Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Things you should know before you get married, Part 1: How to correctly cut an onion

My husband and I enjoy eating together. We enjoy the idea of cooking together but in actuality, doing so has proven to be a challenge... unless there is lots of wine involved (and then things get dangerous). There is such a thing of "too many cooks in the kitchen." As trite as it sounds, many of our disagreements in the kitchen prior to marriage stemmed from our two different methods of cutting an onion. I was afraid he was going to cut his fingers off and he was afraid of being wrong about something, so we argued. I finally decided that if we were going to start marriage off on the right foot then we needed to skip the pre-marital counseling and go right to Skill Development Boot Camp at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. My wedding gift to him was the skill of cutting an onion - not his way or my way, but the correct way. Romantic, eh?

Believe it or not, my husband was thrilled about our culinary vacation. We learned the basics through hands-on training in the kitchen and we learned from the best, while immersing ourselves in the frenetic excitement of cooking at the renowned CIA. He only managed to slice his finger open once during our two long days in the kitchen, and we still reminisce about the amazing food we made and ate while there.

Cutting an onion the correct way - and there is a correct way - is scary at first, I'm not going to lie, but practice makes perfect when it comes to knife skills. In the long run it's must faster and easier (and safer!) than other methods you may be using. This quick video does a better job than I can at walking you through the steps it takes to get that perfect mince, dice or chop. Once you've mastered the onion, you can move on shallots, garlic cloves, tomatoes, etc.

Monday, April 26, 2010

When life gives you milk, make yogurt

Today marks my second attempt at making yogurt. Both times have resulted from having an abundance of whole milk because my son became ill and didn't drink it for two weeks. I can't stand to waste food. Sometimes, in these situations, I let it turn to buttermilk and make loads of pancakes or scones, but with all the fresh strawberries out there right now I couldn't pass up the opportunity to have fresh plain yogurt and strawberries drizzled with honey at a fraction of the cost.

The first time I used this recipe and made yogurt entirely in the crockpot and it wasn't really suitable for eating. Sure, it was great for using in recipes but it's thin, runny consistency and lack of "tanginess" wasn't all that appetizing. I think this was mostly due to not keeping the crockpot warm enough. This time around I was hoping for something closer to Fage Greek yogurt, or atleast Yoplait custard-style, so I tweaked the directions a little.

  1. First, I pre-heated the crockpot while I combined a half gallon of milk and 2/3 cup of nonfat dry milk in a saucepan and heated until almost boiling, about 200 degrees.
  2. Second, I turned off the crockpot and wrapped it in a fleece blanket while I let the milk mixture cool to 110 degrees. I then scooped out 1/2 cup of the milk mixture and added it to a 1/2 cup of Fage yogurt. After gently mixing, I added it back to the milk and transferred to the already warmed crock pot and rewrapped it in a blanket.
  3. Finally, I waited. And waited.... and, well, I'm still waiting. Periodically I check the temp to make sure it is still around 110 degrees, but I am doing my best to leave the yogurt undisturbed so those little bacteria can multiply.
So I'll update you tomorrow with the results.

But in the meantime, I'm hopeful this turns out well because some one in the house has been sick every day for the last month - and yogurt is fantastic at supporting a healthy immune system. Unfortunately I can't afford to buy the yogurt I really like (Fage 0%) all the time, and now there are few other yogurts that will suffice. It's also a great source of protein and calcium, and easier on the stomach than milk. Even those who are lactose-intolerant can enjoy yogurt because the live culture actually aids in digesting lactose.

One sweet way to use plain yogurt is this quick and easy dessert that tastes like ice cream without the guilt if you use nonfat yogurt. This is a recipe I stole from the Sneaky Chef (yes, a cookbook for kids) and have subsequently used as a base to create my own flavors by adding frozen berries or other fruit, or flavors like espresso or Kahlua. But you can't go wrong with the following (IMHO)!

Choco-banana Frozen Yogurt
  1. Stick a ripe banana in the freezer for 20-30 minutes.
  2. In a blender or food processor, add banana, 1/2 t cocoa powder, 2-3 T yogurt and 1 T sugar.
  3. Blend until smooth.
  4. It will be soft - if you like your frozen yogurt a little firmer, put it in the freezer for 20 minutes.
This morning I awoke to a creamy yogurt that has just the right amount of tang! Good stuff. Now, my next step is getting it to the consistency of Greek yogurt by straining it through a dishtowel-lined strainer. You can use a coffee filter for this process however I don't have any so I improvised. Regardless, this is a yogurt I can eat as is without this step but, hey, why not experiment?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Our national security depends on school meals - say what?

In my former life, B.C. (before children), I worked hard at "creating a healthy school environment". That was my job. I spent most of my time working with schools to improve school meals and incorporate more physical activity into the school day- a la Mrs. Obama's push with with her "Let's Move" campaign- with a mostly volunteer organization called Action for Healthy Kids. (I won't tell you about how much time I spent banging my head against the wall.) So I am not surprised when I see stories like "School Lunches are a Threat to National Security, Retired Officials Say " that focus national attention on the failings of school meals, as they seem to get the brunt of the blame when it comes to childhood overweight. According to this article, unhealthy school lunches are "leaving 27 percent of young adults 'too fat to fight'" and is jeopardizing military recruitment. The report, released by a non-profit group called Mission: Readiness, calls for more federal funding for school lunches in a time when funding for anything is clearly at a premium.

While I whole-heartedly support efforts to provide healthful school food and to get kids moving, I am skeptical when it comes to blaming the schools for our national security problems as they relate to obesity. Just as I believe teachers are not the reason that why we are apparently dumber than the rest of the world (a charge I've heard before), I think there is significant learning of behaviors that takes place in the home, outside the classroom or in cafeteria. The question is: when are we as Americans going to take responsibility for our children and stop blaming others?

In my visits to school cafeterias I often saw children with lunches packed at home that were nutritionally void. They often included fat-filled "Lunchables" and sugar-filled soft drinks. And for many of the students who had school-prepared meals, that lunch was unfortunately the main source of their nutrition for the day as it was likely their only meal of the day. Many of those students qualified for free or reduced-price meals. So for them, they were lucky to obtain 40% of their calories in a day from school food, as this article suggests. You see, there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to feeding children, especially when it comes to school food. Some kids are underweight despite what they eat, and some overweight, too. We're all individuals with individual needs that are not going to be solely addressed through school lunch.

Maybe it's unrealistic to believe that in this day and age parents still have "role model" status for their kids. I still believe they do and that's why I try to teach my child "all things in moderation" and introduce new foods and activities even at this young age. Now that I have a child, I see what a challenge it can be to get children to eat those vegetables. And I see what a mimic my toddler is - he picks up on everything and imitates me constantly. In fact, I've learned more about my unflattering traits in watching him grow than I ever knew - apparently I roll my eyes and say "umm" a lot more often than I thought.

Let's face it: with school and work demands, traffic, technology and the general safety issues that face us now, we all move less and we eat more. What's more is that schools can't afford to provide that activities time for kids to exert those calories and I certainly don't see the kids in my neighborhood running around outside, playing like we did when I was young (probably because they're racing from one after-school activity to another). But the key to maintaining a healthy weight is "calories in= calories out".

I wish that we could address our nation's security through healthy school meals but I think it's going to take a much more concerted effort on the part of parents to make sure this country is safe. This is just one woman's opinion but I'd feel much safer if we worked to set positive examples for our kids at home instead of relying on schools that already have endless child-rearing duties to do it.

Recommended readings on this subject: Your Child's Weight: Helping Without Harming by Ellyn Satter

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

"It is a true saying that a man must eat a peck of salt with his friend before he knows him." Miguel de Cervantes, 'Don Quixote'

Today, a red flag went up when I read this on the HHS web site: using $15M in stimulus funds "NYC will also work to set policies and create environments that reduce consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and overly salted foods". Additionally, the FDA is considering regulating the amount of salt that can be added to processed foods like canned foods, cereal, and cheese, as well as the amount used in restaurants. I'm a registered dietitian and health and nutrition is my passion - logically I would support this. "So," you ask, "why the red flag?"

Well I'm also a self-proclaimed "foodie." And I like salt. A lot. Don't get me wrong - I'm aware of what happens when you eat too much of it (e.g. high blood pressure combined with obesity may lead to heart attacks, strokes, etc.) and I'm actually very salt-sensitive (I still blame Panera's soup for my "water-weight" gain during pregnancy). But since discovering Kosher and sea salt I've become a better cook, not to mention the umami factor in soy sauce. Salt is a flavor enhancer; food with salt just tastes better.

So it rubs me the wrong way when someone who doesn't know me wants to decide how much salt I can consume. And who decides what is "overly salted"? I'm in great health; I work out, eat a variety of foods and actually have very low blood pressure. Shouldn't I be exempt from salt restrictions? Shouldn't I be able to make that decision for myself, knowing the state of my health? And even if I was in poor health but my dying wish was to eat salty french fries, shouldn't I have that right? I recall, while working in a nursing home as a dietetic intern, the bland, tasteless, low sodium food that was served to residents who had deteriorating health conditions. Food is a simple pleasure and these folks, when faced with death, couldn't even enjoy that - it was out of their control. The food was beyond uninspiring.

Admittedly, I don't eat a lot of processed foods and that is really where these policies will have an impact. I am not going to preach about the demerits of processed and fast foods - I think people should have access to whatever food is available. I think we are lucky to have foods of convenience and so many choices (with salt and without). My job, as an RD, is to provide science-based education about nutrition and let people make their own choices accordingly. Interestingly, there is some doubt that the science backs up such policies. Dr. Michael Alderman was quoted in a recent Heartwire article as having some doubts that limiting sodium intake is the magic fix to the high blood pressure issues facing the U.S.:

"My stance is based on what I see of the science of the issue," he told heartwire. He argues that although there is no doubt that reducing sodium intake reduces blood pressure, salt also has a myriad of other biological effects. The clinical-trial evidence that reducing salt actually affects hard outcomes such as heart attacks and strokes "is all over the place; the whole thing is kind of a mess," he says. "Advocates of salt reduction believe the only thing that matters is the BP effect, but skeptics like me say, 'Wow, that's a stretch.' "

He maintains that a US policy to slash sodium intake at the population level would be "an experiment" and that there is no way of knowing whether it would be beneficial or indeed harmful: "There are many very committed, well-meaning, and zealous partisans for people's health who say, 'Let's go ahead and try it, let's get everyone to lower their sodium intake. We can't be sure what's going to happen—we don't have any direct evidence—but we are so firmly convinced that the BP effect will rule all that we will go ahead and do this,' " he continues. "This strikes me as kind of rash and is based on a firm belief in something that hasn't been proven.

"In folks with a diet like that in the US, there are some studies that show an inverse association—less salt, more heart attacks—so the data are conflicting, and it's a problem," he states. He was involved in some of the analyses he refers to, however, and they have attracted some criticism with regard to methodology.

The article continues to say the Finland has reduced incidents of stroke and heart attack through policies limiting salt. And while I have no doubt that consuming less salt could be beneficial for many Americans, the looming question is: do we need someone else to make that decision for us? And, if a decrease in salt is mandated, what's next? Where do we draw the line?

"With all thine offerings thou shalt offer salt."
Moses, Leviticus

Monday, April 19, 2010

Cooking with Calphalon

I was recently asked to review some Calphalon products - a 10" non-stick omelette pan and three knives (8" chef's, paring and a utility). Honestly, I'd never used Calphalon and have never been too picky about my cookware or tools: my favorite cooking vessel is my Lodge enamel cast-iron dutch oven (thank you, dear hubby, for that Mother's Day gift) and I love my Cuisinart santoku chef's knife (purchased at TJ Maxx). I like quality but I don't have a ton of money to spend. And, frankly, Calphalon cookware has always been out of my price range. But that's why I was sooo excited to try it (and keep it)!

Lemme tell ya, quality cookware does make a difference. I am convinced of this after using the Unison omelet pan. Its non-stickedness was phenomenal compared to my analon cookware. The omelet could literally slide right out of the pan and I used very minimal butter - just enough for flavor. And it's one pan I can just throw in the dishwasher and know that it will be okay - it says so on the package! So I did it. And it survived. It worked just as perfectly for my next omelet.

I like the knives, too. They came at the perfect time as I just downsized our knife supply and gave several away to Goodwill that we never use. These are sturdy and have a bit of heft. The 8" knife is actually a bit large for me to use for chopping onions, but it was an expert at cutting through the ham for Easter (below) and trimming the pork shoulder I made yesterday. Likewise, we like the fruit and veggie knives and have used them on everything! I know my santoku's are feeling a little left out... and maybe a little scared that they may be headed to Goodwill soon!

And while we're talking about knives, I want to share one of my other favorite kitchen tools: the Wusthof 2-Stage Pocket Knife Sharpener. At $6.99, it's the cheapest, fastest, easiest way to keep my knives sharp and ready to chop! Sharp knives make all the difference. If you invite me over and I use a dull knife, you can be guaranteed to have one of these arrive in the mail, courtesy of me and Amazon Prime (just ask several members of my family).

Where have I been?

I was surprised to learn that a few people actually read my blog. And those few people are wondering where I've been. Mostly, I've been busy being a mom and wife... but I've also been spending my free time reading actual books instead of the internet (crazy, I know!) and being crafty with my sewing machine. Oh yeah, and one other thing I've been doing: packing up our house to move.

Moving is by no means fun but I anticipate that I will like our new place much more than our current SFH. So, I am excited. The ONE thing I will miss (other than the neighborhood) is my gas stove. (Do you know how difficult it is to find a gas stove in a townhouse? ) This is funny because the first week we moved in the pilot light went out on this old stove and we awoke one morning to dog vomit and gas fumes that had been leaking all night. Needless to say, as a highly emotional pregnant woman, I raised hell with our landlord and debated on re-packing our boxes and moving out because of this stove. In the end, the old gas stove has made many a wonderful meal.

Now that our move is right around the corner, we've taken on the task of eating everything in the house so that we don't have to move it 4 miles down the road. The premise sounds fun: don't go grocery shopping for weeks for anything but milk, fruit and vegetables, and use what's in the not one but two refrigerator/freezers and on the cupboard shelves. But what meals come of this method are interesting, to say the least. One of those meals actually turned out decent. I'm calling it "mock lasagna".

Mock Lasagna or Ravioli Casserole
(*Note, there are no measurements because I used whatever I had)
Frozen cheese/spinach ravioli (I used whatever was left in the bag of costco ravioli)
Provolone cheese slices
Fat-free sour cream
Shredded mozarella
Spaghetti sauce

Hubby bought a bag of chopped broccoli from Costco so I steamed several cups, chopped it up, and threw it back into the saucepan with the spaghetti sauce. Then I added some frozen meatballs (homemade from the Sneaky Chef cookbook-which means more broccoli and spinach-but Trader Joe's has great meatballs) and heated through until I could break up the meatballs to resemble ground beef.

I poured some sauce in the bottom of a 9X13 casserole dish and topped it with a single layer of ravioli. I then added a single layer of the provolone, spread on some sour cream and topped that with the broccoli/meat/spaghetti sauce mix. I only had enough ravioli to do one layer, but if you have more (or no-cook lasagna noodles) you can repeat. I topped it all off with mozzarella cheese and baked at 350 degrees for 35 minutes.

The best part about this meal is that it took less than 20 minutes to throw together. I won't show you pictures because it's not real pretty, but it helped me clean out the fridge, tasted pretty good and was nutrient-packed - all in all, a success!