Hot Off the Skillet Food Links


Whoa. I meant to do a post on interesting food links monthly, but a quick scroll reveals I haven't done a Hot Off the Skillet since early January. There's always exciting news in the food and nutrition world, beginning with this link I saw today! Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have found a daily cup of tea may reduce heart attack and cardiovascular risk? Beginning in 2000, they followed 6000 study participants, who were free of heart disease at that time. Eleven years later, it was the tea drinkers who showed 1/3 fewer incidences of "heart attack, stroke, chest pain, or...other types of heart disease." Yay, Earl Grey!

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In other happy news, you'll remember I wrote about my favorite food/nutrition book of 2015, Mark Shatzker's The Dorito Effect. Because I also follow him on Twitter, I heard about his recent Epicurious article, holding out the promise of better-tasting real food in the future. As he discussed in the book, for years folks bred supermarket food for looks and speed and durability, letting actual flavor go by the wayside. Hence the baseball-hard tomatoes that taste like drywall and grocery-store chicken with all the flavor of tofu, only with a texture even more revolting. But, joy of joys, flavor is making a comeback, and not just the flavors found in a chemistry lab. Agricultural think tanks are working on breeding flavor back in--the old-fashioned way, by crossing plant varieties and hoping for good results.

Like heirloom tomatoes, but wish they were sturdier? Now's your chance to get tomato seeds for Garden Gem and Garden Treasure, two new varieties which are already winning taste contests! For a small donation to the University of Florida's Klee Laboratories you'll receive 15 seeds of each kind, just in time to get them started indoors.

And lastly, as we find ourselves in a strident political season, I always like to show bipartisanship. Having referenced the Environmental Working Group's Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen produce lists in the past, I now present the other side, in which our supermarket produce is found to be very, very clean, according to USDA pesticide sampling, as reported in Forbes. The author makes a couple good points, including the fact that pesticide residue can be found in both conventional and organic produce (some organic countermeasures are allowed but act similarly to regular pesticides). I would love to believe our fruits and vegetables more than meet the EPA's tolerances. What is a tolerance? "The tolerance is generally 100 times less than a dose that could cause any ill effect. The allowed residues are also lower than the levels of natural pesticidal compounds that many crops make to defend themselves." (As Mark Schatzker also discussed in his awesome book, plants do produce natural toxins so they don't get eaten or eaten at the wrong time by every Bird, Cow, or Billy Goat Gruff.)

Tolerable produce still doesn't address the issue of agricultural workers who are exposed to higher levels of pesticides, however, in producing the crop. Nor does it dispel that niggling memory I have of the potato farmer in Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire, who farmed conventional potatoes for all of us, but only fed his family from the small organic plot behind the house... But, hey, it's still good news for when we can't resist that out-of-season basket of berries. Berries below tolerance!

May it hold us until Opening Market Day.



Last Night My Kids Ate Beets

May I have your attention, please! Dinners at our home are rarely newsworthy events, but for the past two days, they have been. Not because of what was served, but because of who ate it. Seriously, I rank this right up there with Queen Elizabeth II achieving the longest reign--last night I served roasted beets with a yogurt dipping sauce, and all three of my kids ate some. Not a lot, but some. Meaning, in the case of two of them, a chunk of beet the size of a pea.

You might be thinking, So what? I love beets. Or, like many people I know, you might have read that last paragraph and shuddered inwardly because you hate beets.

What I've learned this week, is that we can actively work to expand our taste likings and the likings of even the pickiest of eaters.

I'd enjoyed Bee Wilson's Consider the Fork, a history of cooking implements, so I picked this one up--a discussion of how we learn to like the tastes we do, and what can be done for those picky eaters, old and young. (Note: after hearing some of the case stories in this book, I will never call my children "picky eaters" again. I now realize they're comparative omnivores!)

What Wilson discovered is that, while there is a genetic and an in utero element to what tastes we like easily, much more of our tastes develop from how and what and when we are fed in the early years afterward. We have such thing as a tasting window, when we're open to new flavors. (Sadly, this window doesn't correspond with the current guidelines and timeline on how to feed babies.) But even after the window of our greatest tasting openness has slammed shut, there are techniques to increase our liking of other foods and flavors.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who has to feed anyone or who is looking to expand his own limited palate. Wilson also discusses some of the food-liking limitations of autistic kids and treatments that help!

Even if you're not someone crippled because you can only stand to eat a handful of things, there's much to be gained from expanding our flavor horizons. Limited foods often equal limited nutrition. And the rise of processed food consumption has led to people developing "uncannily homogeneous tastes, markedly more so than in the past." What are these homogeneous likings? Well, for sugar, fat, salt, and refined carbs.

Now that "half of adults in the U.S. have diabetes or pre-diabetes," it's looking like a great time to reform our palates. As Wilson points out, it's no use threatening or advising folks. Much more useful is actually getting people to enjoy a healthier, more varied diet because they discover they like it and start to prefer it. Hence my exercises in beets (and green beans the night before). Multiple exposures can get people over the I-don't-like-beets hump into the familiarity camp, and then into the tolerance camp, and then--possibly--into the liking camp! That's the plan, anyhow.

It can happen. Over the years I've grown to like beets, cilantro, cooked spinach, fish, kale, mushrooms, and onions--all things I disliked as a kid. Who knows what more lies out there?

Speaking of new flavors, did you notice our new Thursday vendor?
and The Box's flavor explosion: Kahlua Pork Bao

Get to the Market this week and try at least one new thing. Prepare just a little bit. Try it a couple different ways. Get everyone in your home to taste a pea-sized bite before they chow down on old standbys. Let me know what you find!

Seven Reasons to Bypass Big Food for the Farmers Market

I had a wretched meal the other day. One so bad I feel I have to tell you about it. See, what with family trips and unavoidable commitments, I hadn't made it to the Bellevue Farmers Market in weeks. Our meat supply in the freezer dwindled to one package of bacon. Our fresh fruit and vegetables were reduced to the tomatoes in my husband's garden and some mint struggling to survive in a pot on the porch. Desperate times.

So I went to the supermarket and bought some organic chicken to throw on the grill. I even made homemade barbecue sauce. How bad could it be, right? Grilling makes everything awesome, especially charcoal grilling.

It was t-e-r-r-i-b-l-e. The meat was both too chewy and flavorless, in spite of my doctoring. My 14-year-old son, never one to hold back on criticism (or on eating protein), told me, "Never make this again." He needn't have worried. As I chewed and chewed just for the heck of it, I made a vow that, the next opportunity I had, I would stock up on pastured, Market chicken, that such a fate would never befall us again.

It was only when I began reading my latest food-related book that I understood why that meal was so abysmal.

Read this book!

Author Schatzker thinks about the familiar problems of rising obesity and its attendant ill effects from a new angle: that of flavor. How has the increasing lack of flavor in our high-yield crops and livestock, and the simultaneous manipulation of synthetic flavor to compensate, led to our weight issues? He calls this the "Dorito Effect," after that original taco-in-a-chip product that first fooled our palates into thinking we were eating one thing, when we were actually eating another.

This book is chock-full of fascinating stuff, and I'll probably say more in the future, but for the time being, I just want to list "all the ways the Dorito Effect appears to be turning us into nutritional idiots." Or, as I would subtitle it, "Seven Reasons My Chicken Was Dreadful," or, "Seven Reasons to Bypass Big Food for the Farmers Market."

  1. Dilution. With industrial livestock, it's been a race to produce the biggest animals the fastest and the cheapest. As Schatzker points out, we now effectively eat bloated babies fed high-yield grains coated in synthetic flavors to boost consumption. Since flavor in meat depends on what the animal ate and its age, we've experienced a decline in flavor.
  2. Nutritional decapitation. Synthetic flavors (which include both "natural" and "artificial" flavors) imitate the tastes we find in our favorite foods, without being also able to imitate the nutritional value of those foods. No fiber, no antioxidants, no vitamins, no minerals.
  3. False variety. Animals left to themselves crave variety in foods to ensure they get what they need and avoid what they don't need. (Ask me about my consuming craving for barbecue beef ribs during my first pregnancy--I'm forever low on iron.) Synthetic flavors fool our mouths into thinking we're getting this variety.
  4. Cognitive deception. Is there really any fruit in that yogurt? That snack bar? Or are we just being led to think so (and pay as much) by the added fake flavors and marketing?
  5. Emotional deception. Our favorite foods usually have great memories and feelings attached to them. When we hijack the flavors and attach them to something else (usually not as nutritious and high in calories), we assign this heightened pleasure to something not nutritionally deserving.
  6. Flavor-nutrient confusion. While the synthetic flavors may fool our palates and encourage us to eat more, our bodies are not satisfied. We still need what we need to function, after all. So we eat more. And more. And more.
  7. Feeding ourselves like livestock, with the attendant results. Because animals don't like to be penned up and fed the same bland grains and soybeans day after day, farmers have to dress up the food with "palatants." Fooled by the new yumminess, the animals gorge and fatten up nicely. Well, as Michael Pollan pointed out way back in The Omnivore's Dilemma, humans also eat plenty of corn and soy in our processed foods (and because our meats ate them). And, just like the livestock, we add fake flavor to make it taste like a host of different things, so we don't get bored. And, just like the livestock, we've fattened up nicely.
Bust out of bland! Dive into deliciousness, naturally. Nestle into nutrients. Hit the Market this week and bypass Big Food. I'll be there. Tasty as my husband's tomatoes have been, I've got a hankering to diversify our diet.
Homemade pico de gallo