Monday, August 31, 2009

Whole Wheat Pita Bread and Synthetic Additives

Buying whole wheat pita bread should be simple and straightforward, right?

Unfortunately, it’s not, as many brands contain synthetic additives and other unnecessary ingredients used to improve(?) flavor and extend shelf life.

As is the case with most foods, a careful—but quick—reading of ingredient lists is necessary to determine which whole wheat pita you should be buying for yourself and your family.

I buy whole wheat pita (photo, above right) made only with the basic four ingredients needed to make bread: water, flour, yeast and salt. But right next to the pitas from the Queens Pita Bakery are ones from other makers that contain additives such as malted barley flour, dextrose, soy protein isolate and sucralose.

Granted, the Queens Pita Bakery may not deliver to stores in your neighborhood, but that shouldn’t stop you from studying ingredient lists and choosing the brand with the fewest—or hopefully no—synthetic additives.

Many doctors and scientists believe that our bodies are not hardwired to process the multitude of additives now rampant in our food. My gut (and non-medical common sense) tells me they are correct.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Lemon Cucumbers

In addition to the popular vegetables (carrots, tomatoes, radishes, lettuces, etc.) that I grow every year in my garden, I always try to plant several varieties of vegetables that are less common.

This summer, for example, I am growing lemon cucumbers (photo, right). They are a little smaller than a tennis ball and develop a yellow color when ripe. I usually eat them raw, and I love their clean, refreshing flavor, which is slightly citrusy.

I’ve never seen lemon cucumbers for sale in food stores, but they can be found at farmers’ markets.

The next time I cut a lemon cuke open (probably sometime today), I have to remember to scoop out some seeds, which I’ll dry and use for next summer’s planting.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Should We Pay for Plastic and Paper Bags?

Unfortunately, the citizens of Seattle recently voted against a proposal that would have made it mandatory for grocery, drug and convenience stores to charge 20 cents for each plastic or paper bag taken by customers.

What a great idea! What a shame! The use of these throwaway bags falls under the category of unnecessary consumption and we should be charged accordingly.

It took about two weeks, but carrying a reusable shopping bag eventually became ingrained in my routine. And even if we forget our bag or make a spontaneous purchase, do we really need a plastic bag for the orphan container of orange juice or the solo box of toothpaste we occasionally buy?

Whole Foods gives a 10-cent refund for each reusable bag used by customers. I took a survey of reusable bag-toting shoppers leaving my local Whole Foods and found that none of those polled uses a reusable bag to save the dime.

That being said, echoing the Seattle proposal, shouldn’t Whole Foods charge 10 cents for every bag that customers take? This would quickly make people think about the issue and, I firmly believe, increase the number of people using reusable bags.

Whole Foods, a public company, does not have to face a citizens’ vote. Yes, there are the shareholders to answer to, but Whole Foods has become a progressive company catering to left-leaning clientele. If any store can pull this off, it is Whole Foods.

I called the Whole Foods Northeast regional office and am waiting to hear back from the person who handles green issues. I’ll report on our conversation when it happens. In the meantime, what does everyone else think?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Farmers' Market Eggs: Different Colors, Spots and Dots

I buy eggs at the farmers’ market, from a farmer who treats her hens with great care. The hens eat their natural diet (which includes grass and insects), have ample space to move (inside and out) and are allowed to follow their natural sleep rhythms.

As seen in the photo above to the right, the eggs these hens lay vary greatly in size and color. Occasional spots and dots are common.

On the other end of the spectrum are eggs from industrial egg-laying operations. Often at these fact
ories, the hens are fed an all-vegetarian diet (not natural for the hens), have little to no room to move and are kept under artificial light to stimulate egg production.

The photo to the l
eft pictures commercial eggs; the eggs are exactly the same color and appear to be artificially whitewashed. I opened 10 cartons and every egg looked identical.

Personally, I take a common sense approach when I buy eggs. In addition to the taste, health and safety advantages of the farmers’ market eggs, I want my eggs—like humans—to look different. I’m a little wary of buying a carton of eggs and seeing 12 identical eggs.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Bounty Paper Towels in Bulk . . . and Plastic

While giving a cooking lesson the other day, I was intrigued by my student’s paper towels.

Huh? No, they weren’t towels with unnecessary printed designs, which are colored with petroleum-based synthetic dyes that eventually end up seeping into our water supply.

Instead, the packaging of Bounty’s 15-roll bundle of white paper towels gave me pause because the entire package of towels was wrapped in plastic. Although I recognize that this is necessary and less wasteful than buying single rolls or packages of three, I was surprised to see that each of the 15 rolls was further individually wrapped in plastic.

It’s bad enough that the big paper companies use chlorine to whiten their paper towels, napkins and toilet paper (yes, you guessed it—the chlorine leaches into our water supply), but plastic wrapping within plastic wrapping?

I called Procter & Gamble and—surprisingly—received an answer not completely contaminated with corporate obfuscation.

According to Tyson, my customer service representative, Bounty sells bulk packages of paper towels containing rolls that are both plastic-wrapped and rolls not wrapped a second time. Some customers prefer the individually-wrapped rolls for sanitary reasons. After the opening of the outside plastic, unwrapped rolls can pick up unwanted dirt and debris.

Stores’ ordering preferences determine availability.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Nicholas Kristof: "Food for the Soul"

New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof wrote a masterful column yesterday decrying America’s move away from family farms to large-scale farming operations:
“On a summer visit back to the farm here where I grew up, I think I figured out the central problem with modern industrial agriculture. It’s not just that it produces unhealthy food, mishandles waste and overuses antibiotics in ways that harm us all.

More fundamentally, it has no soul.”
Kristof interweaves some of the problems of our modern food supply with several anecdotes from his farm days, including a priceless story about a chicken.

The column takes about three minutes to read. Please click here to see it; I'm confident you'll enjoy.

Friday, August 21, 2009

A Quick and Easy Way to Cook Tuna (and Sides)

Last night I made a quick and easy dinner of seared tuna with sesame seeds, sautéed string beans and a chopped salad of cucumbers, tomatoes and parsley.

Yes, it really was quick and easy and you don’t have to be Julia (or Julie) to make it. The only ingredients I used were those listed above, plus olive oil, lemon juice, unrefined sea salt and fresh ground pepper for cooking and/or seasoning.

The play-by-play of the 20 minutes it took to prep and cook:
  • Wash all veggies.
  • Make salad by chopping cherry tomatoes, cucumbers and parsley. Combine in a bowl; add olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Let sit while cooking tuna and string beans.
  • Prep string beans by first trimming ends and then cutting in half. Set aside.
  • Prep tuna by putting sesame seeds onto a plate. Press both sides of tuna steak into sesame seeds, allowing seeds to stick to tuna. Set aside.
  • Begin cooking of tuna and string beans by heating two pans, both with just enough olive oil to coat pans’ bottoms. When oil is hot but not smoking, put string beans in one pan and tuna (seasoned with salt and pepper at the last second) in the other.
  • Shake or stir string beans, but let tuna sit in pan. When surface of tuna touching pan starts to turn white (it will only take two or three minutes), flip tuna to second side. Continue to shake or stir string beans. Turn off heat under string beans when they start to turn bright green. Add lemon juice, salt and pepper, and mix. Turn off heat under tuna when second side has started to turn white.
  • Plate tuna, string beans and salad. Enjoy!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

How Wellness in the Schools (WITS) Is Improving School Food

I recently donated a cooking lesson to a charity auction benefiting Wellness in the Schools (WITS), a charitable organization dedicated to improving children's environmental health, nutrition and fitness in the New York City public schools.

One of the main goals of the WITS program is to improve school food, a cause that has enjoyed increased attention in the past several years, thanks in part to the stratospheric spikes in childhood obesity, diabetes and allergies.

An article in yesterday's The New York Times highlighted the momentum groups like WITS have helped create:
“The Department of Agriculture is expected to upgrade school food nutrition standards this year, many of which haven’t been changed for nearly 15 years. And because many Obama U.S.D.A. appointees are focusing on improving student health through better food, the department has started an aggressive effort to study reform efforts big and small.”
Click here to read the entire Times article. I'll write more about the WITS program in a future post.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

What Is In the Meat We Eat?

(Second of two parts, continued from yesterday)

I was confused, since the “Premium Angus Beef” meat’s labels said nothing about being free of antibiotics, added hormones and steroids. To resolve the issue, I telephoned D’Agostino’s corporate headquarters. It took me three calls, but I finally spoke with someone who could answer my questions—the chain’s head meat buyer.

Bob explained that there was indeed a difference between the two categories of meat.

The “Premium Natural Angus Beef” meat (photo, above right) was part of D’Agostino’s “Never Ever” program, which was the basis for the poster’s claim that no antibiotics, hormon
es and steroids were ever administered to the cattle.

The “Premium
Angus Beef” label (photo, left) needed a little more explaining from Bob. That meat was from cattle that had not been administered antibiotics, hormones and steroids during the last 120 days of life, a subtle—yet big—difference. (The cows’ lifespan is 9 to 14 months.)

Furthermore, according to government regulations, D’Agostino could legally label this meat “natural,” but it decides not to as a matter of principle.

“All the other markets label this meat natural,” Bob said.

I find it disturbing that so much effort and investigation on the part of the consumer is needed to unravel the truth about our food. While it is heartening to know that D’Agostino’s meat buyer was up front and honest about his company’s product, most of the big food companies are less than forthcoming about the true nature of their goods.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

D'Agostino's Premium Natural Angus Beef

(First of two parts)

One of my goals is to encourage others to start reading the ingredient lists on the food we buy. The few seconds spent identifying what is in our food can help us make better purchases. For example, there are plenty of fruit juices without added sugars and peanut butters without salt and hydrogenated oils.

Unfortunately, even in foods that aren’t packaged and heavily processed, it’s safe to assume that what we see isn’t all that we get. The terminology used on food packaging and in advertisements can be utterly confusing and somewhat misleading.

For example, the D’Agostino supermarket near my apartment has a sign in its window (photo, above right; click on it for more detail) extolling the benefits of the “Premium Natural Angus Beef” it sells under the in-house D’ 1932 Brand label. The fact that no antibiotics, added hormones and steroids have ever been used in the raising of the cattle is a major plus.

As I’ve previously written, most of the beef in the United States originates from commercial feedlots, where the use of antibiotics and hormones is standard procedure. A 2008 report from the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production detailed some of the dangers of the widespread use of antibiotics and hormones. (I’ll discuss this report in a future post.)

I went into the D’Agostino and observed the case where the Premium Natural Angus Beef was displayed. The no antibiotics, added hormones and steroids mantra was repeated. However, in the same case were packages of meat labeled “Premium Angus Beef.” I was curious about the absence of the word “natural.”

I asked the butcher if all the meat in the case (under both labels) was free of antibiotics, hormones and steroids.

“Yes,” he answered, sweeping his arms over the entire display.

(Tomorrow: The difference between the two labels)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Bronson Arroyo Speaks the Truth About Drugs and Fast Food

USA Today ran a story last Thursday in which Cincinnati Reds pitcher Bronson Arroyo openly discussed drug and supplement usage in baseball, including his own. Some of Arroyo’s quotes were striking for their honesty.

On his current use of supplements: "I have a lot of guys in [the locker room] who think I'm out of [my] mind . . . I take 10 to 12 different things a day, and on the days I pitch, there's four more things.”

On his previous use of androstenedione, which the body converts into testosterone and is now banned by Major League Baseball: “I didn't think twice about it. I took androstenedione the same way I took my multivitamins. [I]t made me feel unbelievable. I felt like a monster."

On the hypocrisy of the media and public, who, Arroyo believes, care more about the breaking of records than players’ well-being: “At the end of the day, you think anybody really [cares] whether Manny Ramirez's kidneys fail and he dies at 50?”

However, by far my favorite Arroyo statement was the following, which completely caught me off guard but made me a huge Bronson Arroyo fan. I should try to get him to endorse The Delicious Truth.

On what we are feeding our kids: "You think this country really cares about what ballplayers put in their bodies? If we really care, why are we pumping Coca-Cola in every kid's mouth, and McDonald's, and Burger King and KFC? That [stuff] is killing people.”

Friday, August 14, 2009

How to Make Carrot Soup

Last night I made a carrot soup using the carrots I pulled from my garden patch.

I started by sautéing some minced onion and ginger in olive oil in a soup pot (uncovered), stirring often to prevent the onion and ginger from browning. While that mixture cooked, I washed the carrots and chopped them into smaller pieces.

When the onions and ginger were soft (10 minutes), I added the carrots and cooked everything (cov
ered) for another 15 minutes. I then added enough cold water to cover the vegetables by about an inch. I let the vegetables simmer (uncovered) for about 45 minutes until the carrots were very soft.

After letting the mixture cool, I used a hand-held immersion blender to purée everything until it was smooth. No carrot pieces remained. I froze the mixture and will eat it in the near future.

Answers to some questions you may have:

Why did I not want the onions
and ginger to brown? The onions and ginger would have taken on too much flavor if I let them brown. For certain dishes (sausage, peppers and onions) that is fine, but in this case I didn’t want to overwhelm the sweetness of the carrots.

did I cover the pot after adding the carrots? My gut told me that I’d rather have the evaporating liquid and its flavor remain in the pot, rather than escaping. Also, the extra liquid and heat would help the carrots cook and sweeten before I added the cold water.

Why no salt and pepper? I will salt and pepper to taste after I defrost and heat the soup. If I had salted to taste when I had added the water, I probably would have ended up with a salty soup, since some water—but no salt—evaporated during the cooking process.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Forked Carrots, a Different Kind of Carrot

We are so accustomed to finding perfectly-shaped fruits and vegetables in the supermarket that I hope the carrot on the right doesn’t scare you.

When I pulled the forked carrot from my garden’s soil the other day, I had a feeling it had hit a rock or stone, causing it to trifurcate. My suspicions were confirmed by my friend Peter Garnham, a
Master Gardener who has taught me a great deal about gardening over the last several years.

“The carrot root certainly encountered something,” he said. “With what they call "carrot soils" you can stiffen your fingers and plunge your hand into the soil almost to the elbow. It takes a while to get that much organic matter in place to make the soil so "fluffy," but then you wouldn't get such interesting-looking carrots!"

The fluffy, loose soil Peter alluded to allows the carrots to grow

My thumb does have some green in it, though, as evidenced by the photo on the left, which shows the other carrots I harvested.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

What and How to Feed Kids

Last night I gave a cooking lesson focusing on shellfish. We made four dishes: mussels in a pineapple juice-coconut milk broth, curried shrimp, sautéed scallops and squid in a very garlicky tomato sauce.

The two couples learned some new techniques and tricks, and there were no leftovers. The highlight of the evening, though, may have been that the two-year-old son of one of the couples feasted on everything, with no prodding from his parents.

For me, seeing this was refreshing, especially since I observe and work with so many kids (all ages) whose diets consist mostly of packaged and processed foods full of refined sugars, salt, synthetic additives and artificial colorants.

I asked the parents what they did to foster their son’s eating habits. Their philosophy—which also allowed their two older children to become great eaters—is straightforward and based on common sense:
  • At home, the kids eat whatever their omnivorous parents eat. No concessions are made for the younger palates.
  • At restaurants, the kids eat from the regular menu, often sharing dishes with their parents. Kids’ menus are not visited.
The second set of parents relayed a funny story. The dad had cooked scallops for himself and his wife, and macaroni and cheese for their kids. However, the children staged a coup d’état and commandeered the scallops, leaving their parents with the macaroni.

The parents agreed that the incessant marketing devoted to junk food could present a problem, but their kids’ palates were developed enough to differentiate between these edible foodlike substances and real food.

Granted, all kids aren’t going to be adventurous eaters, but making small changes to their diets—substituting water for fruit juices, sodas and sports drinks—can make a huge impact on their palates, health and behavior.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

New York City's Community Gardens

Yesterday I wrote about Buster English, a Brooklyn man who tends a garden at his Fort Greene housing project. But English is far from the only person in New York City who grows vegetables and flowers.

In fact, the network of community gardens is quite extensive. The gardens vary in size from small patches of a few hundred square feet to larger areas that occupy entire city blocks.

According to the Department of Parks & Recreation’s GreenThumb website, there are “over 600 member gardens serving 20,000 city residents.” But the number of gardens and gardeners is undoubtedly higher, since the Parks Department’s totals do not include non-affiliated backyard and rooftop gardens, plus the garden patches alongside commuter rail lines throughout the city.

Several weeks ago I took a day trip with a friend to the outer reaches of Queens and Brooklyn. We came across three sanctioned community gardens, including two idyllic locales that seemed more small-town America than big bad New York City. The gardens at Floyd Bennett Field (New York City’s first municipal airport) and Fort Tilden (a former Army base) were teeming with peas, lettuces, tomatoes and zucchini.

The third, though, presented a completely different feel. The New Visions Garden (photo) was in the shadows of the elevated subway tracks in East New York, not exactly known as the safest place in the city. But just like in countless other gardens all over the five boroughs, the effort and commitment of the local gardeners was obvious.

Even if you have access to only a window sill and not a community garden, try raising some parsley or basil in a small pot or paper cup. You’ll be surprised at what you can grow in even the smallest of places.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Buster English, Urban Gardener

The New York Times has been running a great series called “One In 8 Million: New York Characters in Sound and Images.” Yesterday, Buster English, an urban gardener in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, was profiled.

English, who lives in the Walt Whitman Houses—“projects” according to English—has been gardening there since 1994. He grows a variety of vegetables, which he both feeds to his family and gives away to neighbors.

My favorite lines from English:
  • “I know a lot of people they use this Miracle Gro, fertilizer, and whatever. I don’t use none of that. I like for my plants to grow natural. I figure if the dirt and the rain don’t grow it, it’s not meant.”
  • “A lot of kids in New York, they don’t even know where their food comes from.”
  • “I had a lot of people offer me money for [my vegetables], but I don’t receive the money. I just give it to them from my heart.”
Click here for the Times' online feature on English.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Saving Seeds

Even though I pulled the dried-out snap pea plants from my garden patch last weekend, they will continue to pay dividends for me.

The plants still had a handful of dried snap peas attached, which I purposely did not pick when they were young and tender. Why? I will use the individual peas as seed for a late summer planting of snap peas. Had I bought a packet of pea seeds, I would have been purchasing what I already possessed. I also save seed from arugula, broccoli rabe, string beans, nasturtium (edible flowers) and husk tomatoes.

Farmers have been saving seed since the dawn of domesticated agriculture; Mother Nature has been employing the technique in a wild manner for far longer. Talk about the original recycling program!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Chilean Sea Bass = Patagonian Toothfish

Not convinced that marketing can influence our buying decisions? Have you ever heard of Patagonian toothfish, slimehead and goosefish? Well, that’s what we are eating when we purchase Chilean sea bass, orange roughy and monkfish, respectively.

The sexier names were all created within the past several decades to help bolster sales of varieties that previously weren’t on our sonar. With the name changes, sales of all three skyrocketed. However, this led to overfishing, which severely depleted stocks. Protections are now in place for the three.

Why the name changes? As the commercial fishing industry grew to meet the increased demand for seafood, uncommon fish types were brought back by boats having to fish deeper and travel farther. Simply put, even a pound of slimehead had no chance against just a forkful of the more genteel-sounding orange roughy.

Be forewarned that (starting early next year) if you see “delacata” on restaurant menus or at markets, you are simply buying a thicker fillet of a farmed catfish.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Knowing Where Your Food Comes From

One of the most e-mailed articles from The New York Times website this week has been the story “Keeping Their Eggs in Their Backyard Nests,” which focuses on the growing trend of raising chickens in one’s backyard.

It’s been a banner year, as “hatcheries that supply baby chicks say they can barely keep up with demand.”

While some raise chickens because of economic reasons and a desire for self-sufficiency, others do it for food safety issues and the better flavor of the meat and eggs.

Personally, I grow my own vegetables for the second set of reasons. Also, I try to avoid eating vegetables sprayed with pesticides whenever possible. I want to know where my food comes from, and growing vegetables and raising chickens represents the ultimate in control. Count me among those who have a “fear, after several prominent recalls, that the food in the supermarket is no longer safe."

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

When Fruits and Vegetables Grow

Farmers at farmers’ markets usually answer with a simple “no” to the question—asked in May—“Do you have any tomatoes?”

The longer answer, despite what supermarkets lead us to believe, is that fruits and vegetables have distinct growing seasons. Some, like strawberries, peas and lettuces, thrive in cooler weathe
r and are available in the late spring/early summer and again in the early fall. Others, like tomatoes, string beans and peppers, love the heat and are harvested beginning in mid-summer.

A great visual
to demonstrate the affect of heat can be seen in two photos; I took both on Saturday. The photo above (click for detail) is of vibrant string bean plants that are about to flower and produce string beans. The photo to the left is of pea plants, which have dried out in the heat after producing hundreds of snap peas from early June to early July.

Click here for a calendar of the growing season (and availability) of fruits and vegetables in the area around New York City. Granted, the harvest calendar may be different where you live, but the chart should provide a better understanding of the ebbs and flows of the growing cycle.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Picking Wild Raspberries

The wild blackberries I usually pick within a two-week window during the summer are late this year because of the weather. Luckily, though, I happened upon a thicket of wild raspberry plants which are producing dozens of berries daily.

Click on the photo to the right to see more detail of the raspberries. The yellow conical buds remained after I picked the berries, explaining the hollow form of raspberries. I never knew this unt
il this weekend!

The raspberries were beautiful, but they were a little tart. For dessert two nights ago, we sprinkled a
little brown sugar on the berries, mixed and let them sit as we ate dinner. Dessert was an interesting combination of tart and sweet.

Last night’s dessert was even more delicious. We ate individual raspberry crisps—literally—less than an hour after I had picked the raspberries.