Friday, February 29, 2008

More Food Blogs

Here are some interesting food blogs I found this week.
Leftover Queen Lots of great stuff here on food, food blogs, and eating well.
Dinners for a Year and Beyond Meeting the challenge of family dinner with some very impressive entrees and recipes.
Food on the Food Start with the "Intro to her Cookbook," posted in Feb 2007, which explains her project, a recipe from her American Immigrant cookbook every Friday. She's still regularly posting on a wide variety of family, food, and foolishness.
Ed Levine's Serious Eats The infamous Ed Levine searching out good eats throughout New York City.
Feeding the Kids Tips on feeding kids healthy food; promotes recently published book.

Leap Year Cocktail Since it's a Leap Year Day (2.29.08), and a Friday to boot, here's a wacky cocktail to try. Happy Friday!

Thursday, February 28, 2008

It's all in the prep

The more I think about family dinner, the more I think it's all in the prep. Believe me, I'm not one of those super-organized people who can plan a week's meals in advance. Whenever I make a detailed shopping list, I lose it. Except for chicken stock, I don't reliably cook make-ahead meals.

Still, I know that a modicum of advance planning saves me, and dinner, night after night. The main planning I do is at the grocery store. I do a huge grocery shop every week, keeping a mental tally of how many dinner main dishes and veggies I've thrown in the cart. I keep freezer and side dish staples well stocked at home.

I also prep right before dinner. At 6pm, my panic button goes off and I realize that I have to soak the rice, wash the veggies, or stage any number of items for dinner ("mise en place" is the fancy, cooking term). I often "pre-boil" the water for pasta. I put a pot of water on, and when it boils, I cover it to keep the heat in. Then when I'm actually ready to make the pasta, it only takes a couple of minutes to boil, not the usual 15 minutes or more. If I have a long, slow-cooked meal or something to marinate, I have to remember to start prep before school pick up or earlier in the day. If I forget to start early enough, I might shift that dish to another night. This advance prep usually takes no more than 15 or 20 minutes. The actual cooking then goes much faster and more smoothly once we are all home and ready to eat.

More articles on prepping dinner:
Racket in the Kitchen, Ruckus in the Crib. NYT, 02.27.08 Best line, "I am the silent chef." This article is about prepping dinner early so as not to disturb a sleeping newborn (wise papa), but is applicable to advance prep for all family dinners.

Make Meals Easy with "Mise en Place".
Any cook can benefit from the professional chef practice of "mise en place," which means having all the ingredients chopped and organized before cooking.

Mom Puts Family on Her Meal Plan. NYT, 07.11.07 Hey, if you can be this organized, more power to you.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Power of Words

Here’s a recipe to encourage your family to eat more vegetables: Just add adjectives. Well Blog, 11.29.07
Succulent, Hearty, Delicious…the power of words to describe food is well known to restaurant critics and Food Channel stars. But you may not realize how much it influences the way you and your family eat. Research shows that how you present and describe the food affects how much people will opt to eat and enjoy it. Presenting a steak as “juicy” starts the salivary glands going, which sure enough, makes the steak taste better. The inverse happens when you plop down a dish and say "leftovers" or declare that "might be overcooked.” Your family hears "oh, yuck.” Your apologies and low expectations are working against you.

As corny as it sounds, children seem to especially love interesting names for food, even beyond the classic technique of calling broccoli “trees.” Dr. Brian Wansink, author of “Mindless Eating,” found that “power peas” were way more popular with kids that just plain old green peas. He was even successful in getting kids to drink and enjoy tomato-veggie juice drink when he called it a “Rainforest Smoothie.” Descriptive, mouth-watering names for food encourages kids and adults to be more willing to try the food and to be more likely to enjoy it. Major food companies use this technique; you should too.

I definitely fall into pattern of criticizing the meals I serve. If the dish didn’t turn out just as I planned, I lament about it at the table. As a chef, there is some benefit of talking through mistakes. After reading this research though, I see how it detracts from the meal and sets up the wrong dynamic. You can unwittingly open up the gates of criticism from your family. I might be able to say the chicken is dry, but I’d rather not have my kids say it too! And since I expect them to eat whatever I serve, I shouldn't give them easy excuses for not doing so.

So be proud of what you are serving; come up with a creative or delicious-sounding name, if you can. If you messed up the dish, it’s still dinner and it’s certainly not going to taste any better with extra scrutiny. The power of words might just save it!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Try, try again: Pushing Cabbage

Guess what I served my kids for dinner last night? Cabbage. Do you think they liked it? No, not particularly. Also on the menu was pork chops and potatoes, both of which they like, so they hardly went hungry. I knew that cabbage wasn't going to be a big hit, but I cooked it up anyway. I sauteed onions until they were sweet, threw in chopped savoy cabbage, and then added some chopped pear and apple cider vinegar. Pushing up the sweet quotient, I hoped, might win them over to the dish.

How did I handle it at the table? I served each kid a very small portion and asked, "just give it a try." All but the two-year old did. I never force my kids to try new food, not even one bite. I suggest; I encourage, but never force or threaten. If I really think they'll like it, I say so. If I think it might be too spicy or it's not all that good, I say that too. I might require that they keep the food on the plate, but it never has to touch their lips or even their fork.

Actual results on the cabbage, eating-wise? No comment about the cabbage from my 12 year old. My older daughter said she thought the pears in it were "actually pretty good, " and she picked those out. My 2-year-old loudly declared, "I DON"T WANT IT!" and pushed it off her plate. (She is in a very bossy-toddler phase and often not even willing to sit at the table. Since I am picking my battles with her, I decided to ignore this for the greater good.) My oldest, however, quietly explained to her that we can pretend to push the food around on the plate, but never say you don't like it to the host, "which in this case," he said,"is mommy. You might hurt her feelings." Priceless.

Nutritionists say that a child must be introduced to a new food 11 or more times before he or she will like it. It's hard for me to imagine cooking a dish 10 or more times without some verification that it will get eaten. Still, I always keep that number in mind and am not afraid to offer something 3 or times before giving up.

So bottom line: Keep trying!

Monday, February 25, 2008

"So, how was your day?" Tips on table talk

The family dinner table gives you a regular, consistent time of day to talk with your kids and your partner. This is certainly true for my family. Even my 2 year old has started to ask, "So, how was your day?" when she sits down at the table. "Good, I had a good day. How was your day?" is the generic response. It's a little bland, but it does convey that someone cares and is listening. With 5 people at the table, usually someone will jump in, grab the floor and start re-telling an actual story. Between my talkative 12 year old and my competitive 9 year old vying for attention and their share of table talk, silence is not a problem we have.

I know many parents, though, who lament the one-word answers or grunts they get from their kids to that generic question, "How was your day?" My main advice is:
If you want specific stories, you have to ask better questions.
Starting when your kids are in preschool, coach yourself on how to ask questions about their "day." Simple questions help your child open up: "Did you do art today? What did you make? Did you visit the library?"

For older kids, it may be harder to have those easy clues about what he or she actually did in school. Just try some random age-appropriate topics, keeping off those testy academic subjects. Instead try: "What was for lunch in the cafeteria? What sports are you doing in gym or recess?" Asking an innocuous question about lunch or recess may actually get you some juicy back story on your child's peer relationships. My kid always has stories about who-dissed-who in the cafeteria and what rivalries are on-going during gym or recess.

More tips:
Know something about their day to trigger recall and to show that you are paying attention. I still have a schedule of my older kids daily activities, so I will sometimes use that as a crutch to start conversations.

Talk to your partner instead. Kids learn how to have conversations by listening to adults. They hear the narrative of stories as well as the give-and-take of conversation. Often, they model this unconsciously. For me, starting a conversation with my husband never lasts more than a few seconds, anyway. One of my kids quickly interrupts with something he or she finds more interesting.

Give them a "scaffold" to stand on. Ask specific, non-threatening questions. Break the "big" question apart into smaller questions. Use follow-up, if the first response was one word or a non-committal grunt.

You don't have to judge or comment. Just listen. If whatever your child reports from school doesn't result in an argument or conflict, he or she might be more inclined to talk again.

Turn off the TV: Watching TV while eating dinner kills conversation. There is just no way to really talk and engage while you are watching TV. And if you are not engaging with your kids at dinner, you are passing up a great opportunity.

Many of these topics are discussed in Miriam Weinstein's The Surprising Power of Family Meals. It's a great book that I'm sure to be referring to regularly as I write this blog.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Pass the Mustard, Hold the Ketchup

Last week, I wrote about Frank Bruni's review of the 2nd Avenues Deli. In it, Bruni off-handedly made a comment,
"I wasn't much for mustard."
This stopped me short when I read it. Even though I always try the pastrami before I add mustard, mustard really is a necessary condiment for me and my pastrami sandwich. Some readers were curious to know, "Was Bruni condiment challenged and a mustard hater?" One distressed reader even pointed him to the Mount Horeb Mustard Museum as a remedy. Bruni wrote a separate clarification of about this in his Dining Journal blog, specifying that he did, in fact, appreciate mustard, just not on his pastrami sandwich.

Now, ketchup...ketchup, on the other hand, demands a moral statement, especially in regard to family dinner. So I'll say it:
"I am strictly against ketchup."
Unless it is for a designated ketchup-approved food, such as french fries, hot dogs, or hamburgers, I forbid my kids to use it. Sometimes in a restaurant I bend, but not without much eye-rolling. The reason should be obvious to any parent. Kids use ketchup to camouflage food, and many kids get addicted to the sweet stuff. I know it seems like a harmless condiment, but ketchup is the enemy of the kid palate. Parents don't kid yourself: They are not really trying new foods if they are covered in ketchup. They are not even eating eggs or chicken, or whatever it is, if the food is totally immersed in ketchup. They are eating ketchup.

Since I'm an everything-in-moderation-kind-of person, some of my friends are surprised by my hard line on this. But I tell you, along with mac-n-cheese and chicken nuggets (which I do occasionally serve), ketchup is the gateway drug to picky eating. Beware.

More reading about Kids and Ketchup:
Kids and Ketchup: Is Ketchup a Healthy Food Group? Associated Content Nov. 21, 2007
What to Do when Your Kid Only Wants Ketchup Associated Content July 5, 2007
Is Ketchup a Vegetable? BabyZone
The Green Ketchup Phenomenon The Supermarket Guru, Feb. 27, 2002

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Toddler at the Table: From Trial to Triumph

When I started this blog in November, my youngest daughter had just turned 2 years old. Most of the time, she went to bed about 7pm. Then, the rest of the family had a reasonably relaxed dinner without her. It was nice. My husband and I could chat up the older kids about their day, then we could talk ourselves and linger a bit after the meal. Sad to say, but we all enjoyed dinner more when the baby was in bed.

I knew this wasn't going to last. I didn't want it to last too long. I firmly believe that you need to set eating habits early in kids and that eating together as a family is a big part of it. Though I was relieved to have a few relaxing moments at dinner, I felt guilty for excluding her.

Well, the baby got wise in late December. Maybe she realized she was missing something. There was no school, schedules were relaxed, and everyone was staying up later anyway, so I let the routine slide. Whatever the reason, it became impossible to put her down before dinner and she's been a regular feature at the table for the last month or so.

Frankly, she's been an absolute terror. She would never actually eat. She would stand up in her high chair or climb all over my husband or I. She occasionally threw plates off the table or food to the dog. There were many spills of juice, water, or milk, since she would insist on having the same kind of cup as her older siblings, ages 9 and 12. Often either my husband or I would not actually eat as one of us tried to manage her. The older kids would roll their eyes or gape at what we were letting her get away with. All this typical toddler behavior was understandable on some level: she was overtired and not particularly hungry since she had "her dinner" already at 5:30 or 6 o'clock. The words "You will not be able to have dinner with us if you act like this" were spoken many times, they didn't seem to have any particular impact.

So, last night's dinner was something of a miracle. My dear toddler sat in her chair (mostly), ate her dinner (mostly), and had no spills (luck and the willingness to take a sippy-cup). She even got into the conversation, saying, "How was your day, Daddy?" and "Tank-u for making dinner mommy" in muffled toddler-ese. I'm not sure why this change came yesterday. There have been musical chairs over the last week as she has continually changed her mind about where she wanted to sit. So maybe she finally found the right spot. Clearly, she saw the value and status associated with sitting at the table with the rest of the family. She wants to be a "big girl." We'll see what tonight brings, but (fingers crossed) we are happy to have her at the table.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Best Chinese Cookbook(s) Ever

On the last eve of Chinese New Year 2008, I'm recommending the two best Chinese cookbooks I have found.
A Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook, Gloria Bley Miller, 1966, 1994

The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen: Classic Family Recipes for Celebration and Healing, Grace Young, 1999
A few years ago, my husband set out to learn how to cook authentic Chinese food. Why? I'm not sure. I think he would say that he always wanted to learn to cook from the fresh ingredients from Chinatown. I am happy to reap the benefits.

My Chinese sister-in-law told me that, ideally, authentic Chinese food should appeal to all five senses. Admirable, sure, but not exactly the kind of challenge any everyday cook needs. Nonetheless, we have found that homemade Chinese food can really work for weeknight dinners. (Sure Chinese take-out is easy too, but that's another story.) Chinese food requires a lot of prep and then, often, very fast cooking. So if you can master a few recipes and have a little advanced planning, dinner can be ready fast. Generally, I help out with the prep (washing and chopping vegetables, defrosting stock), so that my husband can step in and fire up the wok when he gets home from work.

The first cookbook he used was Gloria Bley Miller's A Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook. This is a "teaching the basics" cookbook that literally has more recipes than you know what to do with. It is invaluable for teaching basic Chinese cooking techniques and basic recipes. I also find it handy for trying new vegetable/meat combinations, because there are so many recipes to choose from. Miller will sometimes substitute American ingredients for Chinese ones. It was written originally in 1966, so there were no other options!

His latest favorite is The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen cookbook, which is more advanced. This book is a joy to read and to cook from. Grace Young tells stories of learning Chinese cooking techniques from her parents and grandparents, and she gives background details to Chinese cooking philosophy and holidays, like the New Year. She keeps it real and insists that you find the authentic ingredients. Still, she gives tips for navigating Chinese groceries stores and for finding the freshest fish and produce. The results are worth it.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Pastrami Memories

This post is inspired by Frank Bruni's recent review of the Second-Avenue Deli, which is a great read, even if you are far from New York. As only a New York Times Food critic could do, he lunched with former Mayor Ed Koch, writer and movie director Nora Ephron, and Laura Shapiro, an author of several culinary history books, and they feasted on pastrami, matzo ball soup, and other Jewish delicacies. My favorite line from the review is

Laura mentioned something about a deli near Boston, where she grew up. Ed flashed back to corned beef and knishes from the different boroughs and decades in his life. And I realized that we weren’t so much eating in a specific restaurant as passing through a communal storehouse of memories, on a bridge of babkas from the past to the future. NYT, Dining Review, 02.13.08

It sums up so nicely how food and memory can be entwined, even if it is "borrowed" heritage, as Jewish deli is for me. By "borrowed" I mean, any New Yorker can claim "deli" as their own, just as any Southerner might claim "BBQ" or "pecan pie." It is theirs and their right to boast on it or tear it down, if only by virtue of past experiences in eating it and loving it. When you can make your own BBQ or bake your own pie, you might have special bragging rights. But some foods, like pastrami or rugelach, are rightfully better made by the old-time pros in the delis and bakeries of New York and other old cities. You tend to find them only in cities that still have the ethnic base to support them. These prepared foods have an honored place at the family table, as they are often eaten with extended family or over holidays.

Think about the food that is in your memory, the foods that signify home or heritage. Have you shared them with your family and your kids? You don't need a special excuse or holiday. Introduce them to pastrami on rye, or whatever other treat you remember. Do so and you'll be enjoying it together for years to come.

Best Rugelach: Margaret Palca Bakes
Favorite Deli: The one in Albertson, Long Island, now closed, that we used to go to with Grandpa Dave. More about memory than food, I'm sure. Ben's was also pretty good.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Happy Valentine's Day! We "heart" Family Dinners.



I guess I could use this post to lament the decline in romantic dinners once you have a family. Or I could cavil about the rise of kid's commercialism that has made Valentine's Day almost another Halloween for the preschool and elementary school set. But that would be totally false. I love that Valentine's Day is a kid's holiday. After all those years of sad, anxiety-ridden Valentine's Days that I remember from middle school, high school and early dating, I'm glad to shun the "New Year's Eve for lovers" taint of Valentine's Day. Frankly, I'm just happy to have a few chocolates or heart-shaped cookies with my family and call it a day. (The ones above were made by my 9-year old daughter for her class.)

If you have kids, you know: the new rule of the classroom is that if you give one kid a Valentine, you must give all kids a Valentine. This goes a long way to reduce hurt feelings, although your child's cubby and backpack will be filled with many little paper notes and sweet treats on the way home today. In the first grade at my kids' school, they use Valentine's Day as part of a post office study to encourage letter writing. There is a super cute book (Queen of Hearts by Mary Engelbreit) about making Valentine's Day mailboxes that really spurs the kids' crafty-creativity.

We trump up holidays a lot in my family, although it is totally in a dorky, homespun, kind of way. We make paper hearts and hang them on the walls. We read holiday-themed books with their favorite characters. If I can, I make a favorite dinner or dessert. Some of these activities are naturally falling away as my older kids' age into tween and teenager territory. But we do have that 2-year old bringing up the rear. Her presence "allows" the older kids to savor and enjoy the simple joys of a holiday, as they make paper hearts or draw pictures with her. These "Hallmark-holidays" are as good a time as any to make memories around your kitchen table.

More Family Valentine's Day Ideas:
Scans of 1950s Children's Valentines. So cool! Found through BoingBoing.net, full set at James Kimberlin's Flickr.com.
Activities and Parenting Ideas from Family Education
Valentine Craft Ideas from Mary Engelbreit
Stonewall Kitchen Sugar Cookie Mix: I often have bad luck with sugar cookies. The rolling and the cutting should be easy enough, but often my shapes are totally wrong and it's a mess. My daughter was given this mix with a special heart cookie cutter as a gift and it worked great. Beautiful results and they tasted really good.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Best Biscuit Recipe Ever

OK, so I can get milk in my neighborhood rain, sleet or snow, but I can never get good bread. Why is that? We have bakeries that only sell muffins, the bodegas that only sell white bread, and nary a good baguette (we love Amy's Bread) in sight. That particular luxury is a 20-minute walk away, which isn't that bad, but not do-able for my weeknight dinners.

Dinner was saved last night with our "Best Biscuit Recipe Ever," which is from James Beard's Cookbook. The Menu: Leftover Brisket (made by my husband on Sunday) plus some fresh hot biscuits. It was a perfect winter's night meal. The recipe is so easy, and I could prep all the ingredients beforehand, then combine and bake right when he walked in the door. (Or actually after a little mini-spat on whether 6:50pm was "late" or not, preceded by a "Didn't you get my text?" (No, actually.)

Anyway, here's the recipe:
Best Biscuits Ever
2 cups flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar
5 Tablespoons butter or shortening
3/4 cup of milk (approx.)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Mix dry ingredients together in a bowl. Cut butter into flour-mix with a pastry blender/tine. Mix in milk slowly and add just enough to make a soft dough. If you add too much, it gets sticky and hard to work with. If this happens, don't worry; just add a little more flour to even it out. Turn dough onto floured surface and flatten. Cut shapes with a glass or biscuit cutter. Bake for 10-12 minutes, depending on size, thickness and oven. Optional: add cheese or herbs for more fancy dinner biscuits. These biscuits are obviously also great for breakfast.
This biscuit recipe is great too, because you can memorize it and be able to throw it together on a moment's notice from almost anyone's pantry. The proportions of the dry ingredients are 2:2:2 for everything but the salt (1). You can guesstimate the butter (a little more than 1/2 a stick) and the milk . It's always a good skill to be able to whip up some breakfast food if you are staying overnight with family or as a guest. Perfect with jam.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Fire at the Market

Funny that I was talking about food distribution yesterday. Dinner's got to get to the table somehow, and, in NYC, all roads lead through the Hunts Point Terminal Market.

A Two Alarm Fire at Hunts Point Market yesterday afternoon was a top local story, as reported by the gothamist.com. The fire was brought under control pretty quickly and thankfully, no one was hurt. Two well-known meat distributors, Master Purveyors and Desola Provisions, may have damages exceeding tens of millions of dollars, though, as reported by a NYT article this morning. The main market is open today and the affected businesses hope to be back up and running later this week, according to NY1 news.

Hunts Point Market is the main entry for all of NYC's food. Fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, and fish all come in through this common point, which is a 60-acre complex in the Bronx. The city closed down the Fulton Fish Market, formerly located at South Street Seaport, several years ago in an effort to modernize and to eliminate mob influence in the market. The Hunts Point Produce Cooperative alone has revenues exceed $1.5 billion annually, more than any other produce market in the world. On their website, you can click through the Fruit, Herb, Vegetable, and Asian Specialty Reports to see what's available and to see cryptic notes on why green beans might be expensive this week.

Luckily this fire was a relatively minor incident. I have always been amazed that food is delivered so efficiently in the city. Never in my time here have I seen a serious food shortage, not in blizzards, not after 9/11, never. I can always get milk at the bodega. (Or one of the five within a block's walk.) Growing up in Florida, on the other hand, I often remember store shelves being totally decimated in the days before and after a hurricane. Something's got to be working.

Update on Fire: NYT, 02.13.08

Monday, February 11, 2008

Green Carts and Bodega Blues

Eating better is related to shopping better, and that's connected to the food distribution system. In New York, it's also connected to where you live and what food stores are close to you. How can we make it easier for people to make better food choices and not be "stuck" with industrial food? In a city where food, and everything else, can be so expensive, how can we encourage low-income families to buy and eat better food?

The Mayor's office is supporting an innovative new program called Green Carts that would issue permits to 1,500 fruit and vegetable vendors to serve low-income neighborhoods. It's a great idea. Yet, this morning, I read a sad article in the Times about the Brooklyn public market that is slated to be shut down by the city. While the photos make it look like a glorified bodega, merchants purport to sell fresh fruits and vegetables to residents of the surrounding low-income neighborhood. Why would the city want to tear this down, when it already recognizes the challenge of getting more and better food options to these very neighborhoods? There seems to be room for improvement in this space, certainly (see slideshow here). But why can't indoor, all-year round food markets be coupled with the movement to increase farmer's markets and pushcarts?

When I studied public health at Columbia University, my department was called Sociomedical Sciences. Most people have no idea what this means. What it means, simply, is this: health is not strictly about biology or even medical care. The health of an individual or a group of people is influenced by culture, economics, politics, and all sorts of "non-medical" factors. For example, people who live in low-income neighborhoods tend to have poor nutrition. Some of this is due to education and cultural preferences, i.e., Papi just likes fried food. Some of it is economic: organic food is expensive and food stamps only go so far.
A recent Health Department study comparing Harlem to the Upper East Side found that supermarkets in Harlem are 30 percent less common, and that only 3 percent of bodegas in Harlem carry leafy green vegetables as compared to 20 percent on the Upper East Side. The Green Cart legislation covers neighborhoods where at least 12 percent of adults reported, in Health Department surveys, that they did not eat any fruits or vegetables on the previous day. Source: NYC.gov
But some of it is political and institutional. People who depend on local bodegas for food can't actually buy low-fat milk because the stores don't carry it. Have you ever tried to find an apple at a bodega? Even if you did, it would probably taste terrible because if it's so old. Any fruit for purchase is likely to be in the sugar-added canned form. I know this because in addition to buying food at the Park Slope Food Coop (an eater's nirvana), I shop at the bodega on my corner in a pinch. These are nights of rice and beans or chesse quesadillas. I can often find very fresh cilantro, though, which indicates that there is some cooking going on in the 'hood.

A return to real food a'la Michael Pollan should not just be for the elite. Many immigrant groups come from a long tradition of home-cooked meals that can be healthier than the starch- and fat-ridden American diet that their local shops support. Without fresh vegetables and other staples to make their home-country cuisine, people chose poor substitutes. The city should be supporting many avenues for fresh food shopping.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Diabetes: Curing the Sweet Blood

The dinner table is always a good place to start lifelong habits of good food and nutrition. Occasionally in this blog, I will focus on a specific health problem that is associated with eating right and nutrition. Today, I'll highlight diabetes.
An estimated 21 million Americans have diabetes and 284,000 die from it each year. Sixty-five percent of the deaths are related to cardiovascular causes. Type 2 diabetes increases the risk for heart disease 2 to 4 times. NHLBI, ACCORD Study Press Release, 2.6.08
Diabetes is a serious chronic disease caused by an imbalance in the body's ability to produce insulin and regulate blood sugar. One of the major symptoms is high blood sugar, which prompts some to call the disease "sweet blood." It has often been thought that the lower the blood sugar, the better. It was a shock, then, that the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute abruptly ended a massive clinical trial (ACCORD), as covered in the New York Times yesterday. The startling report was that intensive blood sugar control was not effective in reducing the risk of cardiac events. The intensive regimen used in the trial was actually associated with increased risk of heart attack and stroke compared to more traditional control of blood sugar. The study centered on Type 2 Diabetes, which is sometimes called adult-onset diabetes, and is the disease type that is more associated with obesity.

Heart disease is not the only complication to diabetes and other complications may be more lethal. Still controlling blood sugar (by making dietary or exercise changes or by taking prescription drugs) has been the primary method of diabetes treatment for the past 10 years. A close read of the ACCORD study, and the reasons for stopping it, do not dispute that traditional control of blood sugar is still advised, as many in the Diabetes advocacy circles have pointed out. Many blame the media for sensationalizing and misrepresenting the results. The Times actually published a modified response today. To me, moderation may be what's signaled here, rather than pushing for lower and lower blood sugar levels with more and more drugs.**

I am particularly invested and interested in diabetes because I had gestational diabetes in my three pregnancies and am at risk of developing diabetes later in life. Also my stepfather has diabetes, and has just recently taken to testing his blood regularly. Normally, you test your blood several times a day. (You pinprick your finger and analyze a tiny drop of blood on a little machine that reads the sugar level.) It's not bad, but it's not fun either. In addition you track what you eat during the day, when you exercise, and when you take medication.

The blood sugar level tells you what you are doing "right," and it can be maddening to figure out and adjust your life to get the right levels. I found that eating whole wheat toast with jam was fine, but having just a little pasta or any fruit juice were both absolute "no-nos." Also, going from my first pregnancy in 1995 to my last in 2005, the standards for "low blood sugar" became draconian. I easily controlled my blood level with diet and exercise in my first pregnancy. By the time my third came around, not only did my body produce higher levels of sugar naturally, but the medical standards for "low" had changed. Now fasting levels were supposed to be at or below 70mg/dL whereas before it was under 100. Two hours after eating, I was supposed to be in the 110mg/dL range, and it was tough. No wonder I didn't gain any weight in my pregnancies! With my third child, I had to take medication as well as follow a strict diet to be in compliance.

This is an important topic for family dinner since diabetes affects so many Americans and because prevention is the best remedy for the disease. Well-balanced meals, including careful consumption of sweets as well as plain old carbohydrates, and regular exercise are the soundest ways to prevent diabetes for you and your family. More tips are below.

Wed MD: Healthy Diet Basics
American Diabetes Association: Diet and Exercise Tips to Prevent Diabetes
Harvard School of Public Health: Simple Steps to Preventing Diabetes

** If you have diabetes, obviously check with your medical provider and do not make changes in your treatment without medical advice.**

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Bittman Blog

I just discovered Mark Bittman's new Blog Bitten. It looks fantastic, with lots of simple, quick to make recipes that should be an inspiration to us family cooks who often need a good meal in minutes. Beautiful photos to boot; gotta love the Times' production values.

I have Bittman's How to Cook Everything and I often read his The Minimalist column in the Times. I made his Pernil recipe on Super Tuesday, not realizing the irony of serving pork on election night until it was on the plate. Still, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with his recipes. They are often terrific, just the right balance of simplicity, speed, and quality. Yet I have definitely been burned by his methods. Take too many short-cuts and the quality suffers. If the final result of the dish is poor or mediocre, you wonder why you expended any energy at all. First time cooks might not realize that some of his short cuts compromise the end result and they might just give up.

I have searched for an "everything, everyday" cookbook to replace my battered Bittman, but I have had little luck. I've been scanning bookstore shelves and searching on Amazon, but I haven't been impressed by the general cookbooks offered. It's strange that there are so many faddish, Food Network cookbooks out there, yet so few reliable new standards. I have lots of cookbooks, mind you. I have Julia Child's, The Way to Cook as well as her classics, and The James Beard Cookbook works for basic roast chicken, steak, and burgers. I have other old-fashioned standards that can be great for cookies or cake, but just don't work for modern cuts of meat. I have specialty cookbooks that I love for specific cuisines: Chinese, Italian, Vegetarian, Southern, BBQ and many more. Epicurious.com works if you have a specific ingredient in mind and a well-stock cabinet of spices and special add-ins.

In the end, I keep going back to Bittman for basics, even though I'm occasionally wary or frustrated by the very simplicity he espouses. Maybe he is just the best out there. Any suggestions for a new basic cookbook?

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Happy Chinese New Year! Long Noodles, Long Life!

Chinese New Year 2008 begins on February 8th and many Chinese-American families begin the celebration tonight, since it is the darkest time of month on the lunar calendar. The celebration continues until the brightest night about two weeks from now. Many ceremonial meals feature noodles for long life, dumplings to represent wealth, and fish to symbolize togetherness and abundance. All are worthy values to bring to the family table.

My family went to Brooklyn Chinatown on Sunday to try a new dim sum place. I knew Chinese New Year was coming up, but I hadn't really done the math. It was a little like "accidentally" going to the grocery store on the Sunday before Thanksgiving or Christmas. It was jammed with people buying for the holiday, and negotiating our family of 5 through the streets was a bit of a challenge. Still, the hustle and bustle was exciting: red lanterns, gold coins, oranges with green stems, fresh fish flip-flopping out of their barrels. We managed to maneuver our stroller, shopping cart, and kids through the crowded streets to the restaurant.

One thing I love about Chinese restaurants is that it is totally accepted and expected that young children be at the table with their families. Nearly every big communal table of Chinese-American families had multiple generations: infants, toddlers, teenagers, grandparents. Everyone's at the table, everyone eats. It is a vivid representation of food as togetherness and culture. Dim sum is great because there are lots of little dishes to try. Although some of it might seem strange to American palates (chicken feet, anyone?), there is really something for every kid to try. Sweet sticky rice, shrimp dumplings, and egg custard tarts can tempt even picky eaters. Plus our youngest spilled tea all over the table and no one batted an eye.

In the craziness, I forgot to buy fresh noodles. But we have a 25-lb bag of Kokuho Rose New Crop rice and dumplings on hand. With that and a quick stir-fry of Chinese vegetables, we'll do a mini-Chinese New Year celebration tonight and hope for continued happiness and prosperity in the new year.

If you're in the spirit, you can try these kid's crafts for the holiday or research more recipes and traditional foods here.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Super Tuesday! Vote and Let Them Eat Cake!

Today is Super Tuesday. Go out and vote if you haven't already. Many of us are voting in one of the closest and most exciting Democratic Primaries ever, at least in my lifetime. New Yorkers (and many others) are finally having a say in the primary race, rather than it all being decided months ahead of time. Many people are hosting Super Tuesday return parties, with special food or cocktails to celebrate their candidates, like a Barack's Hope or a Hillary's Hillblazer.

Honestly, I was hoping to have a line to wait in to cast my vote, but as usual, I just strove right up to the machine. There was plenty of energy in there, though; you can just feel the excitement and people wondering to themselves: Is it the right time for Obama? Or is Hillary Clinton is the best choice to get this country back on track? Is America finally ready for a woman president? Or a black president? I have high hopes for November 2008.

My voting place is a local elementary school and the PTA was having a well-timed bake sale. Politics and cake--what could be better! The spread was ample, but I noticed only a handful of actual handmade goods and many more Costco-type items: huge muffins, multi-colored cookies and a sheet cake with pink roses. (Of course, my toddler grabbed for the biggest Costco Muffin she could reach.) It's totally fine to have store-bought stuff at a bake sale; it's great that parents were putting in the extra effort and time to run it. I was sad, though, that the homemade goods were priced lower than the store-bought ones. The gargantuan muffins and cookies from the store might seem "worth" more, but I hate that the extra effort involved with a homemade treat was unintentionally belittled. Sure, the homemade cookies might be small or a bit misshapen, but they probably taste a lot better. I ended up getting a couple of homemade things and the one huge Costco muffin my toddler grabbed. (That muffin was almost inedible and went largely uneaten). To make myself feel better about the disparity and since it's obviously for a good cause, I rounded up the difference as if all the items were the same price. More power to the homemade bakers! In baked goods as in politics, sometimes substance should win out over style.

Here's a fun link about traditional Election Day Cake in The Washington Post. If you're not up for cocktails on a Tuesday night, maybe sugar can help you get through tonight's returns.

Update: Although I'm not sure who won our district (Hillary and Obama were neck and neck in most of Brooklyn), the PTA bake sale raised almost $1100, twice what they had hoped. That's a "super-size" I wholly endorse!

Monday, February 4, 2008

(Portion) Size Matters

Did you know?
  • Serving chips in a big bowl makes you eat more.
  • Serving dinner on big plates make you eat more.
  • Pouring a drink into a wide, short glass makes you drink more.
  • (And you never really notice the difference!)
Brian Wansink, head researcher at the Cornell Food Lab and author of “Mindless Eating,” has done extensive research on these and other eating dilemmas. He calls it “portion distortion.” Basically, because the serving bowl, plate, or cup is so large, it distorts your perception of how much you are actually consuming. Using many inventive study designs, such as serving soup in endlessly refilling bowls and serving week-old popcorn in big buckets, Dr. Wansink has shown that the size and display of the food influences how much is eaten.
Your Plate is Bigger than Your Stomach, NYT, 05.02.07
5 Tips from Mindless Eating. NYT 05.02.07
Reader suggestion for small plates from Ikea. NYT, 05.02.07
I first read this study last year and the first thing I did was to measure my dinner plates. I have old Syracuse china plates that I love because of the old-fashioned design and their sturdiness. My dinner plates have two sizes: 8” and 9” and they are plenty big. I was astounded. The only 12” plates I have, I use as serving platters. Whenever I think of buying new plates, I check the size. You'd be surprised; most new plates are of the 12" or larger variety.

We also happen to have a 1960s teak dining room table. It is long and skinny and, although it's pretty beat up at this point, we like it because it just fits the d├ęcor of our house. (This table can fit 8-10 people in a pinch, so it’s not exactly small.) But I also think the table's relatively small size dictates that we have smaller, skinner chairs and that the small plates we have fit just right. The whole system, maybe, contributes to us eating more moderate potions. Just like the "The Not So Big House" philosophy by Sarah Susanka, think about the "Not So Big Table" for your family dinner.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Dinner from the Freezer

No, I don't mean frozen dinners, not really. The freezer is a great extension of your kitchen cabinet and should be fully stocked with essentials that will help you pull a meal out of a hat. There are many times when I have "nothing" in the refrigerator, yet dinner is saved by some tasty dish I can conjure from the freezer. Here are some staples.
  • Chicken Stock. I always have homemade chicken stock on hand. It can be used to make sauces, to make soup, as broth in stir-fry, and many other uses. It is really not that hard to make. First, you save any chicken bones or chicken carcasses you have from your regular meals. (Freeze them in big ziploc bags.) Once you have 2-3 chickens worth of bones, you can make stock. To your bones, add 1-2 onions, 1-2 carrots, and maybe some celery or parsley if you have it. I often don't even peel the veggies; it makes the stock richer and golden colored from the onions. If you have no bones or want a richer stock, use chicken parts or a whole chicken, preferably an old fowl. I also add a couple of cloves, stuck in the onions, and about 10-15 peppercorns. You can add salt, but you may want to all just a little, so it doesn't affect dishes you will use the stock in. Cover with water, boil for 1-2 hours, depending on if you are using raw chicken, drain and you are done. Store in containers in the freezer.
  • Frozen Vegetables. Get the organic ones. Microwave, but don’t overcook, just 2-3 minutes for a bowl. Add maybe one more minute if veggies are not yet hot.
  • Leftovers. Plan to make a stews, soup, chili or tomato sauce once or twice a month and make extra. Freeze the leftovers and you will always have an easy meal or two to defrost.
  • Ground beef or thin chicken breasts. I often buy extra ground beef or thin sliced chicken and freeze it. Both of these defrost easily in the microwave and can be made into a wide range of dinners.
  • Frozen fish. Breaded fish sticks are OK for occasional dinners, but I really mean flash-frozen fresh fish such as Eco-fish. My food coop sells fish fillets of trout, tilapia, salmon, and tuna as well as scallops and shrimp. It is all frozen. It is so easy to defrost the fish, I usually wait until the last minute to do it, so the fish is really as fresh as possible. You take a big bowl of cold water and place the frozen fish inside, still sealed in its plastic pouch. Keep the tap running with a small stream of water over the fish until defrosted. Depending on the fish, this usually takes only 15-20 minutes. Shrimp and scallops are done in a similar way, but they have to drain. Put them in a colander and run cold water over them until defrosted, shaking a few times to be sure all the pieces are getting rinsed.
On your next grocery shop, think of filling your frig with staples!