Face-Off: the Unicorn Frappucino versus Lemon Meringue Pie

When my seventeen-year-old daughter and her boyfriend pass up homemade lemon meringue pie in favor of going to Starbucks to try the new Unicorn Frappuccino ("We promise--we'll share one!"), it's easy to believe the battle is lost.

When a mocha frappucino isn't enough calories

When a mocha frappucino isn't enough calories

According to the Starbucks site, a grande Unicorn contains 410 calories and a jaw-dropping 59 grams of sugar. That would be 11.8 teaspoons of sugar, or two days' worth of the World Health Organization's recommended allowance.

As much as you can still advise or boss around a high school senior, I shrieked, "But don't eat any more sugar today! Diabetes!"

Not that lemon meringue pie is a vegetable, exactly, but its ingredient list doesn't contain anything called "Blue Drizzle" or "Sour Blue Powder." Consider the Unicorn's make-up:

Ingredients

Ice, Milk, Crème Frappuccino Syrup [Water, Sugar, Salt, Natural And Artificial Flavor, Xanthan Gum, Potassium Sorbate, Citric Acid], Whipped Cream [Cream (Cream, Mono And Diglycerides, Carageenan), Vanilla Syrup (Sugar, Water, Natural Flavors, Potassium Sorbate, Citric Acid)], Mango Syrup [Sugar, Water, Mango Juice Concentrate, Natural Flavor, Passion Fruit Juice Concentrate, Citric Acid, Potassium Sorbate, Turmeric, Gum Arabic], Blue Drizzle [White Chocolate Mocha Sauce (Sugar, Condensed Skim Milk, Coconut Oil, Cocoa Butter, Natural Flavor, Salt, Potassium Sorbate, Monoglycerides), Classic Syrup (Sugar, Water, Natural Flavors, Potassium Sorbate, Citric Acid), Sour Blue Powder (Citric Acid, Color [Spirulina, Water, Sugar, Maltodextrin, Citric Acid])], Pink Powder [Dextrose, Fruit And Vegetable Color (Apple, Cherry, Radish, Sweet Potato)], Sour Blue Powder [Citric Acid, Color (Spirulina, Water, Sugar, Maltodextrin, Citric Acid)].

When you feel relieved to know carageenan is made from seaweed and that some people actually pay to take spirulina supplements, you know you're in new territory. It's a smoothie...kinda. It's a health food! Only made of sugar, dipped in sugar, and topped with sugar.

"Psst! If you were put in a blender, You'd make a really healthy drink, I'm guessing."

"Psst! If you were put in a blender, You'd make a really healthy drink, I'm guessing."

For that bizarre concoction, this was turned down:

Granted, it's looking a little the worse for wear after plastic wrap and a night in the fridge.

Granted, it's looking a little the worse for wear after plastic wrap and a night in the fridge.

Homemade lemon meringue pie clocks in at 7.5 teaspoons of sugar per serving (one serving = 1/8 of a 9-inch pie). Again, over the daily maximum. The best option appears to be skipping dessert altogether, sadly. But, assuming you're human and have not decided to go sugar-free till death, let's get back to our face-off.

Sugar Content:

Unicorn Frappuccino: 11.5 teaspoons of sugar per serving

Lemon Meringue Pie: 7.5 teaspoons of sugar per serving

Winner: Lemon Meringue Pie

 

Nutrients:

Unicorn Frappuccino: 15% of US RDA of Vitamin A! From the mango and passion fruit juices, I'm guessing

Lemon Meringue Pie: 11.6 % US RDA of Vitamin C, naturally. But also more more than a trace source of vitamins A, E, and B6, as well as thiamine and folate. The lemon juice and zest even contain a wee bit of fiber.

Winner: Lemon Meringue Pie

Satisfaction Level:

If you're a teenager or prefer to drink your desserts, you'll give the prize to the Unicorn.

If you're into bright flavors, pie crust, and texture variety, not to mention knowing what's in your food, you'll choose the Lemon Meringue Pie.

And if you fall in the latter group and get a hankering, here's the recipe:

Lemon Meringue Pie 

(from Sweet Auburn Desserts by Sonya Jones)

1 prebaked pie shell
Filling:
3/4 - 1 cup sugar
5 Tbsp cornstarch
1/4 tsp salt
2 c milk
4 eggs, separated
2 Tbsp butter
1/2 c fresh lemon juice
2 tsp lemon zest
Topping:
4 egg whites
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
pinch of salt
1/4 c sugar

Combine sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a saucepan and gradually add the milk. Mix until cornstarch is dissolved. Cook over moderate heat until it comes to a boil, stirring constantly.

In a mixing bowl, beat the egg yolks. Gradually mix 1 cup of the milk mixture into the egg yolks, then add the yolk mixture back into the remaining milk. Simmer over moderate heat for about 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and add butter, lemon juice, and lemon zest, stirring until the butter melts. Set aside and let cool.

Preheat the oven to 350F.

To make the meringue, beat the egg whites with cream of tartar and salt until they form soft peaks. Gradually beat in the sugar just until the meringue holds stiff peaks.

Pour the filling into the pie shell and spread the meringue over the top, covering completely and sealing the meringue to the shell. Form peaks with a plastic spatula. Bake the pie 12-15 minutes, or until the tips of the meringue are golden.

Refrigerate until ready to serve.


And, if they turn the pie down for Unicorn Frappuccinos...well, more for you. Just space it out over a few days!

Alzheimer's Disease, the Sugary Truth?

Hope everyone had a lovely Easter and Spring Break, if applicable. If you have leftover ham, consider this family favorite for dinner tonight, which I posted about in 2011: Ham and Sweet-Potato Hash with Fried Eggs. Now that my kids have grown, I find myself doubling the onions and sweet potatoes and eggs, rather than the ham, which must mean something, when weighed in the balance against my many parenting failures!

Really--if we impart any legacy to the next generation, or even our spouses, a liking for vegetables and fiber probably ranks right up there or higher than a trust fund.

 

Artist Lucie Guyard's charming depiction of vegetable superheroes

Artist Lucie Guyard's charming depiction of vegetable superheroes

Why so? Because we eat way too much sugar and fiber-less processed foods. According to a recent article in The Week, "eighty percent of supermarket foods" contain sugar, including savory offerings. Check out the sugar content of that loaf of whole wheat bread you pick up. Or the yogurt. Or the cereal. 

The average American adult downs 22 teaspoons of the stuff a day, the average child 32. The World Health Organization recommends just six teaspoons a day.

One UC Davis study tried to get participants to eat a comparable amount of sugar solely through fruit (i.e., the "natural" way). The result? Four out of seven subjects had to quit because it was just way too much fruit to eat. Fruit contains loads of fiber, after all. That fiber which does wonderful things for out gut and digestion.

Anywho, I bring all this up for two reasons:

  1. The Bellevue Farmers Market Opening Day is set for Thursday, May 18. As in less than a month from now. Yippee! Fruits and vegetables galore, all at their seasonal best and grown by farmers you can talk to, from places you've heard of and can visit. And,
  2. My in-laws were visiting for Easter, and my mother-in-law has been diagnosed with dementia.

Now, no one can call dementia "Alzheimer's Disease" (AD) while the person is still alive because they can only inspect a brain post-mortem for the telltale plaques and tangles. (Other causes of dementia can often be ruled out, however.) And no one is 100% certain of all of AD's causes, but some scientists theorize that AD may actually be better termed "Diabetes 3" because of its ties to brain insulin resistance and obesity. The Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology estimates there are 24 million people with dementia worldwide, and that number is expected to double every 20 years in the future, which means we need to figure out if our diet is contributing to its rise.

That same journal article recounts a joint study done by departments of Brown University and the Rhode Island Hospital, where brains of patients with advanced AD were examined post-mortem and found them characterized by "strikingly reduced levels of insulin and IGF-1 polypeptide and receptor genes." That is, they demonstrated abnormalities typically associated with Type 1 and 2 Diabetes. This led the authors to claim AD might be also called "Type 3 Diabetes." I'll be honest--the article is very technical, and it's easier to understand when it's recapped in laymen's terms. The bottom line is, we need to cut back our sugar intake drastically and eat more vegetables.

My in-laws have not been eating well. They've been eating out, basically. A steady diet of Starbucks croissants, Subway sandwiches and Appleby's, with the occasional DQ drive-by. So when they came to visit, I was determined to ply them with fruits and vegetables. Salads, carrot and celery sticks, steamed green beans and broccoli, roasted asparagus and carrots and sweet potatoes and cauliflower. Apples at lunch, instead of chips. My father-in-law loved it all and said, "We don't get many vegetables." My mother-in-law only ate a few green beans the first day. The second day she ate half an apple but worried it might disagree with her. (It didn't.) The third day she ate broccoli and the roasted vegetables. If they weren't headed home today, who knows what I might have gotten into her! But alas, home they go, back to white flour and Subway bread, and no "vegetable" beyond lettuce shreds and potato chips.

All the evidence may not be in or agreed upon, but that doesn't mean we have to wait. People have eaten plants for thousands and thousands of years and survived, but we haven't eaten steep amounts of sugar and processed foods for more than a hundred, and things are already looking grim.

 

Better stick to the stuffed variety of Peeps...

Better stick to the stuffed variety of Peeps...

If you're reading this post, you don't have dementia yet, so celebrate with a walk around the block, as many servings of fruits and vegetables as you can manage, and passing on the processed, sugary foods.

Some Prebiotics for the Easter Table

The Easter Bunny, contemplating his prebiotic-laden grass

The Easter Bunny, contemplating his prebiotic-laden grass

A friend was recently telling me about the super-loaded probiotic supplement her husband was on. As we all know from the marketing deluge we stand under daily, probiotics are supposed to increase gut microbiome diversity and robustness, which will hopefully fix everything from inflammation to mental health to our corner of the universe.

As you know from past posts, I'm all in favor of a healthy gut and find the evidence convincing that a healthy gut is underrated. But, for the money, I'm going with prebiotics, rather than probiotics.

Author and doctor James Hamblin, who writes for The Atlantic, says consuming probiotic supplements "is like reaching into a bag labeled 'Assorted Seedlings' and taking a handful and throwing them into a forest...If some of them do grow, will they be good for the forest?" More helpful, he deems, is the consumption of "prebiotics," that is, things that promote a "diverse, robust microbiome." You might know them better as fruits and vegetables. Hamblin also notes that a Harvard study has shown that "diets high in meat and cheese rapidly and dramatically change microbiomes, limiting diversity and otherwise boding ill."

Now, I know holiday feasts are exempt from health concerns, and I fully plan on eating plenty of ham, deviled eggs, rolls, and pie, but in that microbiotic wasteland, a few fruits and vegetables could be a welcome addition. How about some of each?

Broccoli-Grape Salad

(serves 8 easily, especially if some present are kids)

4 c broccoli florets, in bite-size pieces

2 c green grapes, halved

1 c celery, sliced

1 c raisins

1/4 c roasted, salted pumpkin seeds

1/3 c mayonnaise

1/4 c yogurt or sour cream

2 Tbsp sugar

1 Tbsp white vinegar

Combine all and toss! Super easy.


Deborah Madison's Provencal Winter Squash Gratin

2-2.5 lb butternut squash

5 garlic cloves, minced

1/2 c chopped parsley

salt and pepper

3 Tbsp flour

Extra virgin olive oil

(optional: feel free to sprinkle a LITTLE brown sugar over the top)

Preheat the oven to 325F and butter a casserole dish. Peel the squash and cut it into little cubes, maybe 1/3" across. Toss cubes with the garlic, parsley, salt, and pepper. Add the flour and toss to coat. Spread the squash out in the dish and drizzle olive oil generously over the top. Bake, uncovered, until the squash is browned and tender, 1.5-2 hours. (You can completely make this a couple hours ahead and then give it a quick reheat before serving.)

When I served this up last night (and forgot to take pictures), it was eaten by 80% of the family. That is, by everyone but the 17-year-old. Even the boy had a second tiny helping, and that was just with 1 Tbsp of brown sugar sprinkled over the whole thing.

 

The Shakespeare Diet

For all its popularity, it's doubtful whether the Paleo Diet is really even possible in our day and age. According to Stanley Boyd Eaton, who, along with colleague Melvin Konner, originally wrote about "Paleolithic Nutrition" in a New England Journal of Medicine article, Paleolithic people "ate about three times as many fruits and vegetables as modern humans do." And, when they did get a hold of meat, it would've been now-widely-unavailable creatures like mammoths, not today's farmed chickens and cows, penned up and eating biologically-bizarre things. (Mammoth has occasionally been on the menu, when a carcass gets dug up, but even Paleolithic people might have turned their noses up at 250,000-year-old steaks.) Supposing we all upped our fruit and vegetable intake--the planet still could no longer support everyone eating a diet centered around meat. Which means, unless you're relatively rich and somewhat delusional, historic Paleo is off the table.

 

(This and other interesting tidbits can be found within these covers...)

(This and other interesting tidbits can be found within these covers...)

So if we can't go for a 10,000-year-old diet, would something more in the 500-year range be possible? Or at all beneficial? Well, it turns out life expectancy in the Tudor era (say 1485-1603 A.D.) wasn't any great shakes. On average, you were looking at your mid-30s, a little less if you were a woman, since childbirth was so perilous, but really if you made it through childhood you had a good chance of living longer. It was the high infant mortality that dragged overall life expectancy way down. In any case, though, few made it to old age. Accidents or disease dragged them off, since once you were sick you were basically a goner, however many times the local doctor might "bleed" you to be helpful.

On the plus side, food was local and unprocessed and low in sugar, so, even if you had a long enough life to develop metabolic syndrome, you usually didn't. Only the very rich, with access to lots of sugar and delicacies, suffered from gout or even tooth decay. (Henry VIII became famously enormous and unhealthy, and even Elizabeth I was reported to have blackened, rotting teeth.) So what did Shakespearean-era people eat? According to How to Be a Tudor by Ruth Goodman, the common folk ate a lot of bread. But not bread like we know it.

 

Depending on where you lived in the country, your life might contain different combinations of grains. Bread made entirely from wheat was called "manchet bread" and was reserved for special occasions. The rest of the time your wheat would be mixed with rye or barley or oats or even acorn meal. But even manchet bread wasn't exactly equivalent to our modern loaves because Tudor wheat was not modern wheat.

Enormous genetic changes have occurred in varieties of bread wheat over the past 400 years, affecting the look, the yield and the nutritional make-up of the plants. Modern varieties of wheat are knee-high when fully grown, and the uniform grain-bearing stalks are tightly packed together in the field, each ear holding a dense cluster of up to fifty fat grains with plenty of gluten inside to give that soft, light, springy texture to bread that we have come to expect. (p.126)

But Tudor wheat? The author examines wheat found in thatched roofs and finds "short ears and long ones, hairy and smooth ones, red, white and grey ones, some which resemble spelt or emmer or rivet" (p.127) And the different varieties yielded different kinds of bread; for example, grey wheat "was often used for second-best bread, known as 'cheat bread.'" Not only was the wheat different, the yeasts and milling and kneading and baking techniques were different.

So what do they all taste like, these different grains, leavens, and bakes? In general they are good. The flavours are much stronger than most modern, commercially produced breads, which can be a little disconcerting to those accustomed to bland neutral flavours in their white loaf. Even the lightest, whitest of manchet breads is heavier, nuttier, denser and more filling than most of us are used to, and the commoner maslin and dredge breads are solid indeed by modern standards. (p141)

All of which means, if you decide to go on the Shakespearean diet, you're going to need to special order the heirloom wheats, mill it on stones, catch some yeast, and build your own bake oven. On the plus side, that chewier bread will strengthen your jaw muscles, which atrophy with age and disuse.

In addition to bread, the Tudor folk ate plenty of "pottage," or seasonal stew. Think pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold. You started with stock, added any meat or fish you had, thickened it with grain or pulses, jazzed it up with herbs, and added vegetables near the end. These stews live on in modern cooking, though we don't pay much attention to the seasons anymore.

If you were better off, you enjoyed open-roasted meats and imported ingredients, but in general, the masses were plagued by malnutrition diseases: rickets, scurvy, and anemia. The downside to local food, of course, being when local crops get hit hard. The rich would get by, as they always do, but if you didn't own land and couldn't make up calorie losses by hunting and fishing from your stocks, times were tough.

Maybe any historical diet takes a misleading view of history. After all, no one pictures themselves as the penniless beggars in period dramas, only as the well-to-do in their lovely outfits. So if I were to write a Shakespeare Diet book, I'd focus on the local, fresh, seasonal, genetically-varied food, with limited sugar and processing and--oh, wait--that diet book's been written a hundred times already.

I guess some things never change.

Betty Bought a Better Butter

As promised, this is the second installment of my butter researches, inspired by Elaine Khosrova's fun microhistory Butter: a Rich History.

 

Some varieties I found at the store

Some varieties I found at the store

For starters, while no one needs to be told that butter tastes wonderful, we were told it was a nutritional no-no for so long that it's worth reviewing where butter is a nutritional yes-yes. Especially pastured butter, where cows' milk has benefited from all the goodies grass contains.

  • Butter is chock-full of fat-soluble vitamins like A (vision, immune system, skin health), D, E, and K. We hear a lot in the Northwest about being Vitamin-D-deficient, given our sun's tendency to hide behind rain and clouds and our own tendency to cower in fear from the remaining sun exposure. Our resulting deficiency might lead to chronic diseases and even depression. Because we make vitamin D in response to sunshine, it's not much found in foods unless we add it back, like in milk. But vitamin D is naturally present in butter. Ditto for vitamin E.

 

  • Grass-fed butters are rich in CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), which prevents cell damage through its antioxidant powers.
  • And let's not forget vitamin K2 (not like the mountain--it's just that SquareSpace won't let me do subscripts). K2 promotes "healthy skin, forming strong bones, preventing inflammation, supporting brain function, reversing arterial calcification (aka 'hardening of the arteries')," and even helps to prevent cancer. Yowza.

If the fancy butters are cost-prohibitive, consider saving the grass-fed butter for when you're eating it straight on toast or biscuits or vegetables, and using less exciting stuff for baking. I made biscuits this week from her book recipe, in order to showcase butter.

 

Topped with pastured butter AND homemade apricot jam

Topped with pastured butter AND homemade apricot jam

I won't bother inserting her recipe here because it was pretty standard for a biscuit, although she added the trick of folding the patted-out rectangle of dough into thirds, patting out into a rectangle again, and folding in thirds once more. This gives you the layers of flaky biscuit you would find in a storebought canned biscuit. Pretty and delightful! She also substituted some cake flour for all-purpose flour, to increase lightness, but I thwarted this by substituting some whole-wheat pastry flour for all-purpose (because, really, otherwise you might as well make cupcakes).

If you don't pick up Khosrova's book, here are some of her recommended butters which I've seen in our local stores. To this list, of course, we can add our farmers' butters, when the Market starts up again next month!

Recommended Butters

Clover Organic Farms Unsalted Butter & Farmstead Organic European-Style Butter with Sea Salt (California)

Organic Valley Salted Butter& Pasture Butter, Salted (Wisconsin)

Cabot Creamery Unsalted Butter & 83 Unsalted Butter (Vermont)

Challenge Butter (California)

Kerrygold Pure Irish Salted Butter (Ireland)

Land O'Lakes Unsalted Sweet Cream Butter & European Style Super Premium Unsalted Butter (Minnesota)

Lurpak Salted Butter (Denmark)

Plugra European Style Unsalted Butter (Missouri)

Straus Family Creamery European-Style Organic Salted Butter (California

Tillamook Unsalted Sweet Cream Butter (Oregon)

We like salted butter, ourselves, even if the recipe calls for unsalted. And do note that not all the butters listed above are pastured, if that matters to you. Read the labels and have at it!

Like Buttah

Butter has made a comeback. Once we all got over our mistaken fear of fats (search my past posts on www.urbanfarmjunkie.blogspot.com if you didn't get the memo), there didn't seem any earthly reason to eat margarine ever again, unless it was for the original reason--that margarine is cheaper than butter. Back in the day when oleomargarine was made from beef tallow, milk, and annato-seed coloring, it gave industrial butter of uneven quality a run for its money, but those days are long gone. Even the most blah supermarket butter nowadays beats margarine hands-down.

In fact, attacks on butter in our time now come from the environmental direction. Check out this graphic Michael Pollan retweeted this morning:

 

Yep. Butter has been lumped in, so to speak, with environment-killing beef. We live in sad times. Omnivores like myself either have to (1) go vegan; (2) cut back; or (3) be richer. Out of the three options, I've chosen (2) and (3). Our family eats beef 1-2 times per week, and we fork over more money for pastured beef and milk and butter. This week I picked up Elaine Khosrova's delightful microhistory Butter: a Rich History.  

Yep. Butter has been lumped in, so to speak, with environment-killing beef. We live in sad times. Omnivores like myself either have to (1) go vegan; (2) cut back; or (3) be richer. Out of the three options, I've chosen (2) and (3). Our family eats beef 1-2 times per week, and we fork over more money for pastured beef and milk and butter.

This week I picked up Elaine Khosrova's delightful microhistory Butter: a Rich History.

 

She opens with a scene in Bhutan, of a little boy following his mom up the steep mountainside to go milk the yaks. (And if the thought of yak butter makes you yak, consider that is has "less milk sugar and more protein than cow's milk." Could it be the next hot Paleo food?)It reminded me of nothing so much as Heidi, and it turns out Heidi's life and food experience had more in common with Norbu and his mom than with us, her modern, post-Industrial-Revolution counterparts. Khosrova's account of historical dairying around the world brought not only Heidi to mind, but also Laura Ingalls Wilder making butter with Ma in Little House in the Big Woods and fallen-woman Tess Durbeyfield going incognito as a dairymaid in Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Butter is big in literature. I doubt margarine shares its literary pedigree.

 

Tess at work (1891 Joseph Syddall illustration)

Tess at work (1891 Joseph Syddall illustration)

Butter: a Rich History is larded with fascinating facts. Who knew that goat butter was white, because goat milk lacks carotene? Or that camel milk has three times the vitamin C as goat milk (to which it is otherwise similar), but often the butter made from camel milk contains sand and--blurgh!--camel hair? Who knew that, in the 14th century, your average cow yielded 140-170 gallons of milk per season, but today's Holstein can flood us with 2,574 gallons? Who knew that what we call cultured butter today used to be the norm, when setting milk would attract environmental bacteria as it sat for a couple days? What we eat is "sweet cream butter," a pretty modern invention that arrived after cream could be instantly separated from milk and turned to butter, no wait period required. Before refrigeration, butter had to be salted to keep it from going rancid--salted to the point that you had to rinse and repeat before serving! And butter has always had a complex history with the environment: in the "Butter Belt" of the 18th century, dairies around Philadelphia wreaked havoc by dumping their excess buttermilk in the streams and rivers.

I especially enjoyed the discussion of how dairying and buttermaking moved from a woman's domain (think Tess and Marie Antoinette frolicking and posing in her Hameau de Versailles) to a man's industrial world. Quality went down; distribution and profits went up.

While I haven't finished the book yet (look for Part II next week), I'm already eager to try some of her recommended butters listed in the appendix. One warning: "many big brands...add 'natural' flavor (diacetyl) to their butter." I'm going to check that out, too. Keep you posted.

 

Custard's Last Stand

When I was a kid I had a Winnie the Pooh scratch-and-sniff book (a genre of books that really is ripe for a comeback). All these years later, I still remember my favorite page: where Kanga makes Roo a custard pie. I scratched that custard pie over and over and took deep whiffs until olfactory fatigue set in.

Was this the version?

Was this the version?

Well, yesterday being Pi Day and all, I got the urge to whip up a pie, but it turned out I only had ingredients for one kind: custard. There wasn't even a single can of pumpkin in the pantry, and certainly no baker's chocolate or fresh fruit in pie-making quantities. So custard it was. After all, custard is nothing more than eggs, sugar, milk/half-and-half, and vanilla.

I confess, I had memories of the Winnie the Pooh book spurring me on, and, of course, the homemade custard pie could not live up to the memory. But it was tasty, nonetheless, and quite simple to make. So, if you're looking for a mild, home-y pie, not too sweet, give this a try.

 

Sweet Auburn Old-Fashioned Egg Custard Pie

1 unbaked pie shell (use your favorite recipe)

4 eggs, beaten

3/4 c sugar

1/4 tsp salt

1/4 tsp nutmeg

2 c milk

1/2 c half-and-half

1 tsp vanilla

Preheat the oven to 400F. In a medium bowl, mix eggs, sugar, salt, and nutmeg until well-blended. Gradually stir in milk, half-and-half, and vanilla.

Pour custard into unbaked pie shell. Sprinkle the pie with additional nutmeg. Bake for 15 minutes, then lower the heat to 350F and bake 35-45 minutes more, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

Cool completely and then refrigerate until serving.

 

Scratch and sniff

Scratch and sniff

Hmm...typing this post has made me think another slice might do the trick. It's Wednesday morning, but, with so many eggs in it, custard pie is practically breakfast food...

Granola 2.0

Recently I was given a couple boxes of Seattle-made Marge Granola, which retails online and at various places in Washington, a box of the original flavor and one of the cacao-nib variety.

Marge-Original1-300x300.jpg

I'll say right off that it was absolutely delicious. Crunchy, flavorful, no weird ingredients. I'll say secondly that the stuff is quite pricey ($10 for a 12-oz box). Which means that, however much I like it, I'm unlikely ever to buy any because granola is so easy to make. 

In the past I've recommended Deborah Madison's recipe from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, but after tasting some homemade granola we received as a gift and the Marge varieties, I'm actually jumping ship on our old standby, in favor of a lighter, crunchier variation.

Enter Love Your Leftovers

You might remember this book from when I posted on black bean tacos. That inspired me to get a copy from the library and see what else Nick Evans might suggest. it's a beautiful book full of good ideas, but the first one to grab me was his granola recipe because it contained less honey and oil than Deborah Madison's. Even so, I modified it a wee bit for personal preferences (e.g., I don't like sunflower seeds, and I wanted a little oil in it so the honey would come out of the measuring cup).

Cranberry-Pumpkinseed-Sesame Granola

Cranberry-Pumpkinseed-Sesame Granola

Nearly-Oil-Less-Nick's Granola Recipe

6 cups rolled oats

1 cup slivered almonds

1/2 cup shelled pumpkin seeds (from the bulk aisle)

1/4 cup toasted sesame seeds

1 tsp cinnamon

1/2 tsp nutmeg

1/2 tsp salt

2 Tbsp mild vegetable oil, swirled around liquid measuring cup, and then fill the rest of the way to the 2/3 cup mark with honey

1 c dried cranberries

Preheat oven to 325F. Mix all the dry ingredients except cranberries and drizzle in oil-honey mixture. Stir well to combine. Spread out on two baking sheets. Bake 20-25 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes to keep from browning too much at the edges.

Remove from oven and let cool 10 minutes. Then add cranberries and let cool completely.

Store in an airtight container.


It's delicious, easy, and, if you buy the ingredients in the bulk aisle, pretty cheap! Plus, this version stays nice and crunchy, isn't too sweet, and has more protein for the carb-fearing. In his cookbook, author Evans offers all sorts of suggestions for how to cook with the granola, but I haven't tried a single one because I'm hoarding it all to eat for breakfast. Maybe the next batch...

Tofu or Not Tofu, That Is the Question

Between food allergies, food intolerances, food preferences, and dietary restrictions, whether doctor- or self-imposed, it can be hard to sit down together for a meal. Generally I've been pretty lucky--no one in my immediate family has a food allergy, and in my extended family, only my mother-in-law has a gluten intolerance, but it's so mild she got bored of nursing it after a while. This free pass on food allergies gives me a little more patience with food preferences. If someone hates a certain dish and everyone else likes it, I just wait till I know that person won't be there to serve it.

So last night the two most carnivorous members of the family were going to be out, which meant it was time for tofu. Really, only my seventeen-year-old likes tofu. I agreed to a tofu meal because: (1) someone had given me a free package of tofu made on Vashon Island which was going to expire in a few days; and, (2) the 17YO agreed to cook dinner.

Although we didn't have exactly the ingredients called for, our dinner turned out pretty tasty (for tofu)!

Stir-Fried Broccoli and Tofu (adapted from Cooking Light)

2 Tbsp soy sauce
2 Tbsp hoisin sauce
2.5 tsp cornstarch
2 tsp rice vinegar
2 tsp sesame oil
2 tsp vegetable oil
1 lb extra-firm tofu, drained and cut in 1/2" cubes
1/4 tsp salt
2 cups small broccoli florets and/or asparagus pieces
3/4 c water
1.5 Tbsp minced garlic

Combine soy sauce through sesame oil and set aside. Heat vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium-high. Add the tofu and sprinkle with salt. Cook 8 minutes or until browned, tossing frequently. Remove from pan. Add vegetables, water and garlic to pan. Cover and cook 4 minutes or until crisp-tender, stirring occasionally. Uncover and add soy sauce mixture and tofu, stirring to coat. Cook 2 minutes until sauce thickens. Serve over rice.

Now, of course, we have leftover tofu, but at least it's cooked and in flavored sauce. Leftover tofu works great thrown in with some noodles or fried rice, or even as a sandwich filling. Or, if you happen to stir-fry more vegetables, you can just toss the cooked tofu in at the end to pump up the protein and filling-ness factor. It'll never be my preference, but it's just fine, occasionally.

As a p.s., Island Springs, maker of the tofu we used, has some recipes on its website that make tofu look as luscious as I imagine it's possible for pressed soybean curds to look. Which is actually fairly luscious. Take a look at the pics running on the home page!

You Put What in Your Mouth?

Just yesterday, my thirteen-year-old, who has been my Bellevue Farmer Market shopping partner since she was teeny-tiny, asked, “Can we buy some maraschino cherries?”

Ye olde Wikipedia maraschino cherry

Ye olde Wikipedia maraschino cherry

Bad timing on her part. Not only was I driving, but I’d just that day read a book about the ingredients in our foods, in which was a section on those wretched “cherry cordial” candies, where you bite hopefully into a lump of chocolate, only to have it ooze out a tablespoon of cloying goo and a maraschino cherry. Ugh. Has anyone ever found that a pleasant surprise?

“Maraschino cherries are fake!” I cried. “They’re pumped full of sugar and dye!”

“But they taste good.” (This interchange is only a sample of why I now, with three teenagers in the house, consider myself an utter parenting failure and have set fire to any manuscripts of parenting books I was drafting.)

According to This is What You Just Put in Your Mouth, a compilation of columns with the same name from Wired Magazine, maraschino cherries are generally Michigan cherries pumped full of Red Dye #40 (petroleum-derived), sulfur dioxide (to prevent browning), and two types of corn syrup.

I: “I’ll buy real cherries.”

13YO: “But you never do!”

I: (Sputtering in the face of this outright lie) “I buy them when they’re in season!”

So you see, not only have I failed to impart a delight in fresh, whole foods, but somehow seasonality has totally escaped my children as well. Even though (apart from apples and pears brought out of cold storage) I never buy out-of-season fruit at the store. Alas.

In any case, if you’re still a hold-out for fresh, whole, seasonal food that isn’t highly processed, you may like indulging in Schadenfreude by reading this book.

 

Di Justo collects his fun, interesting findings and delivers them with humor. For example, who knew that it wasn't just your (disgusted) brain telling you wet dog food was stinky? Because dogs are scavengers and love the smell of freshly dead carrion, one of the "natural flavors" added to canned food is sort of “Death-y.” Or did you know that Beano's active ingredient breaks up the gas-inducing culprit raffinose into simpler galactose and sucrose molecules--you digest without the “music,” but you're getting about four extra grams of carbs for every hundred grams you eat.

If you’re a food reader, you may have already known that real cheesemakers wanted the canned stuff labeled as "embalmed cheese" because of its sodium phosphate (embalming fluid) component, but did you also know that locust bean gum was used by ancient Egyptians to keep those mummy wrappings nice and tight?

Some foods tend to be not as awful as I would’ve imagined. Take Slim Jim “meat sticks,” for example. Really just salami-like material. So, if salami doesn’t gross you out, neither will a Slim Jim. Nor was I dismayed by sugarless gum and the thought of chewing tree sap that also gets used in tires(!!!) because who cares? People have been doing it for thousands of years.

The author ventures outside the food aisles as well, into such mysteries as hair dye and Rain-X and fabric softener. The fabric softener was an eye-opener—the secret ingredient being animal fat, to give our laundry that soft, silky feeling. Mmmm…

All in all, the book made for a quick, fun read, and if you never pick it up, I’ll just leave you with this tip: if you’re scheduled for a cranial MRI, skip the mascara. That thing won’t know if you have luscious lashes anyhow, and the metal in your mascara can throw off the readings! Who knew?

Eating Like Champions

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I planned not to watch the Super Bowl this year. I didn't buy any avocados; I didn't make any seven-layer dip; I didn't invite myself to anyone's party. Because I knew the Patriots would win and had no interest in seeing happy New England fans or supermodel-selfie-sideline celebrations. Of course, with our new Alexa dot, I couldn't help asking the score from time to time, and eventually I was lured by Atlanta's deceptive lead into watching the second half. My mistake. Ugh. Nauseating image courtesy of NBC News

However, Tom Brady's latest triumph has revived national curiosity: how does the man do it? How does he play so well for so long and marry a supermodel and win over and over and over again? One key put out there is the family diet: like a Michael Pollan book, the Brady-Bundchens eat mostly plants, no processed food, no sugar, hardly any meats. Business Insider headlines this as an "insane" diet, and, while I wouldn't go that far, I'd agree that it's a tough one for Americans to imitate. It's expensive, it requires lots of cooking and prep (tough, if you don't have a personal chef), and it makes you give up many ingredients that make life worth living. When asked what the Brady-Bundchens consider "comfort food," according to the article, their chef responded:

I've just did this quinoa dish with wilted greens. I use kale or Swiss chard or beet greens. I add garlic, toasted in coconut oil. And then some toasted almonds, or this cashew sauce with lime curry, lemongrass, and a little bit of ginger. That's just comfort food for them.

Tasty? Sounds like it. Comfort food? Uh...I guess if you take comfort in how your money and elite lifestyle shelter you from the mac-and-cheese of the masses.

But while we can't all live round-the-clock like triumphant Brady-Bundchens, we can try to inject a little Food of Champions into our week. To help you out, I'm including a couple recipes I'm sure they'd approve.

Confetti Quinoa Salad from THE NO MEAT ATHLETE COOKBOOK

 

Confetti Quinoa Salad

2 cups cooked, cooled quinoa (see what I mean about lots of time to cook?)

1 cup diced pineapple

1 cup corn

1 diced red bell pepper

1 diced red onion

2 scallions, sliced

1 large tomato, chopped

lime-cumin vinaigrette or avocado-lime dressing till moist (use your fave recipe--Deborah Madison has a good one)

1/3 cup toasted pumpkin seeds or pine nuts

1/4 cup cilantro

Toss all together and salt and pepper to taste.

And then there's the kale salad I've eaten and then made numerous times, and which a recent non-kale-fan declared "the best salad you can make with kale." Don't skimp on using all the dressing because it weighs the ingredients down and makes the kale tasty.

More than a Pinch of Yum

 

Pinch of Yum's Chopped Thai Salad w Sesame-Garlic Dressing

5 cups Baby kale or slivered dinosaur kale, stems removed

2 Bell peppers, julienned

3 lg Carrots, grated or julienned

1 cup Cilantro, chopped

16 oz Edamame, cooked and pulsed a couple times in food processor

3 cloves Garlic, minced

3 Green onions, sliced

3/4 cup cashews, toasted and chopped

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl, leaving out the cashews if you're not serving it right away. Then, combine dressing ingredients and toss. Right before serving, sprinkle with the cashews.

Dressing:

1/3 cup Canola oil

2 tbsp Distilled vinegar, white

1 tbsp Sesame oil

2 Tbsp water

3 Tbsp soy sauce

squeeze of lime juice

squeeze of lemon juice

2 Tbsp honey

There you go. With these two salads, prepare to conquer.

Ingredient Impostors - Mourn or Celebrate?

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[et_pb_section admin_label="section"] [et_pb_row admin_label="row"] [et_pb_column type="4_4"] [et_pb_text admin_label="Text"] Ever since the time I bought Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP) crumbles as a meat substitute, on a vegetarian friend’s recommendation, I’ve been leery of food products masquerading as actual foods.

Better just to eat vegetables than fake meat! Even tofu climbed higher on my list than TVP.

So you could say I was leery of food impostors. No high-fructose corn syrup, no non-dairy creamer, no margarine, no soy cheese in our house. Recently, however, in reading about the vegan diet I posted on earlier, I gave almond milk a try. With guilt, of course, because almonds require so much water to cultivate, and I spoke to a Washington beekeeper who had stopped trucking his bees to California to pollinate the almonds because it was too stressful on them. I would have stuck with regular milk, except the vegan book suggested too much dairy might be linked to acne. I've got three teenagers at home; this caught my attention.

What was on sale at QFC

Almond milk in smoothies might prove to be the "thin end of the wedge," as 20th century British books like to say. Meaning, the first impostor ingredient that opens the door for many more. I haven't tried it straight or in cereal or my tea yet, but it's worked great in smoothies and baked goods. Moreover, I switched my kids from the sweetened varieties to the unsweetened, and no one noticed. I might give rice milk a go next time, though it's not like you can grow rice without a ton of water, either.

But maybe the thin end of the wedge had already been inserted. Because a couple years ago I had a to-die-for cashew "cheesecake" at sometime BFM purveyor Jujubeet, and I was a believer. I even went so far as to attempt to make them at home. (They were fine, but not as good as Jujubeet's. If you're curious about the recipe, here's the site.)

The (anti-)sugar book I posted on last week had me rethinking sugar substitutes because author Gary Taubes talked about the smear campaign Big Sugar launched against artificial sweeteners. But, as is the case with TVP, would it not be better just to eat less real sugar, rather than to replace sugar with chemical artificial sweeteners? That seems the easiest solution, although the food industry is excited about a new, "all-natural low glycemic index sugar" developed by a Nobel prize winner. This sugar molecule is "hollowed out" without losing its sweetness, thus possibly enabling manufacturers to reduce sugar by leaps and bounds without resorting to artificial sweeteners. Interesting.

Basic building blocks of the food industry [pic: Food Dive]One impostor I'm curious about is Bee Free Honee, basically an apple jelly gone awry that can be used interchangeably with honey in recipes. I still have real honey in the house and certainly want to support our BFM beekeepers, but I've definitely cut back on cooking with honey because of its price! Maybe I could save the real honey for tea and topping cornbread, but make granola with a honey substitute. At $8 for a 12-oz jar, however, it's not like the bee-free variety is exactly a bargain. I'll keep you posted.

In the meantime, there's always real food to be eaten. We had these "Launcher Quesadillas" from the vegan cookbook, so named because they reportedly "launched" doubters into the lifestyle. Not everyone in my family was launched, and they were a pain to try to flip, but they were certainly tasty. Sweet potatoes, black beans, bell pepper. I added the sour cream and thought they could have used some cheese, but whatever.

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Sugaring Off in 2017

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One week remains on the yearly No-Sugar January, but I read the perfect book to help me continue the trend into February (my all-time record is until March). Reading this book, in fact, had me drinking Oolong tea for two days, so that I could forego the usual teaspoon I put in a cup of English Breakfast or Earl Grey.

They say when you find a hammer, the whole world is a nail, and that is indeed the case with Taubes. In the book, sugar gets blamed for the whole suite of Western diseases: diabetes (and insulin resistance), obesity, high triglycerides, metabolic syndrome, inflammation--even gout and possibly certain dementias! Indeed, something has to be blamed for the rise in these illnesses all around the world, tracking perfectly with the Westernization of diet around that same world. As became more apparent as time passed, the culprit wasn't saturated fat, as we were told for decades, so the witch hunt was back on.

Going through the research, as Taubes does at length, there are some major strikes against sugar:

  • Processing fructose in the body requires the production of insulin. (Table sugar is made up of half fructose and half glucose, which abets the digestion of fructose.) Consuming a lot of sugar leads to chronically elevated insulin levels.
  • Calories that get stored as fat only get released from fat cells and burned as energy when insulin levels in the body drop. So, if your insulin is always elevated, the fat never gets released, and you get fatter and fatter.
  • Chronically elevated insulin levels lead to insulin resistance, which is tied to everything from high blood pressure to elevated triglycerides to inflammation to creating and feeding hungry cancer cells.

The problem with most studies done on humans is that there is neither the money, time, nor inclination to do long-term research, and sugar takes a while to wreak havoc. One study thought sugar was just fine, but that was when consumed at the then-current rate of forty-two pounds per person per year. We blew past that number decades ago and now sit at about ninety pounds! Even if we don't drink soda or eat many desserts, sugar is omnipresent in processed foods, from bread to salad dressing to cereal to most peanut butters. (After reading this book, I'm switching brands of whole-wheat bread. Too much sugar in the one we have in the house.)

Another fascinating path Taubes goes down is to recount the tobacco industry's history with sugar. I had no idea "American blend" cigarette tobaccos mixed a roasted, caramelized tobacco variety with another variety that had actually been marinated in sugar solution! The sweetness both increased the inhalability of the tobacco and the nicotine delivered. Amazing. Toxic, addictive, and amazing. Sugar helped tobacco lure new smokers, and it made the smoke more deadly.

As I head to the dentist for more fillings this morning, it's hard to argue that sugar needs to be eaten. Yes, it tastes wonderful, preserves food, and does seem to provide a brief, accessible energy boost, but, as Sugar-Free January proves every year, it can be eaten in miniscule amounts and not be missed, for the most part.

Laura and Mary during annual "sugaring off" time in Wisconsin [Garth Williams]So consider extending your reduced-sugar period this year and saving the sugar blowouts for special occasions. Your triglycerides will thank you for it.

Tiny Habits Make a Big Impact

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You all might know I love brain books. How the thing works; how the thing doesn't work when it gets damaged or old; what can be done to make the thing work better, and so on. For example, some favorite recent reads include: How the thing works

 

What happens when the thing gets damaged

 

What can be done to make the thing work better

In this season of New Year's Resolutions, I was particularly interested in how we form habits. After all, the only hope we have of keeping a resolution to eat better or exercise more is to make it habitual, rather than an act of willpower. Willpower falters sooner or later, and when it does, things tend to come down with a crash. We not only put the weight back on, but we add more. We not only skip the gym, but we decide to binge-watch a TV show while we lounge on the couch eating ice cream. We need the power of habit on our side. If we automate the good choices, they require no effort and are much more likely to happen. A book I read some years ago claimed we go through 40% of our daily activities on autopilot! That's a lot of the day. So why not use it to our advantage?

40%, says Charles Duhigg

Stanford tweeted out this interesting article on exactly this question: how do we form new habits and use this technique to make the habits beneficial ones? It turns out the answer is baby steps. Or "tiny habits," to use their phrase.

And lo, anyone could participate in a five-day-long tiny-habit training for free! i joined immediately, participated last week, and am now reporting back on my findings.

It works like this:

  1. You pick something you already do habitually, and tack on a TINY habit at the end. They give the example of: "After I brush my teeth, I will floss ONE tooth."
  2. When you have completed the tiny habit, you mini-celebrate, so that it gains a positive association in your brain.
  3. You practice a few times in a row before the five-day session begins, and then you just do it when it naturally occurs during the five days.

During the session, you get a daily email checking on your progress, and you can watch videos on Facebook and ask questions with a coach. They ask that you attempt three tiny habits in your sessions. The general theory is that, once you know how to create a helpful mini habit, it will lead into better behaviors and enable you to add other good habits incrementally.

So I picked:

  • After putting breakfast dishes in dishwasher, I will wipe one surface. (Promote cleanliness.)
  • After taking off my shoes when I come home, I will go up the stairs and back down. (Promote exercise.)
  • After getting into bed at night, I will thank God for one thing that happened that day. (Promote spiritual growth and attitude of gratitude.)

For the mini-celebrations afterward, I totally forgot to celebrate wiping a surface (and that habit was the most frequently forgotten), but I did "Felix" after going up the stairs and back down--

How Felix reacted to his perfect game, and how I reacted to keeping my tiny habit

and that habit stuck! Sometimes I found myself leaving my shoes on longer because I knew I couldn't run upstairs right away and didn't want to get out of the habit of doing those two activities back-to-back. I also forgot to celebrate my last tiny habit after getting in bed but found this was an easier habit to remember because there isn't a heck of a lot going on the second you crawl under the cold sheets.

Did I get cleaner? Well, I wiped a few surfaces and also made the bed twice. Did I get more active? Apart from going up and down the stairs when required, no. Did I get more spiritual and grateful? Actually, I'd say I found it was a great way to end the day. And I'm still continuing the habits this week, so the experiment was an overall partial success. Certainly worth doing again and adding in another tiny helpful habit or two.

So if your New Year's Resolutions have already gone by the wayside, don't give up! Just start smaller. Sign up for a Tiny Habits session and see what happens. And feel free to "Felix" if you find something to celebrate.

Steel-Cut Oats Three Ways

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Oh, the conflicting nutritional advice! As you know, I'm on a Good Gut kick for the New Year, keeping the microbiome happy with fruits, veggies, fiber, and probiotics. Hence the morning smoothies, including this latest peach-mango version which didn't feel as fibrous as the berry because I didn't have to chew seeds with each sip. Next time I'll throw in flaxseed meal to make up for it.

But then a friend said she and her husband are doing thirty days of ONLY meat, fruits, and vegetables. No grains (even whole grains) and no dairy.

And then this book which I'd put on hold came in at the library:

I'd been interested because I wanted more vegetarian recipes, but Rip Esselstyn is not just vegetarian, he's vegan. Good-bye, dairy with probiotics! The man doesn't even use oil to fry or roast. What the heck? And, just when you think you'll ignore all the health claims and try some recipes, he's got testimonies sprinkled throughout of people who rescued their cholesterol, their diabetes, their blood pressure, etc. after just--you guessed it--seven days of this "plant-strong" vegan diet. If you're at the end of your health rope, you may want to consider this extremism, though I had questions about some of the claims. Knowing calcium is fat-soluble, how will I get enough from dark, leafy greens, if no oils or butter are used to cook them? And how long were the rescued able to sustain their adherence to the diet? Unless you have a philosophical reason to be vegan, I think it would be difficult, and it requires a lot of cooking and a LOT of fruits and vegetables to keep up, which are expensive in time and money.

All that aside, there are definitely recipes I've bookmarked. First off, I tried this one:

Banana Steel-Cut Oats

1 super ripe banana, smashed

3 c water

1 tsp vanilla

1 c steel-cut oats

1 Tbsp chia or ground flaxseeds

1/4 tsp cinnamon

1/8 tsp nutmeg

1 kiwi, peeled and sliced

1/4 c berries, fresh or frozen

 

In a small pot over medium heat, mix the smashed banana, water and vanilla. Stir in the oats and bring to a boil. Cover and reduce to low, stirring, occasionally. Cook 15-20 minutes, depending on how chewy you like your oats. Add the seeds and spices and serve, topped with fruit.

Esselstyn claims this makes two servings. Maybe two servings for horses. It makes a lot. Frankly, while it was tasty, it made more oatmeal than I wanted to eat, even in two sittings. And if I were forced to down half of it at one sitting, I don't think I could eat steel-cut oats again for at least a week. A small bowl of it was great, though.

What to do with the leftover oats?

You can just stir in a little milk the next day and nuke them, but congealed oatmeal looks so unappealing. Instead I opted for muffins that obeyed none of the new rules. Here's the original recipe, and here's my guilt-induced modification:

Leftover Oatmeal Muffins

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 c whole wheat flour

3 Tbsp sugar

4 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon fine sea salt

½ cup add-ins (such as nuts, chopped chocolate, coconut flakes, fruit, etc. I used coconut and choc chips)

1 large egg

1 cup (185 grams) cooked oatmeal, preferably steel-cut

½ cup (120 ml) whole milk

2 tablespoons (28 grams) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly

 

Preheat the oven to 400°F, and grease or paper a 12-cup muffin tin. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and add-ins. In another bowl, lightly beat the egg. Add the oatmeal to the egg, and mash with a fork to break up clumps. Add the milk and the butter, and stir or whisk to combine. Pour the wet mixture into the dry mixture, and stir briefly to just combine. Divide the batter evenly between the wells of the prepared muffin tin. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of one of the muffins comes out clean.

So that took care of another cup of the oatmeal...

This morning I looked at my container of congealment and did more internet searching. Someone suggested slicing it, frying the rounds in butter and serving with maple syrup. Ooh...not vegan, again, but appetizing. I went for it. No picture because it basically looks like you're frying up veggie burgers, but I will pass on my learnings:

  • Make the slices as thin as you can because, as with all fried things, it's the crunchy bits that are the best.
  • A skillet set on medium works, with about a 1/2 Tbsp of butter. Flip the cakes when the first side is nice and brown.
  • If you were trying to convince someone other than yourself to eat these, you may want to invest in some powdered sugar or fresh-fruit garnish, to decrease the hamburger-y appearance.

That's it for today's diet adventures. This week I'm experimenting with the formation of new habits and will report in next week!

Gutting It Out

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Have the New Year's Resolutions survived the one-week mark? I'm happy to report that our good-gut-promoting food resolutions are hanging in there. To review, in order to keep the zillions of healthful bacteria in our guts fed and happy, we proposed:

  1. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.
  2. Ditch the refined flours.
  3. Reduce the meat a little.

To up the fruit intake and the probiotics in the mornings, I've added a homemade smoothie. I see why the things are so danged expensive, but I'm betting the ingredients I put in at home are better than the ones in the mass-marketed products, and because the portion size at home is reasonable, the kids aren't getting super-sized sugar.

Bit o' Berry Smoothie

About 1 cup of whole-milk plain yogurt

a few sections of mandarin orange

about 1 cup of frozen mixed berries

a big slosh of vanilla-flavored almond milk (you could use any kind of milk you like, but if it's unsweetened, add a little vanilla and honey/sugar yourself)

a tbsp of ground flaxseed

Whirl in ye olde blender and serve.

We've been eating a lot of spinach salad in the evenings: spinach, pomegranate seeds, toasted almonds, feta cheese, and a balsamic vinaigrette. But whenever we run out of salad fixings, we switch to a mini crudite platter of carrots, celery, and cucumber, which I served last night, accompanied by my favorite Deborah-Madison-dip that conveniently features probiotics.

Yogurt Sauce with Cayenne and Dill

1/2 cup whole milk yogurt

1/4 cup cultured sour cream

1 small garlic clove, pulverized with 1/4 tsp salt

1 tsp dill

1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

Mix and refrigerate.

Since we always kick off the New Year with "Sugar-Free January," cutting extra sugar and most of the refined flours that made up all those Christmas desserts was a freebie. I think we go through as many bags of white flour and sugar in November and December as we do in the other ten months combined...

The meat resolution still poses a challenge, and I do wish the gut book had mentioned how much meat is too much. We eat about 1/5 of a lb each, 5-6 days a week, which I'd be inclined to say wasn't excessive, but what do I know? Stay tuned.

Go With Your Gut in 2017

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It turns out that we were on to something with expressions like "my gut tells me" and "I just have a gut feeling." As I first read in

last year, our bowels have a mysterious emotional connection to our brain, producing 95% of our seratonin, for example. And there's a reason nervousness gives us butterflies in our gut, not our brain. We ignore our guts at our peril, in terms of our emotional health.

Well, this December I picked up another book on the under-appreciated gut:

The cover makes it sound like a diet book, but, really, the authors, who hail from Stanford, give a great laymen's background on our gut and its bacterial population. Yes, they give some tips for improving gut health, which I'll get to, but first they just have plenty of fascinating information to share.

First off, whether or not you have the gift of hospitality, your body hosts bazillions of bacteria. On your hand alone "there are more microbes present...than there are people in the world." For germaphobes, this news might freak them out, but the Sonnenburgs want us to know that the bacteria our bodies have learned and evolved to live with are largely helpful. It's only when the helpful little guys are absent or decimated that the few bacterial villains gain a toehold and make us very, very sick. Our "gut flora" help us extract nutrients from food, bolster our immune system, and communicate with our brains. They can even determine if we tend toward leanness or obesity! When the populations of various bacteria are underfed, they might go extinct (freeing up more gut space for harmful bacteria) or start eating the mucus lining of our large intestine, destroying the protective layer between everything coming into the body and the bloodstream.

In our modern Western world,

Four factors have greatly changed gut flora in individuals in our population over the past few decades. They are: 1) increasing consumption of industrialized, processed foods, 2) widespread use of antibiotics, 3) the alarming rise in Caesarean deliveries, now accounting for one in every three births, and 4) the decline in breast-feeding.

What happens when our gut flora get out of wack?

Dysbiosis, or microbial imbalance, is observed in people with a variety of health problems such as Crohn's disease, metabolic syndrome, colon cancer, and even autism. In fact, it is getting more and more difficult to find a health condition that has not been linked to aberrations within the microbiota.

The authors are careful to emphasize that correlation is not causation, and they go carefully through the data (mostly on mice studies at this point), but certainly promoting gut health wouldn't make any of those conditions worse and would probably yield related and unrelated benefits. There's absolutely nothing to be lost in promoting gut health.

Some circumstances we can't help, like being born by unexpected C-section, but the authors ensured that their C-section daughters received a good swabbing with mom's birth canal bacteria, since that first essential exposure populates the infant's clean system with tried-and-true good flora. Breast milk further provides some incredibly complex carbs too expensive to reproduce in the lab, feeding those good bacteria and ensuring that they flourish. If you missed both those boats with your kids, despair not, but do try to keep them off the antibiotics when possible, since "antibiotic use in children is associated with an increased risk for a number of ailments such as asthma, eczema, and even obesity." Similarly, antibiotic used in adults usually wipes out plenty of the healthy bacteria along with the culprits, leaving us vulnerable to the bad guys taking hold and creating super bugs. (Wonder why old folks are so vulnerable to food-borne bacterial infection? Aging decreases the variety of our gut flora!)

The good news is, we can impact and maintain the health of our gut flora with a few key decisions. With these in mind, I came up with my 2017 New Year's Resolutions.

  1. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables--for the fiber! No matter what health/wellness book you read, there's no escaping this one. All that natural fiber keeps our flora hard at work, keeps them from eating the mucosal intestinal lining, and reduces inflammation.
  2. Ditch the refined flours. In order for our flora to have something to eat and break down and work on, they need food that doesn't turn instantly to sugar before it even gets to them. Go whole grain. Watch for "glycemic load."
  3. Reduce the meat a little.  I'm looking at you, Paleo dieters. This one will be tough with us because I have a teenage son who needs the protein and is constantly starving.

Several studies show that a meat-centered diet impacts the microbiota in a way that is detrimental to health. Within four weeks, dieters on a high-protein, reduced carbohydrate regimen had a dramatic increase in both the amount of [short chain fatty acids] and fiber-derived antioxidants they produced and a buildup of hazardous metabolites in their colons. This type of environment would negatively affect long-term colon health by increasing the risk for inflammatory diseases and colon cancer.

Finally, you may wonder if consuming probiotics helps. All the marketing gimmicks aside, consumption of live-culture yogurt, kefir, buttermilk, etc. increases the number of transient bacteria moving through your system, and "there is evidence that the presence of probiotic bacteria passing through us reinvigorates our body's defenses against invading pathogens." Not bad, for tourists. They also promote the secretion of that glorious, protective intestinal mucus. So let's say, as a last Resolution:

4. Add some probiotics to the diet.

I'm headed to the store to pick up some yogurt and maybe some kefir to experiment with. I'll keep you posted.

 

Thinking Ahead to Christmas Breakfast

When I was nine, my aunt and uncle took my sister and me on a vacation to Hawaii. Having children of my own now, I can't explain this behavior, because the last thing I would want on a vacation is more children around. Especially when I had my own firstborn infant in tow, as my aunt did, and when the extra children weren't particularly helpful with said baby, as we weren't. Not my aunt, snorkeling in http://www.hanauma-bay-hawaii.com/

In any case, I'm glad they took us, and several memories stand out from the trip: my one and only visit to Pearl Harbor (and a flea market being held there); my aunt being bitten by a fish while snorkeling in Hanauma Bay; sunrise on Haleakala (where I missed every shooting star on the drive up), and breakfast at King's Bakery in Honolulu.

The meal at King's Bakery is last-but-absolutely-not-least in that that list. This was back before their round loaves of "Hawaiian" Portuguese sweet bread were found in every grocery store. Back when they were just a place known to locals and former locals like my aunt, who had gone to the University of Hawaii. Which means we tourist nieces were completely unsuspecting of the culinary treat that lay ahead of us.

Sixteen years before the memorable breakfast

I still remember the fresh, ripe papaya half that strangely did not smell of gym socks, like every papaya I've had since. And I remember the French toast. W-o-w. Sweet, eggy, fragrant. Like no French toast I've had since. Which is why I've decided it'll be our Christmas morning breakfast this year. The cinnamon rolls I usually labor over have been rated "just okay," so they're off the list forever. I also looked at a half-dozen strata recipes and pictured the faces each child might make, based on that strata's ingredients. Not worth it. Let's stick with eggs, bread, sugar, and milk, for a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.

How King's website's version turned out

King's Hawaiian Bread French Toast

Large eggs

1/2 cup Milk

1/2 teaspoon Vanilla

1/4 teaspoon Cinnamon

1 tablespoon Butter

1 loaf of Hawaiian or Portuguese sweet bread

Slice bread crosswise so that each slice is about 1-inch thick. Cut larger slices into halves or thirds, if desired. Set aside.

In a shallow mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, vanilla and cinnamon. Mix occasionally to ensure it's well-blended.

Quickly dip slices (do not soak) in egg mixture and cook in frying pan until golden brown on both sides.

Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve with warm coconut or maple syrup.

Mele kalikimaka!

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle Your Holidays

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I'm pretty sure I do a version of this post every year, but here goes 2016's edition! Recently King County Waste Less News sent out an email about greener holidays, and the first link I clicked on made me think there was not enough time in my day to be green. No, I will not be making my own gift bags this season:

Because these look better than re-using gift bags you already have in the closet?

And then there was the one about re-using metallic chip bags, with unspooled VCR tape as ribbon(!!!). It's a joke, right?

I guess if you're over 80 and still have VCR tapes sitting around and the time to pull the tape out of the plastic case and floof it into a decorative heap...and the gift has got to be pretty small to be wrapped in a rinsed-out potato chip bag.

I'll be the first to admit I'm not a craft-y person, and I'm becoming more of a Grinch every year because I hate junk piling up. I hate plastic packaging; I hate plastic toys and things that break or get boring and then take up space for the rest of eternity; I hate clutter and things that don't have a function. I've even started purging our book collection because I love how my Kindle and its library take up no room. Because of my own aversions, I dislike giving people things that come in plastic packaging, break and take up space, or otherwise add to the clutter of the world. This includes electronics. If you saw my house, you wouldn't believe me, but it's because I live with four other people who don't share my love of spareness. Come visit me in a few decades, when I'm in the nursing home, and you'll see. It'll be some pictures on the wall, my Kindle, and a drawer full of socks and underwear. Done.

All of which is to say, if I could redesign Christmas, we'd only be allowed to give food, clothing, things that take up no room, and experiences. (If you still have little kids at home, you're stuck with plastic junk for a few more years, but maybe just let grandma and grandpa buy that stuff.)

How about a food gift basket? If you don't like to cook yourself, maybe you loaded up at the Bellevue Farmers Market before it closed.

Take one of those empty baskets you have laying around in the garage, from when someone gave you a gift basket, and fill it yourself with favorite foods. You wouldn't even need to do sweets, so they could enjoy it in January, after the sugar binge is over.

Or how about tickets to a local movie theater or live theater show or favorite spa? Maybe handmade coupons for something like dogsitting or babysitting or a ride to the airport. I see my kids' swim coaches spending lots of time reading on their Kindles at meets, so they usually get an ebook or Amazon $ and some suggested titles to enjoy. And there can always be something to open under the tree, even for the electronic or the intangible. Print out a picture of the non-physical item, box it up and you're good to go.

Every year I take pictures from the past twelve months and format them in a photo book for everyone to pore over. As the years go by, they make a nice collection.

Rather than have the season be about a quantity of expensive, useless gifts, build traditions throughout the month: videos you rotate through, certain cookies you bake and foods you eat, places and people you visit. The presents will be forgotten (until your kids are moving you to the home and have to dispose of all that junk in a yard sale), but the memories and habits prove more durable.

As a final suggestion, for those extended families who are up for something creative and less expensive, try a themed Christmas:

  • "Recycled" Christmas. (Re-)gift items you already have or that you found used at a thrift store or garage sale. No new items allowed. Recycled Christmases can be funny (white elephant) or as nice as possible.
  • "Together Time" Christmas. Skip the presents and rent/borrow a place to hang out all together for a couple days. Each branch of the family could plan an activity or game.
  • "Edible" Christmas. Only edible items allowed.

In any case, whatever you do this season, I hope you know to save any nice gift bags, tins, ribbons/bows, sturdy wrapping paper. Then, at least, next year you'll be spared having to do this:

Sing We Now of Christmas Cookies

Here it is, the last day of November, and the first Chris2014-jan-upload-005tmas cookie exchange of the season has already landed on my calendar. (Actually, the first first exchange happened in November, but I was overwhelmed and came empty-handed.) If you've ever found yourself worrying about upcoming cookie exchanges, I thought I'd share three tried-and-true recipes for different situations. But first, if you have any turkey left, may I recommend enchiladas? I tried this homemade sauce and it made the Pinterest cut because I'll certainly be making it again.

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Okay, so much for Thanksgiving. Back to cookies. Use a stand mixer for these, if you have one. Three recipes, three cookie exchanges--or three treats for you!

Your Basic Sugar Cookies

1 cup (two sticks) butter

2 c sugar

2 eggs

2 Tbsp milk

1 tsp vanilla

1 tsp salt

4 tsp baking powder

4 c flour

Cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Add eggs, milk, and vanilla until well-combined. Sift together dry ingredients and add to wet mixture until well-incorporated. Refrigerate dough at least one hour. (I usually divide the dough into four portions and wrap them individually in plastic wrap, so I don't have to process all the cookies at once.) Roll out dough on floured surface to 1/4" thickness and cut out. Bake at 350F for 10 minutes.

When completely cooled, you can freeze the cookies to frost later, or go ahead and frost. We like to do a thinner frosting that hardens: 1 cup powdered sugar, 1/2 tsp almond extract, 1-2 Tbsp milk, and artificial coloring, if desired.

(Thank you to M. V. for this now-traditional family recipe! Don't freeze this dough, or it will spread, but they keep in the fridge nicely overnight if you don't have time to do all the cookies at once. After they're frosted they can still be frozen, but they won't be as pretty.)

If you're looking for something even more arduous than frosted sugar cookies, I guarantee no one at your cookie exchange will have the following recipe, which I used to make for my husband's grad school advisor, a Jewish man from the Upper East Side (i.e., someone who knew his rugelach).

Polish Rugelach (adapted from Dec 1996 Bon Appetit)

DOUGH

1 c butter, room temperature

1 8-oz pkg cream cheese, room temperature

1/2 c sugar

2-3/4 c flour

1 tsp salt

FILLING

1 c sugar

1 c dried cranberries, diced

1 c chopped, toasted walnuts

2 Tbsp + 1/2 c melted butter

2-1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

1-1/4 tsp allspice

For dough: beat butter and cheese until light. Add sugar and beat until fluffy. Mix in flour and salt. Gather dough into a ball and knead until smooth. Divide into 8 equal pieces. Flatten each into a disk, wrap in plastic and chill at least 1 hour. (As with the sugar cookies, you can make the dough a day ahead.)

For filling: mix all and set aside.

Preheat oven to 350F. Roll out a disk of dough until it's an 8" round. Spread 3 Tbsp filling over it, leaving 1/2" border. Cut the round into 8 wedges, like a pie. Starting at the wide end of the wedge, roll it up tightly like a crescent roll. Place cookies, tip pointing down, on ungreased baking sheet. Brush cookies with egg and sprinkle with additional sugar. Bake 20 minutes, or until golden. Cool on racks.

The rugelach freeze well and are unbelievably tasty. Don't even waste your time eating bakery rugelach because you'll go away thinking you don't like rugelach, when, really, you don't like bakery cookies because they skimp on butter and expensive ingredients.

And then, lastly, I leave you with a relatively simple recipe that I usually whip up because it's the easiest but still looks festive. This one comes from Betty Crocker's Best Christmas Cookbook.

Almond-Toffee Triangles

BASE

2/3 c butter, softened

1/2 c brown sugar, packed

1/2 c corn syrup

1 tsp vanilla

1 egg

2 c flour

1/2 tsp salt

TOPPING

1/3 c brown sugar, packed

1/3 c corn syrup

1/4 c butter

1/4 c heavy cream

1 tsp vanilla

1 cup sliced almonds

Preheat oven to 350F. Butter a 15-1/2" x 10-1/2" x 1" jelly roll pan or line it with aluminum foil.

Mix butter, sugar, corn syrup, vanilla and egg in large bowl. Stir in flour and salt. Spread in prepared pan. Bake 18-20 minutes until light golden brown.

Meanwhile, cook the 1/3 c brown sugar and 1/3 c corn syrup in a small saucepan over low heat, stirring constantly, until sugar is dissolved. Stir in 1/4 c butter and the cream. Heat to boiling. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla.

Sprinkle almonds over the baked layer. Pour the cooked mixture over the almonds and spread evenly. Bake 15-20 minutes or until light brown and set. Cool completely. Cut into 6 rows by 4 rows; cut squares diagonally in half.

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