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    Half-sour cucumbers, hold the salt

    Half-sour cucumbers, hold the salt

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    Copyright 2008-2015Slow Food Fast. All writing and images on this blog unless otherwise attributed or set in quotes are the sole property of Slow Food Fast. Please contact DebbieN via the comments form for permissions before reprinting or reproducing any of the material on this blog.

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    SlowFoodFast sometimes addresses general public health topics related to nutrition, heart disease, blood pressure, and diabetes. Because this is a blog with a personal point of view, my health and food politics entries often include my opinions on the trends I see, and I try to be as blatant as possible about that. None of these articles should be construed as specific medical advice for an individual case. I do try to keep to findings from well-vetted research sources and large, well-controlled studies, and I try not to sensationalize the science (though if they actually come up with a real cure for Type I diabetes in the next couple of years, I'm gonna be dancing in the streets with a hat that would put Carmen Miranda to shame. Consider yourself warned).

Thanks

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

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.

Celebration Update: “Mashup” Does Not Mean “More Potatoes”

Two or three Thanksgivings ago I railed (as I often do) at the lack of imaginative and good-looking (both aesthetically and nutritionally)  vegetarian offerings for Thanksgiving main dishes. I wasn’t having a whole lot of luck being impressed by what I saw in the newsstand food glam magazines, vegetarian and vegan cookbooks, food blogs, my local newspaper food section, or even the freezer section of my local Whole Foods. So I came up with a list of suggestions for vegetarian centerpiece dishes.

This year, we had the double-double challenge: Thanksgiving fell on the first day (though only the second evening) of Chanukah for the first time in over 100 years (1860s was the last time?) and won’t again for another 77,000 or so (well, some sources say there’ll be another Thanksgivukkah moment in about another 100 years and then the big schlep out to 77K. Either way, for most of us, this is “that moment”).

For me, mashing up Thanksgiving and Chanukah just this once gives us some ideas for rethinking the kneejerk popular way of celebrating the big important holidays in general. Maybe even exploring what’s so vital about holidays and family and clearing away some of the thoughtless excesses.

Chanukah came so early this year that we had nearly no chance at buying or making tons of presents before having to schlep ourselves up the I5 to my in-laws’, so none of us was expecting anything but silly socks, a paperback or so, and maybe a stop in Solvang for Danish marzipan-based sweets on the way back home. That’s all to the good–Chanukah was never really meant to be a “more presents all the time” kind of holiday, it’s about freedom of religion, freedom from outside oppression, and gratitude for the miracle of having enough resources to go around. Thanksgiving is about those things too.

Unlike most years, I didn’t find a two-page checklist that Martin Luther would be jealous of, listing all the acceptable giftees our daughter wanted, posted on the fridge. Partly that’s because we wouldn’t be home to see it, and partly because she already had her bat mitzvah in June and she’s old enough now to feel like it’s more than plenty in the way of gifts. Plus by now she knows me–I have a strong tendency to roll my eyes and cross most of the stuff off the list with the familiar yearly litany of:

“Library…library…library…library…not wearable at school or synagogue, so what’s left, the mirror?…we have an unusually skilled cat and I don’t really want to think about hamsters in that context, do you?…library…library…not until you practice piano…I know I promised you could get your ears pierced eventually…maybe next month…”

It’s just a matter of practice. And a willingness to channel Sylvia (one of my favorite cartoon characters,  by the great Nicole Hollander).

Anyway, I have no idea if any of my ideas the last time I riffed on vegetarian centerpiece dishes gave someone else ideas–I hope so–but recently I ran across a vegan cookbook with dishes that look like they’d be just right for a celebration. It’s too late to recommend for Thanksgiving or Chanukah, but maybe for Christmas and onward? Continue reading

Pinned for Purim!

Thanks to Yael Shuval for choosing my Low-Carb Hamantaschen for her board at Pinterest.com.

Three years ago I developed almond-meal based hamantaschen for my daughter, who had been diagnosed with Type I diabetes only a couple of weeks earlier and needed something that was low enough in carb that (at the time, anyway) she could actually have one or two when all the other kids were having theirs and without having to get an extra shot of insulin.

Almond meal has only about one-fourth as much carbohydrate per cup  as wheat flour, so it seemed like a good substitute. To our surprise, although the dough was a little finicky to work with, the hamantaschen came out tasting pretty good, and they were indeed pretty low carb, about 4-5 grams per mini-hamantaschen. Granted, they were also pretty small, but it was a symbolic triumph in the first few weeks and made us all feel like being diabetic wasn’t going to be the end of having fun.

Now that my daughter is on an insulin pump, getting an extra shot is no big deal, though in our experience the pitfall is that it’s now just a little too easy, especially for a preteen, to “eat anything you want, at any time, without thinking about it, as long as you program the insulin for it” which is one of the less responsible marketing messages in Medtronic’s brochure for teenagers (note: the pump itself is pretty good, but it still doesn’t mean you don’t have to be careful about what you’re eating). Those sour gummy heart candies the teacher handed out for snack earlier this week and left on my daughter’s desk, for instance….well, candy never seems like as much food as it really is, and I think my daughter gained a valuable lesson when she added up what she’d really eaten…she wouldn’t be the first one.

It’s always good to have a general plan in place for holiday eating so you don’t overdo the treats or eat an entire meal’s worth of carb in just a few cookies or candies or whatever…what can I say, we’re working on it.

Still. In the last year or two I’ve mostly gone back to making standard hamantaschen based on Joan Nathan’s classic cookie-dough recipe, which I like a lot and which looks and tastes much, much better than the dry, pasty-white horrors at the annual Purim carnival.

hamantaschen1

What I like about the standard flour-based recipe, other than that it tastes and looks good and is easy to work with, is that I can roll the dough out very thin and get crisp, delicate hamantaschen that are a decent cookie size but still hold together nicely and are not extravagantly carb-laden, particularly if the fillings are reasonable and you don’t eat ten at a time (the big challenge). They’re not as low-carb as the almond meal ones, but they still work out okay–about 7 grams apiece for a 1.5-2″ cookie. They taste good even made with pareve (nondairy) margarine instead of butter.

The LA-area idea of hamantaschen usually involves M&Ms, colored sprinkles, anything completely artificial. I bet gummy sour hearts (this afternoon’s culprit) would be a huge hit too. I don’t think they’ve heard of either prune or poppyseed out here in at least a generation.

Traditional fruit or nut fillings are a much more decent bet for carb, and they taste better (and look nicer too, because I’m not 6 years old and don’t insist on rainbow colors anymore). They’re also easy to make from scratch in a microwave or on the stove top so that you can decide how much sugar to put in them. Continue reading

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