Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

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Saturday’s Feast: Grilled Memorial Day Burgers

May 26, 2012

OK, I grant you most every guy on the planet thinks he knows how to grill a burger.  The problem is they think they know.  In reality, they know how to produce burgers closer to the charcoal briquette than a tasty burger worthy of a Memorial Day celebration.  If not a briquette, then they hand you a burger that looks good until you bite into it and discover it’s really steak tartare.  That might work for seared tuna, but in a burger, it leaves much to be desired.

Cooking ground beef on a grill presents its challenges.  First off, if the patty is not put together right, it falls apart on the grill.  Second, its shape will determine if you have a nice looking patty or something that looks like a scared puffer fish.  Lastly, having the grill at a proper temperature ensures burgers are fully cooked and remain moist.  Now, don’t let all that deter you, with a few easy tips anyone can rightly claim the title Grill

A Scared Puffer Fish

Master.

Let’s start with the grill.  If you have a gas grill, the preparation is straightforward enough.  Simply start your grill as normal but keep the top closed until the internal temperature reaches between 500° and 600°F.  At this point, open the lid, keeping your face back as the heat will rush out, and then clean the grill grates using a metal bristle brush designed for that purpose.  It is important to clean the grill when it is hot.  Avoid using chemical cleaners on your grill as it leaves a residue and can give your burgers a sour taste.  Let the heat do the work, the brush should simply knock off any “leftovers” from your last cookout.  Once clean, use tongs and a wet paper towel to wipe the grates, then close the lid.  Adjust the heat to between 500° and 550°F.

For a charcoal grill, it is the same process but you must let the coals heat completely before you begin cleaning.  Most charcoal grills do not have thermometers so judging the coals is required.  When all the coals have changed to a white ash color, use your tongs to arrange them in a bed that covers about half the grill area and replace the lid.  Let it heat up for about 5 minutes, then clean and wipe the grate like a gas grill.  The area without the coals will give you a warming area to keep your burgers hot without burning them or drying them out.  On a gas grill, simply turn one of the end burners off or down to low for your holding area.

Now for the burgers, I like to use 80% lean ground chuck.  Using anything leaner will leave you with dry, shoe leather.  For the dieters out there, most of the fat will cook off in the grill.  Besides, it is a holiday – give yourself a treat.  If you can find it, a course ground chuck gives a better result and freshly ground beats the prepackaged grinds every time.  Here is how I mix and cook my burgers for the grill:

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 pounds 80 percent lean ground chuck
  • 1 teaspoon table salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • Vegetable oil for oiling grill rack
  • 4 buns and desired toppings

Instructions

  1. Prepare the grill as mentioned above, and then let heat for 5 to 10 minutes before placing burgers on the grill.
  2. While it is preheating, break up ground chuck with your hands in medium bowl.  Use wet hands and handle the meat as little as possible.
  3. Sprinkle salt and pepper over meat; toss lightly with hands to distribute.
  4. Divide meat into four 6-ounce portions. Gently toss one portion of meat back and forth between hands to form loose ball. Wipe your hands often and rewet them.
  5. Lightly flatten into patty 3/4-inch thick and about 4 1/2-inches in diameter. Gently press center of patty down until about 1/2-inch thick, creating a slight depression in each patty; repeat with remaining portions of meat.
  6. Coat the grill with vegetable oil by dipping a napkin in a bowl with enough oil to wet the paper towel.  Use your tongs as you did when cleaning the grill.
  7. Grill patties, uncovered, without pressing down on them, until well seared on first side, about 3 minutes.  Flip burgers with metal barbecue spatula; close the lid and continue grilling about 3 minutes for rare, 3 1/2 minutes for medium-rare, or 4 minutes for medium.  Serve immediately.
  8. Claim your title as Grill Master!

One of the key steps is to make the depression in the patty’s center.  This keeps the burger from acting like a puffer fish.  Another point, the cooking times assumes you keep the grill above 500°F throughout the cooking process.  A lower temperature grill will increase the cooking time and dry out the burgers.  Cooking with this method will produce juicy and flavorful burgers.  Of course, you are welcome to add any flavoring your troop likes but I recommend giving it a try as I suggest above before you start adding other things.  You will be surprised as how tasty they are without all that other stuff.

Another key point to keep in mind, it is normally pretty warm outside when Memorial Day rolls around.  Raw meat needs to be kept cold until cooked and even the rare burgers need to reach over 145°F to be safe.  The warmer the food, the faster bacteria grows.  The last thing you want is for a rare burger to make you sick on a holiday.  It is truly a case of better safe than sorry.

Happy Memorial Day and please, please, please – remember just why we celebrate this day.  Give thanks to the men and women who have sacrificed so much and continue to sacrifice themselves daily.  That sacrifice is the reason we are able enjoy our freedom and a cookout in the first place.

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Saturday’s Feast: Chili, It’s not Just for Winter Anymore

May 12, 2012

Now that we are basking in the warmth that comes with late spring, (at least for us in the Northern hemisphere) it might seem an odd time to write about chili.  After all, nothing beats a nice bowl of chili on a cold winter’s day.  As true as that is, there is much more to chili than that and relegating it to the dark days of winter denies you the opportunity to this rich, flavor-filled dish.  So, sit back, relax, and let me take you on a chili extravaganza!

The logical place to start when discussing chili is, well, with the chili pepper.  There are literally hundreds of different chilies around the world.  Regardless of where we now geographically associate a particular chili, they originated from Central and South America.  Christopher Columbus added the word “pepper” to the chili, as both black pepper and chilies add heat to a dish, but that is all they have in common.  They are very different plants.

Archeologists have found traces of chili cultivation going back over 6,000 years making it one of the first crops humans sought to control[i].  While there are many theories on just why we are attracted to chilies, for this post, let’s just accept that we are fond of their heat.  Chilies today have crossed all cultural lines and now add their influence to national dishes far removed from their roots in the Americas.  We think of paprika as Mediterranean but it is nothing more than ground up peppers of the chili family.  The cuisine of India would be very different if the chili had not been imported and cultivated there.  It terms of impact, it trails only salt and black pepper as the most influential of all spices worldwide.

OK, so what we here in the United States call “peppers,” like bell peppers, jalapeño peppers, Habanero peppers, etc. are all varieties of the chili plant.  As we know, there is a huge variance in the relative “hotness” of these varieties.  So much so, they have their own scale, the Scoville Scale[ii], it ranges from zero to 16 million units.  All right, some of you might know

Scoville Scale

the scale really does not measure heat in peppers.  It measures the amount of capsaicin in a substance.  Capsaicin is the compound that creates what we perceive as being spicy-hot.  For instance, bell peppers rate between 0 and 100 and jalapeños come in around the 6,000 to 8,000 range.  Habanero peppers range between 100,000 and 350,000 on the scale.  There are hotter peppers, but they are reserved for those individuals that like to go beyond what an average human can tolerate.

On a side note, capsaicin is the active ingredient in the pepper-spray that adorns many a lady’s key chain and is used by police departments around the world.  It has a Scoville rating between 1.5 and 2 million.  Now you know just why it’s called pepper-spray.  

With this variety of chilies to choose, it is understandable how so many dishes incorporate them in and produce such diversity in results.  Growing up, when asked if I wanted chili for dinner, my mind went to the ubiquitous chili that involves ground beef, an onion, some kidney beans and a packet of spices from the grocer’s shelf.  It was meaty, to say the least, but like most ground beef dishes, it lacked the depth achieved with putting in just a bit more effort.

Now days, I tend to make all chili from scratch.  If I have to feed a herd quickly, I might resort to some sort of mix but I will change it so much in the process there is no need to even read the instructions on the pack.  Regardless, the end result must have flavor to spare, which is the point of chili – flavor, not heat.

About now, your mind might be telling you “this guy is nuts, chilies add heat,” and you are right in most cases, but there is more to it than that.  The part of a chili that holds the vast majority of the heat is the seeds.  The internal ribs can be hot too but tend to be on the bitter side so I always remove them.  Knowing that the seeds add the heat lets you control it by simply adding more seeds to heat it up.  It is the meat of the chili that holds the flavor and each variety has its own unique flavor to add.  It is by mixing various chilies you can create a recipe that is unique to you.

With that in mind, here is a nice chicken chili recipe to use as a starting point for your own personal modifications.  It leverages everything that three types of chilies have to offer.  I started with a version found at the America’s Test Kitchen website.  If you are not a member and are looking for a good cooking website, I do highly recommend this one.

The recipe is packed with flavor and will drive your local natives wild as they are forced to suffer its wonderful aromas as it cooks.  By the time dinner rolls around, they will be sitting, pounding the table with clinched fists while chanting “Bring Chili Now!” as if they were medieval knights demanding a meal.   At any rate, try this one.  It will open the door to just how different chili can be.  It will make you wonder just how ground beef became the go-to protein for chili in the first place.

 

 

White Chicken Chili

 

Ingredients

 

  • 3 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken breast halves , trimmed of excess fat and skin
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 3 medium jalapeño chilies
  • 3 poblano chilies (medium), stemmed, seeded, and cut into large pieces
  • 3 Anaheim chili peppers (medium), stemmed, seeded, and cut into large pieces
  • 2 medium onions , diced
  • 6 medium cloves garlic , minced or pressed through garlic press
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground coriander
  • 2 (14.5-ounce) cans cannelloni beans , drained and rinsed
  • 3 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice (from 2 to 3 limes)
  • 1/4 cup minced fresh cilantro leaves
  • 4 scallions , white and light green parts sliced thin

Instructions

 

  1. Season chicken liberally with salt and pepper.  Heat oil in large Dutch oven over medium-high heat until just smoking.  Bown chicken, skin side down, and cook without moving  for about 4 minutes. Turn chicken and brown on other side for about 2 minutes.  Transfer chicken to plate and let rest for a minute or two.
  2. Remove and discard skin.
  3. Remove and discard ribs and seeds from 2 jalapeños;then mince.  In food processor, process half of poblano chilies, Anaheim chilies, and onions until consistency of chunky salsa, ten to twelve 1-second pulses, scraping down sides of work bowl halfway through.  Transfer mixture to medium bowl.  Repeat with remaining poblano chilies, Anaheim chilies, and onions; combine with first batch.
  4. Pour off all but 1-tablespoon fat from Dutch oven, add vegetable oil if necessary, and reduce heat to medium.  Add minced jalapeños, chili-onion mixture, garlic, cumin, coriander, and 1/4 teaspoon salt.  Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables soften, about 10 minutes.
  5. Remove pot from heat.
  6. Transfer 1 cup cooked vegetable mixture to now-empty food processor work bowl.  Add 1-cup beans and 1-cup broth and process until smooth, about 20 seconds.  Add vegetable-bean mixture, remaining 2 cups broth, and chicken breasts to Dutch oven and bring to boil over medium-high heat.  Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, until chicken registers 160 degrees (175 degrees if using thighs) on instant-read thermometer, 15 to 20 minutes (40 minutes if using thighs).
  7. Using tongs, transfer chicken to large plate.  Stir in remaining beans and continue to simmer, uncovered, until beans are heated through and chili has thickened slightly, about 10 minutes.
  8. Mince remaining jalapeño, reserving and mincing ribs and seeds (remember to use the seeds to control the heat), and set aside.
  9. Shred chicken into bite-sized pieces, when it is cool enough to handle.  Discarding bones, they will not be useful for a stock.
  10.  Stir shredded chicken, lime juice, cilantro, scallions, and remaining minced jalapeño (with seeds if desired) into chili and return to simmer.  Adjust seasonings with salt and pepper and serve.


[i] Perry, L., R. Dickau, S. Zarrillo, I. Holst, DM Pearsall, DR Piperno, MJ Berman, RG Cooke, K. Rademaker, AJ Ranere, JS Raymond, DH Sandweiss, F. Scaramelli, K. Tarble, and JA Zeidler. “Starch Fossils and the Domestication and Dispersal of Chili Peppers (Capsicum Spp. L.) in the Americas.” American Association for the Advancement of Science, 16 Feb. 2007. Web. 12 May 2012. <http://www.sciencemag.org/content/315/5814/986.short>.

[ii] Peter, K. V. Handbook of Herbs and Spices. Boca Raton, FL: CRC, 2001. 120. Print.

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Saturday’s Feast: The Soup

May 5, 2012

Everyone has their favorite comfort food.  For me, it’s soup, not just any soup, but a rich, hearty soup full of chunky vegetables.  While there are literally thousands of soups out there, it is the ones that are more than simply broth with stuff thrown in that get my attention.  I like soups that eats like a meal.

Most soups are stock based.  There are exceptions of course, potato soup comes to mind, but for most soups, stock is the key.  You can use store-bought stock and produce a really good soup but to reach the stellar range, you will need to make your own.  The downside, making a rich stock takes time; the upside, you can make enough for several batches of soup or anything else; the portions not used right away will need to be canned or frozen.  If you are watching your sodium intake, and we all should be, commercial stocks and broths are loaded with it so you need to look for the low-sodium variants.

Here is a simple but tasty chicken stock:

Ingredients:

  • 4 lbs. fresh chicken (necks, backs, wings, legs, bones)
  • 6 qts. water
  • 2 onions, peeled and quartered
  • 2 celery stalks, diced
  • 1 carrot, peeled and diced
  • 6 – 10 black peppercorns
  • 2 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 2 sprigs fresh parsley
  • 2 sprigs fresh basil (optional)
  • 2 sprigs fresh rosemary (optional)
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt

Directions:

  1. Put water and chicken pieces in a large stockpot and cover.  Bring to a boil, skimming off any foam that rises to the surface.
  2. Add remaining ingredients.
    Note:  the spices used are really up to you.  I recommend starting without the optional herbs, then next time, modify it to taste, at the very least, use basil or rosemary but not both.  In all stocks, use herbs that blend well and avoid ones that compete with each other, it makes for a confused taste in the end product.
  3. Return to a boil; reduce heat to maintain a steady, gentle rolling simmer.  Do not use a rapid boil, it will make the stock cloudy and break down the flavor.  Cook for 2 to 3 hours, it may be cooked up to 6 hours.  The longer it simmers, the richer the stock.
  4. Let cool to warm room temperature, at least 1 hour.  Strain and discard solids. Some people like to put all the herbs in some sort of mesh to make straining easier, the key to a good stock is to remove all the solids so do whatever works best for you.  Keep the stock chilled until used or store (canning it or freezing) until you need it.
  5. If canned, it will keep for a year or more.  Freezing will last four to 6 months.  Do not freeze quantities larger than a pint.  That way you can pull out just what is needed at the time.

OK, that is a lot of work just to make a stock.  Most people do not have the time or simply are not willing.  In either case, you can produce a good soup using commercial stock.  The key is to use a full-body, ready to use stock.  Avoid concentrated stocks, they may have flavor but I do not think they make as nice a blend as a full stock.  At all costs, do not use the little foil-wrapped cubes, if it comes down to that, you might as well buy a can of Campbell’s soup.

Once you have your stock, you are ready to go.  If you are pressed for time, you can buy a roasted chicken from your local grocer, remove the skin, pull the chicken apart, throw it in the stock and add wide egg-noodles, cook for 30 minutes and voila – you have chicken noodle soup.

Another Point!  Stock vs. Broth

If you ask ten cooks, you will get ten definitions of stock and broth.  They are basically that same with a few exceptions.  Both are cooked the same way but broth takes less time  and must be strained to the point of being filtered, ending up with an amber colored but clear liquid for chicken.  A stock on the other hand, simply has the solids removed and has a creamier color and richer taste; it may or may not be clear like a broth, it all depends on just how you made it.  Of course, this is my definition, now you have eleven.

That is more than enough on stocks and broths – it’s soup time!

Today I am using my Chicken Vegetable Soup recipe.  You can use homemade or commercial stock for sure.  I make it both ways depending on my time and if I have stock on hand.  The key to its success is the vegetables.  I like large pieces but that is me, you do what you want in that regard.   I do use canned beans in this.  If you have fresh beans, use them but stay away from frozen vegetables, they do not seem to have the flavor and breakdown easily in the soup.

Chicken Vegetable Soup

Ingredients:

  • 2 breast chicken breast fillet, skinless (you can use thighs as well)
  • 1/2 head Cabbage, shredded
  • 3 stalks celery ribs, coarsely chopped
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 cups chopped carrots
  • 2 garlic clove, chopped very fine
  • 2 Zucchini, sliced thin
  • 2 Yellow squash, sliced thin
  • 6 cup chicken broth
  • 3 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. pepper, course ground
  • 6 oz. sherry
  • 1 can green beans, 14oz can, drained
  • 1 can Lima beans, 14oz can, drained
  • 6 tbsp. olive oil, extra virgin, enough to cover pan bottom

Directions:

  1. Cup chicken breasts into bite size cubes and set aside.
  2. Chop and slice the veggies, place all in a large bowl.
  3. In a stockpot, heat to very hot, enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pot well.  It should be just starting to smoke.  Drop in all the veggie, except for the green beans and lima beans, and use a spoon to stir getting all veggies coated with oil.  Cook for 4 to 5 minutes, stirring frequently, allowing them to reduce by about 1/3 volume.
  4. Remove veggie to bowl and set aside.
  5. Coat the bottom of the pot with more olive oil and reheat.
  6. Brown the chicken on all sides, making sure it does not burn, and then remove to bowl with veggies.
  7. Add about 2 oz. of sherry, being careful not to have your face too close to the pot, and deglaze it.
  8. Add all the chicken broth and chicken, bring to a boil.
  9. Add the cooked veggie (if needed, add more broth until it covers chicken and veggies by at least 2 inches).
  10. Add salt and pepper.
  11. Heat to a rapid boil, and then reduce to a low simmer and cover.
  12. Stir every few minutes.
  13. After 30 minutes, add the remaining sherry, green beans, and lima beans.
  14. Cook for an additional 30 minutes.

About the salt, in reading the recipe it appears too much for someone on a low-sodium diet.  The portion serving though is about 600mg; it all depends on the sodium added by the stock but even removing all the added salt still yields just under 500mg of sodium per serving from the other ingredients.  The key is the stock you use.  Another good reason to make your own and you can then control it.  A low-sodium or no-sodium stock works just fine.

Please take the time to make your own stock at least once.  That is all it takes to prove the difference it makes in your cooking.  It is also a wonderful way to use up the parts of a whole chicken you may otherwise throw away.  Regardless of the stock, this is one killer soup!  I hope you enjoy!

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Saturday’s Feast: Food

April 28, 2012

Last week I asked for input on what my topic for Saturday should be.  Overwhelmingly, food won out.  I had suggested cooking, but I sensed it is more a “don’t tell me about the pain, show me the baby,” sort of thing being asked for.  Rather than present a recipe in step-by-step detail and leave it at that, I will explain why it is special to me.  As always, I cannot just throw something out there, so I will also explain why I make some of the food choices I make.

I guess all cooks have their “go to” recipes, things they make particularly well.  In my case, its soups, whenever I have a bad day or need to feed an army, soups come to mind.  Making them is cathartic for me; eating them is just pure joy.  For me, a good soup is nearly the perfect dish.  I will get to soups in due time, but before I jump into the deep end of the pool, I think it better to start off with something that serves as more a starting point for many other dishes, in the case Old-Style Italian Gravy.

Ok, first things first, Italian Gravy is not a meat-stock gravy that normally comes to mind when we hear the word.  No, when you boil terms down to their simplest form, it is a tomato sauce, but that nom de guerre hardly does it justice.  This is one of those dishes that have appeal on all fronts.  It smells wonderful, has a nice texture, and tastes out of this world.

A note to my vegetarian/vegan friends – this dish is not for you.  Of course, it can be modified for your needs and I might see about doing just that, but for now, it is a hearty meat dish.  Now, I do not give you smack for eating like a rabbit, so there is no need to give me smack for my omnivorous ways.

Back to the gravy, before we delve into the particulars of it, we need to come to an understanding of terms.  Tomatoes come in a wide variety of choices in the grocery store.  Understanding what each offers will help your make the right choice for you cooking endeavors.  The wrong choice can take a dish from being stellar to something you can buy in a jar; it will have some flavor but will miss the richness that the right choice adds.

You can buy canned tomatoes stewed, diced, whole, crushed, and pureed.  To further confuse you, each type comes processed with a variety of seasoning.  My advice is to stay away from all seasonings in canned tomatoes.  Unless you simply wish to throw something together and not season it yourself, there is no point in selecting them, if you need that level of convenience, you might as well buy a can of SpaghettiOs.  Moreover, if you worry about your sodium intake, canned tomatoes are a primary source.  Salt is added during the canning process.  Low-sodium and no-sodium canned tomatoes are available.  If they are not on the shelf, just pester your local grocer until they give you what you want.  If you ever wonder why a dish tastes different from time to time, it just might be the salt level from the canned foods you select.

In addition to tomatoes, there are the tomato sauces and pastes to consider.  Here is my way of thinking about it, the closer the product is to a whole tomato, the longer the dish takes to mature in cooking.  One trick to remember, tomato sauce adds the flavor that normally takes time to develop.  If you need to shorten your cooking time, replace a can of puree with a can of sauce.  In other words, if you need a quick sauce for dinner after a long day at work, use a tomato sauce, if is it a lazy Sunday, use crushed tomatoes and purees.  Of course, that is a general rule and most dishes take a combination to get the favor you want.  In the case of my Italian Gravy, it takes a combination of several types.  So here it is, Old-Style Italian Gravy:

 

Old-Style Italian Gravy

 

Ingredients

  • 2 – 28 Oz cans of crushed tomatoes (I prefer Contadina for all sauces)
  • 1 – 28 Oz can of whole peeled tomatoes
  • 1 – 15 Oz can of tomato puree
  • 1 – 6 Oz can of tomato paste
  • 4 medium to large pieces of beef short ribs
  • 4 medium pieces of pork ribs
  • 6 hot or mild Italian Sausage
  • 6 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tbsp of fresh parsley
  • 1/8 cup of fresh basil
  • 1 tbsp of fresh oregano
  • 1 tsp of black pepper
  • olive oil to lightly brown the garlic

Directions

  1. In a 6-quart slow cooker, combine crushed tomatoes, tomato puree, parsley, basil, oregano, and black pepper over medium-high heat.
  2. In a blender, blend the whole peeled tomatoes and add to slow cooker.
  3. Stir gravy every 10 minutes until mixture starts to bubble, lower temperature to simmer.
  4. In a frying pan, brown the beef short ribs and pork ribs on all sides and add each to mixture.
  5. Cut half the sausage into 1-inch lengths, brown and add to mixture.
  6. Remove the casing from the remaining sausage and brown like ground beef, drain, and add to mixture.  Steps 1 through 6 can be completed the night before and refrigerated for cooking the next morning.
  7. In the same frying pan, add olive oil.  Use spatula to scrape any cooked meat bits loose and add minced garlic.  Cook the garlic until it’s slightly brown, about a minute.  Add garlic to mixture.  Do not over-cook the garlic; it will lose its flavor.
  8. Still in the same frying pan, add the Tomato paste and fry it for about 5 to 7 minutes, add to gravy.  Cover and cook on low for at least 4 hours but 6 hours is recommended.
  9. About an hour before serving, remove ribs from gravy and debone.  The rib bones should come right off.  If needed, chop the meat, more than likely, it will be very tender and stringy.  Return all rib meat to gravy.  Discard rib bones.  They will not add to a stock at this point but make a great snack for Fido!

Note: If using cooked meatballs, add 30 minutes before serving the gravy.  Do not add raw or partially cooked meatballs to this recipe, they will not have time to cook thoroughly.

This is more than mere spaghetti sauce.  It is a rich taste experience that provides a complexity of flavors simply opening a jar will never.  You owe it to yourself to try this one at least once.

Old Map of Italy

This recipe serves as a nice pasta sauce for sure.  It is perfect to can at home or freeze; it keeps very well.  Later on, if you want to make lasagna, simply cook up some ground beef, add the sauce, simmer for about 20 minutes, then put your lasagna together and bake.  The same goes for a traditional spaghetti sauce, just cook up some onions and green peppers, add a touch of red wine or sherry with the sauce, simmer and in 30 minutes you have a spaghetti sauce to kill for.  About the only tomato based sauce it will not serve, as a base, is Americanized-marinara sauce, which is devoid of flavor and closer to water than the richness of true Italian cuisine.

This recipe is my take on all the Italian Gravy recipes I’ve found, and there are many variations.  In that sense, it is always evolving as I incorporate ideas I find.  While it is great as is, change it to suit your own tastes, make it your own.   I know it seems like a lot of effort, but it really takes less than an hour as the slow cooker does most of the work, with the benefit of driving your family members crazy with its wonderful aroma.  By dinnertime, they will be like starving sailors wanting that first meal after a month lost at sea.

There is no need for a side salad or anything else, except for some freshly grated Parnassian cheese and some sort of garlic bread.  This dish truly stands alone.  Once you master it, you will never look at a jar of store-bought spaghetti sauce in the same way.  Simply put, this is one of the best recipes I’ve ever made.

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What If We Lost Seattle

January 10, 2011

Imagine if you woke up on January 1, after a fun New Year’s night, made your coffee, tuned in the news and heard every person (man, woman, and child) in Seattle, Washington suddenly died, roughly 616,000 people gone from the planet forever.  It would shock our nation; it would shock the entire world.

Describing the instant magnitude of such a loss is beyond the power of words.  What if the loss spread out over the course of a year, is it any less devastating?  Take Afghanistan, our emotional house would be no less devastated if we lost the 100,000 or so U.S. service members currently serving in a year, much less a number like 616,000.  No, spreading such a massive loss over a year does nothing to negate the impact.

So why is it, in our society, we happily ignore the loss of a Seattle’s worth of population every year?  Over 1,800 people a day, every single day, lost!  The major news organizations do not bother to report it, at least not with the same sensationalism a 22-year old idiot with a gun commands.  Do not misunderstand, the unfolding tragedy in Arizona, with its senseless brutality, requires immediate coverage if we, as a people, wish to understand it.  The question is, given the overwhelming magnitude of loosing over six-hundred-thousand Americans yearly, why we show it such little concern.

Now, Seattle is in no more danger than any other place, in fact, it seems less likely something dire happens there than in other cities.  Seattle simply has a convenient population size to compare to the number one killer of Americans – heart disease.  According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions (CDC), in 2007, the most current year for such data, 616,067 people died in the United States from heart related issues[1].  Seattle’s population, in 2009, reported in at 616, 627 making it the 23rd most populous city in the country[2].  In other words, enough Americans die each year from heart disease, alone, to populate any city in America except the top 22.  For example, heart disease kills more Americans, each year, than live in the following cities:

o  Atlanta, Georgia – 540,922 people

o  Omaha, Nebraska – 454,731 people

o  Miami, Florida – 433,136 people

o  Washington, DC – 599,657 people

o  Sacramento, California – 466,676 people

o  Cleveland, Ohio – 431,369 people

[Population figures taken from U.S. Census data[3]]

Oddly enough, we already have the answer to reduce the impact of heart disease.  It does not require some newfangled program, discovery, invention, or billions of tax dollars.  What we need is awareness and the ability to correct our behavior (easier said than done for sure).  Perhaps that is the reason heart disease receive the relatively low attention it does, the answers are with individuals and not in some pill.  According to the Mayo Clinic’s website[4], here are five easy steps to reduce the risk of heart disease:

  1. Don’t smoke or use tobacco products. By now, everyone knows the danger of smoking.  It leads to atherosclerosis as well as introducing as many as 4,800 chemicals into the body, but the danger does not end with smoking tobacco.  Snuff and chewing tobacco present a danger to the heart as well.  Nicotine restricts or narrows blood vessels making the heart work harder to supply oxygen to the body.  Not to mention, smoking also increases the chances of the number two killer in America – cancer.  In other words, want to kill yourself, smoke like a chimney.  It may not be the most pleasant way to go but you cannot argue with its success.Another point, car companies spend millions, if not billions, to make safer cars.  In 2007 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported 41,259 car related deaths[5].  That is less than 10% the number of deaths by heart disease.  While not all heart disease related deaths are attributable to smoking, large portions are.  How much money do tobacco companies spend to make their product safe?
  2. Get active. Participating in physical activity for at least 30-minutes on most days of the week provides benefits in just about every aspect of life.  It reduces the chances of developing conditions that place strain upon the heart, conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.  While these condition carry problems all their own, they also adversely affect the heart.Remember, things like gardening, housekeeping, taking the stairs, and walking the dog all count.  You do not have to exercise strenuously to achieve benefits.  Need another reason to exercise?  Many study show moderate exercise improves the sex life.  Who needs more reason than that?
  3. Eat a heart-healthy diet. There are many diets and plans out there, most focus on dropping weight rather than improving heart-health. Eating a special diet called the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH)[6] can help protect your heart as well.  Following the DASH diet means eating foods that are low in fat, cholesterol and salt.  The diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products that can help protect your heart.  Following this diet along with being active will reduce your weight as well.The Mayo also goes on to say “Heart-healthy eating isn’t all about cutting back, though.  Most people, for instance, need to add more fruits and vegetables to their diet — with a goal of five to 10 servings a day.  Eating that many fruits and vegetables can not only help prevent heart disease but also may help prevent cancer.”  What does all that mean, people do not have to starve to lose weight and have a healthy heart.
  4. Get regular health screenings. High blood pressure and high cholesterol can damage your heart and blood vessels.  But without testing for them, you probably won’t know whether you have these conditions.  Regular screening can tell you what your numbers are and whether you need to take action.
  5. Maintain a healthy weight. A healthy weight lends itself to a healthy heart.  Carrying too much weight is simply all around bad for the body.  It stresses the joints, lungs, and circulation as well as the heart.  A modest reduction of 10% is beneficial for heart health.  According to The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), a couple of key guides are Body Mass Index (BMI) and waist size[7].  As muscle weighs more than fat, the index can give high numbers for people with a healthy weight.  For that reason, waist size also comes into play.  Anything over 40” for men and 35” for women is overweight when the BMI is over 25.  Here are the basic guidelines:

o  Underweight = <18.5

o  Normal weight = 18.5–24.9

o  Overweight = 25–29.9

o  Obesity = BMI of 30 or greater

While these steps are not a guarantee in preventing a heart attack or developing a heart related disease, they do greatly reduce the risk as well as provide for a generally healthier life.  So often, in today’s world, we depend upon science or some invention to solve a particular problem.  In this case, there is no need to wait.

Heart disease, being the number one killer of Americans, is something we can address without the help of technology or waiting for some pharmaceutical miracle drug.  It is up to us, through our individual action, to change the reason for heart disease not being in the news from apathy, to its being only a minor cause of death.  Let’s make it a story with no need to cover in the first place.


[1] “FASTSTATS – Deaths and Mortality.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Web. 10 Jan. 2011. <http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/deaths.htm>.

[2] “Population Estimates.” Census Bureau Home Page. Web. 10 Jan. 2011. <http://www.census.gov/popest/cities/SUB-EST2009.html>.

[3] ibid

[4] Staff, Mayo Clinic. “Heart Disease Prevention: 5 Strategies Keep Your Heart Healthy – MayoClinic.com.” Mayo Clinic. Web. 10 Jan. 2011.
<http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/heart-disease-prevention/WO00041>.

[5] FARS Encyclopedia. Web. 10 Jan. 2011.
<http://www-fars.nhtsa.dot.gov/Main/index.aspx>.

[6] The DASH Diet Eating Plan. Web. 10 Jan. 2011.
<http://www.dashdiet.org/>.

[7] “Calculate Your BMI – Standard BMI Calculator.” Web. 10 Jan. 2011. <http://www.nhlbisupport.com/bmi/>.

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Warning! This Article is About to Expire

March 15, 2010

Here’s the situation:  You’ve had a craving for something fresh to eat all day.  After work, you stop at your local grocery store and start looking for anything tasty.  Fruit, yogurt, and a big bag of salad are scanned, paid for, and sacked; you’re on your way.  At home you prepare the fruit, wash the bag of salad, only then does the problem start – you open the yogurt and it’s rancid.  Disappointment sets in.

Everyone comes across spoiled food from time to time, even if you do your due diligence, inspecting it and looking at the date stamped on it.  We simply put it into the “stuff” happens category and move on.  Regardless of effort, from time to time something goes wrong in the delivery chain and an item is spoiled.  For the most part, time is the enemy of freshness.  That is why providers do things like date products, to aid in knowing how long we have to enjoy our tasty treat.  That brings up another problem, just what does a date mean when it’s on a product in the grocery store?

The answer is it depends on the words that accompany the date.  In this case, words really do matter.  The most common date is the ubiquitous “Sell By” date.  Did you know that the government does not require any food to carry a sell-by date?  It is merely a guideline indicating freshness and there is no regulation regarding it.  Stores have no obligation to remove items that are beyond their sell-by date from shelves.  For them, it is simply a public relations issue.

What about the other dates we see, “Use By,” and “Best Before” for instance?  Use-by does have regulation around it but only where baby food is concerned.  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates baby formula and requires the date to ensure it meets nutritional levels that are appropriate.  For poultry, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates it and they only require the display of the date packaged.  They allow other dates, as sell-by or best-before, but in addition to the packaging date.  For most other products, dates are simply window dressing.

Now before anyone out there gets the idea I am suggesting we hire a bunch of food Nazis to oversee the national food supply, I am not.  It is in the best interest of companies to supply food that is safe, fresh, and tasty.  The point is to give the consumer understanding of the date used on labels.  Perhaps it would help if they used some standards but they don’t. At best a general guide can be provided, but it in no way is definitive:

Date Description Meaning
Sell By If sold by this date, the product, like milk, will remain fresh for the expected time to consume it at home, 5 days, or so.
Use By Depends on product, on baby formula it means use by this date to receive the minimum nutritional value allowed.  On other products it is more a guideline.
Packaged Used on meat products to indicate the date it was literally packaged in the container you see.  It does not tell you how fresh the product is before packaging.
Best Before Basically a statement used by the maker to say if you use it by this date, it will taste fresh.
You may find many other labels for dates.  Other than the few required by regulation, they are only indications of relative freshness.  That is the fact to keep in mind.

Besides taste, there are other important reasons to seek out fresher food.  Of great importance are bacteria.  The longer food sits around, the more bacteria grows; it is unavoidable.  Proper handling reduces the growth but cannot eliminate it.  Obviously this is a greater threat with produce, dairy and meats than with packaged foods.  While grocery stores do a good job of maintaining proper temperatures for particular foods, our home refrigerators do not.

It is not a design problem with refrigerators but simply our use as a general storage that creates the issue.  Meats need colder temperatures to retard bacteria, temperatures that damage fresh vegetables.  At home, we strike a balance of sorts but it is not open-ended.  Regardless of any date placed upon meats, if not stored at the proper temperatures, they will spoil.  The best practice is to freeze them unless they are to be used within the next day or two, at the most.  Pallavi Gogoi wrote a wonderful article for Business Week (click here to read) that covers the matter in greater detail.

Another reason to seek out fresher food, all food looses its nutritional value over time.  The longer it sits the less benefit your body receives from it.  Research conducted by Penn State (click here to read report) showed spinach looses over 50% of its folate (vitamin B) and carotenoid (vitamin A and anti-oxidants) levels in just eight days.  That is not eight days from when it reaches the store but eight days after its harvested.  Think of it this way, if its picked today and packaged, shipped to a supplier tomorrow, then moved to a distribution center the next day, then on to a store the next, stored for a day, put on the shelve the next day, bought by you the day after that, then used the following day that’s eight days. Perhaps it is best for fruits and vegetables to use a “Picked On” date but fat-chance for that to happen.  If ever you needed justification to buy locally grown vegetables, here it is!

In the end, product dates are really just guidelines to help us understand freshness.  The point is to check dates and always buy the freshest products possible.  Understand that most dates are not drop-dead dates for food but speak only to its freshness.  After all, freshness is the key – it limits bacterial growth while increasing nutritional value.  Always look for the date, figure out what it’s really telling you, then buy the freshest foods you can.

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Nature’s Octane

February 7, 2010

Have you ever heard someone refer a person as “in tune with nature?”  It makes me wonder how any living thing possible becomes “out of tune” with nature.  After all, as the word implies, it’s the natural state of being.  Still, much like cars, we often find ourselves in need of a tune-up from time to time.

With modern vehicles, the days of the driveway mechanic are coming to an end.  There was a time when weekends were full of fathers and sons tinkering with the family auto on a Saturday afternoon.  Cars, back then, needed frequent tune-ups to operate efficiently.  It seemed with each oil change, something else needed adjusting.  Today, technological improvements mean our cars require much less work to operate efficiently.  Moreover, the car engine of today looks more like something from a science fiction movie than the powerhouse of a muscle car from the 50s and 60s.

While it is easy to see technology improved automobile engines, technology has created problems in other areas of our lives, food for instance.  Our own creativity has created a situation that inhibits our ability to live in-tune with nature.  Whether you believe God created mankind or that we simply evolved, one thing it true either way – our bodies are engines that use food as a fuel source.  Like cars, the quality of fuel directly affects the performance of our engine.  For the most part, an automobile engine serves a single function, to create useable power.  Its fuel is specific to that single task.  The human engine is more complex and delivers a wide range of functions, requiring a complex fuel source.

The chemical formula for isooctane, the benchmark gasoline is measured by, is (CH3)3CCH2CH(CH3)2.  Knowing this is of little use to the average human, nor is knowing that C6H12O6 is a component of high-fructose corn syrup and that you should have no more than forty grams a day.  What is useful is the index system that measures isooctane; drivers know, early on, they need to use 87 octane for most  cars.  While we really don’t know what the 87 stands for, it is a number we can easily find and associate with the proper operation of our cars.

Every time we fuel our cars, we see the “Minimum Octane Rating” sticker on the pump; it is how we know which fuel to select.  Basically, you select (or should) the fuel your car is designed to use.  Higher performing engines need the higher octane fuels.  While a normal engine will not improve its performance selecting a higher grade fuel, a high performance engine will degrade efficiency selecting a fuel below its designed rating.  We need to do the same thing with the foods we eat.  We need to take in foods our bodies process efficiently if we want to keep our engines tuned.

The food science industry produces products, like high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) that meet the desire of food produces for low-cost ingredients.  While their products allow producers to keep food costs lower, they are not the types of fuel our bodies use efficiently.  In fairness to food producers, there are other reasons to use HFCS besides cost; it mixes easier than sugar for one.  Advocates   for each side argue the merits, for and against, the use of HFCS and other products like it.  The argument is technical and boring and leaves your head swimming in confusion.  In the end, it is not a necessary argument in the first place.

Rather than worry with the exact amounts of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and such, a particular food contains, it would better serve us to have a simple index number to judge a meal’s relative value, much like the octane system for gasoline.  A scale with a 0 to 100 index will work, with 0 akin to eating weapons-grade uranium and 100 eating manna from heaven.  Of course, the quantity of food each individual eats is determined by the level of activity.

Setting up a rating system for food will be complicated; it was for octane for sure.  In the end the octane rating system provides us with something we easily use in our daily lives.  Setting a system of grading meals will give the same sort of result – we will understand the value of the fuel we consume.  We can then match the fuel to the particular style of life we live and stay in-tune with nature’s plan.

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