Friday, October 16, 2009

Trader Joe's? The Jury is Out

I'm new to the wonders of Trader Joe's. I've heard such great things about it: the low prices, the large selection of organic and whole grain foods, the unique products. It seems like everyone I know raves about it. So, now that one opened just 10 minutes from my daughter's nursery school, I thought I'd better check it out.

I went for the first time last week and left empty-handed and a little let down and confused. I was unaware that most of the products they sell are their own brand. I suppose there must be a way to make such a variety of products and still have them all meet high quality standards, but it still doesn't make much sense to me. I always thought better products (food and otherwise) are made by companies that specialize in something. Now, I haven't actually eaten any of their products yet, so I really can't say if they break this rule. But that issue aside, there several other issues I have with TJ's.

I was a bit saddened by the focus on processed foods. It seems like at least 50% of the store is their store brand of stuff in a box - frozen meals, cereals, canned products, refrigerated prepared foods. I found it troubling to be in a store like that, especially when it has the reputation of being a healthy food store. Healthy food is whole food, not processed foods. I suppose there isn't a grocery store on the planet that doesn't have lots of processed foods (even most health food stores do), but I was expecting to get great deals on real foods, like grains, beans, spices, baking supplies, etc. (incidentally, some of those things can be found at TJ's, but they are less prominent than the processed stuff).

I thought TJ's was a mostly organic store, and although they do have quite a variety of organic foods, you have to be careful to look for the organic symbol. Many times, I thought I was spotting a great deal, only to notice upon closer inspection that the product wasn't organic, hence the low price. I was a bit thrown to see so much conventional produce, in particular.

There are also some environmental concerns that I have with TJ's. Although they certainly do some things right (using paper shopping bags instead of plastic, for example), their products (even in produce) are clearly not locally-focused. That means that buying produce from them, or any other potentially local product (dairy, meat, bread, eggs, honey) is not supporting your local farmers, and it is adding to your carbon footprint by transporting foods that could be sourced locally.

So, I obviously had some negative first impressions about TJ's. But in the week that followed, I thought about it again and reconsidered some things. I do buy some processed foods: bread, cereal, canned tomatoes and dry pasta, to name a few. So, I may as well save some money at TJ's and buy that stuff there, if it's good, and if it's truly a savings. I also don't buy everything locally: I try to buy nearly all local produce, and as much as possible I buy local meats, eggs, honey and dairy. But I can't buy local grain, flour, sugar or nuts, to name a few. So, I may as well save some money and buy that stuff there, too. Finally, although I buy nearly all organic products, I would consider buying some non-organic products at TJ's because their products are GMO-free, and that is a major concern for me in most conventional products.

I went back to TJ's today, and I did buy a few things, and at very good prices:
- Organic boneless chicken breasts @ $6.99/lb. - I have yet to find local boneless chicken breasts, and this is an excellent price
- Whole wheat organic spaghetti @ $1.29 for 16 oz. - that's $0.70 less than the spaghetti I usually buy, when it's on sale
- Organic whole wheat min-pitas @ $1.79 for 8 - I've never seen these anywhere else
- Whole wheat pizza dough (non-organic) @ $0.99 - I still would like to start making my own pizza dough, but for now (with the little one only 3 months old), I'll forgive myself
- Whole wheat small flour tortillas (non-organic) @ $2.29 for 10 - I haven't seen this size whole wheat non-GMO tortillas anywhere else
- Whole wheat large flour tortillas (non-organic) @ $2.69 for 10 - not sure this is such a great deal. If it were organic, it would be a great deal. At least it's non-GMO.
- Organic light brown sugar @ $2.99 for 24 oz. - this is a real bargain - the same amount would normally go for more than $5. Only problem is that it's not fair trade.
- I also thought about buying their dried unsulphured mango, but then I saw that the first ingredient is sugar, so I nixed that.

I have some guilt about buying all this stuff. None of it is ideal, but it's hard to argue with the prices given that they required only small compromises. Still, what good are ideals if you're willing to compromise them for a bargain? I don't know ... I have figured this one out yet.

Ultimately, I think what made TJ's a less than life-altering experience for me is the hype. I went in expecting a revolutionary shopping experience, and I came away feeling like all I saw was a different business model for the same old, same old.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Halloween Sweets Project for Kids

I'm going to disappoint a lot of folks in this confession: I'm not into Halloween. I think I went trick-or-treating twice in my life, and it was no big thrill. My mother is lucky her house was never egged or TP'd, as she gave out pennies on Halloween.

That said, I was inspired today to post about some fun food stuff to do with kids on Halloween. Another mother who is also a member of Holistic Moms Network posed the question of what to use to decorate cookies on Halloween that is not grossly unhealthy. So, I came up with a list of suggestions, and here they are.

Dark (brown, but almost black):
- Raisins
- Sprinkelz brand makes a few different types of sprinkles with no artificial colors.
- Carob chips
- Cacao nibs
- Use a microplane to shred some fair trade organic chocolate

- Shredded coconut
- Coconut butter sweetened with agave, maple syrup, or your choice of sweetener, if you need something spreadable
- Cream cheese mixed with maple syrup and little vanilla (I stole that one from my friend, Rose)

Red (think blood):
- Pomegranate juice
- Beet juice

- Egg yolk mixed with a little pomegranate or beet juice and sweetened (you'd need to then bake whatever you put this on)
- Turmeric mixed with pomegranate juice and sweetened - mix this into a white frosting or coconut butter to make it spreadable
- Steamed, pureed and strained pumpkin, winter squash or sweet potato mixed into white frosting or coconut butter
- Pureed mango (deepen the color with just a little molasses or brown sugar)

- Blueberry juice

You could go the traditional route and have the kids decorate cupcakes or cookies. Maybe make a bunch of different color "frostings" for the kids to spread on them, and then give them a few other decorating options, like raisins, carob chips, shredded coconut and a bowl of pomegranate juice.

Another alternative to cookies and cupcakes is to make a jelly roll cake (with a healthier recipe - maybe this one), but don't roll it. You can get some Halloween cookie cutters and have the kids cut out Halloween shapes. That way, the decorating colors don't need to be spot on to still look Halloweeny.

For a very artistically inclined child, you could even give them a whole jelly roll cake to decorate so they have a full canvas to fill.

Despite my own disinterest in the holiday, I do hope you and yours have a healthy, happy, spooky Halloween!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Tofu Tacos with Cashew Sauce

Eight years ago, when I met my husband, I found out that I didn't have the adventurous palate that I thought I did; and even though his tastes were somewhat narrow compared to mine, he cooked things that I never considered. I even turned my nose up at some. Most baffling to me was tofu. Sure, I had eaten tofu here and there in Asian restaurants, but it was always because it happened to be on my plate mixed in with other more desirous things, not because I was specifically interested in ordering tofu.

I knew myself to be entirely open to foods of all sorts, so in realizing that I was wrong in this perception, I found myself in a challenging position. I didn't like being someone who wasn't open to new foods, even though I clearly was that person. So, I decided to simply be open and accept my newfound friend - tofu. And now, I'm a true fan.

As it turns out, tofu is a very complex food, which I am only beginning to understand. It can be eaten in any number of forms (soups, sauces, stews, frozen, fried, sauteed, grilled, baked ... you name it). It can take on virtually any flavor, so it can fit in any cuisine. Lots of culinary fun can be had with tofu, and that is what I am attempting to do.

This recipe is one of my adventures in tofuland.

Tofu Tacos with Cashew Sauce

16 oz. firm tofu
tofu marinade (see below)
safflower oil spray
20 leaves of greens (I used swiss chard and turnip greens), shredded
1/2 daikon, peeled and sliced into matchsticks
1 carrot, peeled and sliced into matchsticks
3-5 turnips, sliced into matchsticks
1 cup bean sprouts
cashew sauce (see below)
12 brown rice tortillas

Tofu Marinade
3 Tbsps. low-sodium tamari
1 tsp. sesame oil
1 Tbsp. brown rice vinegar
2 inches ginger, sliced
2 cloves garlic, sliced

Cashew Sauce
1/2 cup raw cashew butter
1/4 cup wheat-free low-sodium tamari
1 Tbsp. brown rice vinegar
1 tsp. sesame oil
2 Tbsps. tahini
2 Tbsps. safflower oil
2 Tbsps. agave nectar

Place whole tofu brick in a bowl. Place another bowl or plate on top of the tofu and weigh it down with something heavy, such as a can of beans. Put the weighed down tofu in the refrigerator for 12-24 hours. Remove the weight, and pour off whatever liquid has accumulated in the bowl.

In a small bowl, whisk together marinade ingredients. Cut the tofu into four equally thick slices. Lay the tofu slices in a single layer in a small glass container or pan. Allow to marinate, refrigerated, for at least 4 hours, turning once.

Heat a large cast iron skillet over medium high heat. Spray with safflower oil. Once the pan is hot, add the tofu slices. Grill for 4-5 minutes on each side. Remove from pan. Once slightly cooled, cut tofu into thick strips.

In a small bowl, whisk together cashew sauce ingredients. It will be somewhat thick. If you prefer a thinner consistency, add water, 1 Tbsp at a time until you reach the desired effect.

Using one tortilla at a time, paint the center with a dollop of cashew sauce, add a few strips of the tofu and some of each of the vegetables. If using taco-sized tortillas, simply fold in half and enjoy. If using burrito-sized tortillas, bring one end over, fold in the sides, and then roll the wrap over the other end. Cut in half on an angle.

Serves 4-6.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Sweet & Sour with a Dash of Pomegranate

One of the things that really says Fall to me, other than changing leaves and sudden gusts of wind, is the appearance of pomegranates in the produce section. There are so many products on the shelves that feature pomegranates, touting it's superfood capacity as an antioxidant, but so few people actually eat pomegranates as they are naturally, and in the short season that they're available. I think that's a terrible shame. I believe that what is stopping people is the foreignness of the fruit, and the mystery of how to approach it. Once you learn how get into it and how to eat it (which is as simple as cutting it open and eating the kernels inside, which look a lot like red corn kernels), you can do a million things with them! They offer great color and taste contrast in savory dishes, and they offer textural interest in sweet dishes. Here are a few easy things to do with your pomegranate (that you will surely buy this week):

- Toss into a green salad
- Toss into a fruit salad
- Toss a handful into your morning oatmeal or cold cereal
- Eat as a snack (lots of fun for kids)
- Cranberry Apple Pomegranate Sauce
- Garnish savory dishes featuring fruit-friendly proteins, such as fish, pork, chicken or shrimp
- Make Sweet & Sour Stir Fry ........

Sweet & Sour Stir Fry
1/2 cup brown rice vinegar
1/4 cup mirin (sweet rice wine - sold in Asian food stores and some grocery stores)
1/4 cup lime juice
1/2 cup brown rice syrup (sold in health food stores)
1 Tbsp. unsulphured blackstrap molasses
2 inches of ginger, cut into chunks (no need to peel)
pinch coarse salt
14 oz. brown rice fettuccini
1/4 cup safflower oil
1.25 lbs. mahi mahi, skinned and cut into 1" cubes
1 head napa cabbage, shredded
2 carrots, cut in thin 2" strips
1 red pepper, seeded and cut into thin 2" strips
1 bunch scallions, cut into thin 2" strips
1/2 cup pomegranate kernels
1/2 cup raw cashews or peanuts, rough chopped (optional)

In a small saucepan combine the vinegar, mirin, lime juice, brown rice syrup, molasses, ginger and salt. Bring to a simmer over medium heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and reduce the sauce by about half (about 15 minutes). Fish the chunks of ginger out and discard, and reserve the sauce.

Cook the fettuccini according to package directions.

In a very large wok or stainless steel skillet, heat the safflower oil over medium-high heat. Add the fish and stir fry until just cooked. Remove the fish from the skillet and set aside. Add the cabbage, carrots and red pepper, and stir fry until the cabbage is wilted and the carrot has softened a bit (10 minutes). Return the fish to the pan and add the sweet and sour sauce. Stir to combine. Add the fettuccini and toss until combined thoroughly and heated through.

Serve in bowls garnished with a sprinkle of scallions, pomegranate kernels and nuts.

Serves 4-6.

Source of pomegranate photo: