours instead of 5 or 6. So I was really grateful to my husband for finding affordable plane tickets for an hour’s flight into Oakland. So far, so good, and it took a lot of the strain out.

But all those airline rules. And we were the ones bringing pumpkin pie. In carry-on. My ex-BIL offered to pick up a couple of big stalks of brussels sprouts for me up there (I don’t think we even had any more at down here by this time; Trader Joe’s was out of them by weeks) as well as a green cabbage for Greek cabbage salad. These are big heavy scary-looking items you just don’t want to schlep on a plane unless you’re auditioning for the live version of Shrek. As the shopping list got longer, I decided to just bake the pies at home, cool them, freeze them as far as possible, and take them in a stiff box with some ice packs stuffed in the corners and hope for the best.

Continue reading

In search of good rye bread

I’ve been attempting rye bread and kornbroyt (Jewish sourdough whole wheat bread) on and off since about last Chanukah–almost a whole year! You would think this was unnecessary, since I live close enough to North Hollywood/Valley Village, the eastern hub of LA for Jewish bakeries and delis (the older western hub is “the Fairfax” neighborhood and the Pico/Robertson area). The rye bread you can get at these places isn’t terrible; my synagogue orders it regularly along with 6-braid challahs for big events, and it’s okay. It just isn’t much better than Arnold’s or Sara Lee, the lightweight commercial supermarket versions I grew up with in the south when we couldn’t get the real thing from New York more than once or twice a year.

Last spring I bought the big crusty half-boule loaves of wholewheat sourdough from Trader Joe’s to sub in for kornbroyt at a big synagogue brunch and they were wonderful–and also not screamingly high in sodium as most hard-crust sourdoughs are (Whole Foods, most bakeries, certainly La Brea and friends). Certainly less per serving than the French loaves and ciabattas and other items on the gourmet bread stand at TJs. The Pain Mich’ demi-boule was a very good deal all the way around, and I’ve bought it weekly for years.

But shortly afterward, TJs switched bakers and the new ones produced something that only looked similar. The crust was flabby and the crumb was like the stuffing of old office chairs–crumbly and weak, lacking flavor, not springy and full of moxie like the real thing. What could have happened to my favorite shortcut to the good life? They still haven’t fixed the problem. Which is probably at least partly due to an inferior use of sour culture. Or CUL-choo-ah as my mom says (Brooklyn accent hard to miss).

So I was going to have to figure it out for myself if I didn’t want to remain a deprived child.

For the past 30-40 years, according to Stan Ginsberg and Norm Berg in their book Inside the Jewish Bakery, the flavor and texture of commercial rye bread  have really been watered down as companies went national and American-style with it. It became paler and lighter in texture, with less rye flour and more additives–oils, conditioners, salt. And they used commercial dry yeast instead of sourdough culture, which takes too long and for a long time wasn’t generally considered reliable or controlled enough a process for mass production–probably not for FDA and local health inspectors either. So most commercial rye bread lacks the true rye sour starter flavor, and is no longer really chewy or dark. Or crusty. Which is how I want mine.

All of those lost characteristics from my childhood memories of real New York rye bread and kornbroyt, made by local union bakers and brought down to Virginia once or twice a year by my grandparents, have now regained popularity in the US foodie arena. Well, not rye bread as such, but “old world” artisan wholegrain sourdough breads that seek to copy Poilâne’s legendarily crusty round loaf. Enthusiasts bring up a lot of sinister-sounding bakers’ terms: levain, cloak, slash, hydration percentage, etc. And they’ve come respectably close. But they’re still lacking the sign of authenticity: the union label pasted on the endpiece!

One major American bakery to achieve similar cult status to Poilâne is Tartine. Complete with three lengthy baking manuals so far on how to build a sour, incorporate all kinds of grains and let the sour culture digest them for the right number of days until they’re ready to set up as loaves.

The books are filled with gorgeous, crusty loaves that cost a fortune at gourmet bakeries if you can find them at all in your town. But it’s like looking through the bakery window, hungry, with your nose pressed up against the glass. Most people don’t have the singlemindedness to follow all the steps at home more than once, much less for more than one or two varieties of more-expensive, Whole-Foods-only, alternate grain breads.

The books are also filled with testimony as to just how many years it took each baker on the team to fulfill his or her apprenticeship and perfect the technique.

Years, though. That’s a lot of time to get yourself a decent home-baked loaf of rye bread that tastes like it could stand up to corned beef. Which makes me wonder whether a mere cookbook can really teach it.

So why bother (except for the perverse curiosity that drives me to mad-scientist-like experiments that probably won’t win the Nobel this year, or any year)? Because once in a while you want good rye bread even if you live on the West Coast.

Looking at the pictures and even reading the instructions can’t give you the exact right sour or air temp or humidity or other conditions that make Tartine’s bread award-winning. Your yeast may vary. You may not have the same sensitivity in your hands or know exactly how moist or elastic or heavy or whatever the dough needs to feel like at each stage. You have to be willing to experiment and fail a couple of times and pay attention to how it looks, feels, smells, and be willing to fiddle around and adjust the next time.

That’s okay. Perfection is not a Jewish ideal, so much, and rye bread is not so hard to improve with practice. Our great-(great-etc.) grandmothers were making rye bread pretty often in the shtetls with whatever starters they had and could keep going throughout some pretty challenging winters. And every spring they’d have to get rid of their sour cultures right before Passover and start over from scratch as soon as it was over. In Russian-Polish spring weather. (My grandfather always said you knew it was spring when the first oxcart got stuck in the mud. It meant the ground had finally thawed.)

So you could probably figure that the women in the shtetls weren’t always overjoyed to have to throw away their sour cultures every spring, and the first loaves of bread in the shtetls after Passover ended might not have been a lot of good for a week or so extra. Or they could have turned out like my first one, especially if it took an extra week for the miller to supply new rye and wheat flour.

To tell you the truth: getting a rye sour started is no big deal–I seem to have done it on the first try, even while taking the onion shortcut (see the bottom of the post) and being much too casual with the flour and water proportions in Ginsberg and Berg’s rye bread instructions from Inside the Jewish Bakery. It’s just that getting the sour ready for baking takes a while–like 3 to 5 days. And then it gets more refined and hopefully consistent as you feed it sequentially over time. Professional bakers guard their established sours like gold.

Rye sour getting started with raw onion

Rye sour getting started with raw onion

What went wrong on my first try, right before New Year’s, was that I didn’t put in quite enough wheat flour for the final dough. I was still thinking loose, elastic, relatively wet dough like my usual pizza dough or challah dough, and this needed to be stiffer to match the picture in the book, which showed an actual spherical ball of dough. I figured my usual dough would be a little moister and give nice, big ragged holes–however… Continue reading

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