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    Happy 2019! It's a new year--time for a restorative. Me? Bok choy broth with tofu for lunch. The purple tinge is not your hangover talking to you--I added purple and gold "black" carrots to the bowl and it got a little Rose Parade on me.

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    Copyright 2008-2019Slow 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.


    I may post affiliate links to books and movies that I personally review and recommend. Currently I favor Alibris and Vroman's, our terrific and venerable (now past the century mark!) independent bookstore in Pasadena. Or go to your local library--and make sure to support them with actual donations, not just overdue fines (ahem!), because your state probably has cut their budget and hours. Again.

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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).

“The Dorito Effect”: Fervor over Flavor

So, the party’s over, the halftime show’s over, Denver won, a variety of pop stars are brushing off media criticism over what they wore, and a nation is figuring out how to deal with the caloric aftermath of buffalo wings and a variety of dips and chips. (My biggest excitement: locating the owner of a red Corvette with a leaking gas tank in time to deal with it and avoid a more dramatic spectacle. Luckily it was mid-afternoon and the owner was alert, sober, and not smoking. She  also wasn’t whining about having to go out to look at the car. As some of the male guests might have been, Corvette or no.)

Mark Schatzker’s recent book, The Dorito Effect, is an energizing read for those of us who aren’t really into the classics of Superbowl Sunday.

Kroger Superbowl recipe booklet

I’ll spare you the inside pages, but the closest to nutritious was Kroger’s own recipe for double-coated baked cauliflower “hot wings”–ingredients: a head of cauliflower, a little flour and water, garlic powder, Kroger’s store-brand hot sauce, and some melted butter to doll up the cauliflower florets before dipping in…ranch dressing. 

Not that it’s really so much about Doritos, but rather that it takes the 1960s invention of Doritos–a “taco-flavored” taco chip without any actual meat, cheese or salsa, just what has become known to all as orange cheez dust–as the first serious divorce between food and intrinsic flavor.

It isn’t really the first, of course, and Schatzker traces the history of post-WWII mass agriculture as the story of more food, grown quicker, with less and less flavor. Everything from tomatoes to chickens to broccoli to wheat comes under the microscope lens here. Yes, it’s another Michael Pollan-style examination of some familiar complaints about how and why nothing tastes the same anymore.

He collects reactions from champion kvetchers as diverse as Julia Child (she did it first, he claims, calling modern–1960s–American chicken tasteless and with the texture of “teddy bear stuffing”) to the Slow Food Movement (no relation, ahem!) to Michael Pollan himself, to a variety of old bickering couples who remember the flavor of old long-legged breeds of chickens now relegated to the remote gourmet sidelines of the vast factory-farming chicken industry…

Schatzker tells a fairly entertaining version of this tale–how Big Food and Big Agro convened with flavor chemists to alter the course of human gastronomy in the wake of WWII. As we breed livestock and produce to grow more, bigger, faster, he discovers, we lose not only flavor but nutrients and replace them with water and carbohydrate filler even in things like broccoli and tomatoes. And then we try to make up for that by dousing them in ranch dressing and orange cheez dust and artificial flavorings; hence the title of his book.

Coatings, dressings, artificial flavorings, salt, sugar and oils–these, he says, have become the substitute for intrinsic flavor in real foods, and a mainstay of the unsubstantial snack foods–starting with Doritos–that have pushed out bulk produce and unprocessed ingredients in the American diet.

Schatzker takes it a couple of steps further, though, presenting his theory that the loss of flavor in real foods is the key factor to blame for American overconsumption of calories, and that flavor is one criterion we should work to restore at a national level.

Yes, we’ve read much of this before elsewhere, but his interviews are still eye-opening. He interviews flavor chemists at McCormick, which does a lot more of its work behind the scenes of the restaurant and processed food world than you might think. Those little bottles of herbs and spices on supermarket shelves are just the tip of the iceberg.

Schatzker also profiles one of the original breeders of today’s heavy-breasted, fast-grown, efficient-feeding mass market chickens–though the man is still proud of that early work given the economic pressures on postwar America. He gets the inside story on the decline of flavor and nutrition in broccoli, kale, tomatoes, strawberries and other common produce, and learns why some top agriculture researchers eventually quit the corporate world to try and restore some of the diversity and quality that had been lost during the peak years of their careers. Continue reading

Media misread on the new USDA dietary guidelines

The new USDA public nutrition guidelines are being updated again, as scheduled, and the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s version now says some egg yolks are okay and to limit carbs and sugar instead. A variety of media commentators have jumped all over that, even though it’s not very different from what the guidelines have been emphasizing for years. Now, if anything, I would have hoped that most of the commentaries in the newspapers of record would be critical of the industry influence on the USDA’s nutrition guidelines for the general public each time, but no.

The most prominent commentators, notably Nina Teicholz, whose op-ed in last Sunday’s New York Times really bothered me, are well-educated and should know how to “read a french fry” as it were. But instead of looking at the likely effect of loosened USDA dietary limitations on a public that has gone so seriously overboard on calorie-dense food, they’ve taken the opposite tack. Mostly to declare self-righteously that the new relaxation of standards really means all the previous recommendations to limit saturated fat and cholesterol were bunk and a waste of time based on “uncertain” and “weak” or even “junk” science.

Which is untrue. Epidemiologic research–large observation studies and surveys, like the NHANES diet and cardiovascular health survey series from the 1970s onward, and the big Framingham Heart Study of the 1950s onward, are not junk science. They do what clinical feeding trials can’t: they look for the contribution of individual dietary risk factors to chronic and complex-origin health conditions like heart disease and stroke across very large population groups. Both the processed food industry and people like Teicholz claim that clinical feeding trials are the only legitimate way to provide “proof” of cause and effect, but the cost of conducting them carefully long enough and with a big enough participant pool for meaningful results would bankrupt the nation halfway through.

Epidemiologic findings matter on the large public scale. Not every specific applies absolutely and equally to every single person, but that’s not what population-wide studies are for. The big studies, loose as they might seem compared with DNA fingerprinting and perfectly demonstrated cause-and-effect kinds of lab workups for individual cases, give best-bet recommendations for most people to reduce their risk.

Your genetics determine how well that works for you specifically, but most of us don’t have access to DNA testing on that level, and the “big six” lifestyle risk factors (high sat fat, high blood cholesterol and blood pressure, overweight, lack of exercise and smoking) are a lot easier to change and get some control over. After all, you can’t change your genetics much (and yes, my daughter is quite disgruntled that she can’t pick cooler parents. But tough. We couldn’t pick ours either).

So anyway, I know I’m unusually irritated with any news about USDA dietary guidelines–I used to work at NIH, and some of my colleagues had attempted to serve on the dietary guidelines committee and ended up completely frustrated at how “bought” the process became. The USDA has always had a conflict of interest when it comes to public health recommendations because its main mission is support of US agriculture, and public health always comes a distant second to big business. The committees have repeatedly subverted and weakened the scientific nutrition panelists’ best-finding recommendations by including food industry participants and weighting toward industry priorities in the consensus mix. There’s no great reason to expect the food industry isn’t still playing and winning the same game on the same committee this time around. [Update: the meat industry has just asked for an additional 75 day comment period].

But the main problem I see at this point is how poorly mainstream journalists and editors have handled the announced overhaul. None really seem to have dug into the comparison between current and previous issues of the guidelines, much less compared the USDA’s final takes with dietary guidelines from the DGAC, a combined group of more purely biomed/scientific research experts representing HHS (including NIH) and the FDA, or those of the major health advocacy organizations such as the American Heart Association.

And declaring that it’s now fine for anyone to eat all fats without limitation is nonsense and a misread. The USDA guidelines don’t say that–the DGAC draft guidelines certainly don’t say that. And if the USDA does attempt to drift in that direction for the final release, as some of the director’s announcements suggest, given the participation of Big Food and Big Agriculture hoping to sell the public more meat, eggs, and cheese, along with more profitable processed goods, would you necessarily believe them?

Is it really the fault of the scientists on the panels over the years, as Teicholz claims (“How did they get it so wrong?”), that the epidemiology findings they relied on for previous rounds of recommendations weren’t borne out by much smaller and less conclusive clinical studies?

Maybe the role of saturated fat is less apparent in a clinical study. I don’t doubt that. But as noted above, the statistical power of the comparatively short-term clinical trials for cardiovascular disease effects is bound to be a lot lower than in a long-term population-wide study, even if the controls are tighter. There are so many interfering factors–other dietary and lifestyle factors, and so many varieties of genetic risk factors within and among different population groups, genders, and age groups, that you need the big numbers and the large timescale to see effects above the noise. Meta-analysis of a lot of limited clinical studies with iffy results doesn’t make up for that. If anything, it compounds their individual uncertainties.

[And in fact it turns out that much of Teicholz’s assumption on that point is based on a very poorly conducted, much criticized meta-analysis of studies on saturated fat and cardiovascular disease published last spring. Most inclusive meta-analyses performed using standard stats analysis best practices actually show reductions of between 14 and 26% in CV events and deaths when subjects cut their saturated fat intake below 10% of calories and ate more vegetables instead of carbs, or else substituted polyunsaturated fats for them.]

Teicholz’s op-ed had carefully modulated but still overt indignation at the imperfect scientific basis behind previous recommendations to cut saturated fat and limit egg yolks and other high-cholesterol foods. What should be there and isn’t is the acknowledgement that when those recommendations were first announced to the public–by the AHA, the CDC and the USDA in the late 1960s, population trend studies over the next 10 years showed a stark drop in the rate of heart attacks–about a 30 percent drop. In other words, it worked. Big time.

And the broad peak of the population curve for a first heart attack shifted to the right by 10 years–that is, the average age for men went from about 50 to about 60, and for women from about 60 to 70. These were huge improvements in public health overall, and they were achieved partly because the public believed and paid attention, and partly because the nutrition and health experts hadn’t given up and abdicated responsibility in the face of industry pushback.

Clearly these results didn’t last; but is that the fault of the studies that identified saturated fat and cholesterol as things to reduce (note: not eliminate completely, just reduce)? The 1980s ushered in a long Republican-led era of unfettered, uncritical support of corporate priorities over public health, Reagan’s “ketchup is a vegetable” quip and the conversion of school lunches to chain restaurant concession contracts, a popular nose-thumbing at so-called “food police” health recommendations, the rise of high-fat-and-sugar-and-oversized-portion “comfort” and “indulgent” foods in restaurants and food magazines, and an entrenched anti-science bias in Congress that still haunts us today.

Not that much has changed from Reagan’s time in office–including the sad observable fact that most Americans for the past decade or so clearly aren’t paying serious attention to or even attempting to follow those modest earlier USDA recommendations, particularly the recommendations to eat more vegetables rather than more boxed, labeled namebrand processed foods, whether Big Macs or Ding Dongs or Froot Loops…

So few Americans today eat any vegetables at all compared with people of the same ages in the 1970s. As I’ve mentioned before, a shocking number of my friends, in their 40s and 50s already, do not cook at all. They have advanced degrees, if mostly in the humanities. They nervously repeat but don’t understand how to  read between the lines of whatever diet and health claims are in the news, and they’ve come to think cooking is too hard. They have a lot of takeout menus on their iPhones.

There is just one more factor to mention here: the profit motive. Teicholz, a former contributor to NPR, Gourmet and Men’s Health, wrote that op-ed in part to promote her new book, The Big Fat Surprise, which claims that diets high in meat, butter, Continue reading

What’s my beef with burgers?

As usual, I’m slightly behind the times on all the really exciting and futuristic food news. But a conversation I had yesterday with an older volunteer at my local library brought back the article and my (as usual) sarcastic thoughts on the way forward in American food culture. The man I talked to grew up in Arcadia, about 10 minutes southeast of Pasadena, back in the 1950s when it was still mostly farmland, and he rode a horse to school–and was often sent home with it early because it started fertilizing the school grounds at a copious rate. Nowadays, they’d have to pay good money for the stuff.

This gentleman, about my mother’s age, was talking about the younger generation, his grandkids, and while he admired how adept they seem to be with sophisticated technology, he shook his head at the fact that his grandson was the only kid last year in his kindergarten class who had any idea where tomatoes come from, because his family was the only one that had a garden or (perhaps) ate vegetables that didn’t miraculously appear, wan, grainy orangeish slices, mixed with pickle slices, on top of a hamburger in foil paper. “It’s all burgers now,” the man shook his head. “That’s all anyone seems to eat anymore–hamburgers and hotdogs. That’s not food.”

It was exactly what I’d been thinking all summer long, looking at the magazine covers and newspaper food sections. Which is why I view the biggest food story of the year a little differently than most biochem-trained enthusiasts….

Two weeks ago, an Austrian nutritionist, an American journalist, and a cell biologist in the Netherlands shared the first public taste  of a hamburger made from beef tissue cultured in laboratory from cattle stem cells.

Ordinarily we’d all be running around in circles throwing our hands up in the air and, depending on our political bent, either chanting “This is the Age of Aquarius” or else screaming “Soylent Green is People!” Or possibly “It’s Alive! It’s Alive!” (quickly followed with a heavy-booted reprise of “Puttin’ on the Ritz”).  I mean, it’s a big deal. Right? It is.

Yeah. Well. So, what is it, really, this synthetic stem cell-derived miracle burger? Synthetic beef, lab-cultured in (yes) flasks of nutrient sera as the starting stem cells differentiate into beef-style shoulder muscle (read, brisket?) cells and some fat cells.  The animal rights people are thrilled and dreaming of scaleup that could eliminate the need for stockyard cruelties, the vegetarians say they’d be first in line to try it, and…apparently no one yet has asked what exactly is in the nutrient serum to grow the little strings of muscle tissue.

Is it a vegetarian-sourced solution of amino acids and so on or does it (as I suspect) derive from the more usual beef and other animal broth, made (inexpensively for laboratory consumption) from boiled-down hooves and skins and various meat scraps? Maybe it ain’t time to celebrate that aspect just yet.

But still, it’s a big step forward. Isn’t it?

I mean, an actual New Age synthetic beef alternative using the latest advances in cell biology. Very exciting.

Except…they’ve used all this very sophisticated technology to develop…a hamburger.

For this test, the 20,000 or so individual strands of muscle tissue they managed to harvest (after a five-year developmental process funded by by Sergey Brin, cofounder of Google, no less, and 3 months or so of growing this particular sample) were patted lovingly into shape and fluffed out to reasonable volume and held together with the help of some salt, some breadcrumbs, and some egg powder. And some beet juice for realistic coloring because the strands were a little more yellow than pink, somehow. And then the sample was cooked and eaten plain by the lab director and his two volunteers.

Who complained that it was really hard to judge the flavor of the synthesized beef without any of their favorite toppings on board. No jalapenos or cheese or pickle relish, no salt and pepper, no aged gouda, no ketchup. They both skipped the lettuce and tomato they were offered, to say nothing of the bun. And they couldn’t judge the meat on its own. Continue reading

Government nutritional estimates for “mixed dishes”–where do they come from?

The federal “MyPlate” program has expanded its consumer information on dietary guidelines but some of it looks suspiciously old-hat and soft on nutritional crime, very much in keeping with the USDA’s traditional approach of pandering to the processed food industry. I stumbled across it while helping my daughter find school lunch nutrition information for her latest science project, which was to analyze her new public school’s lunch program.

Of course, my 7th grade daughter’s reaction to her first day in a real live public school cafeteria last month was shock. Because she’s diabetic and vegetarian, we agreed the best strategy for her would be to bring her standard lunch from home–PBJ on whole wheat with an apple. She had trouble the first day with the routine–shove through the cafeteria line, squeeze in at a table, shovel down food, run for the bell.

What did the other kids eat? I asked. “They ate crap,” she answered without so much as a pause. “Pizza and french fries, stuff they can eat in about five minutes while gossiping with their friends. They hardly even notice.”

Now–as I’ve said before–peanut butter and jam on whole wheat is not gourmet, but it’s fairly nutritious (beats Oscar Meyer bologna for protein, believe it or not) and with a small apple, it’s reasonably worthwhile and you can eat it fairly quickly–certainly within 15 minutes, if you can shove through the cafeteria line and find a seat. If you make friends, as my daughter quickly did, you can even find some time for gossiping and having fun. And it costs less than a dollar and takes less than 5 minutes to pack at home. The school lunch is $2.35, and yes they do offer apples and some sort of packaged salad stuff and skim milk, but as my daughter noticed, few of the kids actually eat those items. Maybe the milk–well, at least offering the fresher food is a start.

Still–“crap” is not that far off. Pizza AND fries? A tough act to follow with anything but gallbladder surgery at 40.

And as she looks at the school menus online for September–they declare that they follow the USDA school nutrition guidelines–we notice a lot of things that aren’t really sound thinking from a diabetic’s point of view. A lot of menus that don’t come close to matching the ChooseMyPlate.gov guidelines, which call for half the plate to be vegetables and fruits (in that descending order of quantity), a quarter of the plate protein, a quarter complex carbohydrate.

“There’s a lot more meat,” she says. “Actually, my friend had the chicken patty today and spat it out. She said it wasn’t chicken. My other friend said it was, it was just cafeteria chicken.” Sounds like some of her new friends have a better take on the school food than the government does. My bet–the chicken patty is like standard bologna, only about half is anything that actually came from a chicken–including fat and skin–and the rest is probably starchy and high-salt fillers.

So, speaking of food that really isn’t as good as it seems…

The ChooseMyPlate.gov brochure on “mixed foods”, which is what I promised up at the top, might be part of the same sad thing. Here’s the sample chart they offer for things like pizza, lasagne, double cheeseburgers, burritos…that are supposedly hard to judge on nutrition.


Any takers on this one? My first impression is that the calorie counts are probably low–maybe as little as half–for a standard chain restaurant or frozen-entree serving of any of these items. Probably because a USDA recommended standardized “portion” for nutrition labeling purposes is very small compared with what people are actually eating and what companies are serving.

My second impression is–fruit servings? for pizza? who are they kidding, and why is this column even in here? Fruit is optional–it’s a carb. Nonstarchy vegetables with some actual vitamins and fiber are required eating. It’s pretty obvious from the table that the vegetables are pretty scant in this list of “mixed foods” too–mixed in this case seems to mean starches and fats plus some form of meat.

And what isn’t listed–the salt and fat and total carb. The fiber, vitamins and minerals. Most of this food is high in stuff that should be low, and low in stuff that should be high.

On second thought, maybe we should just read down this table for suggestions on what not to serve.

A Slow Food Fast Thanksgiving

Pumpkin pie in the microwave

I’m not sure how to take all the following good news–it’s been such a strained year that the sudden release of pressure is going to make me zip around the room, once the coffee kicks in.

1. My mother-in-law has threatened to favor the brand-new kosher butcher in her town this holiday season so that we can eat the turkey too this year (and maybe not fight about it). She promised not to smear said turkey with butter. We’ll cross our fingers. But at least we won’t have to cook. I’m keeping that firmly in mind.

2. As of this week, my daughter’s finally on an insulin pump and fairly thrilled about it, so she can navigate dinner AND dessert at my in-laws’ without breaking down and crying that she only gets two tablespoons of pie for a reasonable serving. We are still encouraging her to count carbs and not go hog-wild or she’ll be zipping around the room until midnight.

3. The school concert’s in less than two hours. Is that really enough time to do everything, or at least something? Naaaah. Well, maybe coffee and something other than the news.

4. We still have to schlep up Interstate 5 for about 6 hours tomorrow, starting “early” (i.e., an hour and a half after the time my husband announces this evening as the absolute latest), passing the Harris Ranch and its attendant aromas, which can be more than slightly offputting if you’re not an avid horticulturist. But at least when we get to my in-laws’ we don’t have to cook. As I said, I’m keeping that firmly in mind. I know I already said it, but it’s so important I figured it was worth saying twice.

Despite my firm resolve after last week’s marathon kiddush that I will strive Not To Cook (could I possibly be Peg Bracken’s unacknowledged lovechild? Unfortunately, no. However, my mother was a devotee of the Don’t Cook Too Much school of thought, and I’m starting to appreciate that. Really I am.)…where was I? Oh yeah…I will probably bring at least two lemons, some thyme and rosemary, a head of garlic and a couple of bags of fresh cranberries with us on the road. Call it flavor insurance. For whatever reason, my in-laws, who have developed what can only be called fanatical devotion to Italian food of every possible kind (having both grown up in white bread country), always run out of these basic essentials about halfway through, and my mother-in-law tends to tell my father-in-law to go back out and pick up extras just as the stores are closing…

The cranberries, I’m well aware, aren’t Italian. They’re for making 5-minute microwave cranberry sauce with about half the sugar of regular. My mother-in-law tends to try out her fancier cranberry chutneys and relishes every year, and every year they contain things like chardonnay–which is fine for the grownups but I’m no grownup. Her chutneys have more than 10 ingredients and sit stirring on the stovetop for at least 45 minutes. I don’t know how she does it–I’d go stir-crazy. I’m just not that good.

So anyway–I wish you all a great Thanksgiving at somebody else’s house, so you don’t have to cook or do the dishes. My idea of heaven.

But if you absolutely have to cook, here are a couple of posts for speeding up a few of the obligatory or not-so-obligatory Thanksgiving items–most can go in a microwave (I always, always think that’s worthwhile. Well, usually). A few of these are dairy, so use your discretion.

5-Minute Cranberry Sauce

Microwave Pumpkin Pie

Basic instructions for microwaving green beans, brussels sprouts and other vegetables

Creamed Spinach Variations

“Marbella”-style cooked vegetable relish with artichoke hearts, olives, tomatoes and prunes

Turkey Breast with Ta’am (flavor) –not microwaved, not a whole bird, but it is a lot quicker and tastes unusually good if you have a small crowd. DO keep it covered in the oven to prevent it drying out.

Some options for vegetarian centerpiece dishes… (ideas more than recipes)

Spice mixes because sometimes you want to liven up the party…

Syrian Jewish stuffed vegetables (baby eggplants and onions) with an incredible lentil filling (NOTE–this one is “not exactly quick”; well, maybe for the eggplants microwaving would be enough, but the onions still take some serious roasting even after microwave assistance.  However, it is delicious and impressive.)

Microwave gingerbread and microwave flan (and a recommendation for mead…)


The Birthday Project: New Year, New Food

I was born halfway between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, so on any given year, I could be stuck eating honeycake or none at all on my birthday. I think I’ve had maybe two actual birthday parties in my life. It’s a concept my daughter, born in June, doesn’t get.

But occasionally I luck out–and this year was one of the best. My husband asked what I wanted and I had a real answer–a cookbook I’ve been lusting after at the library and that costs only slightly more than my probable library fines if I don’t return it.

So this is it–feast your eyes, I’ll turn the pages:

Aromas of Aleppo by Poopa Dweck

And this is the project that sold me on it:

Stuffed Eggplant with Quince

Stuffed Eggplant with Quince

Poopa Dweck, a cousin by marriage to Claudia Roden, has edited the New York Syrian Jewish community’s version of a sisterhood cookbook (every synagogue in America’s sisterhood seems to have put out at least one of those) for something like 20 years, only people in her community actually used it frequently. My birthday gift is the 2007 culmination of Dweck’s experience, and it’s just a very beautiful cookbook to leaf through–visually but also for the possibility that when you try the dishes, they’re actually going to work.

It doesn’t take much reading for me to realize that despite the unfamiliarity of some of the flavors–allspice in meat stuffings, tamarind-based sauces–this is the best kind of traditional Jewish home cooking, the kind that has your favorite great-aunts outdoing each other for Pesach, Rosh Hashanah, and other big celebrations. So, somewhat exotic in flavoring but utterly familiar in spirit. (And actually, as I discovered in another Syrian Jewish cookbook, A Fistful of Lentils, by Jennifer Felicia Abadi, a few dishes, like stuffed cabbage with a sweet-and-sour sauce, and manti, a kind of ravioli, are pretty similar to Ashkenazi holishkes and kreplach.)

Like all Jewish great-aunt dishes for the holidays, this dish of stuffed eggplants and quinces comes with two required homework items: the beef and rice stuffing, and tamarind concentrate. The beef I’m not worried about–my first try on this is going to be vegetarian, because I’m not planning on heading out to the kosher butchers in the Valley. I can use a green lentil and rice filling that I already know will taste fine with those flavorings of allspice and cinnamon and onion. Maybe a hit of garlic too, and maybe a bit less salt than for the beef–as I discovered a few weeks ago, with the green lentil sausages, lentils don’t hide the salt flavor as much as beef might.

The other item, tamarind concentrate, turns out to be inexpensive but somewhat unlovely to make–though still something of an adventure. Especially for a blog called Slow Food Fast.

Here’s what’s on page 42 of Aromas of Aleppo for how to work the tamarind pulp into something that will give up its flavor to a sauce:

Poopa Dweck's Aromas of Aleppo--instructions for making tamarind concentrate

Working the tamarind pulp

Now, I’m not all that squeamish, but bleaaghhh. First ya gotta soak the stuff overnight, then ya gotta get in there and mish around–I dunno. I decided to speed it up where I could…

I thought about the little 1-lb. brick of pressed seedless tamarind pulp I’d bought from my Armenian greengrocers for this dish. It just seemed like a tougher version of dried prunes or apricots, which I usually soak up successfully enough in a few minutes by heating them with water in the microwave. Would it work here or would it ruin the flavor? I cut off a chunk, submerged it in water in a microwaveable bowl, and tried it.

Tamarind pulp rehydrated in the microwave

Five minutes of microwaving, covered, plus about 20 minutes sitting time–it was definitely done. And really, really incredibly tart, a surprise given tamarind’s distinctly plummy aroma. Success! But no wonder they call it “ouc” (pronounced OO-rgh, according to Dweck)–that was my immediate reaction when I tasted a tiny sip. It’s THAT sour. My second reaction was that I should probably say Shehekheyanu–the blessing for any new venture, especially for holidays and the first taste of a new fruit in the year.

I realized only afterward that I should have done the whole brick while I was at it–I was about to discover why Dweck calls for preparing three pounds of pulp at a time, not a couple of ounces.

Next step–squishing the pulp in the water to extract as much flavor as possible before filtering through cheesecloth and reextracting the pulp left behind in fresh water…no. Just no. I am not a cheesecloth girl–it never, never cuts neatly, even with Fiskars shears.

So, I was thinking, I have a microwave for a reason. I also decided I have a food processor for a reason, and this is definitely it. I stirred once with a fork first to make sure there really weren’t any pits in there, as advertised on the package front. Then I poured it all into the food processor, and gave it a whirl. That worked too. I seemed to be on a roll with the speed-it-up-immensely daydream.

Filtering the tamarind liquid

Filtration–I’ve used overlapping coffee filters in a colander whenever I make paneer in the microwave, and it worked pretty well here too–maybe better than Dweck’s photos, which show a cloudy filtrate coming through the cheesecloth. Mine was clear and amber–maybe too clear? Was it going to taste authentic without the silty stuff? I could only hope. It sure was sour, even dilute as it was. Continue reading

On the inevitable hot dog eating contests

I did something at my in-laws’ Fourth of July cookout that I haven’t done in years: I ate a hot dog. So did my husband. I think my daughter ate two and a half hot dogs (actually, I think she ate more and gave us a story, but her grandfather maintains that someone else may have gotten the extras in the pack). Given how crappy hot dogs generally are, you may be wondering why we did this: because my in-laws made the effort to buy kosher ones for us, and because Hebrew National hot dogs don’t have much in the way of carb, and my daughter is fairly crazy about them (because we don’t cook enough meat for her tastes at home).

What hot dogs, kosher or otherwise, do have–and this is why I have to put in a huge caveat–is sodium. And saturated fat. A regular H-N hot dog has about 490 mg sodium. A knockwurst (which we decided against; the flavor’s not really very different, it’s just bigger) has 810 mg. Plus more calories and saturated fat, though the regular’s no great bargain–as much fat as protein, easily.

I have to admit they taste a lot better grilled outdoors on an actual grill than they do indoors in a grease-laden cafeteria service pan, especially since you can dress them up significantly with sharp mustard, crusty French rolls instead of whitebread buns, and sauerkraut and browned onions instead of the usual insipid cafeteria ketchup. So I can go with the “once a year, enjoy, and just eat a little more carefully the rest of the week” argument.

However. Hot dog eating contests are just wrong. Sixty-two or however many hot dogs appear in the “ain’t it amazing?” recordbreaking stories section of your local newspaper the next morning? Enough hot dogs for 30 people or so? That’s not enjoyment, that’s not even tasting the food–tasting slows one down, and possibly triggers the dire appetite signal to retreat or suffer an immediate reversal of fortune after just a few hot dogs. Even for teenage contestants.

For the non-contestants among us (such as my daughter), I say, two hot dogs is probably the outer limit of sanity in one day–so just figure you’ll eat the other sixty another time. Two is about half your recommended daily max for sodium intake and about the max for saturated fat. And it’s not really delivering much in the way of protein. What’s true of bologna is just about as true for hot dogs–they’re made of meat, but they don’t add up nutritionally to actual meat (about 6 or 7 grams of protein per dog), and they sure have a lot of downsides without delivering the really distinctive flavors and variety of, say, gourmet specialty sausages.

There aren’t a lot of kosher specialty sausages made widely available in the US at this point. Actually, according to my father-in-law, there aren’t enough true (pork) and high-quality bratwurst distributors either anymore, and the owner of the one available to them, who happens to operate in my mother-in-law’s native state of Wisconsin, has openly supported political causes and candidates that are thoroughly repugnant to them.

I suspect that leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth on the Fourth of July.


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