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Archive for the ‘Nutrition’ Category

No foodie should preach about sustainability and local agriculture without taking a serious look at their own pantry.  We have been getting organic grocery delivery of local produce for many years now, and I find it well worth the drawbacks for our circumstances.  Recently, we joined a local meat CSA (community supported agriculture) and drive once a month to a predetermined drop point to pick up our share of the monthly meat.

But if Vidalia onions are in season you can bet I am going to select them over the local ones, and I cannot function in the kitchen without my spice drawer which hails from all over the world.  All across California wine country there is a movement to drink local.  That’s great.  Support your community.  But I hardly think Napa would like to encourage restaurants across the country to only drink local.  In fact the story of their success depends on worldwide exportation and is a fabulous example of local agriculture makes good for a community.

So recently when I opened the pantry looking for a quick and easy side dish I saw the quinoa, which hails from *checks package* Bolivia.  Hmmm… dinner is going to have a big carbon footprint tonight kiddo… Except of course these things are all relative.  Quinoa packs nutrition, history, and socially-responsible agriculture into a tiny grain.

Technically, quinoa is not a true grain or cereal.  Botanically speaking, Chenopodium quinoa is a chenopod (like beets, spinach, or chard) and can also be consumed as a leaf vegetable, although it is predominantly grown for its edible seeds.  Originating in the Andes, it can be grown at altitudes over 13,000 feet.  And although it can also be grown on fertile plains with the benefit of mechanization, this contributes to soil erosion.  But the mountain crops are both easier on the land, of better quality besides, and are hand-farmed by small-scale communities.  The quinoa I purchase is produced by a cooperative of small growers and is sold through Alter-Eco, a fair-trade product distributor.  I prefer their Red Quinoa and choose to purchase it from Amazon in bulk.   It qualifies for Amazon Prime free shipping, and is cheaper per bag ($5.67/1 lb. bag) than the bulk price offered by Alter Eco online ($6.49/1 lb. bag).  You may not be certain you want eight pounds of the stuff right off the bat…  but I think the variety of recipes available on the intertubes these days will provide a multitude of inspiration.

The National Association of Quinoa Farmers (ANAPQUI) was created in 1983 in order to maximize the revenue of local communities who were selling at a loss. The Anapqui cooperative currently regroups 1100 small producers from the south of the Bolivian Altiplano who now benefit from decent living wages, transformation and packaging facilities. The latter, partially funded by the United Nations Development Program, enables them to export directly without having to rely on middlemen. The profit from sales goes towards financing educational and training programs that have led to the introduction of organic farming methods. -- Alter Eco website

Quinoa is a low-maintenance crop as the seeds have a coating of saponins.  Saponins are nifty plant-derived chemical compounds. They are amphipathic glycosides, so they have both hydrophilic (water-loving) and lipophilic (fat-loving) qualities.  Saponins all share the same phenomena of foaming when shaken in aqueous solution, and some saponins were historically used as soaps.  Most importantly to quinoa, saponins tend to taste bitter.  Awful enough that crops are typically safe from birds, insects, and other foraging animals.  After harvest, the saponins are removed before consumption, and most quinoa available in the US comes ready to prepare.

Quinoa, together with potatoes and maize, were hugely important to the Incas and other pre-Columbian civilizations.  To the point of being sacred.  It is considered a complete protein, that is to say it has a balanced set of essential amino acids including the oft-missing lysine, which is very rare in plants, and according to the package I purchased, one quarter cup serving contains 160 calories, 5 grams of protein, 3 grams of dietary fiber, and 20% of the daily recommended intake for iron.  There is solid nutrition science behind why this stuff fueled Incan armies.

Confession

To be quite honest, I forgot it was in the pantry.  I started buying it years ago when a friend was diagnosed with Celiac Disease, back before the food industry started catering to the gluten-free niche market.  I really only ever made one recipe:  Quinoa Taboulleh from Cooking Light.  It worked well as a gluten-free dip alongside hummus, or as a side dish to roast lamb.  I usually I made it for a crowd.  I skipped the raisins and went with parsley over mint.  And I shortened the cooking time to the package instructions of 15 minutes so it didn’t go all mushy.  Back then I bought red quinoa in bulk, but we have since diversified our gluten-free offerings as more and more friends receive their diagnoses.  So the last few packages had quietly hidden in the back of the pantry until I opened it up last month assuming I would take the easy out and just boil up some pasta.

Epiphany

While the fennel and onions bubbled away on the stove I read the package instructions.  Add rinsed quinoa to water, bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes.  Well that is about the same time commitment for pasta, so why not?  I find rice tricky because you have to cover it and not peek, but this simmers uncovered.  It cooked up just as it said it would, and as they absorb the water and burst there is a tell tale curlicue on each grain letting you know they are almost ready as the germ separates from the seed.  I mixed in some frozen corn, about 2 Tablespoons of salted butter (the butter is key if I want The Child to eat it without complaint!), and some fresh grinds of black pepper.  I would have added other things and played more, but it was time to eat.  It was under 30 minutes from the time I opened the pantry looking for pasta to the time The Child and I sat down to quinoa for dinner.

Quinoa and The Child

Much like discovering how easily farro could replace the desperation pasta meal, it was a revelation to recall just how quick and easy quinoa is to make.  While we ate I remembered one of the reasons quinoa had fallen out of favor around here.  It was not very baby or toddler friendly as a standalone dish for our family, as the individual grains were sometimes difficult to swallow.  We had a similar baby-gagging experience with couscous.  Mixed with something mushy, like hummus, tiny grains are easier for small children to eat safely and keep from sticking to everything.  In fact at our recent re-entry dinner The Child decided that mixing it with the fennel and onion mash was a more convenient way to eat it, instead of chasing the frustratingly itty-bitty grains around her plate with her spoon.  We each had seconds and stored the leftovers in the fridge.  Later in the week we discovered the leftover quinoa and corn worked very well mixed in with salsa and scooped up with tortilla chips, as well as making an excellent omelet filling with melted cheese.

During my health issues this spring The Spouse made another huge batch.  At first to help address the residual anemia post blood transfusion (between quinoa and meat and iron supplements recommended by the doc it cleared up within a few days), and then post-surgically to get more fiber and, um, let’s just say combat a challenging side effect of the pain medication.  This batch used up our leftover vegetable broth in place of the water for added flavor.  We had it stirred into cold chicken salad and salmon salad.  Alongside scrambled eggs for breakfast.  As a side dish at dinner served much like wild rice.  But the clear family favorite was mixed into salsa.  One post-hospital dinner consisted of a jar of salsa and red quinoa mixed 1:1, homemade guacamole, and Tostitos Scoops.  The Child was thrilled to “just have snackies” for dinner, and I welcomed the opportunity to nibble while healing.

Salsa for Dinner

Before we were married, my mom and her friends hosted a wedding shower.  I reluctantly agreed on the condition that there would not be any silly games.  That request somehow got lost in translation and there were, in fact, silly games.  One of them involved each person giving a gift getting to ask me any question they liked about The Soon-to-be-Spouse.  At one point someone asked what his favorite food was.  I didn’t really know what to say, but I answered, “Chips and salsa.”  There was much derision, but it was true.  Comfort food at the time often centered around a bag of chips and and a bowl of adulterated salsa.  And sometimes that became dinner.  And now we get to share that pleasure with The Child without any worries about the meal being insufficiently nutritious.  Time to make some more quinoa.

Photo by Randy Mayor for Cooking Light

Quinoa Tabbouleh from Cooking Light

Yield:  5 servings (serving size: 1 cup)

Ingredients
1 3/4 cups water
1 cup uncooked quinoa
1/2 cup coarsely chopped seeded tomato
1/2 cup chopped fresh mint or parsley
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup chopped cucumber
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons chopped green onions
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons minced fresh onion
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Combine water and quinoa in a medium saucepan; bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 20 minutes or until liquid is absorbed. Remove from heat; fluff with a fork. Stir in tomato and remaining ingredients. Cover; let stand 1 hour. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

CALORIES 182 (24% from fat); FAT 4.8g (sat 0.6g,mono 2.5g,poly 1.1g); IRON 3.5mg; CHOLESTEROL 0.0mg; CALCIUM 31mg; CARBOHYDRATE 31.6g; SODIUM 259mg; PROTEIN 5g; FIBER 5.3g

Cooking Light, OCTOBER 1999

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Our family talks about where our food comes from every single day.  Now that The Child is seven we have started in on the enlightened environmental sustainability speak… but when she was teeny-tiny we skipped over that and stuck to the basics.

What I mean specifically is setting down a pulled pork sandwich and announcing, “Mmm…  Pig.”  Or having a platter full of sausages become an impromptu quiz for a three-year old:

Us:    “What do beef and pork mean?”
Her:    “Cow and pig.”
Us:    “What’s in the bockwurst.”
Her:    “Baby cow.”
Us:    “Excellent!  Dig in.”

It got a lot of laughs from guests when she was wee, but it is a serious attempt to instill respect for what we are eating, how it gets to us, as well as the obvious basic identification about what it is.  I want The Child to know what she is eating and still have to try it.

This also applies to where it comes from on the animal.  Alton Brown does an excellent job of conveying this information on Good Eats in a manner even tiny kids can grasp.  Every time The Child asks for TV and I want to say no, but still desperately want to plug her in for my own sanity, I offer Good Eats off the DVR and sit down with her.  Frankly watching Alton break down a chicken using a dinosaur skeleton as a useful illustration is entertaining!  While The Child did not retain the details as a toddler, it fostered an environment for these discussions to become legitimate and regular dinner conversation.  And at a very young age, roasting a whole chicken became a lesson in anatomy, providing a launch point for discussions of dinosaurs and birds.  Adaptation and evolution.

No one should be thought too young for an anatomy lesson.  Most people purchase their meat cut and wrapped and ready to cook, and in the case of poultry, it is shrink-wrapped and presented such that it is not obvious to a little kid which end the head was on.  The Child was typically plunked in her Easy Diner as a baby, a safe distance from raw meat preparations, and became used to engaging in cooking interest even then.

Ever noticed how kids gravitate to drumsticks?  (Even big kids like drumsticks!)  Knowing a drumstick is a leg, and showing a kid how it goes together, is really just a fascinating puzzle.  But on a more basic level it reinforces that our dinner is muscle, bone, fat, and in the case of the humble chicken, the skin.  Put a dried out, boneless, skinless, chicken breast in front of a kid, and I cannot blame them for deciding they don’t like chicken anymore.  The more we learn about micro-nutrients inherent in every component of what we eat, the more important it is to leave that skin on, enjoy that wee bit of crispy fat, and discover the marrow in those bones.  Assuming appropriate portion control, the science of nutrition is indicating more and more that every little edible bit of an animal has a role to play in a truly balanced diet.  Akin to the micro-nutrients of leaving some of the bran intact on whole grains like farro or eating the peel on your apple.

Not every family is brimming with science geeks like our little threesome.  But just as food is science, food is also culture, and respect for food is foundational to respect of other cultures.  Religious food traditions are a common way of approaching food discussion with reverence.  Maybe your family likes to travel?  You don’t have to travel far to find varied food traditions.  Perhaps there are farmers, fishermen, or hunters in your extended family or social circle.  If history or literature is what excites you, bring that conversation to the table, especially about the foods they already love.  Just find comfortable, matter-of-fact ways to relate what you are eating to what it once was without “Ewww!” or “That’s gross!” being considered an appropriate reaction from anyone.

Kids cannot learn to respect their food unless they know what it is.  And frankly, that goes for adults too.  If your family has made the decision to consume animals, give your kids a little credit and be honest and straightforward about what is on their plate.  They just might surprise you.

Taking The Child (2 yrs old, orange pants) to The Oakland Zoo with friends in July 2005

When The Child was two years old we went to the brand spankin’ new Children’s Zoo at The Oakland Zoo.   The Oakland Zoo succeeds better than most zoos in teaching conservation and science while providing for the health, welfare, and habitats of their animals.  The Wayne and Gladys Valley Children’s Zoo is no exception, and we were there in July 2005 when they opened.  They include farm animals amidst the exhibits there, and my two-year old sprinted up to the pig exhibit with a huge smile, sighed in awe, and said, “Mmmm… Bacon.”  Some folks within earshot cracked up.  And amidst the stress of keeping up with her that day I thought, “Okay, I’m doing something right.”

Pot-Bellied Pig at The Oakland Zoo's Children's Zoo. One man's pet is another man's food.

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We received a subscription to Cooking Light as a wedding present.  That was, um…  nearly nine years ago.  (Yes, that’s right.  There are women who forget these things too.)  It was regular monthly reading for quite a while, but somewhere along the way they lost my interest.  I think as I learned more about cooking, nutrition, and food science I saw their premise of substituting ingredients with more diet-like ones either misinformed or misleading.  Foundational ingredients often were vilified and replaced with imposters.  Cooking at our house became more about variety, controlling portion size, and total calorie count.  As we reverted back to basic ingredients, our Cooking Light subscription became increasingly less relevant.  Most months I would flip through it, find a smattering of nifty ideas, and question why I had renewed yet again.

Hopefully the April issue has heralded a change.  I picked it up over the weekend and read it cover to cover.  It was full of content mirroring our approach to food:  Eat everything and anything in moderation, with an array of ingredients and portion being the measure of how healthy a meal is.  It was remarkable to find the magazine now has a refreshingly new outlook:  healthy frying encouraged, meat and eggs and dairy no longer condemned, and using fats and proteins to make vegetables more satisfying.

The cover story debunking Nutrition Myths (p.134) was refreshingly full of real information rather than pandering to what editors think dieting readers expect to see.  A little real sugar can go a long way in the kitchen.  Consuming eggs will not increase your blood cholesterol.  Some saturated fats are actually good for us.  Moderate intake of any type of alcohol (1-2 drinks per day) reduces the risk of heart disease, as those benefits are no longer limited to red wine.  Stop wasting money on fiber-fortified foods, and leave the skin on your chicken while you are at it because it is actually good for you.  Enjoy frying food at home, since with the right method it isn’t all that fattening.  The list goes on…

The piece on Rethinking Protein (p.52) refutes the misconception that protein should ideally be from particular sources.  It rejects that by defining some proteins as good the others by default are designated as bad.  There is an unique nutrition profile attached to each protein source, be it plant or animal.  The article suggests selecting appropriate portions from a larger pool of protein choices, including those which have become healthy-diet taboo.  In our house we have the conventional beef, pork and chicken.  But we also eat lamb, pasture-raised veal, fish, turkey, rabbit, duck, goose, goat, and lots of eggs.  Since joining a meat CSA (community supported agriculture) in January, we’ve tried water buffalo, guineafowl, and duck eggs.  We sprinkle nuts on yogurt and cereal, mix beans or edamame into pasta salad, add tofu to Adulterated Ramen, and drink lots and lots of milk.  It’s certainly not boring.  According to Cooking Light we humans need 0.45 grams of protein per pound of body weight, and it doesn’t take much to hit that target.  Which means most of us can stop worrying and supplementing because we are getting enough.

Roast guineafowl and pork sausage stuffing

Reading this gave me hope that the protein bar craze will soon go the way of the bottled-water-is-better-for-you dodo.  And with any luck all the snake-oil protein powder and shakes out there too.  Desperate parents are spending a lot of money offering this stuff to kids out of fear and concern rather than knowledge.  “As long as you’re eating a variety of protein-filled foods throughout the day, your body will get all the amino-acids it needs to run at full capacity.”  The article provides information on sources, amounts, and suggestions which should reassure picky eaters, vegetarians, and meat lovers alike.  If you are still concerned, check with your pediatrician and trust their guidance.

Obviously some people are going to have specific dietary restrictions from their doctors, but for the vast majority of us, portion size and variety ought be the focus of our cooking and eating decisions.  Rethinking all the limitations we have been taught to place around ‘healthy eating’ opens up a wide range of ingredients to keep fit while eating for taste and satisfaction too.  The article served as a reminder for our family to work more fish and seafood into our repertoire.  We used to go out for sushi quite regularly, but lifestyle changes have limited that, and we were not compensating by buying more fish to eat at home.  So my personal takeaway has been added emphasis reintroducing a diversity of fish and seafood back into our diets.

Much of the content in Cooking Light is available for a limited time on their website – but I hesitate to direct anyone there as it is poorly designed and a pain to slog through their format.  So go pick up a copy of the April 2010 issue before it is gone from newsstands.  This magazine doesn’t take itself too seriously (there is a regular Beauty segment for Pete’s sake!), but every recipe includes detailed nutritional information, and often includes suggestions on gluten-free adaptations.  Even for a serious foodie who knows much of this content already, I venture to say everyone will be inspired by some aspect of this issue.  The subscription was an excellent wedding gift, and much like The Spouse as it turns out, worth sticking with for a while yet.

What follows is a basic recipe for guineafowl out of a classic book on English cooking.  I’ve transcribed it here because it’s just so nifty to read.  Our preparation left out the port, watercress, parsley, and garlic.  And instead of the few breadcrumbs used a whole lot of torn up leftover Garlic Bread from the Grace Baking Co.  We have a standing order on fresh bread from spud! and were behind on our bread consumption.  We adapted for a single bird without giblets and used fresh pork sausage from our CSA.  The overflow stuffing was baked in a casserole dish alongside the bird but was finished cooking well before the bird was done, so keep an eye on it.

Roast Guineafowl
From Jane Grigson’s English Food

2 fine guineafowl, 750g-1kilo (1½ -2 lb) each
6 rashers unsmoked streaky bacon, or 6 strips of pork back fat
Seasoned flour
1 glass port
300 ml (½ pt) stock made from the giblets, or from chicken giblets
1 bunch watercress

Stuffing
125 g (4 oz) good sausages
1 heaped tablespoon breadcrumbs
1 tablespoon brandy
1 tablespoon port
1 heaped tablespoon chopped parsley
1 clove garlic, crushed
Salt, pepper to taste

First make the stuffing.  Remove the skins from the sausages and discard them (it is important to use a high-quality, meaty sausage, for instance genuine Cumberland sausages).  Mix with the remaining stuffing ingredients and divide between the two birds – if the birds are sold complete with their livers, chop them up and add them to the mixture, but be sure to remove any bitter greenish parts first.

Put the bacon or pork fat across the breasts of the birds – or, better still, lard them with fat strips of pork and protect them with butter papers.  Place them on the rack of a roasting pan and put them into a hot oven, at mark 7, 220°C (425°F).  After 15 minutes, lower the heat to mark 6, 200°C (400°F), and leave them for 30 minutes.  Take the guineafowl from the oven, remove the bacon or paper and sprinkle them with seasoned flour.  Return to the oven for 10-15 minutes until cooked and browned.  Place the birds on a serving dish and keep them warm.  Pour the port into the roasting pan juices, boil them up for a couple of minutes, scraping in all the nice brown bits that have stuck to the pan.  Add the stock and boil down until you have a small amount of strongly flavoured gravy.  Pour round the birds, and garnish the dish with watercress.

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USDA National Nutrient Database

I’m an engineer and scientist by training, although that life seems forever ago.  But I will always be a geek for data.  When I discovered the searchable USDA National Nutrient Database, I was downright giddy.

This is raw data, and it is obviously more useful in the hands of a trained nutritionist.  Understanding which nutrients are soluble when, what is contraindicated with what, and how this data changes given the application of fire are all nuances beyond me.  But as a basic guide when counting calories, or to compare relative vitamin content of particular foods, it is an excellent resource.

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