Tuesday, July 20, 2010

It's hard to Know

Last month, I learned, belatedly, of the death of K. Dun Gifford in May. Most of you will not recognize his name, and, indeed, I did not immediately. I had to read further into the wellness column of that Thursday's Washington Post to learn that he was the founder of Oldways, a think tank proponent of a Mediterranean, slow-food style diet. After reading about Oldways on the blog 101cookbooks, I purchased a copy of the Oldways Table last year, and have read a bit about Oldways Preservation Trust since then.

What is one to think, or rather, what am I to think, after the death, by sudden heart attack of a 71 year old man who had promoted healthy eating for years? Kind of like when Jim Fixx died so young.

As with Jim Fixx, maybe Dun Gifford's genetics were working against him. Heart disease is a complicated illness and often, a quiet one. Turned out, Jim Fixx's dad had died of a heart attack in his thirties. Perhaps Jim Fixx would have died at an even younger age than he did if he hadn't become a runner at 35. Maybe he bought himself twenty or so years by running and quitting smoking and losing a ton of weight. Likewise, maybe Dun Gifford gained some years by following a healthier diet for the latter ones. I just don't know enough about his habits to make any generalizations. Maybe he didn't combine the healthy eating with some exercise. Or, maybe, he just couldn't control his portions, or had too much stress in his life or too much alcohol or not enough. Or, he could have had bad habits for too many years earlier in his life. Or maybe he added to the quality of the years he did have. Or...maybe life is just random that way.

We'll never know, so it's hard not to let the doubts creep in and wonder if it just doesn't matter what we eat. I've thought about this quite a bit since I learned of his death, and have decided that I still think that eating a healthier diet is a definite hedge. I'm sticking with my plan of eating mostly fruits and vegetables, healthy whole grains, some meat (mostly grass-fed), poultry and fish and limiting, but not completely eliminating, saturated fats, processed sugar, sodium and white carbs. Certainly, I understand that I can't control my universe and make everything perfect with whole grains and olive oil. I am going to continue to hope, however, that in conjunction with exercise, I can rewrite my genetics just a little. Maybe "just a little" is all we can hope for and maybe, that's enough.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Food safety roundup

Just couldn't resist sharing Marion Nestle's Food safety roundup. Love the quote from the former USDA official! You'll have to read through the piece to find this reward...it's at the end.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Not Terribly New, But So What?

There is a time and place for everything and the time for this pasta is now!

Actually, it's good for another couple of months unless this drought completely wipes out all tomato plants in the mid-Atlantic. This is not even a recipe but a very forgiving method. Only caveat is that you like tomatoes. I know this knocks a few readers out here, but for anyone who even tolerates tomatoes this is the perfect, quick, hot weather meal.

I made this last week when I realized both that I had half of an extra large ball of mozzarella cheese and several beautiful tomatoes left over from a Caprese salad earlier in the week and that we'd be gone for the weekend. Not wanting to waste either component, this was our dinner the night before we left town.

The ingredient list is short: tomatoes, olive oil, salt and pepper, pasta or another grain, basil and mozzarella cheese. What makes this dish sing the Star Spangled Banner is the quality of the ingredients. Here is where you use those garden tomatoes you get to pick from your neighbors garden while they're on vacation and you're watering their plants, or if you don't have your own garden or a generous neighbor, buy them from a farmstand. You really want the flavor of field grown and ripened tomatoes here. Grocery store tomatoes just don't ripen to the same flavor. That said, type of tomato is completely flexible. You can use regular old beefsteak tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes, yellow or green zebra tomatoes, grape or cherry tomatoes of different colors, or mix of any of these. In the photo below, you can see (I hope) that I've used red and yellow tomatoes cut into chunks, as well as some really beautiful dark red grape tomatoes with a pale yellow striation. I probably used three large tomatoes and then about half a pint of the grape tomatoes. I really like using a mix of colors.

Once you've cut the tomatoes into basically same sized pieces - I cut the large tomatoes into bite-sized chunks first and then halved and sometimes quartered the grape tomatoes to match - put them into a bowl and pour about three tablespoons of great olive oil over top. This is the time to pull out the good stuff. Sprinkle with a little kosher or sea salt and a couple of grinds of black pepper. Give it a quick mix and let it sit for 15 or 20 minutes. Meantime, put up some water for the pasta or farro or even quinoa. If you choose to use one of these other grains, I recommend cutting the tomatoes into a smaller dice so the large chunks don't overwhelm the smaller grains. You can even use the tomatoes done this way as a bruschetta topping.

Once the tomatoes have had some time to marinate or macerate, actually, they should produce a good bit of liquid for a sauce. Add the pasta or other grain when ready and mix well. If it seems a little dry, just add a touch more olive oil. Chiffonade (cut into thin slivers) or gently tear some fresh basil leaves, maybe ten or so large leaves, over top and mix. At this point, I like to let the pasta sit for a few minutes to cool slightly before adding the mozzarella cheese. I prefer the cheese to remain in chunks rather than getting melty and stringy. Here too, use some good, fresh mozzarella in a large ball, and cut it into small chunks. If short on time, you can also buy the little tiny balls of fresh mozzarella and you don't have to cut them. Mix and taste for salt and you're ready to eat!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Gourmet, Unbound, July Edition

This month I chose to make a fresh fig and arugula salad from July 1998 Gourmet magazine. Some fresh figs in the market, OK, from California, made the decision for me. I just didn't feel like a granita or sorbet and that seemed to be the most common recipe in past July issues of Gourmet. I do have to confess that the main reason I chose this salad is that it is easy, easy, easy and sounded delicious to boot. I didn't think I'd get a July recipe in as we'd been eating our way across San Francisco adn then hiking in Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, but I got it in under the gun, in part because it took no time to put together and in part, because I already had most of the ingredients.

I'd already bought some arugula at the farmstand on Sunday and had the prosciutto waiting for the right opportunity to serve it. Parmigiano is a staple around here. Once I saw the fresh figs, the decision was made.

This salad came together quickly and easily, but I didn't bother with the instruction to attach and wrap thin strips of the prosciutto to form a long chain. I just draped the bits in a similar fashion without the extra step.

The salad was a big hit as it is composed of a complement of salty, tart, bitter and sweet flavors. It's perfect dinner party fare and was a big hit with the whole family.

Monday, July 5, 2010

California Trip

Ahhh...eating in San Francisco! We started our weekend with carnitas, carne asada and fish tacos (both grilled and fried) from Nick's Crispy Tacos, an all cash joint co-housed with a nightclub in a garnet red room festooned with crystal chandeliers. A bit of a disconnect for a casual taco lunch in plastic baskets with oilcloth tablecloths, but the tacos and guacamole were delicious. Late that afternoon, we boarded a cable car for Market Street and began our trek to Berkeley (cable car, followed by BART and then a walk) for dinner. It was only fitting that the round trip took longer than the dinner, I guess, as this was a pilgrimage of sorts.

When choosing a restaurant for our first dinner in San Francisco on what was also our twenty-first anniversary, Chez Panisse immediately came to mind. Despite many trips to San Francisco in the past, I'd never eaten there. I was somewhat concerned that I'd be disappointed - would the restaurant be worth the trek, would the food and atmosphere be as I imagined? Can any restaurant live up to such a build-up? But then, how could I be so close and not eat there? We decided to commit but to eat in the upstairs Cafe as it seemed more suited to our family of four. I made the reservation precisely one month prior to our dinner.

But how pleased we were. All of us. Maddy started with a pizzeta with wild nettles and ricotta cheese and continued with porcini mushroom lasagna. Paul and Ted each had a main course of crispy rabbit which was excellent. I was pretty impressed with my guys ordering that! I had sea bass (not Chilean) with fennel and potato puree. For dessert we shared an apricot tart with mulberry ice cream. We should have had two!

So, yes, it was worth it and the myth is not shattered!

All our meals were wonderful but one of the most unique was the kimchee fried rice topped with a fried egg from Namu at the Saturday market at the Ferry building. With offerings from all kinds of egg sandwiches on Acme bread to Mexican to all types of Asian food, we were overwhelmed by choice. We started out that morning with a steamed char shiu bao apiece from The Slanted Door's to go window "Out the Door" in the market itself. We then walked up one side and back down the other side of the interior of the Ferry building, oohing and aahing each shop. I noticed the Heath Ceramics that we'd eaten on the night before at Chez Panisse. After, we strolled through all the booths set up outside the building in search of the perfect breakfast. We ended up with a combination of egg and bacon sandwiches, kimchee, and fruit. We tasted the sweetest apricots I've ever had. In fact, we tasted everything that anyone offered us. Wonder what it is about artichokes that I never see them in markets in the DC area. I was speechless several times that morning at the abundance and variety of offerings. This felt like part II of the food pilgrimage that we had begun the night before in Berkeley.

We then had further food fun at Burma Superstar and Pizzeria Delfina and even squeezed in a Fathers' Day dim sum brunch at Yank Sing. Almost seems like too many meals for the number of days we were there! Burma Superstar has gotten lots of foodie press and was well worth the half hour wait for a table. Lunch ends at 3:30 and dinner begins at 5. We waited about a half an hour and were told we could stay and eat as long as we liked as long as our food order was in by 3:30. We got our food order in just in time and enjoyed delicious tea leaf salad, one of their specialities, along with a couple of Burmese noodle dishes, and some sauteed pea shoots. These were no ordinary pea shoots, though. The leaves were several times larger than what I buy as pea shoots. The menu says they are stir fried in wine and garlic and I think I ate practically the whole order myself. As we ate, we noticed the cooks entering the dining room, one by one, with steaming bowls of rice and toppings, to sit at a large, round table and enjoy their dinner before the restaurant's dinner service began.

Soon after our return to DC, I participated in the "DC Food 52-ers Canorama" - a full day canning extravaganza led by one of our most active and knowledgable participants, Mrs. Wheelbarrow, and hosted in Carlisle, PA by cheese1227. We came home with jars of cherry pie filling and stunning apricots in vanilla syrup to enjoy at some later date when it's not so warm and fresh fruit is not so plentiful. For our potluck lunch we ate banh mi sandwiches made from a food52 winning recipe. I brought sesame noodles as a side dish. These are flexible and you can sub in or add many different veggies, such as napa cabbage, cucumber or snow peas for the Chinese celery. Don't skimp on the Thai basil, though!

This dish does include honey and soy sauce and a goodly amount of oil, but it is enough to serve 8 as a side dish. I like to serve it alongside salmon, though tofu would work too. For vegans, you can substitute agave nectar for the honey, though I'd reduce the amount by a tablespoon and add a couple of teaspoons of warm water.

Sesame Noodles with Thai Basil

(serves 4 -6 as a main dish or about 8 as a side dish)

16 - 18 ounces udon noodles (you can also use soba or even spaghetti - I like to stick with a whole grain udon for this. The packages of udon don't seem to come in the typical 1 lb. package we're used to seeing with pasta. I have even used about 19 ounces of udon - two packages of 9 ounces each - and there was enough sauce)

3 shredded or julienned carrots (I use a julienne peeler). In a pinch you can use a few handfuls of pre-shredded carrots

2 cups Chinese celery, rough chopped stems and leaves

1/4 cup peanut or canola oil

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste

3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

5 tablespoons honey

5 tablespoons lower sodium soy sauce

1 tablespoon sesame seeds

1/4 cup chopped cilantro

1/2 cup thinly sliced scallions

1/2 cup chopped, unsalted peanuts

1/2 cup Thai basil - larger leaves roughly torn

1. Cook noodles according to package directions, leaving them al dente.

2. In a saucepan, lightly cook oils and red pepper over medium or medium-low heat for a few minutes, taking care not to let it boil. Stir.

3. Add the honey and soy sauce to the pot and stir well.

4. Place the carrots and celery into a large bowl and put the hot noodles right on top. Add the sauce over top and mix well.

5. Refrigerate for several hours or overnight. Let noodles come to room temperature for a half an hour or so and add the last five ingredients just before serving. Toss well.