Monday, April 21, 2014

Cookbooks Vs. Food Blogs

This week I've noticed some recently published cookbooks based on popular food blogs.  When I saw the books I wondered why the publishers think I'd spend money to buy a cookbook when the same recipes are available online, in a more convenient format, at no cost.  Most of the new recipes I've tried at home over the last few years haven't come from the cookbooks I buy, they come from recipes freely available on food blogs.

I'd hardly call myself a food blog devotee.  I don't follow any particular bloggers, don't pore over the artistic step-by-step photos, and don't engage with the personal stories that accompany each entry.  When I'm looking for a recipe I google for what I want and scroll directly to the bare bones recipe.  In seconds I can tell from reading the ingredients whether or not the recipe is right for me.

I keep a Pinterest page of recipes that intrigue me, which keeps me organized as I search for, or happen across, cool recipes online.  If I plan to make a recipe in the next several days, I save it to my beloved Paprika recipe app, which displays the recipe while I cook.  Often with one click of a button on my laptop, I can have the recipe waiting on my iPad in the kitchen in a matter of seconds.  And if a recipe turns out great, a food blog recipe is so simple to share (and free to share) with friends and followers.

Food blogs are incredibly convenient when I want to search for, organize, display for cooking, and share recipes.  Cookbooks aren't so convenient.

Searching inside a Kindle book isn't as powerful as a google search and isn't universal- I have to repeat the search from book to book- assuming what I want is even in my collection.  There is no automatic way to keep a list of the recipes I want to try in various Kindle cookbooks, I have to manually create a list outside the app.

When it's time to cook, display on a Kindle cookbook is problematic.  The Kindle cookbook often spreads the recipe across a number of pages, so I have to scroll back and forth with gooey fingers.  The Kindle book will automatically turn off after a couple of idle minutes, while Paprika App will keep my tablet powered and displaying until I manually tell it to go to sleep.

Getting a Kindle cookbook recipe into the Paprika App is possible, but involves downloading the Kindle book to my computer, followed by a tedious series of manual copies and pastes, and gives me no option for capturing a photo of the recipe.

The last major downside of making a recipe from a cookbook, is that when I want to share a great recipe, whether here on my blog, or via social media, I can't do it.  No link, stringent copyright notices, no sharing.  The recipe lives isolated in my kitchen.

Given the advantages of searching for, organizing, and sharing recipes with food blogs, why would I want to pay for the inconvenience of a cookbook when the more convenient and more comprehensive blog is available for free?

A closer look not just at the recipes I've made, but at the things I've learned about cooking over the last year, shows that the money spent on cookbooks was far from wasted.  A book on vegan Indian cooking inspired me to try making popcorn on the stovetop for the first time, and introduced me to the idea of peeling and prepping veggies right when I get them home from the store.  A book on making homemade crackers taught me to keep a jar of mixed seeds in my pantry that I now use regularly in all sorts of my own recipes.  Reading the nutrition forward from the Runner's World Cookbook inspired me to create our favorite new post-run snack: Pink Lady apples dipped in crunchy natural peanut butter with a hint of sea salt.  The cookbook that came with my bread maker has a section on jam.  Jam?  I can make my own jam?  I can make my own jam!!

I think cookbooks are better purveyors of ideas than food blogs.  That's certainly not to say that food blogs lack ideas, but those ideas are presented in bite-sized doses based on the context of what's going on in the world at large or in the blogger's kitchen/life at that time.  Cookbooks present a linear transmission of a cook's approach to creating food.  Introductions lead us through nutritional, cultural, and some personal information.  Then there may be a discussion of ingredients and techniques.  And sprinkled throughout the introductions and recipes are tips and tricks that are often far more valuable to me than the dishes, themselves.

When it's time to get dinner on the table, and to share the joy of cooking with my family and friends, food blogs are a much better option than cookbooks.  But cookbooks still have a place for me.  My cookbooks are great teachers.  They've brought goodness from their writers' kitchens to mine, and helped me grasp fundamentals of approaching new styles of cooking, new tips and tricks, and new ideas for creating.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Portable Post Run Recovery Snack

Wanted: a healthy snack that can survive an eight mile run while bouncing up and down under the hot sun in a very unrefrigerated pocket.

Having a small snack after a serious run is supposed to do all sorts of helpful things to aid in muscle recovery so that we can feel well and get back out on the trail again sooner.  Problem is, we walk almost a mile to and from the trail.  By the time I get home to prepare a fresh snack, we've missed the half hour window where that post run recovery snack can make the most difference.

We had to find a portable snack that we could eat on our walk home.  It couldn't be too messy, it had to be nutritious.  The obvious choice was to buy a nutrition bar, but we wanted fresh, home made food, not something loaded with preservatives that came out of a box.

So today we auditioned Soft & Chewy Sugar-Free Granola Bars from

Thanks to the Vitamix this recipe was very easy to put together.  I used the dry container to grind the oat flour and the wet container handily made the paste of dates and water.  The bars turned out great- not too sweet, palatable, and gentle on the stomach.  We put both bars in a little Ziploc in my husband's pocket (yes, Ziploc snack bags are BPA free- I checked!)

The only snafu in our experiment was that the two thin bars I packed came out of our 8 mile run completely fused into one big bar.  Kind of romantic, in a sugar-free, nutrition bar kind of way.  We just broke the two-become-one bar in half and enjoyed!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Try freezing the tasty stuff

When it's time to clean out my produce drawer, there's always a bag of withered ginger, wrinkled thai chiles, and a few blackened curry leaves lurking shamefully at the bottom of the drawer.  Recently I've been experimenting with freezing small to medium batches of ingredients I know I'll be using in upcoming weeks for cooking Indian curries.

I've frozen a lot of things over the years- ice cream, ground espresso, leftover cookies, an overabundance of plums, veggie burgers (store bought and home made), the impossible-to-find curry leaves I used to order from  Whenever I freeze food it is either because I bought it already frozen, because I have too much of something and don't want it to go to waste, or because I need I need a way to preserve something precious.

I've long known that freezing curry leaves works surprisingly well.  Even now that I can walk to an Indian grocery, when I buy fresh curry leaves I use half fresh and freeze the rest, unwashed, directly in the plastic bag in which I bought them.  When it's time to use the frozen curry leaves they're so easy to pluck from the stem, rinse under water, and pat dry.  The process of rinsing them easily defrosts them, and the smell of curry leaves fills the kitchen the moment the leaves hit the hot oil.

This week I've frozen ginger root, turmeric root, garlic, and jalapeƱo.  I had read that frozen ginger could be easily grated using a microplane grater.  Sure enough, when I grated my teaspoon of frozen ginger using my trusty parmesan cheese grater, the ginger fell like powder into a neat little pile on my prep board.  And, as promised, I didn't have to peel it.  Although the process worked well, getting more than a teaspoon or two out of a small piece of ginger is just as time consuming as grating it fresh.  I've frozen some larger pieces to see if, with greater surface area, I can get a better bang for the buck on my time when I grate.  In the meantime, I keep a half cup of fresh ginger paste made in my Vitamix ready to go in the refrigerator.  It also makes great ginger tea!

I've  successfully used small pieces of frozen turmeric root and ginger root in smoothies.  I chop them into one inch pieces and dry them before freezing, so that I can easily add them in the Vitamix.  

This week I also started experimenting with freezing peeled garlic.  I never have any trouble keeping garlic fresh, this is purely a time saver, so as not to have to stop and peel a bunch of garlic while busily prepping the many ingredients used in starting an Indian curry dish.  I was shocked by how easily I could mince frozen garlic straight out of the freezer!  The first curry I made using frozen peeled garlic was received with rave reviews, my husband had no idea I'd done anything differently than usual.  Tomorrow I'm going to try introducing frozen garlic into a pesto sauce.

From nutrition and aesthetic standpoints, fresher is always better.  For those who only use ginger paste or curry leaves once or twice a week, freezing these potent flavor and aromatic powerhouses may equate to fresher food, and will certainly mean less waste.  And if having speedily prepped ginger and garlic means more home made weeknight meals, I say give it a try.  The worst that can happen is you decide you just can't give up fresh from the refrigerator instead of the freezer.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

What is processed food? And what's in a definition?

One food choice that I make, and that many people I know make, is to limit the amount of processed food we eat.

But what, exactly, is processed food?

Maybe you think the answer to that question is pretty straightforward.  Here's one of many things that made me think a little deeper:

What's that just above the USDA organic seal?  "Processed in the USA."

Processed?  Wait, when did plain spinach leaves become processed food?

The Oxford Dictionary defines to process as:
"Perform a series of mechanical or chemical operations on (something) in order to change or preserve it."

My baby spinach has been changed and preserved.  The little roots on the bottoms of the leaves were removed.  It was triple washed, so some mechanical operation was used to wash away the dirt.  Then it was dried so it wouldn't get moldy, and packaged in a recycled plastic container.

By definition baby spinach is processed food.  So are dried lentils and beans, oatmeal, and rice.  So is flour- even my home milled flour is processed in the Vitamix at home, and is made from wheat berries which were milled in a factory!

When I say I'm trying to avoid processed food, stuff like brown rice, lentils, and baby spinach is not what I mean.  There's a problem with my definition of processed food.

I used to think that philosophy was just a waste of time, messing around with the meanings of words.  But after the first few years of my foray into studying philosophy, I learned that defining terms is just the first step in this practical and very useful art.  But no wonder I noticed all the defining that goes on in philosophy- definition is an absolutely crucial first step!

Having an accurate definition is critical to any productive discussion- or any productive thinking!   Before determining a clear definition of processed food, I was not even able to recognize a processed food when I ate one!  When I say I want to avoid all processed foods, I'm not being specific about what I want to avoid or why.  Without a clear working definition of what I do and do not want to include in my diet, how can I make good choices?

Processed foods aren't all evil.  Foods are processed to preserve their freshness and nutrients, processed to improve their palatability, processed to improve their usability and convenience.  There's a huge spectrum of ways these goals can be achieved, and how a food is processed is far more important that the fact that it was processed.  Was freshness achieved by sealing food in an airtight container, or by the use of chemical additives that make me uncomfortable?  Was palatability achieved by finely grinding or dehydrating a food, or was it achieved by dumping in a bunch of sugar and salt?  Is the trade-off of nutrition for convenience worth buying flour that was milled at a factory instead of freshly milling my flour at home?  How do I feel about prepared foods?   What are the impact of costs?  Does it matter whether food is processed in my home or in a factory- if so, why and in what cases?  What is the impact of different types of packaging on human health?  And what is the impact on the environment of different types of processing and packaging?

My questions about how food is processed won't be exactly the same as yours.  Different people will have different values, and have different needs when caring for themselves and their families.  But in order to make decisions that best serve our needs and best reflect our values, everyone needs understand what processed foods are, how they are processed, and where they are processed, in order to decide which processed foods they want to include in a healthy lifestyle.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

How to get a vegetarian to eat you alive (adventures in home made veggie burgers)

There is something comforting about a sandwich.  Two fresh slices of bread cuddling a nice chunk of protein, maybe some fresh vegetables as well, with a little spread of mustard.  Yum.

Unfortunately for vegetarians the chunk of protein between those two slices of bread is all too often a heavily processed, salty, packaged, veggie burger.  So the idea of home made veggie burgers combined with my love of lentils, made this recipe for Vegan Lentil Burgers from seen quite attractive.

So attractive that I didn't even consider the dangers of making my own veggie burgers.

The recipe for Vegan Lentil Burgers didn't look too daunting.  It required me to cook some lentils, do some grinding in the food processor, shape the resulting dough into patties, and bake for 35 minutes.  I slated the recipe trial for a weeknight dinner and, armed with whole wheat bread I'd baked earlier that day and my favorite mustard, I felt confident about dinner.

However the dinner I embarked on making veggie burgers happened to coincide with one of our evening workouts.  I got a late start making dinner because of the workout, then went through the inevitably slower process of carefully reading and measuring ingredients for a brand new recipe.  By the time I had a dough ready to form into patties, my post-workout, ravenous hubby wanted to know why dinner was taking so long.  The starving glint in his eye threatened that if I didn't hurry he was going to eat me alive...

...or order pizza.

In a happy ending we both survived the late dinner.  My starving hubby thought the lentil burgers tasted fine (though he might have eaten an old shoe at that point), but I was less impressed.  In subsequent experiments I pan fried the veggie burgers in a little oil, once before baking, once after- and on both occasions the pan frying improved the texture so that no one had to be starving to enjoy them.

What I learned from this adventure (aside from not letting my husband get that hungry) was that part of the comfort of a sandwich is in the ease and speed of its preparation.  Sliding a frozen veggie burger out of its plastic wrap into a skillet or onto a cookie sheet, and having dinner ready in twenty minutes, is part of the innate comfort of the sandwich.  A sandwich is all about having your work done well ahead of mealtime- bread baked, condiments prepared (by you or the manufacturer), requiring at most the cooking of the protein and a quick slice of bread and tomato.

As suggested in the recipe, I froze leftovers of the lentil burger dough into patties to make them more convenient for the future.  Cooking these home made prepared veggie burgers still involves the foresight to thaw, the time to fry, and then the half hour to bake the burgers.  But having seen some improvement in texture with frying and decrease in prep time by freezing the patties, I plan to experiment with pre-frying and pre-baking the burgers before freezing so that I can get closer to the fast and easy convenience of the veggie burger as I've come to know and love it.

I'm also interested in changing out the oat flour used this recipe for lentil flour made in the Vitamix.  I think the protein chunk satisfaction would be even more satisfying if there was less grain in the sandwich and more lentil.

The idea to fry before baking the burger comes from Vegan Burgers Every Which Way by Lucas Volger.  Some of his recipes also incorporate chickpea (besan) flour, which was part of my inspiration to try making my own lentil flour.
 Veggie Burgers Every Which Way
Veggie Burgers Every Which Way

Assuming I can get dinner on the table before anyone eats me, I'll have some more adventures in making veggie burgers to share soon.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Honey-Roasted Peanut Butter Banana Pie

I'm a devout peanut butter lover, and my husband goes nuts for bananas.  When I came across this recipe from love & olive oil, I knew that, sooner or later, it was our destiny.

In my version of honey-roasted peanut butter banana pie, I made some changes.  Instead of crushing chocolate wafer cookies to make the crust, I used chocolate granola.  I pulverized the chocolate granola into fine crumbs and adhered them with some melted Earth Balance spread.  I left out the sugar.

For the honey-roasted peanut butter banana cream, I eliminated the sugar called for in the whipping cream, but otherwise followed the recipe as written (choosing to refrigerate, not freeze the pie).

For anyone who doesn't have a Vitamix, look in the bulk section of your local grocery store for a peanut butter grinder dedicated to honey roasted nuts.  There is one at my local Whole Foods.  The rest of the recipe can be made without the Vitamix.  I, personally, used a regular food processor to make crumbs for the crust, and used my Kitchen Aid to whip the cream.

I also skipped the whipped cream garnish on this pie, which cut out half the heavy cream.  We didn't miss it, either- the pie was already treat enough for us as pictured above.  Adding some freshly sliced bananas also makes a yummy and healthy garnish.

Next time I make this treat I'm going to experiment with eliminating the crust, entirely.  Making just the honey-roasted peanut butter banana cream, then putting it in a parfait cup with chocolate granola and sliced banana would make a beautiful (and lower fat) dessert.

Monday, March 17, 2014

How to cook 100% whole wheat pasta

Foreign interpretation of Italian food involves copious amounts of sauce so that no one can really taste the pasta.  My years enjoying yummy pasta in Italy taught me that in authentic Italian cooking, just the opposite is true.  Pasta is the star of the show!  My focus in any pasta dish is to bring out the flavor of the pasta, itself.

If you're new to making pasta, or just want to quickly up your game, here's four tips:

  • use a bigger pot and more water than you think you need
  • use more salt than you think you should
  • don't overcook your pasta
  • don't run cold water over your drained pasta 

My recipe for preparing 100% whole wheat pasta: 

  • I use a 10 quart pot filled with 5 quarts of water
  • 2 T (35 grams) of coarse sea salt
  • 3/4 pound of 100% whole wheat dried pasta

An interesting note on salt: 

In order to give pasta flavor of its own, plenty of salt needs to be added to the boiling water.  The home cooks I learned from in Italy used about 2 T of sea salt in 5 quarts of water.  If you think that sounds like a lot of salt, check out this article by Epicurious - the professional chefs interviewed recommend even more salt than I learned to use.

One thing the Epicurious article is very correct about is that the volume of sea salt varies wildly depending on varying coarseness of granules.  If you're a stickler for precision, measuring by weight instead of volume is a safer way to go.

Boiling whole wheat pasta:

100% whole wheat pasta is so delicious and nutritious.  I can't imagine choosing regular white pasta when such awesome whole wheat dried pasta is readily available.  My trick for making awesome whole wheat pasta is to keep the lid ajar on the pot while the pasta boils.

Keeping the lid on the pot while you boil pasta is NOT the traditional method!  Using 100% whole wheat pasta isn't traditional, either, so I'm comfortable with my technique adaptation.

The reason I recommend filling the pot only half full with water is so that there is plenty of room for the pasta to foam a bit without boiling over.  I also keep the lid ajar so that plenty of steam can still escape while the pasta is boiling.  Whole wheat pasta is less starchy than white flour pasta, so it creates less froth.  But to contain the lower, but still present, froth, while still getting a tender and delicious whole wheat pasta, do allow plenty of extra room in the pot and monitor carefully while boiling.

How long to cook pasta:

Ever wonder how to interpret the cooking time listed on the pasta box?  This time assumes that you have brought the pasta water to a roiling boil, added salt, added the pasta...and then...wait for it...assumes that you've brought the water with salt and pasta back to a roiling boil.  At that time you can begin the countdown based on the number on the box.

Italians eat their pasta al dente, which is just a cool-sounding way of saying pasta shouldn't be mushy.  Don't overcook your pasta!  It makes me sad just thinking about it.  I judge the doneness of the pasta by watching for the color of the pasta to become uniform.  If the tips are a different color than then center, the penne rigate aren't done, yet.  And even after making pasta thousands of times, I always pop out a couple fusilli, run them under cold water, and taste them.  I would never dream of draining a pot of pasta without checking for doneness.  And I often check three or four times to keep on top of it and make sure I don't end up with the dreaded mush.

How to drain pasta:

Maybe this one seems pretty obvious- dump contents of pot into colander.  But if you're a pasta rinser- stop, halt, hold the tap.  Please!  Rinsing boiled pasta in the colander is a huge no-no in Italian kitchens.   If you have used sufficient water to boil your pasta, and you have not boiled it into a sticky paste, there is no reason to run cold water over your pasta.  Simply add it immediately to the sauce you have prepared and serve hot.

The only exception to this rule is when making cold pasta salad.  If you intend to eat the pasta cold, then rinse it with cool water, allow it to dry.  I sometimes toss it with a few drops of olive oil to keep it from clumping together.

End of manifesto

I'm so passionate about pasta, especially 100% whole wheat pasta.  What an easy and accessible way to add more whole grains to your family's diet.