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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.

    In keeping with the disclaimer below, I DO NOT endorse, profit from, or recommend any medications, health treatments, commercial diet plans, supplements or any other such products.


    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).

Paula Deen and the diet that bites you back

This week’s “revelation” that Paula Deen, “the Butter Queen” is now a Type II diabetic was a surprise to nearly nobody. Deen, who revealed a harrowing backstory in her memoir of a bootstrapped career in catering, has enjoyed a surprising rise to fame on television. Two weeks ago, following in Emeril Lagasse’s footsteps, she appeared as Grand Marshal for the Rose Parade right here in Pasadena.

Of course, her otherwise ordinary “Southern Cooking” has been exaggerated out of all recognition with extra excess butter and sugar and mayonnaise, and so for years now cads like Anthony Bourdain have called her a scourge on the culinary scene (well, actually, he called her a lot worse than that, but he’s Anthony Bourdain. I’m paraphrasing politely, even though I kind of agree, at least foodwise).

With the revelation that she’s Type II, which everyone knows and fears due to their own increasing girth, Deen is bound to be the butt of predictable jokes this week and next, or until the next big Kardashian “revelation” that newspaper readers apparently care deeply about, or at least they do according to the reality TV networks footing the ad bills. (Even the New York Times has wasted column inches on this kind of drivel this year. Journalistic standards are dropping all over the place, I tell ya.)

But tell the truth, y’all: she ain’t the only one responsible. Not by a long shot. Read any “major” chef’s cookbooks and magazine offerings, other than perhaps those of Nobu, who deals mainly in raw seafood unadorned by carbs or noticeable layers of fat, and you’ll quickly realize that MOST of them exaggerate the salt, sugar and fat content of their dishes well beyond reason. Very few of them deal out plain vegetables on the plate. Very few deal out meats or fish without big sauces.

The other big, big feature stories on food in the New York Times this week:

1. Mark Bittman doing a quasi-deep bankruptcy commentary on Hostess that manages to recount his entire childhood consumption of Twinkies and co. in loving, fine-grained detail. He still attempts to sound self-righteous about it by the end because the ingredients include “ultra-processed flour”.

2. David Tanis of Chez Panisse, waxing lyrical about French lentils (du Puy or Die) as a salad with vinaigrette, hard-boiled eggs (so far, so good), some lettuce and….big fatty slabs of pork belly on top. Five or six of them per plate.

3. “The Miracle of Bo Ssam”–which turns out to be David Chang of Momofuku’s recipe for pork shoulder slathered in salt and brown sugar–twice–and cooked down for six hours in the oven. Caramelized barbecue. In fact, “crack” barbecue, to match Momofuku Milk Bar’s world-famous (to bloggers, anyway) “crack” pie made with most of the same ingredients.

Now people. With all of that going on, with Thomas Keller still boiling his vegetables in brine and poaching his lobster bits in butter, with the Culinary Institute of America instructing its naive young students to salt, salt some more, and salt yet again to achieve that perfect degree of salting in each dish (Coronaries ‘R’ Us), and with Congress sucking its collective thumb about local schools’ move this year to exclude french fries and pizza from the “vegetable” categories in their cafeterias—–

Does anyone really think that Paula Deen is NOT a woman of her time?

She’s nowhere near the worst–she’s just not as fashionable as all the tatted-up young bucks who get picked for Top Chef. She’s also not dishy, like Nigella Lawson, whose cookbooks, which started out about 10-15 years ago emphasizing lighter fare like Vietnamese salads with chiles, have also drifted drastically in the direction of high-calorie “indulgence” foods–some of them utter unmitigated goo-fests (avocado, mayo, roquefort? peanut butter, corn syrup, marshmallow fluff, chocolate bars? puff-pastry chicken pot pies-for-one?). Lawson makes the national news, at least in the UK, when she comes back out in public looking svelte again after puffing up too far past the point where male reviewers are still drooling. Will her next book of recipes slim down commensurately?

Unlike the more fashionable TV chefs on her network, Paula Deen is middle-aged and looks it. She’s fat, she’s gray though beautifully coiffed, she’s politely made up and decently dressed–no orange signature clogs–and she smiles. Maybe a little dippily, but if you didn’t know who she was, Continue reading

Unappetizing: Nutrition “Awareness” on Top Chef

Perhaps it’s a futile attempt to understand how restaurant chefs think about food and nutrition, but lately I’ve been watching the very warped “Top Chef” episodes for the last couple of seasons–easy to do online. I can’t help wondering not only at the contestants, all of whom seem to display basic ignorance of what used to be called the “Four Food Groups,” but at some of the judges who fault them on nutritional challenges.

In this season there have been two, the School Lunch Challenge and–not that the judges even thought about it as a nutritional challenge, which they should have–the Baby Food Challenge. In both, the judges seemed at least as lacking in nutritional knowledge as the contestants, and in some aspects even worse.

The School Lunch Challenge brought out scathing comments on the show and on a number of blogs, particularly when the bottom-ranked chef, who went home for her gaffe, attempted to make a banana pudding palatable by adding sugar. Tom Colicchio made a big deal of her adding two pounds of sugar to the pudding–which was to feed 50 students.

And admittedly it’s not great for nutrition, but it was hardly the disaster he and the other judges made out. If anyone had bothered to whip out a calculator and known how to use it for pounds-to-kilos conversions, they’d have discovered that the two pounds of sugar amounts to 0.91 kilos. Or 909 grams, to be a little more precise (which we shouldn’t, the chef was eyeballing what she added). Divide by 50 and you get 18 grams per serving or about 4 teaspoons–not all that surprising an amount of sweetener in any prepared dessert. Add that to the starch already present as thickener and the sugars from the milk and bananas and you probably have 30-40 grams of carb or thereabouts per half cup of pudding.

It would be a lot for someone diabetic, like my daughter, but not disastrous as long as she knew how much carb was in it, and it certainly wouldn’t be disastrous for most school kids if the rest of the meal was balanced with low-fat protein and vegetables and not too much other starch.

But actually, most of the lunch entries were pretty starchy. The fact that they didn’t all have as much noticeable added sugar is almost immaterial–starches break down into sugars. You have to count them all.

What really stood out was the pathetic nature of the criterion “to include a vegetable.” One that was most-praised–a slab of caramelized (talking of sugar) sweet potato under a chocolate sorbet as a dessert–was mostly a starch, though in its favor it had vitamin A and fiber. Another team served celery (no vitamins and very low fiber, despite the stringiness) with a peanut-butter mousse (why, oh lord, not just peanut butter? chef-think at work?) piped out directly onto the celery, supposedly so kids would eat it. No one liked the mousse because it looked Continue reading

Prunes, Lentils, and “Cookin’ Cheap”

When I was a kid, PBS, which had made a gourmet name for itself with The French Chef, decided that if one chef was good, six or seven had to be better. Suddenly the public and cable airwaves were  bursting with the Frugal Gourmet, the Galloping Gourmet, Yan Can Cook, Cookin’ Cajun, various shows with Pierre Franey and Jacques Pépin, and one…ummm…less glamorous show called Cookin’ Cheap.

This was hosted by Larry Bly and Earl “Laban” Johnson, Jr. out of Roanoke, VA–-not too far from where I grew up–and featured two viewer-submitted recipes per episode, which the guys bravely cooked and sampled on the air. At the end of each show, just like Julia Child, they sat down at the table for the tasting… and decided whose recipe had come off worse.

Now, Cookin’ Cheap was not for tenderfoots–if you couldn’t handle ingredient lists that included whole sticks of margarine and self-rising flour, or bring yourself to shop in one of the ordinary supermarket chains that had never heard of organic anything (this was the South in the ’80s), you would have done better not to watch. But if down-home cooking delivered with a touch of schadenfreude was your thing, it was a great little show.

Unfortunately, my favorite early episode doesn’t seem to be available anywhere on the ‘net. But the clip above, the Cookin’ Cheap 2.0 (YouTube) version of about a third of Episode #609, will give you some idea. (see copyright disclaimer below…)

In my actual favorite episode, Bly and Johnson hit their personal limit with a recipe that had them both making faces and apologizing to the audience that “there’s cheap… and then there’s too cheap.”

The dish in question was “Lentils ‘n’ Prunes” (you can guess the entire ingredient list). And it was indeed cheap. Unfortunately lentils, though incredibly cheap and nutritious, cook up kind of gray, especially on a semi-rural public TV station with early-’80s (i.e., yellow-ocher) set lighting. Trust me when I say the addition of mashed prunes did nothing for them aesthetically or otherwise. How on earth could they have put this on the air?

Of course, these guys didn’t have to take the blame for the recipe, and it was great entertainment to see some of the strange things your neighbors might be cooking at home and writing in to the show about with high hopes of being selected. I understand the Food Network is now copying Bly and Johnson’s reality-cooking formula shamelessly for the fall lineup…

[Actually, I didn’t realize the show had such a good run, but it started locally in 1981 and only ended its nationally syndicated run in 2002. Johnson passed away a few years before the end, but he managed to publish the Cookin’ Cheap Cookbook in 1988. Bly kept the show going with Johnson’s friend and successor Doug Patterson and has since made a couple of rescued episodes available on DVD. And the show still has fans on YouTube and — surprisingly just this March–in the New York Times.

Disclaimer: YouTube removed the first clip I linked to for copyright violation–so my apologies to Bly; the intent in linking here isn’t to rip anyone off but to highlight a too-little-known show. Because the original Roanoke station managers were too shortsighted to save the episodes (they apparently trashed them!), Bly was only able to rescue a couple of episodes for the DVD, and I think some of the others posted at this point were recorded at home from TV.]

Ah, well. Times change, horizons broaden, and we aim to challenge our palates in a sophisticated world beat kind of way even with limited cash and ingredients. The wolf may be at the door, we may be on the rice and beans yet again to make up for unreimbursed conference travel, but we are determined to do it in style–that means Indian, Moroccan, Mediterranean–French? Well, at least by not mixing plain lentils and prunes together in a hideous gray mash.

…I’m not actually sure how the French feel about lentils with prunes, or what they’d do about it if you suggested it. But I have a huge bowl of cooked lentils to deal with from a 1-lb. bag at $1.29. And a 1-lb. bag of non-sorbate pitted prunes at $2.99. Less than $5 total. And a number of ideas about how to deal with each of them, separately or together. Enough ideas that I’m probably going to have to split this post so it doesn’t turn into War and Prunes.

This, I think, is going to become my How to Cook a Wolf Challenge, 21st Century Edition.

Because I have fantasies (not many, and relatively tame though entertaining) of the Iron Chef America and Top Chef hosts announcing, for the next quickfire competition, a challenge to find three or four good ways to combine lentils and prunes in dishes where they’re the main ingredients and for which the total bill for the tasting menu comes to something like $10, including spices (prorated as used…) Can’t you just see the contestants’ faces? Take a moment to enjoy their obvious panic. The restaurant industry hasn’t trained them for this.

But seriously. What was actually behind this Cookin’ Cheap dealbreaker, other than the obvious frugality factor plus the even more obvious digestive humor that follows prunes and lentils wherever they roam?

Is there any way on earth that prunes and lentils could really go together?

Well…yes, as a matter of fact. You don’t run across prune and lentil recipes everyday, but good-tasting and intriguing variations, or at least the components of them, exist in a number of respected cuisines around the globe. Even French. For very little more than it cost the Cookin’ Cheap guys, 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

Thanksgiving Vegetariots, or, How Can You Have Any Pudding If You Won’t Eat the Meat?

Newspapers all over the country are sweating to include vegetarian main dishes in their annual Thanksgiving features. But they’re not doing all that well. This week the LA Times food section proudly listed a whole bunch of Thanksgiving vegetable side dishes as if to say, “See how much there is for you vegetarians to eat without your hostess making any changes just for your special status?” Only, as readers quickly pointed out,  1) none of the dishes contained any noticeable protein, 2) most of them were overloaded with butter and salt and 3) two of them contained chicken broth or pancetta. Someone had forgotten to re-edit them for a vegetarian audience.

I pick on my local paper because we’re talking Los Angeles, with great produce available all year round and a very large vegetarian population–and a lot of ethnic groups with significant roles for vegetarian dishes in their traditional cuisines. We have less excuse for this kind of simple ignorance than most cities.

But it isn’t simple ignorance. Running very close to the surface of most food publications’ features on vegetarian fare at the big showdown holidays is a distinct tone of hysteria. How can anyone not want to eat meat? Nothing tastes like turkey, and nothing sells like it either! We don’t know anything about vegetarian proteins! they panic. Do vegetarians eat Durkee Fried Onions or Empress Yams? Do they eat marshmallows? They don’t even like pancetta! What’s wrong with them?

These are home questions for newspapers and food mags, because you know the real survival question is, “How are we going to sell advertising for chickpeas and lentils, for chrissakes?” That probably goes double or more for food shows on tv. If they don’t advertise, they don’t stay on the air.

It’s not like tofu has a big marketing presence in the nation’s newspapers or brand recognition outside of local markets. There are only so many brushed-steel and cherrywood designer kitchens anyone is willing to buy in a down economy, especially once they discover how badly brushed steel shows fingerprints. And cooking mags don’t get a lot of help from PepsiCo and CocaCola, Ralston-Purina or the many cigarette and pharmaceutical companies.

What’s left? Bacon, turkey, and processed food companies featuring starches and microwaveable tv dinners. This might not be such a problem for food pubs if they’d found a way to keep their features a little more independent of their ad base. Bacon is showing up these days as suddenly gourmet in so many inappropriate dishes–ice cream? chocolate bars? popcorn?–precisely because it’s relatively inexpensive, widely available in supermarkets, and sold by a few recognizable national namebrand companies that still advertise reliably in a down market. Young food bloggers who go for it think it’s something new and daring, but you have to wonder whether they realize how hard the commercial food media are pushing it and why.

In any case, the November and December issues or episodes really need to push meat for all they’re worth because American bacon is basically the same everywhere and straight-up turkey isn’t all that popular the rest of the year, and the companies know it. Meanwhile, vegetarianism in all its variations, and with a growing political undercurrent, is gaining ground among younger Americans, or at least those not too obsessed with bacon. What to do?

Apparently the answer is, panic and get mad at the vegetarians for wanting non-meat dishes that are worth something, but try hard not to admit it in front of the camera. Continue reading

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