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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.


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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).

Bourekas, Pastry Crust…How Low Can You Go? A Lower-Fat Flake-Off

Borekita "flakeoff" tests two types of dough

I know bourekas aren’t health food, they’re party food, but it doesn’t stop me from wanting to make and eat good ones in (small, sane, occasional) quantities.

Key to the desire for bourekas of worth is my never-ending hunt for a pastry dough with all the right qualities–lighter, tenderer, massively flaky, and oh, while we’re at it, much less heart-stopping than puff pastry or most pie dough, but still capable of flaking and puffing up nicely. I almost had it a couple of years ago with an Armenian dough that calls for a little vegetable oil in with the butter, a bit of cider vinegar for tenderness and an egg to help out the puff. But with butter, there’s automatically a lot of saturated fat, plus it takes more work than I like.

Enter the nondairy, oil-based borekita dough. Israeli (Turkish, Bulgarian, Sephardic…) bourekas, nowadays usually made with commercial puff pastry and sold in characterless boxes or plastic-wrapped trays from the supermarket, are nonetheless wildly popular with almost everyone in The Land whether they voted for Bibi or Benny. The boureka is not in doubt.

Puff pastry is nice enough in most circumstances–after all, it is what I’m aiming toward, or would ideally like to be aiming toward, if I can get away with something lighter. But after a while the packaged versions of puff-pastry bourekas all start to taste the same–salted potatoey stuff, indistinguishable through the mouthful of flakes, and not exactly fresh.

Homestyle boureka dough is much less puffy, more like the dough for sausage rolls. But still–less rich, usually made with oil rather than butter, so it’s both nondairy, to go with meat meals if you keep kosher, and lower in saturated fat (unless you go big on cheese fillings, anyhow) and lower on fat percentage generally. It’s also more economical, more delicate and less oversalted, and it doesn’t overwhelm the fillings.

But the real tests of how low on fat you can go–how well does it flake? How does it taste?–require a head-to-head comparison of different doughs with different fat content. Since it’s down in the 80s I decided to do small batches of each type and see how they worked.

There are two common versions of this home-style boureka dough, a more-oil version and a more-water version.

More oil than water

Al HaShulchan (“On the Table,” the Israeli food magazine) editor Janna Gur‘s recipe on her English-language site is very simple especially if you weigh everything out on a digital food scale (easier and more accurate than trying to juggle dry vs. wet measuring cups and scooping and sweeping and sifting). By weight, it’s about 50% fat to flour–four parts flour, two parts salad oil, one part water, a little but not too much salt. Her recipe makes about 50 borekitas; I decided to quarter that for this test because I’m not stupid and I know myself, and what was I going to do with 50?

Janna Gur borekita dough with more oil than water

The dough for this version has the texture of shortbread or playdoh, very short, and oil will definitely coat your hands when you pinch off walnut-sized balls to roll out for the borekitas, but at least it’s polyunsaturated, not solid fats. Because it’s so oily and you handle it so lightly, there’s no gluten built up. The dough is a bit fragile and rolls out a little ragged as you can see above, but you can roll, fill and bake right away.

Less oil, more water

Bureka Boy, whose Is-that-my-bureka blog, with its wealth of Sephardic and other Jewish recipes, paused for posterity in 2009 (though recently it looks like he may have shifted to Facebook or Instagram or both), has a smoother dough with the proportions of oil and water reversed, so about 25% oil to flour by weight. The water is added very hot when you stir it in (much like jao tze dough), so the dough develops gluten and needs an hour’s rest after mixing and kneading. It’s still quite oily when you go to pinch off individual balls for the borekitas, but it’s more elastic, with a smooth surface and better strength to roll it thin without breaking. You can handle it more and get neater pinched edges on the seal.

BurekaBoy's borekita dough with more water added hot to build gluten


So…on to the Flake-Off! Continue reading

Three-Hour Sourdough

Three Hour Sourdough

I love sourdough–eating it, anyway. Baking? That’s enough of a challenge that I’m elated when it turns out relatively edible. Because even with my standards, which are a bit loose, there are times when the outcome is decidedly not up to expectations. I have trouble getting the dough risen well enough and into the oven before the acid chews up all the gluten. In other words, it tends to overproof and then flop. Few of my loaves–I can face it–have ended up risen enough to consider serving other people, and most of them are a bit coarse inside–partly because I want rye or whole wheat rather than just white bread.

The other challenge is the perennial one for sourdough cultures–it takes several days to build a decent-tasting and stable mix of flour, water, wild yeast and lactobacillus culture with no undesirable bugs or off-flavors and odors. And in the meantime most instructions tell you to take a small bit of the mixture, feed it fresh water and flour, and toss the majority. Wasteful–both of ingredients and time.

So for the past year or so I’ve wondered whether I couldn’t somehow just get a running start past all that by using commercial yeast (a big no-no according to sourdough experts) with some commercial lactobacillus culture–yogurt, maybe?–and flat-out cheating. As in, faux dough. Well, more precisely, perfectly real dough, with a real-enough sourdough taste and texture, only about 4 2/3 days faster. At least. Without just caving and paying 6 bucks at Whole Foods for a small decorator loaf.

Yesterday I wondered it strongly enough to hunt around online and see if the yogurt idea had occurred to anyone else–and it had.

Ladyandpups.com is the food blog of a sometimes cranky, sometimes poetic, impressively prolific and creative baker named Mandy Lee. She has a “fraudulent easy sourdough” recipe that uses more than a cup of plain yogurt with a small amount of yeast and 3.5 cups of bread flour–no added water, apparently–and some salt for a firm dough that rises either 18 hours at room temperature (1/4 t active dry yeast) or 6 hours (3/4 t. yeast) and comes out tasting right and looking beautiful and crackle-crusted via the Jim Lahey no-knead-but-preheat-the-dutch-oven method.

And that’s all to the good.

But I’m even more impatient than that, and most of my sourdough faux pas have to do with letting the dough sit too long before baking. Even a 6-hour rise seems like too much. I also wanted a whole-wheat sourdough (so half whole wheat, half bread flour), which means it’s already comparatively gluten-challenged. So I wanted a really short, sharp rise that would get the dough puffed up and bakeable before the acid got to the gluten too badly. With luck, the yeast would win out just enough to outpace the acid buildup and resulting hopeless flop, but still allow enough to develop a good tang, which is the whole point of sourdough in the first place.

That meant changing things a bit:

1. Less yogurt, only about half what Lee calls for–half would still have plenty of lactobacillus culture to reproduce, but wouldn’t contribute as much acid right up front.

2. Some water to dilute the initial acidity further to delay the inevitable gluten-chewing effect. More water also gets the dough smoother and the gluten developing more quickly even when there’s no acid-producing bacteria to worry about. That’s an added benefit since I was going whole-wheat.

3. Not too much yeast either. Normally, adding more yeast means getting a faster rise. But even 1/4 t. is about what I usually go with for a slower-rising dough with 5-6 cups of flour, and that only takes 3-4 hours to more than double in my kitchen, at least with a hot rise. I didn’t want so much extra yeast at the start that it outcompeted and inhibited the lactobacilli from the yogurt altogether, because no sour culture equals no sour flavor. Continue reading


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.

Chickpea Crêpes, Masala Dosa style

instant dosas with chickpea flour, ground rice and yogurt

Project 1 of Panic Week: “instant” dosas made with chickpea flour, rice and yogurt. The heavy dose of mustard seed and black pepper is surprisingly good.

Planning the cooking for Passover usually means thinking about the week itself, buying matzah and gefilte fish and horseradish and so on. But for me, it also means using up the open bags of flour, beans, rice and pasta, plus whatever yogurt, cheese and milk I have left, and yet not overdosing on starches. And I’ve just gotten the taxes done, so it’s time to look in the fridge and panic.

We’ve got just over a week to go before Passover, and there’s still a lot of chametz in the house…a pack of fillo (luckily only one), a pound each of dried chickpeas and red lentils, a bag of mung beans I don’t really know how to use, some rice, a bowl of dough…wonton wrappers. Chickpea flour! Rye flour! Why did I leave it all this long [breaks down and bangs head against wall for a second]?

I don’t usually want to cook or serve that much starch in a single week, but at least most of it is legumes with some fiber and protein. So I’ve been thinking about foods–both chametz and not-chametz–that don’t have to be devastating dietwise or empty your wallet or take forever and a half to cook.

Because even with snow on the ground all over the east coast, where my mom and my sister and most of my old friends are still shoveling it out of their driveways this late in March, Pesach is coming. And then maybe an actual spring with shorts weather? We can only hope! Time to lighten up in anticipation.

This week I’ve decided to post the chametz countdown (aka, “Panic Week”), and the next week or so, a couple of attempts at a Pesach week with mostly fresh, simple foods and a lot more vegetables, and without the usual total matzah-on-eggs-on-more-starch-and-potatoes-and-choke-cake-and-too-many-canned-macaroons kind of meal plan…can it be done? I think so. As long as I don’t let my husband do the shopping. Can it be done in a microwave? I’m counting on it.

Anyway–back to the Panic Week Project. First up, the chickpea flour and rice…as a batter for on-the-spot masala dosas. Continue reading

Breaking the Rules: Fish with Red Wine

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

One way to cook fish well using red wine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instant Pickles, Hold the Salt

Fast-marinated cucumbers, half-sour kosher dill style

One of the things that kept me motivated for blogging SlowFoodFast after the first fine careless rapture was my indignation at how popular over-the-top salting was becoming in popular food magazines, cookbooks, blogs and TV shows as chefs became celebrities, and how dangerous I knew it was for most people to eat that way regularly. A large part of my career a couple of decades ago was exploring the history of dietary sodium in cardiovascular research and writing about the DASH Diet.

What I’ve missed the past few years is just how many people, particularly younger ones, are starting to take up the challenge of cooking low-sodium and blog about their trials and successes. There’s a whole community out there, and they’re cooking pretty well. It is definitely possible, and generally easy once you get past the “how do I read a label and cook from scratch” aspect.

I just ran into Sodium Girl (aka Jessica Goldman Foung)’s blog-based cookbook, “Sodium Girl’s Limitless Low-Sodium Cookbook”. Diagnosed with lupus and kidney failure in her early 20s, she turned around her diet by dropping her sodium intake drastically to give her kidneys a rest in the hope they’d regenerate, and it worked. She’s been innovating with low- and near-to-no-sodium versions of favorite foods ever since, working with the National Kidney Foundation and other organizations. Her book, like her blog, is attractively photographed, full of cheerful writing and surprise takes on favorite foods.

One of the substitutions she makes that I have to approve of is a molasses-and-vinegar-based “faux soy sauce”. So I wasn’t the only one!

Another of her successful experiments is pickles. She goes for sugar-and-vinegar-style pickles, which makes sense, since they have no added salt in them, but I can’t help it–I have always cringed at sweet pickled anything. If it’s supposed to be a pickle, for my money, it’s gotta be a half-sour kosher dill and nothing but (or else an Indian lime or mango achaar pickle, or Moroccan preserved lemons, but that’s another story and still pretty high-salt at this writing. I’m working on it, but not yet holding out a lot of hope…)

Anyway, looking through Foung’s book reminded me of a simple, hearty and low-to-very low sodium version of my favorite pickles in the world. Continue reading

Leftover Logic

Two weeks ago The Guardian‘s business section published the following salvo against glam-food waste: “Food’s latest hot trend: leftovers”. Some of the interviewed chefs, who grew up eating leftovers in the ’70s, have apparently joined forces with the Women’s Institute in York (shades of “Calendar Girls” and Helen Mirren’s shaky attempt at a Yorkshire accent) for a project to reduce food waste as supermarket prices continue to rise and rise.

Some interesting quotes in the article, and interesting questions on frugality–the columnist claims household food waste is down about 13 percent in the UK since last year, which is pretty telling about the economy. She and the people she quotes attribute the current lack of knowledge on how to use leftovers to a sharp decline in cooking skills that coincides with the surging popularity of perfect, coffee-table-worthy food fantasy cookbooks.

Is it really the fault of photo-heavy cookbooks, food magazines, blogs and tv cooking shows that only perfect produce makes the cut, and everything with a blemish on it must automatically be thrown out? Possibly…but the article also cites another trend–the heavy push of boxed microwave-meals-for-one that leads so many people to fear cooking and believe they could never be talented enough to cook from scratch.

Of course, if you never touch an uncooked bulk vegetable or a piece of raw meat, you never risk making a mistake in the kitchen. But the other side of the coin is that the produce in the magazines will never show up on your table. Because the frozen tv dinners really don’t come out looking or tasting as good as the pictures in the magazines.

If you do cook, the idea of using up what you have in the fridge can be nearly as daunting as having to pay for fabulous (and expensive) first-rate pre-sorted extra-polished pre-cut vegetables. In a branded bag. Can you eat less-than-perfect-condition food mag-quality decorator vegetables and still be safe?

Yes, you can. Obviously, when you go to buy vegetables, you want the best and freshest ones you can get for a reasonable price. Nothing you buy should be leaking or moldy or worm-ridden or otherwise clearly spoiled. But short of that, quite a lot of produce can be eaten just fine without having to be picture-perfect.

No one in the professional or amateur food enthusiast world ever talks about how to handle imperfect, wrinkled or slightly old vegetables, but they should. Because no matter how they look when you buy them, if you actually buy enough vegetables and enough variety for a week, some of your produce is going to start drying out or going a little less crisp or whatever in the later days. And you don’t necessarily need to throw it out because of that. Most of it you can probably still use and it will still be fine.

Local corner greengrocers often sell the oversized, undersized, riper or otherwise less-perfect-looking vegetables for a fraction of what they go for in big chain supermarkets. Customers at my local Armenian grocery routinely stagger out with huge bags of red peppers, onions, green beans, cabbages, eggplants, zucchini…all at a dollar a pound or less. Probably most of those vegetables are less than shiny-perfect. It doesn’t matter. The customers who lug them home are going to cook them up in large batches and short of actual spoilage, they’ll use them up.

And I myself did it today–foraged around in the fridge for the eggplants I bought last week. They were just starting to show brown dimples at the flower end. Not lovely but not a disaster. Then I found the less-than-great winter Roma tomatoes, a few of which were already starting to show little smudges of black at the stem ends because I’d had to store them in the fridge–no room on the counter, and I had them in a plastic bag that kept the moisture in more than was really good for them. Damn! I weeded out two that were clearly beyond saving–cracked and leaking slightly, not good–and took the others out to inspect. How bad were they?

Now the eggplants were only a little bruised or dimpled in a few places. Peeling off a little of the skin at those points revealed that the flesh inside was still okay. No worse than a bruised apple. Cut them up, microwave them, drain off the juices and fry them for eggplant-and-chickpea stew, and they’re just fine.

The tomatoes are a little scarier, no question. No one wants mold on their vegetables. But except for showing the tiny beginnings of mold at the stem ends, the six tomatoes I had left seemed fine and firm, dry and uncracked. Throw out six tomatoes at this time of year? I decided not to. I washed them carefully on the theory that the peel, if it’s unbroken, is working hard to seal out dirt and contamination and any mold spores on the surface can therefore be washed off. I sliced off the tops about half an inch below the stem ends–giving them a margin of safety at least in my mind.  Then I dared to taste a bit of the tomato below that. Also fine–or as fine as winter tomatoes get, anyhow. No sight, smell or taste of bitterness anywhere, and not mushy or discolored, and they tasted reasonably fresh. So I cut up the tomatoes and put them in the stew.

And everything was fine, and no one got sick or started convulsing (or screeching at the top of their larynxes) like Robert Plant at the height of his Led Zep days. This was fortunate, because we don’t yet have the larynxes back in shape after Losangelitis week, not to mention the stomach muscles, the tight jeans (well, the jeans are a little tight but not on purpose–we’re workin’ on it! hate those sit-ups) or the massive and tossable hairdo. Then again, neither does Robert Plant these days. So I don’t feel that bad about it. And neither should you.

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