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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).

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.

“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

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

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

Bistro + Cartoons = Stephane Reynaud’s French Feasts

French Feasts by Stephane ReynaudFrench Feasts: 299 Traditional Recipes for Family Meals and Gatherings by Stéphane Reynaud (2009 Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $40.00)

It’s a huge book. Daunting. Heavy as a couple of bricks. Padded cover, even, with a zillion miniphotos of intimidating French bistro classics in their raw and cooked forms (an octopus, a roasting tray of vegetables with leeks, a crème caramel, and several red-checked tablecloths, for that seemingly effortless retro chic, laid out under rustic-looking pot-au-feu types of stews. And a cutting board with six stuffed marrow bones stood on end.)

Flip open the front cover and you get a classic bistro menu with way too many choices (luckily it’s printed with a little English and page numbers, not handwritten on a chalkboard across the room, so you don’t have to squint). Read down the page (continue inside the back cover) and you start to dig up little puns and odd bits of humor here and there. They finally bubble up into something definite in the introduction, where the author, a medium-youngish guy seated in front of a casserole with a chef’s knife and a two-pronged barbecue fork, reminisces about a childhood stuffed with too much good food on family Sundays with his grandmère. Replete with escargot-burping uncles.

And from then on, you realize why this book is so fat: not only is there a heavy emphasis on meats and charcuterie (and six or seven different preparations for foie gras, 12 or so variations on soft-boiled eggs and omelets, etc.), but every other page is a photograph, or a profile of a couple who run one or another bistro, a venerable Lyonnaise sausage maker, vintner, baker, or cheese affineur…

Or — quite frequently — a cartoonist’s demonstration, only a little less improbable than Rube Goldberg’s, for making wine or cheese, or canning preserves (watch out for the orange tabby in the “catsup” jar). Check out the last chart, next to the Armagnac and Cognac page, which presents  increasing girths and grades of cigars appropriate for the increasing girths and ages of the smokers. Is it by way of including the classic end to a classic meal, never mind the known risks, or a subtle message the other way–that these days it’s more savvy to laugh at the cigar nostalgia die-hards than become one?

And speaking of nostalgia…There are even songsheets for Moulin Rouge classics so you can join in with your French friends after dinner. You kind of need those. You definitely need those.

Just what kind of cookbook have we lugged home?

Actually, Stéphane Reynaud is a well-regarded restaurateur on the outskirts of Paris and the well-trained son and grandson of a line of pork butchers. His previous book, Pork & Sons, arrived in the US a couple of years ago, and this one was published here in English sometime last fall. Despite the fact that I don’t eat pork and don’t think it’s a glorious profession to “break down a pig” or any other large animal, as glamorized on adventure cooking shows, French Feasts is well worth the read. Because Reynaud clearly knows his stuff, and not just about meat.

I’m not sure whether he got a translator to help, or he’s just really fluent in English–if so, my hat’s off to him, because his sense of humor really comes through fairly naturally, and it probably meant rewriting a fair amount of the text to come up with accurate and still funny equivalents for English speakers. Translating (and having to explain!) puns from French to English would be a job and a half for just about anyone. Most people would rather scrub dishes than have to explain a joke. Even me.

The recipes themselves are classics–untrammeled and unfutzed-with–and unexpectedly instructive in their simplicity.

Most have fewer than 10 ingredients, and often fewer than six. Here there are no dishes calling for 20 different special vinegars or sweeteners, as in American food-glam magazines and cookbooks. Not too many luxury ingredients, other than that many of the “proteins”–shellfish, goose, duck, game, foie gras–are hard to find in the US and kind of chi-chi expensive these days outside of Europe, but you could probably substitute with some success. And the titles are simple too–English translations of the classic French names, not mile-long lists of every special new “twist” ingredient it’s been tweaked with to up its audience appeal. Or advertiser appeal.

And the food photos. Nice photography but no attempt to make restaurant-pretty “tall food” plates with lots of garnishes. These are stews and soups and unsliced terrines–unstyled, many of them, or at least not overstyled with voguish background blur and enhanced color and gloss on every dish. Cooked cabbage looks like cooked cabbage. Turnips look like turnips, not like  flaming purple orchids turned suddenly solid. The stews look like stews you’d make at home–well, except for the lobster one, or the terrine with the crossed strips of fatback over it, or the baked fish in a glossy brown flake pastry crust. That’s just showing off, right there.

But really, most of these dishes are photographed while still in the cooking pots–which aren’t the bright shiny brand-new brand-name items you can order directly by clicking on the picture. They’re well-used, old, blackened, ugly even. Not glamorous. They don’t go with the brushed steel decorator kitchens we’re used to seeing in all the glossy cookbooks on our shelves. They have a bit of grime and wear about them, and make us feel better about our own dowdy day-to-day kitchenware that we’ve been using since we got out of school umpty-nine years ago and haven’t replaced because it’s reliable.

And now what I thought at first was a detour:

To my great surprise, given the author’s “slow food” cred, Reynaud’s recipes don’t contain any of the rote “1 teaspoon of salt” in each recipe that most recent American cookbooks have fallen into. Few of his recipes are seasoned more than once if at all, and usually just the sauce, or just the surface, right before serving. He doesn’t dictate how much, but from the context it’s obviously closer to a pinch than a spoonful, and often he skips it altogether.

He also doesn’t boil his vegetables in salted water, which is very chic right now in the US just because Thomas Keller said he does it and Michael Ruhlman trumpeted it as gospel. With only one exception–in fact, the only recipe in the book with a specified teaspoon of salt–even the desserts in French Feasts, including all of the pastry doughs from shortbread to puff pastry, are almost entirely free of added salt. The sheet cakes have baking powder, and a handful of the pastries call for salted butter rather than plain, but neither comes anywhere close to a contemporary American version’s salt content.

It’s not that Reynaud never uses salt or salted ingredients like capers or sausage or parmesan. But unlike American recipe developers, he doesn’t throw extra salt on top of them, and in fact he warns against it in one of the smoked pork-plus-sausage-plus-three-other-preserved-meats kinds of dishes.

SO—If these are the classics and the methods American chefs and recipe test kitchens have been aping and trying to bring to the table in our best restaurants for decades, French Feasts makes it clear there’s been more than a little “tweaking” or “drift” going on, particularly for the increasingly popular baked goods. Almost every American version of the classic French desserts, from mousse to napoleon to baba to charlotte and crêpes and on to cannelés, has had an automatic teaspoon or worse of salt dumped into it before it went to press. In comparison with the traditional style of French Feasts, we seem to be pickling ourselves. You have to wonder who put it there and why, and what our sorta-French desserts are really supposed to taste like when you skip the commercial interest that seems to be behind all the routine, mindless oversalting.

And you have to ask–in romanticizing Slow Food but presenting commercially tainted, overly fussy, overly expensive and oversalted versions of traditional European dishes, how far has American foodieism drifted away from reality? How badly have we lost the thread?

In contrast to the younger wave of foodie restaurant chefs and specialty purveyors in the US, most of the folks profiled in French Feasts are not sporting extensive surfer tattoos or orange clogs to proclaim their indy cred. They’re also not Glamorous-Looking French People With Scarves ™, except Continue reading

Knives at Dawn: Bringing Heat to the Kitchen

"Knives at Dawn" by Andrew FriedmanSo much of TV-chefery these days has to do with blood sport that it’s inevitable someone would start covering cooking competitions by following underdog contestants as though they were Olympic figure skating hopefuls. And although it’s been done before, both on Top Chef and in many, many of the star chef bios of the past 5 years, Knives at Dawn by Andrew Friedman gives one of the most detailed personal and critical inside views yet of the strange pursuit of haute cuisine for haute cuisine’s sake. Part sports dramalogue, part Judgment of Paris, Knives at Dawn trails a handful of American chefs attempting to compete for one of the highest honors in European cooking.

The Bocuse d’Or is one of the most prestigious cook-offs in the world and garners contestants from all over Europe and a few of the US’s top restaurants. The costs of training run the price of a small house, and the US team has had no government or corporate sponsorship, unlike many of the European competitors.

Throughout three months of preparation which Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud oversaw in 2008-9, a team (1 chef, Timothy Hollingsworth, and 1 commis or prep chef assistant, Adina Guest) from Keller’s French Laundry are coached to represent the US in Lyon. They have to cover the training and travel bills at their own expense, and continue working their day jobs for more of the time than their European opponents.

As Hollingsworth designs and revises his competition entries, suggested garnishes get more and more elaborate–sometimes without anything that’s likely to make them taste better. Onion tuiles. Things wrapped in Swiss chard leaves or carrot ribbons. Savoy cabbage as a “fun” garnish for beef cheeks (here I confess I pictured cafeteria kale as a “fun” accompaniment to the legendary dish, chair mystère–Mystery Meat). And lots of things made with mandoline-sliced potatoes crisped to perfection between silpats. In fact, the word perfection, followed by perfectionistic and culture of perfectionism, keep repeating throughout the section on Hollingsworth and Guest’s training period. It’s a bit unglamorous, to tell you the truth.

The exactitude of discussion over details like garnish, plating, and the like for one fish dish and one meat dish is the kind of technical overdose patter that puts people to sleep at any time other than the actual routine that will count for scoring. Something like the perennial Dick Button and whichever female commentator could be roped in to join him,  talking rinkside about the difference in a triple-lutz made by putting pressure on the inside versus the outside edges of the blade.

Comes the week of competition and things start to take on the frenetic tone of a typical Top Chef episode, but Friedman has a knack of lifting the description Continue reading

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