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.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Using whole moong beans in sambar

This awesome recipe for Eggplant Tomato Sambhar is incredibly simple and so yummy!

This has been a favorite when I need to make something fast for lunch, and, as the recipe's author says, it's always finger-licking good.

Never one to leave a good thing as it is, I wanted to experiment and see if I could use whole moong beans (dal) in place of the split and hulled moong dal I normally use.

I pressure cooked the whole moong dal with a little extra water.  After it was done cooking, I added some more water to the dal and used the immersion blender to make a smooth purée.  To help along the illusion of smoothness, I used tomato purée in place of the whole tomatoes.  

The result was a smooth and addictively tasty sambar.

Monday, March 10, 2014

On the importance of white powder

I loved this article from Epicurious: Baking Soda Vs. Baking Powder.

My first ever kitchen disaster happened in high school home economics.  I made baking powder biscuits.  Um, actually they turned out to be baking soda biscuits by mistake.  What came out of the oven was black and inedible.  I was completely shocked that a little bit of white powder could make such a dramatic difference.  Thank goodness for classmates who shared their tasty treats!  It was a lesson I'll never forget, and a reminder that baking is just as much a science as an art.

Not only does this article explain the chemical difference between baking soda and baking powder, but it gives some fantastic advice for those who like to tinker with recipes.  If you plan to play around with some improv in your baking, this article is a must-read!

Friday, March 7, 2014

Learning to improv with soup, how not to follow the recipe

Dedicated to my friends in the Northeast, where it persists in staying chilly, here's one more of my favorite, fast and easy soups.

This is the recipe for Curry Cauliflower and Beans Soup as it was written- not that I've ever followed it exactly.

This February I began a jazz appreciation course.  I used to play in a lot of jazz bands during my days training as a classical musician.  I knew almost nothing about jazz, except that in order to be a good jazz musician, at some point I needed to move beyond playing the notes written on the page and learn to improvise.  Our jazz appreciation instructor defines improvisation as the immediate creation of a melody.  I call it making up music real time.

I never mastered the art of jazz improvisation, but I like to think I'm a very capable improv artist in the kitchen.  I invent quite a few of my dishes, and when using a recipe rarely follow it as written.  I see a recipe much the way a jazz musician sees a "chart," or the written music to a jazz tune.  It's a suggestion, not a rule.

If the idea of culinary improvisation seems as overwhelming to you as jazz improvisation always seemed to me, this is a great recipe to practice not following.

To start, the recipe calls for chicken broth, and I make it vegetarian using veggie broth.  It calls for red onions, I use yellow onions all the time.  Why not try shallots?  Or scallions?  Try swapping out cauliflower for different vegetables.  Brussels sprouts?  Sounds intriguing!  Last night I used cannellini beans instead of chick peas.  And instead of generic curry powder, try a more authentic Indian spice blend, or masala, such as sambar powder.  Maybe you could make your own blend using cumin, coriander, turmeric, and cayenne.  The recipe calls for French Fried onions on top.  What could you top your creation with?  A splash of balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, cayenne-infused olive oil?  Do you have any intriguing crunchies in your kitchen that would make your take on the recipe more fun?  The version pictured above is topped with garlic-infused olive oil and tamari-seasoned pumpkin seeds.

Get creative, but know that for best results it's wise to change only one or two ingredients at a time.  If you blend a bunch of random ingredients together, all you'll get is noise.

If you're already an experienced kitchen improv artist this will seem like pretty basic stuff.  But just as when learning musical improv, when you're a newbie, start simple, stay open to ideas, and practice, practice, practice!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Black Cardamom Pods

My first encounter with black cardamom pods. The astringent smell knocked me off my feet before I even ground them!

I used the black cardamom together with other spices to create a spice blend for masala chai.  The recipe comes from a new cookbook in my collection: Vegan Indian Cooking. The smell of the spice blend definitely reminded my husband of the masala chai he enjoyed in Bangalore.  The chai, itself, was a good first try, but still a work in progress.  

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Zen and the Art of Pancakes

"Last night," my husband told me, "I was dreaming of pancakes."

I have to admit I'm a bit of a pancake Grinch.  I'm not all that excited about eating pancakes, and I have a history of getting grumpy while I make them.

But what could I do getting such a poetic response to "what do you want for breakfast?"  That's right, I made 100% whole wheat buttermilk pancakes.

Credit for this recipe goes to Whole Grain Gourmet, one of my all-time favorite websites.  Whole Wheat Buttermilk Pancakes is a lovely gourmet recipe fragrant with grated orange peel.  In an attempt to make the pancakes of my husband's dreams, I've made many little changes to the recipe.  Here's my version:

Buttermilk Pancakes for Weekend Mornings

1 cup white whole wheat flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp soda
1/4 tsp sea salt
1 1/2  tbsp turbinado sugar (Sugar in the Raw)

1 cup 1% buttermilk
1 egg
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 tbsp canola oil

Mix dry ingredients.  In a separate container whisk together the wet.  Stir the dry into the wet to form a batter. Add a little extra buttermilk if you want thinner batter.  My husband doesn't count them as pancakes unless I add chocolate chips.  Cook on griddle at 400° F. Edges should look totally dry before you flip them.

This is such a deceptively simple recipe.  Deceptive, because I didn't list the critical ingredient, patience.

Below are two photos of pancakes on the griddle.  The first pancake included patience, the second did not.

Once you flip a pancake too soon there is no going back.  It retains a pale, flabby, and extremely unappetizing appearance no matter how long you leave it on the griddle.  It's imperative to leave the poured batter on the griddle alone, untouched, not even peeking underneath for a good check, until the perfect moment.  And there is no way to predict the perfect moment.  It depends on the thickness of the batter, how much you poured, the exact temperature on that zone of the griddle.  Knowing when to flip the pancake is a matter of allowing the perfect moment to arrive in its own time, then noticing it.

Allowing things to happen is very difficult for me.  I grew up believing that if I wanted to achieve something, I should strategize and work toward it every waking moment, with all my heart and all my might.  For many years I stood over pancakes, counting the minutes, adjusting the heat, watching for the formation of bubbles, and calculating the width of the dried edge of the batter.  My pancakes came out mostly white and flabby and I came out of the kitchen frustrated and mad.

Making pancakes is a zen-like art of patience and relaxed attention.  Some weekend mornings once I pour the batter on the griddle, I enjoy my sunny kitchen, start the tea, feed the cats, chat happily with my husband.  Other mornings I just want to finish breakfast and get onto other things.  And if I want to know whether I'm in a place allowing life to unfold, or trying to force it, all I have to do is take a look at the pancakes.

Through yoga practice I've come to realize that there are some things in life that can't be forced, and which actually get choked by constant tinkering and checking: the blossoming of a flower, being found by a cat, opening tight hips in a yoga pose, falling in love.  And, of course, getting that perfect golden color on a pancake.