Thursday, January 31, 2008

Super Bowls and Super Snacks

As we go into Super Bowl weekend, some thoughts on super bowls and chip dipping, plus some suggestions for healthier alternatives.
Americans are estimated to eat a grand total of 30 million pounds of snacks during the Super Bowl. Calorie Control Council and the Snack Food Association, NewsDaily
Beware of Super-Sized Bowls
Dr. Brian Wansink of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab has done some great work on portion size and eating. One project, “Super Bowls: Serving Bowl Size and Food Consumption,” (Research Letter, JAMA April 2005 ) demonstrated that large serving bowls of typical party snacks led participants to eat a whopping 56% more food than participants who were served snacks in smaller bowls.
Lesson: Break out some modest-sized bowls for your chips.

Dip Once or Dip Twice?
This NYT article revisits to the classic Seinfeld episode in which George is taken to task for “double-dipping.” That is, he has dipped his chip in the bowl again, after he’s taken the first bite, potentially spreading germs. Prof. Paul Dawson, a food microbiologist at Clemson University, recently tested this claim in terms of food safety. He found that there is, in fact, a contamination threat, though small, and mitigated by the type of dip. My kids are always trying to catch someone in the process of a "double-dip." I think it's from camp, not Seinfeld, for them.
Lesson: Not sure...either, stop worrying, no dip at all, or small, individual plates so you can dip at will? You decide.

Healthy Super Bowl snack alternatives abound. We often have a take-out sushi fest for the Super Bowl. Or if you have a crowd, you can serve a hearty chili or soup. Here are more traditional tips and recipes for low-fat snack alternatives.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

One Pot Meals

Some of my favorite cookbooks were handed-down (or "forcibly borrowed" really) from industrious cooks who happen to be my in-laws: "The Settlement Cookbook: The Way to a Man's Heart" from Great-Grandma, "The Art of French Cooking" from Grandma, and "One Pot Meals" from Great-Grandpa, who came to cooking only after his wife died in the early 1980s. Each cookbook seems to signify an era. The first is a classic 1903 encyclopedia of American dishes from Mrs. Lizzie Kander and Mrs. Schoenfeld, which aimed to teach Jewish and German immigrants how to cook American-style. With its straight-forward style and easy directions, it was a huge success and remained a staple in the many kitchens until the 1950s. Next is Julia Child's inspiration to tackle French cuisine in the 1960s: rewarding, but challenging. Lastly, the most humble one represents 1970s-style cooking which sought to combine ease with new multicultural flavors. These one-pot recipes perfectly suited our eat-on-the-cheap college days, which was one reason we pinched this book. Favorite dishes included Mulligatawny, Chicken with Olives, and Braised Oxtail (well, this is really just a favorite of my husband's).
"If the pot is big enough, you can feed as many guests as you like."
One Pot Column, NYT
I was reminded of our old "One Pot Meals" by Margaret Gin because the New York Times has recently added a One Pot column, by Elaine Louie, which celebrates a different cuisine and one-pot recipe every week in the Wednesday food section. Last week, she had a recipe for Iron Pot Chicken which cooks in 12 minutes (!). This week, it's a 3-hour affair to make an ancient Spanish dish called Cocido. As is typical for one-pot cooking, though, much of the time is spent simmering on the stove. So it's possible to start it early and have it ready for a weeknight family dinner. There are, of course, many new and updated one pot meal cookbooks.

We haven't done too much one-pot cooking recently, but I'm inspired to try out some new things for weeknight dinners. In wintertime, the notion of a warm pot brewing dinner is appealing. Plus, it's always helpful to reduce the number of dishes you have to do afterward!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Comfort Food en cocotte

Well, the whole house--2 adults, 3 kids, and probably the dog too--were hit hard with the flu or an exceptionally bad cold this weekend. The meals were geared to sustain only-- many bowls of soup, toast, and cup after cup of hot tea. On Saturday night, though, my husband managed to make the perfect chicken dish, chicken en cocotte. It is a relatively quick and easy whole chicken dish that he's made before, so he was able to stumble through the steps. The usual complaint is that it is rather bland. Not a problem in the sick house. He threw in a few cloves of garlic and some herbs that livened it up a bit and added some homeopathic health points. The chicken was amazingly delicious and just the right thing for all of us poor, sick people. It was the definition of comfort food, the convalescent chicken, and we lapped it up. Leftovers went into a homemade chicken soup the next day. So it truly helped sustain us through the weekend.

Chicken en cocotte, a classic French recipe, is a casserole-braised chicken. You brown the whole bird, trussed, in a little butter or oil and then transfer it to the oven (400 degrees), where it steams in its own juices. The result is a very tender chicken, done in about 35 minutes with very little attention. You can add more flavor and interest to the rich sauce that develops in the pan. You can also an add lemon juice, sauteed mushrooms, or lightly cooked asparagus to the final dish. For best results, use a heavy, round or oval, deep casserole made of enameled cast-iron. It must be able to take stove-top cooking for the browning step and it must also be oven-proof.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Home Sick

My daughter is home sick today; she had a high fever and feverish dreams through the night. She was sent home from school yesterday and had passed out on the couch under many blankets. Still, she knew we had made one of her favorite dinners (chicken breasts with mushrooms, basmati rice, French baguette) and she couldn't bear to miss it. She bravely propped herself up at the table and ate a few bites, which was amazing given her state. I couldn't help but think of it as a prime example of comfort food.

The maxim should be "feed a fever, feed a cold" because if the sick one can eat and keep down the food, they probably should. Food gives comfort and energy; it gives warmth if it's a hot bowl of soup and it can quench a thirst when you are parched.

So, I may go digging in the freezer today to see if I have enough leftover chicken bones to make a decent soup for my dear daughter. Chicken soup has been considered curative since ancient times and modern scientific research has recently backed the folklore claim. Whether its placebo or some actual benefit of the ingredients, I find that just the aroma of boiling chicken stock can have salutary effect. It certainly can't hurt.

In my cohort, there's a lot of sickness going around--stomach flus, fevers, run-of-the-mill colds. It's just the season, especially if you have kids, who are unwitting vectors. Take care of yourself, and take care of your loved ones if they are felled. Think comfort food and make some chicken soup to get you through it.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Food Coop Blues

I worked my usual shift at the Park Slope Food Coop today. I had my usual reluctance when I saw the every-4-week shift looming on the calendar. "Argh, another day practically 'lost,'" I thought. The 3-hour shift, plus shopping time, takes up more than half of the school day; the only time I can usually get things done. Plus, there's the added rush in the morning to get everyone ready for school and me to the place by 8am. But in the end, the trip had more joy than frustration, with some neighborly socializing thrown in. I spoke to people about food, of course, but also about toddlers who, like mine, won't reliably sleep past 6am, and about Fiona Shaw in Happy Days, a phenomenal play at BAM. Usually I overhear or partake in political discussions as well, but I guess it was a "slow" day.

The real bonus is that my refrigerator and shelves are now chock-full with food, including lots of organic fruit and vegetables, healthy snacks, and the makings of at least a week's worth of meals and school lunches. I bought a delicata squash for the first time and hope to make something good of it. My daughter's birthday is coming up, so I bought more than our usual share of treats: brownie mix for birthday snack at school (that happens to be organic), ice cream, and some of her favorite things, like clementines and chocolate.

Having all that good food on hand really does fuel the family dinner. Without it, it's easy to fall into the habit of ordering take-out or dressing up some grocery-store convenience food as dinner. Eating better and cooking better starts with your shopping trip.

My coop seems so rare and unlikely, a bustling non-profit food business with over 10,000 members nestled in an unassuming and impossibly small, old building in Park Slope. But there are food coops all around the country and they take many different shapes. The Park Slope Food Coop requires a work commitment, but that is somewhat unusual. A food coop can help you get good food at better prices, as long as it is frequented enough to keep the produce and groceries fresh. Check out the Coop Directory to see if there is one near you. Local Harvest is another great resource that lists food coops, farmer's markets and family farms that sell directly to consumers. It's not so bad, after all, belonging to a coop!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Family Food Linkage

Some interesting food blogs I've found recently.

FamilyFood (aka CityMama) a mom that can cook, likes to cook, and stands up to food snobs and others who doubt that this is a worthwhile endeavor. Gotta love it.

Fork and Bottle: wine and cheese reviews, and links to interesting books and cooking with kids, California-based.

What's Cooking: San Francisco-based, green business that teaches cooking classes for kids, with great product catalog and books.

101 Cookbooks: Lots of recipes, nice pictures.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Kitchen Cabinet

Espousing food philosophy is all well and good, but you also have to actually get dinner on the table in order to have a family meal. These are things I always have on hand to help whip up a quick meal.

From the Kitchen Cabinet, with links to some of my favorite brands:
  • Pasta. Angel Hair, especially, because the kids love it and it only takes 5 minutes (Preheat the water and cover it, until you are nearly ready for the pasta. That way you can time the sauce and the pasta being finished close to the same time.)
  • Best bottled sauce you can get or canned tomatoes
  • Newman’s Own Salad Dressing. For salad obviously, but also can be a quick marinade with added garlic, lemon, or extra vinegar.
  • Near-East Rice Dishes. Some of these have a lot of sodium, but they are fool-proof. If your family like rices, try a rice cooker. We like Kokuhou Rose Japanese Rice, which we can get in Chinatown.
  • Garlic
  • Olive Oil
  • Spices. Have the standards on hand in dried form: tarragon, basil, thyme, parsley, and whatever else you like. Buy one fresh herb a week if possible and use it to liven up different dishes during the week.
  • Some jars of specialty foods. For example, capers, artichoke hearts, or olives can be thrown into almost any sauce or a marinade to add flavor. Just be careful not to combine too much, especially if you're new to this. Try one special item at a time.
Learn how to make 2-3 quick pasta sauces with your staples. I whip something up with ham, peas, Parmesan cheese, and milk that is a close cousin to Linguine Alfredo and is always a hit. Or chicken breasts, or thin pork chops can be marinated for 15-20 minutes while the rice cooks or the pasta water boils, and then quickly sauteed or grilled. Having some easy fall-back recipes and supplies can help you get dinner on the table on even the craziest nights.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

To Market, To Market

Photo credit: Amy Semple

Eating well is not only a philosophy. You may want to eat fresh, local, organic food, but your ability to do so is often constrained by price and access. Can you afford to pay 2-3 times more for the organic version of milk? Does your local supermarket even carry it? Michael Pollan suggests that eating better is easier now than it was 20 or 30 years ago. He may be right, but there is still a long way to go.

One of the best ways to get better prices on good food is to break from the supermarket model. At the supermarket, high mark ups on organic and other healthy food dissuade too many people from buying it. When organic fruit, for example, is too expensive, it ends up being less fresh and thus doesn’t taste as good. It's a vicious cycle because who wants to pay more for bad produce?

Farmer’s markets are one great way to get better produce, but there are others. One way is to buy directly from the farmer through “buying clubs” called CSAs (Community-Supported Agriculture). In NYC, Just Food, a non-profit organization, sponsors 50 CSAs city-wide. The way it works is: you purchase a food share (vegetables and fruit, sometime meat) prior to the growing season in exchange for a weekly supply of food through the summer and early fall. It ends up being about $30-40 a week for a mixture of farm-fresh, usually organic, veggies and fruit. You still have to supplement with groceries from a supermarket, but it’s a great way to start.

You sign up for the CSA share in the winter, so look for one near you now. (Click here for locations in NYC, CT, NJ, and elsewhere in the Country) Both Just Food and the Robyn Van En Center at Wilson University in Pennsylvania offer resources for setting up new CSAs, if there is none near you.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Omnivore's Solution

I finally picked up Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food today. I'm glad I did, although it's preaching to the choir of

His Eater's Manifesto is really simple; he states right off the bat:
"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
The main argument of the book is set out in the first chapter: to reject "nutritionism" and the Food Industrial Complex in favor of real food and enjoyment of meals. This resonates with my message about eating dinner together as a family. Family is at the center of learning about food and at the center of enjoying it. Family dinners are the natural starting point to develop a better relationship to food for you and your family.

Pollan caught me by surprise on page 3, when he writes,
"Culture .., at least when it comes to food, is really just a fancy word for mother."
I love that. We've gotten too far away from our culture of family dinners. Not to blame mom yet again, but to encourage mom, or dad, to reclaim the right of family expert in what you should eat and what you should put on the family table.

Update: Tara Parker-Pope interviewed Pollan for her Well blog, 1.17.07 (Great comments, too!)

Monday, January 14, 2008

Real Celebrity People Eat Real Food?

Angling off the Seinfeld debate, does celebrity really matter in terms of making the food we eat popular? The Jessica Seinfeld cookbook Deceptively Delicious makes clear that it certainly can help. She has a best-seller with over 200,000 copies of the book sold. Ask Sneaky Chef Missy Chase Lapin and you'll learn that without the big-name and big-name publicity, you have only a small niche market for the same fare.

Famous, or "almost famous" people eating well makes headlines, as a few other recent articles note.
“We all eat, sleep, breathe, and we all have lives to take care of, regardless of the celebrity or notoriety or whatnot... ‘What are you doing in the co-op?’ Well, my family’s in the co-op. My wife would kill me if she couldn’t get her organic food."
  • Ang Lee, the genius director of Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Eat Drink Man Woman, to name a few, is also down to earth and deeply connected to food. In fact, he raises chickens in his Westchester backyard. and he cooks traditional Chinese dishes whenever he can. A Chicken Coop, but no Tigers, NYT, 11.25.07

Can we make eating well trendy? Paul Newman's Newman's Own food line is a great example. The company has raised over $200 million for charity since 1982 and is also committed to organic and sustainable food with its Newman's Own Organics. Tell me, Paul Newman's blue eyes on the label have nothing to do with it!

Friday, January 11, 2008

Family Dinners for a Happy, Healthy New Year

"What if I told you that there was a magic bullet--something that would improve the quality of your daily life, your children's chances of success in the world, your family's health, our values as a society? Something that is inexpensive, simple to produce and within the reach of pretty much anyone?" Miriam Weinstein, The Surprising Power of Family Meals (Steer Forth Press, 2005)

Today's post lists some evidence and info on how family dinners can help you and your kids have a happy healthy new year. Enjoy!
  • Family discussion at mealtime promotes literacy, giving children opportunities to learn vocabulary, practice storytelling, and, in general, acquire knowledge from their parents and siblings. Special Issue of New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, Spring 2006, Issue 111
  • Family dinners are associated with reduced rates of obesity and with increased odds of weight reduction among obese adolescents. Obesity 14:2266-2276 (2006)

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Deceptive Delicious? Or too much of a Cheat?

I’ve been the following the Deceptively Delicious “scandal,” with great interest. Jessica Seinfeld has a best-selling book centered on how to hide vegetables in dishes your kids will like. But she's also charged with plagiarism and name-calling by "Sneaky Chef" author Missy Chase Lapine.
  • Times City Room Blog updated 01.08.08 to include more detail on the Legal Battle (Original blog post on Stealth Food on 10.17.07 appears to have been removed.)
I feel no compunction to add to the Seinfeld coffers and actually buy the book, but I find its premise horrible. “Sneaking food” is weird and unhealthy. That's true whether you sneak by hiding when you eat cookies, or if you sneak for the higher calling of adding vegetables to your menu. I find it upsetting that you would feel the need to regularly trick your kids. (I'm not above white lies, but at every meal?) Talk about creating psychological issues around food.

Plus, you're setting yourself up for a serious backlash. I can hear it now: “I’ll never eat anything because who knows what you’ve put in it!” Or “I know these Oreos don’t have spinach in them, I’ll just eat Oreos!” Or worse, “Mom, do you ever tell me the truth?”

People tell me that I’m “lucky” that my kids are good eaters. I know, I am lucky, but there was a lot of modeling and groundwork that helped them become “good eaters.” It was not entirely luck. My kids ate table food very early. I used the Happy Baby Food Mill to mush up whatever we were eating right at the table. Or if I was organized, I steamed vegetables and blended them in batches, then stored them frozen in ice cubes trays until ready to warm up and serve. I genuinely believe that if you keep offering real, healthy food to kids, they will eat it. Perhaps not the first time, or even the tenth, but eventually they will try it and might even like it.

If your kids are past the baby/toddler stage, you have more work to do. But I think it’s better in the long run to teach your kids what healthy food choices are, to help them develop a healthy relationship with food, and to avoid casting Mom or Dad as a huckster trying to slip in nutrients at every turn. Make your kids take vitamins if you are really concerned about their poor eating; hiding vegetables in mac and cheese is a short-term gain.

Other thoughts:
"Being a Mom is Great" blogger mom apparently liked the book and created a handy chart for conversion of veggies to Seinfeld recipes. Another site called lists some Pros, Cons and User Feedback on the Seinfeld book. I also found a veggie-loving, cooking with kids site at the What's Cooking Blog that looks very promising.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

New Year Thoughts

I hate New Year's Resolutions, but somehow I can’t help feeling melancholy at this time of year. I guess New Year's Resolutions are supposed to be upbeat challenges to get your mind off the doldrums you feel mid-winter, after the holidays and after the kids are (finally!) back in school.

To stop all my ruminating, I'll just jump right in. I start back blogging with a funny holiday story and a short, personal to-do list.

Goose Fat
Michael cooked a goose for Christmas. It was delicious, but as Julia Child notes “Goose has a fat problem.” He removed cups and cups of goose fat during the cooking process, but not all of it apparently. So much goose fat is not good for the plumbing, it turns out. After an emergency service call, the plumber, of course, blamed the “wife” for putting grease down the sink. My husband couldn’t find it in himself to own up. Nonetheless, the kids are asking when we can have “cracklings” again. All in all, a triumph for Michael!

To Do List:
  • Catch up on Food Reading: namely, Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
  • Learn more about the local food movement, specifically my "local" NYC food network and distribution system.
  • Make connections and get word out about
  • Start our sister site: