Sunday, April 26, 2009

Good Things Come in Packages ... Did I say that?

This week, I was invited to a friend's house for a Healthy Pantry dinner party. Healthy Pantry is a company that sells easy-to-prepare meals that are still relatively healthy (some organics, no GMOs, no nasty preservatives or HFCS, etc.).

Now, I'm probably the worst nightmare of anyone who gives a party like this. I'm far too cheap to buy anything, I love to cook, and I know how to cook. But I went, partly to support my friend, and partly because I was interested in looking at the business model. As it turns out, I came away with some surprising insights about Americans and food.

I am certainly an American, myself. Heck! I was born in the heartland ... in Missouri! Still, my palate was never typically American, maybe because my mother is a world traveler, and we ate (at home and out) foreign foods, many of which have since come into fashion (Middle Eastern, African, Latino, Asian and Caribbean foods). Maybe it's because I grew up in New York City, where walking a few blocks puts you square into another country. So, I've always had very broad tastes, and I tend to prefer my savory meals to be just that ... savory, not sweet. I also enjoy a good amount of spice, though any self-respecting Jamaican would pummel me in a spice-off! I didn't grow up on white bread, Kraft Mac n Cheese and Hellman's Mayo, so I never developed tastes for those sort of things. To the contrary, I was accustomed to rye bread, spicy mustard, and mostly fresh foods. In fact, making the transition to a mostly whole foods, fresh diet was hardly a transition at all for me. I forget sometimes that I'm the oddball in this country, and I think other people would want to eat like me, if only they would see the health benefits. Maybe not.

In sitting at a table filled with mostly health-minded people who wanted to do right by their families, and who were not afraid of words like quinoa or agave, I saw that even though the intention was clearly there, intention and taste have very little to do with one another. Intellectually, health-minded people want to eat healthy foods, but when they encounter healthy foods, they don't often inspire them to salivate or ask for seconds. Whether we like it or not, culture or media or family have conditioned us to like certain kinds of foods. Many of the people sitting around this table were really looking for ways to eat the sort of stuff that is the cultural norm - foods marketed to us by the big food processors - but they didn't want to pay the health price for the indulgence. That's not a completely unreasonable request ... certainly, it's human. I've even done it myself (see my taco recipe).

I'll give some examples. A number of the foods that were presented to us that night were too sweet for my taste (pineapple-turkey meatloaf, quinoa chili, wild salmon patties). Now, these did not contain sugar, and they were actually quite healthy in their ingredients. But the Healthy Pantry people clearly know the American palate, and they know we tend to favor sweet things, and we tend to shy away from spicy foods. So, the chili, which was supposed to be spicy, was flavorful, but not at all spicy. And the pineapple-turkey meatloaf, which was simply sweetened with a pineapple chutney (may actually contain some cane sugar ... I didn't see the label), was excessively sweet for me. But everyone else seemed to love everything. In fact, I was the only Scrooge there who didn't buy a single thing!

So, the question that remains is, does eating a healthy diet require a taste revolution? Or can we have our sweet meatloaf and eat it, too? I don't have the answer to that. Based on information I gathered at the party, and on the company's website, eating food from the Healthy Pantry is a vast improvement over the standard American diet, and yet it asks virtually nothing of you in compromise. It's really very clever. It is truly giving people what they want, without any guilt. You get whole grains, you get quality proteins without much fat, and you get some of the essentials nutrients often lacking in American diets, like omega 3s. The only thing you don't get is fresh produce, but as they said at the party, you can always throw together a side salad for that (or steamed broccoli, or stir-fried veggies, or grilled asparagus ... am I getting carried away?). For those who are looking for some healthy changes in their diets, but don't have the time to cook, and can't afford a personal chef, Healthy Pantry might be a good solution for you, especially if your tastes match their flavor profiles.

For the serious environmental foodie, or for the slow food advocate, any packaged food will certainly break the rules. There are ethical considerations in eating foods transported from the other side of the world, or even the other side of the country. There are some health considerations in eating foods that are processed at all, even if minimally so (mostly in that what isn't done in your own kitchen can't be known, and so there is risk involved). There are also the economic advantages that cooking from scratch allows. But I think that Healthy Pantry is still a strong step in the right direction for many people who are concerned about their health.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Grocery Shopping with the Kids

Check out my recent guest blog post on Dr. Fuhrman's blog:

Some afterthoughts on the same topic:

For those who are a little grossed out by the idea of your child eating unwashed veggies in the grocery store, here are a few things to think about:

- In nearly all stores that sell produce (not farmers markets, but certainly supermarkets and health food stores), the veggies are being periodically sprayed with water. That's pretty much what I do when I wash veggies at home (with the exception of stuff that grows underground, which requires scrubbing or peeling, and some veggies that really love dirt, like leeks and spinach), so I think that counts.

- If you're buying organic, local produce, especially from small (non-industrial) farms that don't send their produce to processing facilities, you have much less chance of getting produce contaminated with anything really nasty, like salmonella or e. coli. It is in processing facilities that widespread contamination occurs. Incidentally, salmonella and e. coli are both types of bacteria, and can therefor only be removed/destroyed with cooking. If you cook every fruit and vegetable that you consume, then you're incredibly safe. If not, then whether you wash your produce or not, you're at about the same risk of getting these illnesses. Still, it's a good idea to wash your produce, just to get some of the lesser nasties off. Just keep in mind that washed produce is not sterile.

One note of caution: if you live in an area where there are lots of CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) or animal processing plants, there is a much greater likelihood that bacteria such as salmonella or e. coli exist in both your local produce and your drinking water. This is because disease spreads easily in CAFOs (yes, even with all the antibiotics these animals receive), since they are, as their name implies, concentrated. These diseases are even more easily spread in a processing plant where infected animals pass through the same machinery that non-infected animals do, distributing bacteria throughout the plant. Water run-off from these farming and processing operations ends up in ground water, absorbed by plants, and can trickle into the water supply. Scary stuff! If you live in such a place, cooking everything is essential! Hopefully, you live somewhere else.

So, that was a real downer end to an otherwise optimistic post. I apologize for that, and hope you'll reflect more on the former than the latter.

Happy Earth Day, all!!! Make a difference and buy local today!

Monday, April 20, 2009

A Good Egg

In the past few years, as my family's shopping and eating habits have changed to favor healthier, more sustainable options, one of the grocery items that has most troubled me is eggs. There are so many options and possibilities, and which one is best is a true puzzle! There are cage-free eggs, free range eggs, pastured eggs, vegetarian-fed eggs, organic eggs, antibiotic- and hormone-free eggs, industrial-scale eggs, and local small farm eggs. And I haven't even gotten into the different varieties of hens that lay the eggs!

I started out buying anti-biotic- and hormone-free eggs that were fed a vegetarian diet. They were only slightly more expensive than conventional eggs, and I thought they covered my egg-related concerns. Then I thought, well, if the hens are being fed a diet of conventional grain, which is genetically modified and full of pesticides, is this the best egg for my family? So, I started buying industrial-scale organic eggs, feeling better that the hens were fed "safe" food.

Now, over time, I'd become aware of the environmental impact of long-distance food, and I began to take an interest in local eggs, but since local, organic eggs weren't easy to come by, and when they were, they were prohibitively expensive ($6/dozen), I couldn't justify buying them and stuck to my industrial organic eggs at about $4.50/dozen.

Then I read Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (an excellent read!), and the idea of vegetarian fed hens went out the window. Kingsolver explains in her book that if a hen is allowed to eat its natural diet, it will eat all sort of bugs and larvae and such in the course of pecking at the ground. That contributes to a better-tasting and more nutritious egg, and a healthier, happier hen.

Finally, I read Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma (an even more excellent read!), and that made it abundantly clear that vegetarian-fed hens don't make the best eggs, and that cage-free hens and even free-range industrial hens are really in no way free to roam. Pastured eggs, that is eggs from hens allowed to roam freely on pasture, are probably the best bet. The hens get a natural diet that includes some grass, some bugs, some miscellaneous animal matter, and grain feed.

So, now I could buy those local, organic, pastured eggs for $6/dozen and feel justified in doing so, but nonetheless, the wallet always wins. So, what to do? Some compromise needed to be made, but what was unimportant enough to sacrifice? A very tough question, since now I had principles and convictions and knowledge that made anything short of perfection seem just plain disgusting!

So, here is the verdict: I decided to buy local, unclassified (non-organic) pastured eggs from a reliable source (ie. someone who could be trusted to really allow the hens large quantities of pasture-time, and who would not be interested in using hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, etc.). In many communities such eggs could be found in a farmer's market, or even at a local farm, if you're willing to get to know your local farmer. My eggs were found in my semi-local health food store (about a 20 minute drive). It happens that this store is vigilant in sourcing from reliable local farms, making sure the farmers' philosophies jive with those of their customers. Many of the farms that offer this sort of product are producing something just as good as organic, but they can't afford all of the fees, red tape, and regulations that come with organic certification. So, they practice many of the same methods (or sometimes better!), but nonethless can't call themselves organic.

My new $3.79/dozen eggs are better in many ways, but in one very important way: they contain many more times the omega 3 fatty acids of conventional eggs, and that's due in large part to the hens eating grass. One other major plus is the quality of the eggs. The eggs I buy show me not only the expiration date, but also the date they were layed, so I know just how fresh they are. I used these eggs in the cake that I make every Passover, which requires 10 eggs (yikes!). Since flour cannot be used on Passover, often whipped egg whites are used to give a cake height, as in this cake. Wow! The cake has never stood so tall or tasted so light. It was a different cake, and the only variable that changed were the eggs. Incredible!

Now, there are no guarantees that I'm getting what I think I'm getting. These eggs are certified by absolutely no one, and though they claim to be pastured, I can't know exactly what they mean by that, and I have no idea what other practices the farm may have that I might find objectionable. That's why this is somewhat of a compromise. Still, these are the best eggs I've ever tasted, and I feel reassured that they are pastured simply by the dark orange color of their yolks (that's beta carotene). There's very little doubt in my mind that I've solved my egg problem.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Crispy Shoestring Veggies

My daughter has decided to have a bird-themed birthday party this year. Given that I can't stand to serve ordinary food, especially when a fabulous food opportunity presents itself, I've decided to make the party food go with that theme. So, we'll have lots of nest-shaped food, egg-shaped food, foods that contain seeds and berries, and even food that looks like worms. Fun, fun, fun!

In my search for foods that would resemble nest materials, I came up with this recipe. I was initially going to try to make potato latke nests, but those weren't working in baked form, and I was trying to avoid frying. This is actually much better nutritionally than latkes, and they're a serious hit with my daughter!

Serve these as part of an hors d'oeuvre, or as a side dish at dinner, or as crunchy munchies for a party, or even as an every day snack. It's a great way to get kids (and adults) to eat their veggies, and it's low in all the nasty stuff that snack foods usually contain (fat, sodium, sugar). Feel free to substitute any root vegetables or any dark leafy green.

Crispy Shoestring Veggies
2 sweet potatoes, washed well, trimmed of ends and halved lengthwise
2 beets (any variety, but the red ones will get you pretty messy), peeled and halved lengthwise
1 daikon radish, peeled and halved lengthwise
safflower oil spray
1/2 bunch dinosaur kale
coarse salt, to taste (optional)

Preheat oven to 275F.

Using a mandolin with a shoestring blade attached, cut the sweet potatoes, beets and daikon into thin strips. Toss in a bowl to combine.

Spray 2 large cookie sheets with oil, and spread 1/2 of the veggie mixture on each of the sheets. Spray with a bit more oil and toss the vegetables to get an even coating of oil. Spread the veggies in an even layer over the pans. Bake for 1 hour, shifting the veggies around after about 30 minutes.

While the veggies are baking, cut the kale into very thin 2" strips, and spray with oil, tossing to coat. After baking time is up, add 1/2 of the kale strips to each pan, tossing to combine, and then spreading the mixture evenly on the pans. Bake 30 minutes more, or until all veggies are crisp, but not burnt.

Sprinkle sparingly with coarse salt, if desired. Enjoy warm or at room temperature. Store in an air tight container or bag.

Serves 6 as a side dish.