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    Copyright 2008-2018Slow 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).

Surviving the holiday table

Yeah, yeah, I know. Last month every newspaper and online health magazine was brimming with handy top-10 tips to avoid stuffing yourself into a coma when you got over the river and through the woods to your in-laws’. Did it work? Did you try any of them? Was it even possible with the food available? MMMmmmph.

And…now we’ve started on the next round of holiday parties. And yes, I’m well aware, after last week’s “let the fools have their tartar sauce” tax subversion bill, that the tenor of my questions could equally apply to trickle-down economics, neocon “efficient” remote war management in Iraq and Afghanistan, “I am not a crook,” “too big to fail,” “No Collusion,” “FAKE NEWS,” and other fantasy favorites.

I don’t want to add to the burden of public speculation on the kinds of people who could genuinely fall for those slogans or excuse them in the face of the visible harm they do to all of us (okay, MOST of us. 99.9 percent of us). I’ve met some of these true believers, a few are actually friends, and they are otherwise decent, but really, stubbornly naïve is the kindest thing I can say. Tunnel vision, perhaps.

But back to holiday food–an even more fraught social topic. Because the same stubborn naïveté applies.

The trouble with most of the dutifully published top-10s for navigating party fare is how incredibly vague and trivial they are. They don’t give you a plate plan diagram like the ones for DASH/MyPlate balanced meals and the Idaho Plate™-style recommendations for Type II diabetes management. They don’t help you set a reasonable goal number for carb grams for the total meal including desserts and appetizers, and they don’t help you estimate anything or give you some sample sizes to go by.

Instead, they put the burden on you (or your kid) to select and use the fictitious ideal of self-control (more accurately known as “winging it”) in an environment that, to put it mildly, probably won’t support it. Oh, dear. JUST like the tax boondoggle.

There is also a big, big missing ingredient for most of these party suggestions: vegetables of worth. People don’t cook as much as they used to, chain restaurants and drive-thrus don’t really serve them, and the big food mags have almost dropped them from any party spread that isn’t for summer.

If there aren’t greens on the table, how do you fill half your plate with them as recommended by doctors and CDEs and RDs everywhere? If there’s one green vegetable dish and it’s breaded, panko’ed, crusted, dressed, nutted, topped, creamed or cream sauced, gratinéed, gravied, stuffed, sweetened, pancetta’ed, buttered or cheesed (I know, some of that litany is starting to sound a little obscene, as it should) to within an inch of its life, is it still worthwhile counting it as a green? Or is it actually mostly yet another starch with cheese, cream, butter, breadcrumbs, bacon bits and so on?

If you need to cover up any dish that thoroughly, it should tell you something pretty important about the recipe:

It is not exactly a taste explosion.*

Sorry, I WAS trying to get away from the obvious political metaphor, but it looks like it’s going to stick. (*And my thanks to the much-mourned Douglas Adams of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series–and more specifically another of his books, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, for that line).

In any case, to survive the holidays and look good doing it, you need a winter holiday table that works better and tastes fresher and is actually lighter than the usual stuff and won’t leave you wishing for a sleigh to schlep your stomach home in after the party.

You need vegetabalia, ungunked. Some actual greens (or purples) on the table to lighten the load and redress the balance.

Actually, vegetabalia has always been a key part of classic dinner parties and it would be a shame to forget it, especially when you’re in the heart of winter. I don’t think I actually have ten ideas here, because as you may have seen in my previous attempts at top-10 lists, I tend to go a little overboard. Let’s see.

One way to do it without too much shock is to make the starch dishes a little smaller and the greens platters a little bigger and more numerous, colored, varied and–this is actually important, at least for a party–pretty.

Another is to add a green salad worthy of a celebration–keep it simple, elegant, just a couple of key and colorful ingredients that go together, not like something you scooped out of your local chain restaurant salad bar. See the big box of salad post for some inexpensive and winter-worthy vegetable selections that are easy to prep and store in the fridge for showtime and won’t look like “rabbit food.”

The third is to provide appetizers that are bigger on vegetabalia, ones that get beyond celery sticks, baby-cut carrots and bottled ranch dressing and are actually appetizing.

…Of course, the key element for avoiding idiots who take one look and say, “Oh. Rabbit food.” is not to invite them in the first place. The second strategy is surprise (in a good way, that is, not as in “celery with marshmallow fluff!”)

Good-looking vegetable appetizers that won’t bore people aren’t necessarily more expensive, especially if you buy bulk vegetables and wash and cut them up yourself. And some can actually be easier to make, and make look impressive, than lining up all those crackers and cheese slices neatly on a circular tray (my bane, I just don’t have the hostess/catering gene). The bonus: if you’re the host, you won’t have a load of crackers and cheese sitting around the house the next day, and you might have some fresh noshing vegetables left over, ready to grab and go.

Here are a couple of more specific (forgotten?) ways to make vegetabalia rock, cold and hot.

Crudités (#4)

The “just wash and nosh” scheme for raw vegetables is pretty easy and can even be elegant for a raw vegetable tray. You don’t need fancy chef-school knife skills or fancy expensive knife sets to make the magic happen, either.

You don’t have to do a massive tray or a zillion different expensive designer raw vegetables–three or four types on a medium platter with some contrast and a good fresh dip make a nice party display. At between $1 and $5-6 (for heirloom, top-end stuff or for portobello mushrooms) per pound, most noshing vegetables are also cheaper than many chips-and-dips junk foods, designer breads, cheeses, sliced deli meats, and premade party platters of just about any kind.

Do get away from the tedious carrots-and-celery-sticks-and-ranch-dressing version, even if you are doing carrots and/or celery. Celery and carrots are still good, mind you, but you might want to grow them up a bit, cut them differently, add one or two less common dipping vegetables for variety and something fresher and more interesting than ranch dressing for a dip or spread.

Usually I’m against “fashion vegetables,” heirloom everything and bagged, prewashed/pretrimmed veg because of the price markup compared to bulk. But if you’ve got access to something a little extra in an unexpected color (purple is good, so is bright yellow), like purple cauliflower or multicolored peppers, you might want to go for it just once in limited amounts and mix them up with the regular vegetables.

And there are non-designer vegetables with enough mix of color and flavor to do the pretty at a slightly lower price point.

  • Regular globe radishes are pretty bright and crunchy and eye-catching and peppery–lop off the thin root and most of the stem; wash them really well to get out any sand and keep them whole or slice them in half lengthwise. If you have a local farmer’s market that doesn’t slap on chichi markups in the price per pound, or you happen to see a bunch of longer or otherwise eye-catching radishes for about the same price in the produce section of your grocery store, go for it.
  • Fancy variety pods like sugar snap peas and snow peas–even raw green beans–are a nice choice too. You can get bulk snap and snow peas for about $3/lb. at the Ralph’s/Kroger’s and fresh green beans are sometimes on sale between Thanksgiving and New Year’s for under $1/lb. but usually about $2/lb.
  • Trader Joe’s sells 2-lb. bags of multicolored full-sized organic carrots for about $2 at this writing. White, deep purple with a gold core, bright yellow…pretty dramatic and they mix up nicely with the cheaper orange ones without being a lot more expensive.
  • If you can get colored full-sized bell peppers, maybe get one or two, and choose colors other than green. Sliced lengthwise they go pretty far in brightening up a vegetable tray.

Continue reading

A different take on pumpkin “spice”

It’s just past Halloween and soon to be Thanksgiving. The pumpkin bins at the Trader Joe’s will probably disappear next Tuesday morning, very convenient. The worst of it is, the only edible-grade pumpkins they sell are the little pie pumpkins. The gorgeous Cinderella’s carriage ones, a dusky pale orange-gray, are a staple of Mediterranean cooking from soups to couscous to filled fillo spirals and beyond. Even candied pumpkin as a spoon sweet. But the ones the supermarkets here sell are grown for looks only with questionable water, fertilizers and pesticides, and are presumably just for decorating your lawn and attracting rodents.

It would be so nice if they sold edible larger pumpkins like the Cinderella kind–organic ones? even in wedges, as they do in European and North African farmers’ markets. It’s a shame to see so much food potential wasted like that.

Meanwhile, Starbucks, Cinnabon and other mall favorites will no doubt be assaulting the national palate once again with an overload of nutmeg and cinnamon extracts–the gastronomic equivalent of “Rockin’ Around the Xmas Tree” and “Feliz Navidad” played endlessly over the PA system wherever you go shopping. Taste is no object.

So my grumbling has resulted in a couple of searches for pumpkin with spices that don’t threaten anyone’s latte. I’ve been cruising my ever-growing collection of Mediterranean and Near Eastern cookbooks in search of good vegetarian and vegetable dishes that I can speed up with the help of a microwave without losing flavor.

Just by starting with a microwaved butternut or other whole red squash, you can cut the roasting, peeling and chopping time and effort (and danger of self-inflicted wounds) way down. Some decent savory recipe ideas can be done with ordinary cans of plain packed pumpkin too.

Then my preference is to go savory rather than sweet. It’s more interesting, for one thing, and it’s more versatile too. Finally, I look to see if I can make some of the recipes I find faster, svelter–and preferably both.

I see little benefit to using heavy cream, full sticks of butter, and extra egg yolks for “richness,” which mostly means as bulking ingredients more than for actual flavor. My head, my heart, my doctor and my hips are all in accord with me on this one. Besides, I’m a cheese freak. In my world, you need to save up your limited saturated fat allowance for stilton or chevre or camembert–something with funk and flash and that lightningy je ne sais quoi.

My lineup of adaptations so far:

Kolokithopita

Like spanakopita triangles or fillo rolls but instead of spinach and feta, use cooked and fairly dry pumpkin (or in this case butternut squash) mashed with feta, oregano and/or thyme (or fresh za’atar if you can get it), hot pepper flakes, a little tehina sauce or some garlic and lemon.

Butternut squash fryup–just add a little feta and some hot pepper flakes

If you’re only making 4-8 rolls or triangles, you can stick them on a length of foil that fits your toaster oven. Use a sandwich baggie over your hand to dab very sparing amounts of olive or expeller-pressed grapeseed oil or other light vegetable oil on each individual fillo sheet before folding in thirds, putting the filling on and rolling or folding. Brush the tops very lightly with a little more oil, turn down your toaster oven settings to about 400F and bake for about 10 minutes. When the tops are golden brown, turn the pastries over very gently and bake the whitish bottoms a little longer.

Pumpkin Gorgonzola Flans with Toasted Walnuts

 

Butternut squash savory flan, slimmed down

adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table

This one has to be microwaveable–it’s a custard base, after all. It also, and I mean this, has to be svelte-able. Really. Greenspan uses 3 eggs plus 2 yolks and half a cup of heavy cream for only one 15-ounce can of packed pumpkin. That’s pretty obscenely rich, especially with 4 ounces or so of crumbled gorgonzola and some toasted walnuts sprinkled over the 6 individual ramekins before baking in a water bath in a conventional oven. And she suggests creme fraiche or sour cream as a garnish? Yikes.

Flan in quarters

Microwave-safe ceramic ramekins are pretty inexpensive if you shop Ross for Less or Target.  I didn’t have gorgonzola or any kind of bleu on hand, so I winged it for concept with some feta.  I will say I’ve noticed that at least Stella gorgonzola melts into a runny sauce in a microwave–good if you want a smooth gorgonzola salad dressing, not so good for a recipe like this where you don’t want it to disappear into the flan. Maybe a more solid bleu like Stilton will melt and run but I’m hoping it stays together better.  Also, nuts in the microwave–maybe not a good idea, at least for big chunks. Even with the moisture from the flan taking the brunt of the energy, I kind of think you’re at risk of scorching them from the inside out, particularly if they’re on top of the flan. Better to roast them separately on a lowered heat in the toaster oven–200-250F for 5 minutes or so while the flan is going in the microwave, then sprinkle them on afterward as a garnish.

My half-recipe test came out pretty delicious on its own merits and I’m going to buy a small wedge of Stilton to try next. Because I mashed the butternut squash with a fork rather than using a purée, it’s a little rougher and less refined but the fresh taste is noticeable and lighter. Using plain nonfat yogurt in place of the heavy cream also made it obviously lighter and played up the tang that gorgonzola and bleu normally contribute. The acidic yogurt  may be counterintuitive if you’re thinking conventional cooking, but the small addition of flour plus the egg plus the starch and fiber in the squash prevent it from separating and curdling under heat.

Half-recipe pumpkin flan for lunch (serves 1-3 for lunch or an appetizer/side dish)

  • 6-7 oz/185 g chunk of butternut squash
  • 1 lg egg
  • 1/4 c or large heaping soupspoon of plain nonfat milk-and-cultures-only yogurt (not even Greek! just the cheap regular!)
  • small clove of garlic, mashed/minced/grated
  • pinch or stem worth of thyme
  • 1 t flour
  • 1 oz crumbled feta
  • sprinkle of smoked paprika, grind of black pepper to taste
  • toasted walnuts, optional

Mash everything up to the feta together in a microwaveable soup bowl, sprinkle on a little paprika and/or pepper, cover the bowl lightly with a lid or saucer, microwave 3 minutes on HIGH. Lift the lid carefully to check–it may still be liquidy in the center but cooked towards the outside rim. If the bowl’s very hot, let it sit covered another couple of minutes, jiggle again to see if the center’s cooked. If not, give it another 30 seconds and let sit again to cool down enough to handle. Cut into 3-4 pieces and serve–garnish as desired.

Microwave Tricks: Black Beans

microwaved black beans

Cooking seasonally is a tricky thing–especially if your season currently includes hurricanes or extreme heat. Pasadena has finally cooled down to 80s/90s with a bit of cloud cover, but last week’s 105-degree afternoons were a serious challenge. It was so bad the only time to go out for a walk was about 5:30 in the morning. Hard to think school has been in session for a month, it’s already September, and Rosh Hashanah is a week and a half away. Running the oven is, to put it bluntly, not an option, and the stove top isn’t much better in my small and easily overheated galley kitchen.

Microwaving is a powerful way to cut the time and pain (and airconditioning bills) for bulk cooking of things like vegetables, rice, pasta…and dried beans, which are much cheaper and more versatile (and much lower in sodium) than canned. Make a bean stew or chili and you can zap a portion of it at will later in the week. Plus bean salads can be served cold–a plus for weeks like the ones we’ve had recently.

But for microwaving, you usually have to adjust whatever method is spelled out in a recipe to your oven, your containers, your food quantities. Microwave times are sensitive to all of those factors, plus how much water you have (water’s the main molecule microwave radiation acts on) and whether or not you’ve got a lid.

Most people don’t try to make changes based on their first-run results and most cookbooks never really explain how to make useful adjustments. Predictably, most microwave cookbooks end up in the Last Chance bin at your local Friends of the Library booksale.

It’s a shame, because once you’ve got your timing and so on down, you can repeat it with reliable results.

Over the years I’ve posted basic heat-to-simmer-and-let-sit-to-absorb microwave methods for cooking split peas, chickpeas, lentils and other bulk dried beans. Lentils and split peas always did work out well without needing to soak them first–they tend to be easier to cook quickly by standard stovetop boiling too. Chickpeas work okay if you presoak them or hot-soak in the microwave (heat briefly in water just to cover, let stand 15 minutes or so and let them swell up) before the main cooking, and adding a dash of baking soda to the soak water really helps. Same with gigantes (giant favas)–which I’ve now decided cook better with the skins left on, same as if you were boiling them, and they’re certainly a lot quicker and easier to peel afterward–also more fun.

But some beans just seem to toughen if you don’t presoak overnight or if you microwave them too long. Black beans and kidney beans have given me more trouble than they seem to be worth–and I’m a bit reluctant to post this because it’s fussier than I like to admit even after adjusting the method successfully. Microwaving isn’t supposed to take more time and fuss than straight boiling on a stove, or working with a pressure cooker, if you have and trust yourself with one.

But this is a good illustration of how to use a microwave as a workaround when you don’t, and it shows you how you might think about making adjustments based on what the food is doing or not doing.

I microwave because I want something relatively safe, that doesn’t heat up the kitchen, and that turns itself off when done because, let’s face it, I’d rather be reading or writing than waiting for a pot of water to boil or jumping up at the whistle to avert an explosion. And I want the beans properly cooked and tender in less total microwave time at the least and without having to boil them afterward on the stove. I’ve done that before and I’ll probably do again if it ever cools down enough, but I’d rather not have to. The prior microwaving steps still shorten the stovetop time to maybe half an hour, but really, I’d rather it were all microwave, no fuss (I can dream, can’t I?)

So after a rethink of my previous methods, I’ve made some changes to the way I cook black beans from scratch by microwave. It also works for things like brown rice, steelcut oats, and other tough, uncut, unpeeled whole grains like farro or pearl barley when you’ve forgotten to put them up for soaking overnight, and at least for the rice it’s quicker than the 45 minutes or so of my previous brown rice method–maybe 20-30 minutes for a pound or two of brown rice. For the beans, maybe an hour of time total, with sitting and rechecking. Maybe less if your beans are fresh enough and/or you remembered to soak them overnight first.

Cracking the method

It starts with the water. I had been covering a pound of dried beans (or brown rice) with more than an inch of water and heating it all, or else heating that much water by itself (more than a quart) and then tipping in the rinsed beans to soak for a bit. But since the water molecules are what the microwave heats up first for preference, the more water you have, the longer it takes for the Continue reading

Diabetes meets ethnic foodways in new ADA series

Just in at my library are two new cookbooks from the American Diabetes Association. Indian Cuisine Diabetes Cookbook by May Abraham Fridel (©2017, ADA, Inc.)  and The Italian Diabetes Cookbook by Amy Riolo (©2016, ADA, Inc.)  are written by two food authorities in their respective home cuisines. The books are bright, they’re attractive, the food looks decent and authentic.

But what makes them “diabetes cookbooks”? What have they changed–or not–about the recipes and what was the ADA’s role other than simply publishing them? Above all, how helpful are they to an average diabetes or prediabetes patient?

Both books start out with an explanation of their food traditions and what’s generally healthy about them. Both include a variety of food categories for different meals, from appetizers or chaats to mostly-protein “main” dishes to mixed casserole-type dishes to salads, breads, soups, cooked vegetables, fruits, baked sweets and drinks. The Indian cookbook also includes some useful spice mixes and tips on how to handle them, and the Italian one includes some traditional menu choices and tips on choosing wine.

The recipes are generally very DASH Diet-able with an emphasis on a variety of vegetables, beans, whole grains, low-fat dairy, whole fruits and nuts, along with smaller portions of meat and cheese and less added sugar for desserts.

On a closer read, the adaptations to recipes mainly look like sane portion sizing for starches and sweets, reducing or substituting poly- and monounsaturated fats for some of the saturated fats, cutting down excess sugars in sweets and desserts, adding fruit and vegetables, and substituting almond flour and dried fruits for standard flour and sweeteners. The recipes are adjusted just enough to be low in sodium and saturated fat, reasonable on calories, total carbohydrates and added sugars. The portion sizes listed are smaller than what you’d get at an American restaurant or see on a magazine cover these days but they’re close to the amounts people traditionally serve.

So the nutrition stats are a general improvement compared with most current cookbook-style recipes for equivalent dishes, and it looks like the nutrition guides at the bottom of each recipe are relatively accurate given the ingredients. So far so good. If this was the ADA’s doing, I’m all for it.  But it seems obvious to me that it would be better to trust the ADA reviewers’ understanding of diabetes nutrition than either cookbook author’s.

I was surprised to find that the ADA let each of the authors go her own way on the introductions, and that the health explanations tend to be vague and cultural rather than practical. In the Indian cookbook, Fridel describes ayurvedic dietary principles rather than talking about nutrients. Riolo also veers off into a discussion of which appetizer traditionally goes with which first course and how to choose Italian wines in a way that doesn’t really have anything to do with target carb counts or  exchanges for a meal either.

You can discount or admire these things as you please, but you can’t really learn a lot from them diabetes-wise. They’re not really directed toward helping patients put together balanced, carb-controlled meals from the nutrition stats given with the recipes.

Moreover, the ADA’s particular nutrition stats system lists “carbohydrate exchanges” separately from “starch,” “fruit” “vegetable” and “dairy” exchanges, even though most of the ingredients that fall into those categories contain significant carbohydrates. All of them have to be counted for diabetes management.

It’s not clear why their system differs so much in this regard from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ standard “Choose Your Foods” exchanges system for carb count approximations. It works okay for figuring out standard servings definitions for the major food groups if you’re following the DASH Diet or USDA/HHS MyPlate plans, but it’s not really in keeping with the way endocrinologists and certified diabetes educators train Type I diabetes patients. It makes carb counting and carb planning for meals more complicated than it has to be. That can’t be a good thing.

Also, simply giving the nutrition and exchanges stats for each recipe as it shows up in the book is not the same as teaching a new patient how to carb count or set up a balanced plate. Most of the dishes are mixtures of carb-containing and noncarb-containing ingredients–casseroles, soups with beans, meat and vegetables, biryanis, meatballs containing breadcrumbs, and so on. Those are some of the most difficult foods to estimate carbs for by eye, and it’s not visually obvious–or discussed in any detail–what the authors and their nutrition consultants at the ADA did to adjust these specific recipes.  In this regard the ADA books are no worse than most “diabetes diet” cookbooks and magazine recipe collections, but they’re also not much clearer.

Beginners really would do better to start with the carb and noncarb foods separated on the plate, at least until they get a feel for what to count and how much food to serve.

What both of these books–and any others in the ADA series–could use is a short, clear explanation for how to work through the nutrition stats they give in each recipe and how to plan a nutritionally balanced meal around that dish to reach a target total amount of carbohydrate. A two-page standard ADA primer with a basic diabetes meal plan diagram, some suggested per-meal carb counts or carb exchanges, a balanced-nutrition plate à la ChooseMyPlate.gov,  examples of where to look in the recipes for serving sizes and how to create a full meal from them, how to add things up for a meal’s total carb, etc., would help a lot. It might also be helpful to point out how to rework the meal plan if someone wants more than the standard serving amount or takes second helpings.

All in all, these two cookbooks aren’t terrible as cookbooks, but they’re not nearly as helpful as they could be as diabetes guides.

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

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

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