Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Nutrition Facts vs. Ingredient Lists

Governor David Patterson of New York recently announced his proposed Executive Budget. Among many cost-cutting measures, there is a planned tax on non-diet soft drinks.

According to the Briefing Book for the 2009-2010 Executive Budget:
"The Executive Budget proposes an additional 18 percent sales tax on certain high caloric, low nutritional beverages like non-dietetic soft drinks and sodas. Expansion to other high caloric and low nutritional beverages can be considered. Almost one in four New Yorkers under age 18 are obese. Significant price increases should discourage individuals, especially children and teenagers, from consumption and help fight obesity which results in higher risk for diabetes and heart disease. (2009-10 Savings: $404 million; 2010-11 Savings: $539 million)"
Many, including New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, think the proposed tax is a great idea. In a column last week, Kristof wrote, “. . . the new soda tax proposed by Gov. David Paterson of New York is such a breakthrough.”

I think it’s a st
art, not a breakthrough; I can’t fathom why diet soft drinks aren’t covered by the tax. This omission, though, coincides perfectly with our society’s infatuation with the nutrition facts--rather than the ingredient lists--on food labels.

Mind you, soda is a poor example since it is unhealthy no matter what form it comes in, but should Governor Patterson be condoning the consumption of aspartame, an artificial sweetener that has been linked to a myriad of serious diseases, including cancer? Aspartame is what makes diet sodas “diet.” But is saving a couple calories really w
orth the risk?

It see
ms our society is overzealous about the amount of fat, calories and cholesterol we consume. We focus on the nutrition facts, zeroing in on the numbers found next to the above three line items. Yet, in our pursuit of nothingness, what damage are we doing to our health by ingesting synthetic, man-made substances of nefarious provenance?

Look at the ingredient lists for some of these “light” and “diet” and ”reduced fat” foodstuffs. Does anyone have a biochemistry degree? What exactly are the corn syrup solids, soy protein, soy lecithin, mono and diglycerides, and polyglycerol esters of fatty acids that save us a gram of saturated fat here or there? Should we be so willing to barter minimal amounts of fat for additives we have to Google to find out what they are?

If real fat (
not Ring Ding or Dorito fat) was so bad for us, wouldn’t avocadoes, wild salmon, olive oil and nuts have been subject to some sort of government tax since the Roman Empire?

Governor Patterson, do the health care system and the state a favor--tax 98% of the items in the supermarket that come in a box, plastic package or can. That would be a breakthrough.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Cooking Lessons For Kids

A fair percentage of my cooking lessons and interactive events are with adults, but I also often teach kids.

Many experts believe that getting children involved in what they eat is an important step in expanding their palates and making them better eaters. Logically, having kids help in the actual cooking process is a great way to achieve this goal.

The dishes I cook with kids vary depending on their age, but we always use real food, not packaged or processed ingredients. As I’ve written previously, I believe that it is essential for children to know how food grows and what it looks like in its natural state. Broccoli does not grow as florets conveniently packaged in a plastic container, but rather on a big, thick stalk, surrounded by edible, leafy greens.

So what d
o I cook with kids? With younger children, I like to make real versions of the dishes they are familiar with from school lunches, kids’ menus at restaurants or the incessant marketing campaigns of the big food companies.

Fish sticks are one example. Instead of microwaving the processed frozen version, we’ll simply and quickly make our own from scratch.

We’ll cut fresh flounder into pieces, dip into a real mixed egg and coat with real bread crumbs. We’ll then pan fry the fish sticks in real butter and/or olive oil, let them drain on paper towels and add a sprinkle of sea salt and a squirt of juice from a lemon. For a sauce, we’ll mix together equal parts Dijon mustard and real mayonnaise, plus add a squeeze of juice from a lime.

The same straightforward principles are employed when we make spaghetti and meatballs, chips and guacamole, hamburgers, pizzas, shrimp rolls and fruit crisps.

Invariably, the kids will eat what they helped cook. They don’t love it all, but at least they’ll taste everything.

And according to a recent New York Times article, studies show that “When children were involved in cooking their own foods, they were more likely to eat those foods in the cafeteria, and even ask for seconds, than children who had not had the cooking class.”

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Nicholas Kristof: "Secretary of Food"

Sorry I've been out of touch; with all this campaigning for Obama's Senate seat, giving cooking lessons, moving, changing my personal e-mail address and working on my squash game, who has time to write a blog?

Seriously, I'll be discussing some interesting subjects in the near future. Today, though, I wanted to mention Nicholas Kristof's latest column in The New York Times, which discusses the Department of Agriculture and its leader, the secretary of agriculture (a cabinet position).

Not that Mr. Obama doesn't haven't enough to worry about, but as Michael Pollan says, “Even if you don’t think agriculture is a high priority, given all the other problems we face, we’re not going to make progress on the issues Obama campaigned on — health care, climate change and energy independence — unless we reform agriculture.”

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Dangers of Farmed Fish

“Eat more fish” is the mantra that we’ve been trying to follow for the last decade or so. But what kind of fish are we eating?

I’m not asking if we are consuming flounder, salmon or tuna. I’m much more concerned with the provenance of the fish we are eating. Is it wild or farmed?

To many, the question seems innocuous or immaterial. However, I consider it tantamount to knowing if your meat and dairy products are derived from grass- or corn-fed animals and if your fruits and vegetables are grown in soil awash with pesticides and chemicals.

Fish farms have many issues (some positive, more negative) associated with them, but the major problems that should be causing alarm are disease, the threatening of wild fish populations and the lack of flavor in the final product.

I’ll quote from three articles that have recently appeared in The New York Times. I highly recommend taking the time to read them.

The disease issue was touched upon by Taras Grescoe, who described how salmon in Canadian fish farms are attracting sea lice:
"To rid salmon of the lice, fish farmers spike their feed with a strong pesticide called emamectin benzoate, which when administered to rats and dogs causes tremors, spinal deterioration and muscle atrophy. The United States Food and Drug Administration, already hard-pressed to inspect imported Asian seafood for antibiotic and fungicide residues, does not test imported salmon for emamectin benzoate. In other words, the farmed salmon in nearly every American supermarket may contain this pesticide, which on land is used to rid diseased trees of pine beetles."
The threatening of wild fish populations comes about because a large percentage of wild fish caught is used for feed for farmed fish, denying other, larger wild fish their food supply. This from an editorial last week:
"According to a new report by scientists from the University of British Columbia and financed by the Pew Institute for Ocean Science, 37 percent by weight of all the fish taken from the ocean is forage fish: small fish like sardines and menhaden. Nearly half of that is fed to farmed fish; most of the rest is fed to pigs and poultry.

The problem is that forage fish are the feedstock of marine mammals and birds and larger species of fish. In other words, farmed fish, pigs and poultry — and the humans who eat them — are competing for food directly with aquatic species that depend on those forage fish for their existence. It’s as if humans were swimming in schools in the ocean out-eating every other species."
And for the flavor issue, this from yesterday's article by Mark Bittman, a Times food writer and author of “How to Cook Everything”:
"Farm-raised tilapia . . . is less desirable to many consumers, myself included, than that nearly perfectly blank canvas called tofu. It seems unlikely that farm-raised striped bass will ever taste remotely like its fierce, graceful progenitor, or that anyone who’s had fresh Alaskan sockeye can take farmed salmon seriously."

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Where to Buy Healthier Food

When I discuss the benefits of eating food devoid of hormones, antibiotics and pesticides with my clients, many often ask me where they can buy such products. A lot of people think these foods are specialty items only available at farmers markets or high-end food stores. Thankfully, this is not the case.

In the past several years, more and more conventional supermarkets are starting to provide consumers with healthier food choices. Specifically, I’m more concerned with fresh meats and dairy than packaged goods, since the packaged items have their ingredients listed. (As I detailed in my post about mayonnaise, there is a lot of unpronounceable stuff added to packaged foods, which should be avoided.)

I was in Florida last month, and, curious about the choices available, I ventured into a Publix supermarket. I was pleasantly surprised by the better options available.

In the butter section, Publix was offering the standard American brands, including Land O’Lakes ($1.05 per stick). Also available were two European butters that are better options, considering both are free of the hormones, antibiotics and pesticides found in Land O’Lakes. Kerrygold (an Irish butter) and Lurpak (Danish) were priced at $1.80 per stick and have the added benefit of being made from milk from grass-fed cows.

(Do understand, however, that information about what the cows are eating and how the butter is produced is not printed on the butter packages. A little research is necessary, so I visited the Kerrygold and Lurpak websites. Both described in detail the health benefits of their butters, plus the grazing habits of their cows. No such information could be found on the Land O’Lakes site.)

For eggs, a dozen conventional eggs cost $2. Also available were eggs from chickens that contained “no drugs, antibiotics, or animal by-products.” Trust me, you would quickly pay the extra $1 per dozen if you knew the toxicity of conventional eggs produced on commercial poultry farms.

Publix has created its own label of healthier food items, and these GreenWise products are prominently displayed. GreenWise beef, chicken and pork contain no antibiotics or hormones, unlike their conventional counterparts.

The price difference can be steep, however, especially for more expensive cuts. Cheaper alternatives, like ground beef, may be a better option if price is a concern. GreenWise ground beef was $5.49 per pound, compared to $3.99 per pound for ground beef laden with hormones, antibiotics and pesticides.

As for sausage, bacon and frankfurters, Publix offered several brands--Niman Ranch, Aidells, Maverick Ranch and Applegate Farms--that advertise their health benefits on their products’ packages. To further aid customers, Publix had placed handwritten signs (“NO NITRITE,” “NO ANTIBIOTICS,” etc.) on the shelves.

Granted, Oscar Mayer “Naturally Hardwood Smoked Bacon” was available for those wanting their bacon cured with water, salt, sugar, sodium phosphates, sodium ascorbate and sodium nitrite.

Thanks, but I’ll pass.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Our Children's Food Knowledge

As our connection to an agrarian lifestyle has waned over the past century, society as a whole has suffered in the realm of institutionalized food knowledge and the corresponding nutrition that inherently went hand-in-hand with our rural existence.

Gone are the days when children’s chores included farm work predicated on the cultivation of food, whether it was vegetables and fruits or domesticated livestock.

The state of our kids’ food experience is shockingly poor, and it will only continue to worsen if our reliance on packaged and processed foods that have little resemblance to real foods continues to proliferate.

To our youth, chicken means chicken nuggets, or maybe chicken parts packaged neatly in Styrofoam and plastic, not a real chicken, with feathers, feet and a face. If you are a parent and you are thinking, “That’s gross,” what do you think your child is going to think? Each generation can only learn what the preceding generation is able to teach it. What food knowledge will today’s kids be able to pass on to their children when they become parents?

To our youth, carrots mean “baby” carrots, which are completely devoid of any carrot flavor, come in a plastic bag and are anything but true baby carrots (photo above). These carrot bits are actually the by-product of huge, tasteless carrots that are put through a machine which breaks up the larger carrots into smaller, uniform pieces.

In reality, baby vegetables are vegetables that are simply removed from the ground or picked from the vine earlier in their development process than their adult cousins. There is no special seed or DNA for baby vegetables. For example, carrots take—on average—about 65 to 75 days from when seed is planted to become mature, adult carrots. Real baby carrots—greens included!—are simply carrots that are removed from the ground while they are still growing.

What can we do to stem the tide? The simplest thing would be to educate our children on how real food grows by taking them to a supermarket (the produce section and butcher), a farmers market or a working farm. It would be better if more of us who have a lawn or backyard allocate some of that space to growing vegetables, so our children get a first-hand appreciation of how food grows.

Before you scoff at my suggestion, think about what our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be eating if we continue down this path. Think about the myriad food allergies and ills present in today’s youth; isn’t it common sense to think these problems will continue to increase as edible food-like substances further replace real food?

Are you skeptical about the import and influence of children growing vegetables? A recent story in The New York Times detailed the travails of teenagers in Brooklyn.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Real Mayonnaise vs. Light Mayonnaise

Often when I give cooking lessons in people’s homes, Hellman’s Light Mayonnaise is present in refrigerators. I ask why it’s there instead of real mayonnaise, and the response “Because it’s healthier,” usually follows.

“Why is it healthier?” I ask.

Replies to that question range from “Because they say so” to “It has to be” to “It has less fat.”

I don’t expect you to make your own mayonnaise, but you should be buying the real version when you shop. Notice the difference in ingredients between Hellman’s Real Mayonnaise and Hellman's “healthier” versions.

Below are the ingredient lists (copied verbatim) for Hellman’s four most readily available types of mayonnaise. Any biochemistry majors out there?


Soybean oil, water, whole eggs and egg yolks, vinegar, salt, sugar, lemon juice, natural flavors, calcium disodium EDTA (used to protect quality).


Water, soybean oil, vinegar, modified corn starch**, whole eggs and egg yolks, sugar, salt, xanthan gum**, lemon and lime peel fibers** (thickeners), (sorbic acid**, calcium disodium EDTA) used to protect quality, lemon juice concentrate, phosphoric acid**, DL alpha tocopheryl acetate (vitamin E), natural flavors, beta carotene**. **Ingredient not in mayonnaise


Water, modified corn starch*, soybean oil, vinegar, high fructose corn syrup*, egg whites, salt, sugar, xanthan gum*, lemon and lime peel fibers*, colors added*, lactic acid*, (sodium benzoate* calcium disodium EDTA) used to protect quality, phosphoric acid*, natural flavors. *Ingredients not in mayonnaise


Water, canola oil**, vinegar, modified corn starch**, whole eggs and egg yolks+, sugar, salt, lemon juice, xanthan gum**, (sorbic acid**, calcium disodium EDTA) used to protect quality, DL alpha tocopheryl acetate (vitamin E), phosphoric acid**, natural flavors, citric acid**, oleoresin paprika, beta carotene** (for color). **Ingredient not in mayonnaise +Adds trivial amount of cholesterol

As I’ve mentioned before, I believe we spend too much energy focusing on food items’ Nutrition Facts and not enough on ingredient lists. A little fat and cholesterol will not kill us. The jury is still out, though, on modified corn starch.

From a purely common sense point of view, how can synthetic ingredients be good for us? Michael Pollan calls junk food “edible food-like substances,” a brilliant description for what many think are causing so many of our current health woes.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Mark Bittman: "Why Take Food Seriously?"

For a quick recap of America's eating habits over the past half decade, read Mark Bittman's article from last Sunday's New York Times Sunday Magazine, which was dedicated to food. It sums up everything in a concise fashion.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Our Toxic Food Supply: Exhibit A (Antibiotics)

If you think I’m overzealous in my calls to recognize the dangers of animals raised in feedlots with the help of hormones, antibiotics and pesticides, consider the following story of Russ Kremer, a Missouri pig farmer, which appears in the October issue of Gourmet:
“ Kremer explained that he had raised pigs conventionally until he was gored by a boar; the subsequent infection, resistant to antibiotics, had nearly killed him. Raising large numbers of animals in indoor confinement pens, he went on, the pigs living over grates, their feed laced with antibiotics and additives, their waste collected in fetid ponds, Kremer himself working with a syringe strapped to his belt—he thought there had to be an alternative.”
Excuse me? The infection was resistant to antibiotics? Go ahead, read it again:
"Kremer explained that he had raised pigs conventionally until he was gored by a boar; the subsequent infection, resistant to antibiotics, had nearly killed him."
I can’t be the only one who is taken aback by this. If you’re not freaked out, think about what’s swimming in the bacon, ham and pork chops produced from the boar that injured Kremer. And think about how all of those toxins are transferred to our bodies when we eat the radioactive pork products.

Unfortunately, we have been trained to count calories, cholesterol and fat in our food, rather than hormones, antibiotics and pesticides.

Kremer now raises his pigs in a more sustainable fashion that is healthier for us and the environment:
"Today’s bedding hay becomes tomorrow’s compost to fertilize fields of wheat or corn, which, in turn, become animal feed. After harvest, the wheat straw and cornstalks will serve as bedding for another generation of pigs. All of this takes more labor, more time, and paying more attention to both the pigs and their breeding."
Kremer is the Chief Operating Officer of Heritage Acres Foods, which, according to its web site, was “created by 52 farmers . . . each of them dedicating their lives to sustainable agricultural production practices. [This] not only preserves our environment, but means good health for people and their communities.”

Heritage Acres pork is available for purchase on the U.S. Wellness Meats web site.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Grass-Fed Meat from U.S. Wellness Meats

As I’ve previously written, the move toward grass-fed meats is growing. As consumers become more aware of the better flavor and dramatic health benefits of grass-fed foods, demand increases. Suppliers, either new to the trade or converted conventional ranchers, follow in kind.

One example of farmers switching from corn-fed to grass-fed operations is U.S. Wellness Meats, a combine of four family farms in Missouri that decided several years ago to change for economic, environmental and nutritional reasons.

“It’s created more work for them,” said McKenzie Disselhorst, the company’s Fresh Beef Marketing Specialist. “In terms of management of the land and animals, we’re not using chemicals and antibiotics, so the work is harder. But, it’s so much more rewarding.”

The hard work is paying off, as business, according to Disselhorst, is increasing steadily. The company sells its beef on its web site and over the phone; a wide array of additional grass-fed products from other farms that share U.S. Wellness’s mission are also available.

Regarding taste, Disselhorst relays the story of a blind taste test that John Wood, one of the family farmers, administered to members of the Southwest (Mo.) Cattlemen’s Association. Mostly conventional ranchers, the cattlemen were highly skeptical when asked to compare rib eye steaks from corn-fed and grass-fed cattle.

The result? The majority of tasters thought the grass-fed meat had the stronger beef flavor. (The beef is aged for 28 days, which helps it to be more tender and flavorful.)

Another example of the care taken is in the slaughtering process. Since there is no facility in Missouri that will do custom slaughtering, U.S. Wellness’s cattle are sent to Omaha, Nebraska.

“Our animals are slaughtered on separate days from conventional cattle to avoid cross contamination,” Disselhorst said.

For those that don’t have access to local farmers markets or supermarkets that sell grass-fed products, U.S. Wellness is a great option. Prices are competitive, and orders placed early in the week are shipped FedEx overnight that day, while orders placed later in the week are sent out on the subsequent Monday.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

How to Cook a Quick, Delicious and Nutritious Dinner

I continually harp (to the point of irritation?) how fast, easy and cheap it can be to cook for yourself, or for your family. That being said, I’m the last person who wants to create a gourmet meal on a random Tuesday night. But making simple food that is both delicious and nutritious is completely feasible, even for those with limited cooking skills.

The other night, as I was starting to cook dinner for myself, I thought, “Hmm, let’s time and document this to see if I actually know what I’m talking about.”

The menu was sautéed beef liver (grass-fed) with onions, boiled yellow and purple fingerling potatoes with Anchor butter and parsley, roasted broccoli, and a chunk of whole wheat bread. The meat, vegetables and bread were bought at the farmers market that day, and the total cost for everything was about $6.25.

(For the broccoli, potatoes and bread, I used about a third of what I bought, and calculated accordingly. For the minimal amounts of butter, olive oil, parsley, unrefined sea salt and fresh ground pepper, I generously added $1.00. The onion was $0.25 and the half pound of liver was $3.50.)

I know some of you are saying, “That’s gross,” in regard to the liver. But trust me; it was delicious (and so healthy). More importantly, the same dinner can be made with a hamburger, chicken breast, fish filet or telephone book. And the vegetables used can be substituted freely. Home cooking is all about basic technique, confidence and good ingredients.

Here’s a play-by-play of the process:

(I’m sure many of you are thinking that you can’t do this as quickly as I describe. But I was taking notes and photos while cooking, so this is likely a realistic timetable for people who don’t cook as often as I do.)

0:00 - Preheat oven to 375° (for broccoli).

0:05 - Wash broccoli and fingerling potatoes.

1:00 - Put potatoes in a small saucepan, c
over with water, bring to a boil.

2:00 - Let liver r
est in paper towel to absorb moisture, which will help it brown.

4:00 – Reduce temperature of water cooking potatoes to a simmer.

5:00 - Cut broccoli into bite-size florets, put on baking sheet, sprinkle with olive oil, salt and pepper, and mix.

7:00 – Put broccoli into oven.

7:45 – Heat oil in sauté pan (for onions).

8:45 – When oil is hot, put in onions and
brown. Stir occasionally.

10:00 – Check potatoes and broccoli for doneness.

13:45 – Onions browned (5 minutes); push to side of sauté pan.

14:00 – Potatoes cooked (13 minutes). Drain water, let cool.

14:15 – Season liver with salt and pepper, put in sauté pan. Cook on one side for 2 minutes.

14:30 – Check comments on blog; anyone reading?

15:00 – Broccoli done (8 minutes). Remove from oven and plate.

16:15 – Turn liver to second side. Brown for 1 minute.

17:15 – Liver cooked (3 minutes). Transfer to cooling rack and let rest for two minutes.

17:30 – Cut potatoes into bite-size pieces, chop parsley, cut a tablespo
on of butter. Mix in small bowl, add salt and pepper, and plate.

19:30 – Plate liver and onions. Garnish with extra parsley.

19:58 - Eat!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

What to Feed a Baby?

On the heels of my August 26 post, there was an article in this week’s Dining section of The New York Times that discussed a similar issue: the feeding of babies.

I give cooking lessons to many parents who are frustrated by their children’s diet and how it is often limited to bland foods devoid of significant nutrition. In the hope of countering this problem, the author’s wife started early, feeding their 7-month-old daughter a sophisticated diet (albeit in puréed form).

Instead of relying on over processed baby foods, the writer and his wife put whatever they were cooking and eating into a food mill, thereby introducing their baby to flavors and tastes she otherwise would not have been privy to.

According to one doctor interviewed by the author, this is a great way to establish a toddler’s palate, hopefully leading to an omnivorous teenager and adult:

“This is how you teach your baby to develop likes similar to yours . . . Otherwise, how would an Indian child eat curry or a Mexican child consume salsa?”

It seems like common sense that a baby whose first foods are bland and laden with salt and sugar is going to be predisposed to similar tasting foods in the future.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The End of the Mediterranean Diet?

I was just about to write about Pepperidge Farm’s colored Goldfish, but instead I have to post a link to a story that appeared on the front page of today’s New York Times. It's debatable what the most appropriate adjective to describe the article is, but I think I’ll vote for “sad.”

The article perfectly sums up the consequences of the modern diet, an issue that Weston Price addressed in his research of various peoples in the 1930s. (Read my post about Price and his work.)

And you don't have to travel to Greece to see the ravages of our contemporary foodstuffs. Simply walk around immigrant neighborhoods in New York City and compare the waistlines of the older residents with those of the younger members of the community. Fresh fruits and vegetables and smaller portions have been replaced by processed and packaged food in ever-increasing quantities.

By the way, look for the Goldfish story later this week. I had an entertaining (at least I thought so) conversation today with Jennifer, who answered my call to Pepperidge Farm’s toll-free number. She held her own pretty well with one “Dave Williams.” (Yes, I'll admit it: I was too scared and embarrassed to give my real name after 10 minutes of grilling her.)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Diet That Works

I'm a strong believer in the theory that diets don't work.

From a purely logical/common sense view, look at it this way: if any single diet was ever the panacea for our weight and health issues, would the multi-billion dollar dieting industry still exist? Probably not.

As I've written previously, I'm a supporter of eating real food. Real food is cheese derived from a cow that eats grass and that is cut from a wheel or block, not shrink-wrapped in plastic. Real food is a carrot with its greens attached, not “baby” carrots that come in a plastic bag. Real food is wild fish, not fish from a fish farm. Real food is mayonnaise, not “lite” mayonnaise. The list goes on and on and on.

Knowing the genesis of our food supply is paramount and understanding that processed, man-made foodstuffs are foreign to how we should be fueling our bodies is essential.

To reiterate some major points that I try to convey in my cooking lessons, demonstrations and lectures:

• For the most part, don’t eat food that comes in a box or plastic container.

• Read the ingredient list. If you can’t pronounce something or think the last time you saw it in writing was in high school chemistry class, don’t buy the food item. (The ingredient list is different from “Nutrition Facts.”)

• Don’t buy food items that have the words “lite” or “low-fat” or “sugar-free” on their labels. Some guy in a laboratory somewhere has done something to these items to make them different. Remember, nobody has ever gotten fat from eating real avocados, real salmon, real peanut butter and real cheese.

• Cooking isn’t that difficult and the rewards are great. It’s easier than you think to produce a well-balanced meal. And you’ll feel much better because of it.

Read a great article in this week’s Dining section of The New York Times about shunning diets in favor of eating real food.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Reusable Shopping Bags

Reusable shopping bags are becoming more popular as the ramifications of using plastic and paper bags are better understood. San Francisco has banned petroleum-based plastic checkout bags in large markets and pharmacies, and Whole Foods no longer gives out plastic bags at the register.

Plastic bags are made from oil, they don’t degrade in landfills and constantly get stuck in trees and storm drains. Estimates vary greatly, but Americans use anywhere from 15 billion to 300 billion plastic bags per year. That sounds crazy, but it’s actually quite plausible. Let’s take a number on the low end of that spectrum--30 billion. If the 300 million Americans each use 100 bags per year (about two bags per week), that’s 30 billion bags per year.

And two bags each week isn’t that many when you think about it.

The numbers for paper bags are equally shocking; it’s estimated that 14 million trees are needed to make the 10 billion paper bags used annually in the United States.

I started using a reusable shopping bag about a year ago. At first, I couldn’t remember to bring it with me to the market. Slowly but surely, grabbing the bag became part of my shopping routine.

Recently, I figured I’d make the conversion easier for everyone, so I ordered 1,000 bags (branded with the Cook with Class logo, of course). If you’d like one, please e-mail me at chefrob@cookwithclass.net

Let’s all do our part to help out a little. Granted, the following quotation from Robert F. Kennedy may be a little extreme when it comes to reusable shopping bags, but it plays into the bigger picture of how an individual’s actions can have an impact:
Few will have the greatness to bend history; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is thus shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

We Are What We Eat

Common sense dictates that we are what we eat. It's also widely accepted that what a mother eats when pregnant and, later, when breast feeding, greatly influences a baby's health and well-being.

Additionally, some (myself included) think that a baby's taste buds and eating habits develop in relation to the mother's diet.

Read more in an interesting Op-Ed piece in The New York Times.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Fruits and Vegetables: I Want a Lemon Cucumber!

Unfortunately, the variety of fruits and vegetables available at local supermarkets is startlingly limited. Sure, there is a bevy of produce on display--carrots, plums, summer squash, peppers, etc.--but, for the most part, only one or two types of each are for sale.

In reality, dozens (and sometimes hundreds) of varieties of every fruit and vegetable exist. Yet, the economics of modern agribusiness have conspired to leave us with the one or two kinds of (fill in the blank) that grow, travel and store the best, with little regard for flavor and nutrition.

Thus, most of us will never see (or taste) a Green Gage plum, a lemon cucumber (photo, above right), an 8-ball zucchini or a husk tomato, which is truly a shame. Instead, supermarkets proffer peaches that are the exact same shape (perfectly round), size (a little smaller than a tennis ball), color (hues of orange, yellow and red) and flavor (none). It’s really quite disturbing; do Homer Simpson and Ned Flanders look anything alike?

During the summer months, I try to bring uncommon produce to my cooking lessons. Lemon cucumbers (yellow and round) are consistently a crowd pleaser. After the initial “What are those?” reactions, the cucumbers are sliced and eaten. In addition to the novelty factor, the crisp, citrusy flavor is always a hit.

Where to go for these different varieties? Your best bets are farmers markets and farm stands. This past Monday at the Union Square farmers market in New York City, Red Jacket Orchards was selling five kinds of (ripe) plum--Prune (purple), Sugar (yellow), Green Gage (green), Castetla (reddish/purple) and Red (uhh . . . red)--which all had distinct, succulent flavors.

That same day, Food Emporium on 68th & Broadway had two kinds of plums--red and black. All were hard as rocks, despite the attached stickers proclaiming they were “Tree Ripe.” I’ve got a better chance of beating Michael Phelps in the 200-meter individual medley than you do of finding a tree-ripened plum at Food Emporium.

Also at the farmers market, Maxwell’s Farm was selling (by my count) seven different types of yellow and green summer squash (photo, left). You’d be amazed at the varied shapes and sizes. Food Emporium, by contrast, had two: the omnipresent, 6-inch, torpedo-shaped zucchini and yellow squash.

Granted, some of the uncommon varieties may not be eye candy to everyone, but Marge Simpson did think Homer was hot at one point.

Two recent articles from The New York Times (about endangered culinary items and bananas) touch on the subject of our limited food choices.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Tremblay Apiaries' Honey: An Unrefined Sweetener

One of my new favorite foods is honey.

Pure, raw and unfiltered honey is a wonderful treat--it’s sweet, flavorful and nutritious.

Honey is made from the nectar of flowers. Bees collect the nectar, return to their hives and reduce the nectar’s moisture content by beating their wings near it, turning it into honey. Beekeepers then morph this product into room temperature honey that is bottled in its liquid, syrup form.

Honey is not a uniform product; it appears in countless flavors and colors, depending on the flower from which the bees collect the nectar.

All honeys, though, have great nutritional and health properties. Honeys made close to your home can help in allergy relief, since the local plant pollen found in the honey acts as a natural shield against seasonal sneezing, itchy eyes and stuffed noses. Try a spoonful of local honey in lieu of over-the-counter allergy medicines.

In addition to being rich in antioxidants, honey can also help in the healing of minor scrapes and burns (because of its antibacterial and antifungal capabilities). Try using honey instead of over-the-counter triple antibacterial cream.

On Fridays at the Union Square (NYC) farmers market, Tremblay Apiaries sells up to ten varieties of honey, depending on the season. Tremblay’s website cautions that if you should “find a variety that you simply adore, buy a stock of it since we may never have exactly that combination again!”

My latest purchase from Tremblay was Linden honey (from the Linden tree). It’s light in color and has minty overtones, and is completely different from the Japanese Knotweed I bought over the winter. That is much darker in color and has a deeper, richer flavor. Trust me; they are both delicious.

(FYI, I’ll personally guarantee your purchase. As long as you don’t double dip, I’ll buy your Tremblay honey from you if you don’t like it.)

Pricewise, Tremblay’s honey is a bargain. A one pound jar is only $4, half the price of other farmers market honey and cheaper than most commercial honey found in supermarkets.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Great Ice Cream - Van Leeuwen Artisan (Part 2)

Ben Van Leeuwen loves food. Mr. Softee, meet your grass-fed, synthetic-free match.

Van Leeuwen is the boyish-looking founder of the eponymous company that started offering ten flavors of premium ice cream in late June, sold from two trucks in Manhattan.

Business is brisk, especially on summer nights, and customers seem hooked on the ice cream’s flavor and quality ingredients and intrigued by the old-fashioned truck.

“It’s going great,” Van Leeuwen said from his usual evening spot on University Place between 11th and 12th Streets. (The second truck, manned by either Ben’s brother, Pete, or Dan Suarez, travels from neighborhood to neighborhood on a rotating basis.) “People’s reactions are perfect.”

And well they should be, since the ice cream tastes clean and not too sweet, with a proper balance of flavors. The chocolate is complex and deep, the espresso tastes like coffee, the strawberry tastes like strawberry and the ginger tastes like ginger. Small cups (the choice of most people) are $3.95. Pints, a better buy if you are on your way home, are $8.

Van Leeuwen’s motto is written on the two trucks:

“Welcome to Van Leeuwen Artisan, the original gourmet ice cream truck. We make our ice cream with fresh hormone free milk and cream from local farms, cane sugar and eggs. Our flavors come from the finest small producers all over the world.”

In addition, most of the milk and cream comes from grass-fed cows.

Van Leeuwen is no novice to the ice cream business--he drove a Good Humor truck during summers in the Connecticut suburb where he grew up--and his passion for food is palpable.

“It gave me the idea for the business,” he said of his Good Humor experience. “Selling food out of a truck is a good model for New York City. The ice cream truck was waiting to be reinvented.”

Why the avoidance of the usual stabilizers, emulsifiers, refined sugars and hormone-ridden ingredients found in most commercial and many high-end ice creams?

“It just tastes good,” Van Leeuwen said. “Since I was a kid, I thought junk food was disgusting.”

According to Van Leeuwen, even the premium ice creams employ--in addition to fresh milk--condensed milk or milk powder to help thicken the final product. Van Leeuwen eschews such techniques, and the results are obvious.

“Ours has a lighter taste,” he said. “But it’s still creamy and the flavors come through.”

Whole Foods will start selling pints in a limited number of area stores toward the end of the summer.

Van Leeuwen may be soft-spoken and have a pacific demeanor, but he isn’t bashful about his capitalist business goals.

“I want to have lots of trucks and be in stores all over,” he said. “My greed is limitless.”

Friday, August 1, 2008

Great Ice Cream - Van Leeuwen Artisan

I’m eating ice cream again and not worrying if I’m going to grow a third ear in the process.

I recently had my first taste of Van Leeuwen Artisan ice cream, which is available from the company’s two trucks in Manhattan. One of the trucks was in my neighborhood and I was immediately drawn in by the writing next to the side service window.

“Welcome to Van Leeuwen Artisan, the original gourmet ice cream truck. We make our ice cream with fresh hormone free milk and cream from local farms, cane sugar and eggs. Our flavors come from the finest small producers all over the world.”

Eureka! No more need to worry about the stabilizers, emulsifiers, refined sugars and pesticide-ridden milk and cream which will spring the extra ear I don’t need.

I bought a small cup for $3.95, split between coffee and chocolate. (A pint--the best deal--is $8.)

The tastes were clean and not too sweet, and the texture was dense. Real ice cream! I also tried the ginger, strawberry and mint chip. They were all delicious.

I introduced myself to the guy in the truck, Dan Suarez. (You'll also find company founder Ben Van Leeuwen, and his brother, Pete, selling cups and cones.)

I asked Dan about the genesis of the milk and cream.

“Most of it is grass-fed, and all of it is hormone-free,” Dan said. “The ice cream is made in Boonville, New York according to our recipes.”

Boonville is just west of Adirondack Park, in Oneida County. The ice cream’s milk and cream come from farms in the area.

The guys started selling their ice cream from the two trucks at the end of June, after extensive recipe testing. Whole Foods will begin selling pints later this summer.

“Ben and Pete, when they were younger,” Dan said, “sold Good Humor in the ‘burbs over the summers. Ben said, ‘I hate giving out Good Humor; I don’t eat Good Humor ever. Why not do the same thing with real ice cream?’”

Just then, a cabbie parked his taxi and handed two $1 bills to Dan through the truck’s back window.

“Ice cream?” the driver asked.

“Yea,” Dan answered. “It’s $3.95.”

The cabbie snatched his $2 back.

“It’s the real stuff,” Dan said, to no avail.

The taxi sped away, presumably to find a Mr. Softee truck and its chemical-ridden product.

The money saved will come in handy when the cabbie pays to have his body detoxified.

In the meantime, wear your seatbelt; toxic shock syndrome can strike unexpectedly, at any time, on any avenue.


Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Parsley: How to Fight Bad Breath or What's In Mouthwash?

I have bad breath. OK, I’m kidding, but imagine that I do have halitosis.

The natural remedy for foul oral odor is parsley, thanks to its high concentration of chlorophyll.

However, to see the commercial alternatives, I went to Duane Reade. Being a fan of the underdog, I picked up a bottle of the second most-popular brand of mouthwash, Scope. (Scope = made by Procter & Gamble = underdog?)

What’s in Scope?

Try: “Water, alcohol, glycerin, flavor, polysorbate 80, sodium saccharin, sodium benzoate, cetylpyridinium chloride, benzoic acid, blue 1, yellow 5.” (Free cooking lesson to the first person who e-mails me the molecular structure of cetylpyridinium chloride. No Googling, please. By the way, it's also been used as an ingredient in certain pesticides, but that's not important right now.)

I then visited a farmers market to ask one of my buddies, a farmer in New Jersey, the ingredients in his parsley ($1.50 a bunch).

"Hey, Ron, what are the ingredients in your parsley?"

“Parsley,” Ron said.

Fair enough.

Back to the Scope ($3.59 for 8.4 fluid ounces, $5.19 for 33.8 fl. oz.). On the back of the bottle is the following capitalized warning: “CAUTION: IN CASE OF ACCIDENTAL INGESTION, SEEK PROFESSIONAL ASSISTANCE OR CONTACT A POISON CONTROL CENTER IMMEDIATELY.”

“Hey, Ron, what should I do if I accidentally ingest parsley?”


Needing more information about Scope, I called its toll free number (1-800-862-7442). Immediately after pressing “1” to continue in English, a euphonious female voice (recorded) informed me that “Scope does not have an expiration date and can be kept both open and unopened for about three years from the date it was manufactured.”

“Hey, Ron, for how many days will this parsley stay good?”

“Four or five days in the fridge.”

After pressing “0” to speak with the next available representative, I asked Phyllis what exactly constituted Scope’s “FLAVOR.”

“What kind of Scope?” Phyllis asked.

“The Original Mint.”

“Can you hold one second?”

Eleven seconds later, Phyllis returned.

“The flavor is Scope’s special blend of peppermint, spearmint, anise, cassia, clove bud oil, es . . . estra . . . estragole, menthyl . .. I’ll spell this one for you . . . m-e-n-t-h-y-l-s-a-l-i-c-y-l-a-t-e . . .”

I stopped taking notes at this point.

Not wanting to bother Ron again, I independently researched parsley’s health benefits. In addition to its proven breath-freshening properties, parsley is full of flavonoids that act as antioxidants and volatile oils that can help neutralize certain types of carcinogens. And that's just the short list.

On top of everything, commercial mouthwashes don’t actually cure bad breath, but just mask it for a limited time. Mouthwashes with alcohol can lead to a dry mouth, a breeding ground for additional malodorous bacteria.

Alas, if you still want to use Scope, do yourself a favor and buy the Cool Peppermint flavor. It’s slightly less toxic than Original Mint, since it doesn’t contain yellow 5.

There’s probably a laboratory rat somewhere that owes its life to being the Cool Peppermint taste tester rather than the Original Mint one.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Eating Out with Kids

Why do children’s menus exist at restaurants? The default items on these menus are invariably chicken fingers, grilled cheese sandwiches and hamburgers, all served with French fries. If there ever was an effective way of deadening our kids’ palates while making them fat and unhealthy at the same time, it’s by serving them the flavorless, colorless foodstuffs that dominate the mini menus.

Granted, as I’ve written before, there’s nothing wrong with grilled cheese and burgers if they are made from raw milk cheese, grass-fed beef and whole grain bread. But finding those ingredients is difficult enough on regular menus, let alone on children’s menus.

I understand that parents want to avoid conflict with their children while out to dinner, but why does kowtowing in this area become the de facto response? Why shouldn’t good eating habits be the rule, not the exception?

I also recognize that ordering from the regular menu for children may not make sense in regard to price and portion size. But can American portion sizes be considered sensible in the first place? Appetizers are big enough to be main courses, and main courses easily can feed two adults.

What if we were to split our appetizers and/or main courses with our children? The kids would be better fed, we wouldn’t be eating as much, and the bill would be smaller.

Full disclosure: I don’t have kids. But here’s a link to a New York Times article written by a parent who feels similarly:


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Weston Price: "Nutrition and Physical Degeneration"

I am in the midst of reading a fascinating book, “Nutrition and Physical Degeneration,” by Weston Price. The book details the ravages of the modern diet on “primitive” and “native” peoples throughout the world.

Price, a dentist from Cleveland, studied over a dozen distinct populations and described how “white flour, sugar and canned goods” affected the general overall health and the specific dental well-being of peoples ranging from mountain-dwelling Swiss to ocean centric Melanesians to land-locked African tribes.

In his chapter on the Canadian Eskimos, Price writes, “Like the Indian, the Eskimo thrived as long as he was not blighted by the touch of modern civilization, but with it, like all primitives, he withers and dies.”

One of the most shocking aspects of the book is that it was written in 1939, based on Price’s travels and research of the previous decade. Price was far ahead of his time in realizing the deleterious results of eating modern processed foods.

To think that his studies predated the introduction of more advanced(!) junk food--Gatorade, Doritos, Big Macs, etc.--by several decades is amazing. And to realize that the “natives” hadn’t yet encountered the real poisons of modern civilization--hormones, antibiotics and pesticides--is truly mind-blowing.

Price’s premise is simple: when relying on traditional foods, the indigenous peoples’ health remained consistently excellent. However, when modern foods began to be consumed, all hell broke loose. Price took extensive before and after photographs (which are in the book) that show marked changes in the dental and facial structures within the same groups.

Having conducted his research all over the globe in varying climes and environments, Price encountered traditional diets that varied tremendously, but were akin in their 100% local, seasonal and organic nature. (The natives probably had no idea how hip and cool they were.) However, once railroads, shipping ports and trading posts were established, the incidence of tooth decay skyrocketed in those natives that had started eating modern foodstuffs.

Discussing the inhabitants of the Cook Islands (within the South Sea Islands in the Pacific Ocean), Price writes:

A large number were found in Rarotonga living almost entirely on native foods, and only 0.3 per cent of the teeth of these individuals have been attacked by dental caries. In the vicinity of Avarua, the principal port, however, the natives were largely living on trade foods, and among these 29.5 per cent of the teeth were found to have been attacked by dental caries.

Thankfully, there are still no McDonald’s and Taco Bells on Rarotonga, but I’m sure the numbers have gotten worse

Click here for the Weston A. Price Foundation.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Eat Your Vegetables, Not Your Vitamins

I am a staunch believer that all the nutrients our bodies need to function well exist in real food. Unfortunately, our food supply has been so adulterated and depleted that these core elements to the sustainment of our health are no longer a given.

Enter the vitamin industry, which attempts to artificially replace the nutrients in our food that were artificially taken out by its corporate cousins. Here is what the vitamin and supplement makers want us to believe, using a fictitious fruit—the “madeupberry”—as an example.

After much research, Acme Vitamin’s scientists have found that one nutrient in the madeupberry protects against arthritis. There are, say, 75 distinct chemical compounds and minerals in the madeupberry, but the arthritis-fighting antioxidant has been identified, isolated and put into pill form for our use.

Sounds simple, right? Not so fast. It has been scientifically proven (in real-life examples) that the anti-arthritis compound, standing alone, has no benefits. Only when it works in concert with one or more of the madeupberry’s other 74 compounds do its arthritis-fighting properties emerge. This synergistic relationship among molecules is the foundation of traditional (non-Western) medicine.

The food industry’s latest play is to add nutrients directly to foods, which leaves us with misshapen combinations. For example, Tropicana sells five types of 100% Pure Premium Orange Juice that have added chemical compounds and nutrients.

One is called “Antioxidant Advantage,” which has an ingredient list of “100% pure premium orange juice, ascorbic acid (vitamin C)*, vitamin E acetate (vitamin E)* and sodium selenite (selenium)*. * Ingredient not found in regular orange juice.” (Tropicana’s words, not mine.)

Wait, isn’t the antioxidant selenium one of the major minerals found in grass-fed butter? (See my previous post.) Why is Tropicana force-feeding us a nutrient that we can simply obtain from butter? Thinking logically, in what form will the selenium have a more salubrious effect—as a naturally-occurring component of the butter or as an additive to the orange juice?

A second orange juice is termed “Healthy Heart.” Its ingredient list reads: “100% pure premium orange juice and MEG-3®* (fish oil and fish gelatin) (contains tilapia, sardine and anchovy).” Does anyone else think this is slightly disconcerting? How many people who buy Healthy Heart juice know that it contains fish by-products?

Curious about the fish, I phoned Tropicana. The tilapia, sardine and anchovy are, thankfully, not from fish farms in China. They are wild, caught off the coast of South Africa. Or at least that is what Roberto, the customer service representative, told me. He also stated that Tropicana (owned by PepsiCo) is a “credible company.”

So was Enron.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Grass-Fed Cows = Real Butter = Anchor Butter

A specific example of a grass-fed product that I use during in-home cooking lessons in New York and in my own kitchen is Anchor Butter.

Anchor is made in New Zealand, where cows are grass-fed and law prohibits the use of hormones in dairy, sheep and beef farming.

When I hold Anchor Butter next to a stick of commercial butter for my students, they are amazed at the difference in color. Anchor is yellow (because of the grass the cows are eating), compared to the white butter derived from the milk of corn-fed cows. Even organic butters shade toward white since the cows are still eating corn (albeit without pesticides).

The myth (yes, MYTH) which states that butter is bad for you is based on unsound assumptions and studies, the same ones that classify all fatty foods as dangerous. (Gary Taubes, in his book, “Good Calories, Bad Calories,” does a masterful job of showing how many supposed nutritional and dietary truths are merely unproven statements that have morphed into accepted gospel.)

A story-starved media and clever marketers have so inculcated us with these myths that we have blindly accepted the false preaching and are left eating incomplete, flavorless and nutritionally-unsound foods like egg white omelets, lite mayonnaise and skinless chicken breasts. Whoever your god is, don’t you think it would have made eggs without the yolks if we were supposed to eat egg white omelets? The egg--with the yolk--is as close to the perfect, most complete food that exists.

Back to Anchor Butter. Yes, butter is terrible for you . . . if you are eating butter made from milk from cows eating a corn-based diet and shot up with hormones and antibiotics. If you are eating butter from grass-fed cows, you are providing yourself with a wealth of vitamins (especially A), minerals (selenium, an antioxidant), healthy fatty acids (CLA and omega-3’s) and cholesterol (essential for the composition of our cell membranes).

Did I mention how much better Anchor tastes than conventional butters? The flavor is much deeper and the texture is much creamier.

Anchor butter is available at the Fairway stores in New York. Other butters made in Europe--where cows grazing on grass is the norm--include President, Kerrygold, and Lescure. These can be found in progressive food stores and local supermarkets.