Use lots and lots of olive oil for a good ratatouille.

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Every August I honor the bounty of the season by making ratatouille, but I never use a recipe. Now there are a gazillion recipes out there. Precisely 462,000 retrieved in less than 60 seconds as per a recent Google search. So it’s not because I can’t find a recipe.

Ratatouille is basically just a selection of summer vegetables slowly braised in olive oil. It’s a simple preparation. Nothing really complex. But that is not why I don’t follow a recipe. The real reason is because that’s how I was taught.

My first taste of ratatouille was at a restaurant kitchen in Aix-en-Province during a summer cooking class. The chef spoke only French with a very strong Provençal accent but my French was good enough to follow. He didn’t measure a thing, just cut up vegetables and herbs, and tossed them into the pot. All the while poured on more olive oil than my American eyes had ever imagined was possible. And his ratatouille was absolutely delicious. The freshest most pristine vegetables, basil probably picked that morning, olive oil, and salt. I have honored his approach ever since.

The ratatouille doesn’t taste exactly the same each time I make it, but it always taste good. So each August when the farmers markets are bursting with eggplants and tomatoes and zucchini and peppers and fresh basil, I go out sourcing.

What I do keep an eye on however is ratios. I want equal weight of the four major vegetables. In other words, 1 pound (500 grams) each of eggplant, zucchini, peppers, and tomato. I also pick up a bunch of basil, an onion, and sometimes some garlic. Then I add salt and olive oil to taste.*

For those of you who want a recipe, my recommendation is to check the New York Times Recipe box (link listed below under RECIPE COLLECTIONS). That recipe site has only 37 variations, any one of which will probably be delicious. These recipes have been tested and usually work. If you need a recipe you will need one that is reliable.

JUST USE LOTS OF OLIVE OIL. Now some of my zealous colleagues are still reluctant to encourage a liberal use of olive oil and current dietary guidelines still limit calories from fat to 35%. So my zealous colleagues will be upset with my recommendation.

However here’s how I see things. Over time as research nutritionists continue to study fats, here is what I think will probably happen. The print will get smaller and smaller on those limitations. One day they will just disappear altogether from both label and guidelines.  In the meantime, I go with full disclosure. Using a generous hand with the olive oil will get you somewhere between 65% to 70% calories from fat. So if the number concerns you, ratatouille is not a dish you will be able to enjoy.

But that is how the dish was meant to be.

Ratatouille was born in the lovely warm sunshine in the south of France and grew to maturity along the shores of the Mediterranean when folks ate what was available in season with no knowledge of guidelines or limitations other than those imposed by the growing season. Faced with too many vegetables and waste not being an option, the cook did what needed to be done to make the vegetables palatable and delicious.

BUY GOOD STUFF

Source the freshest most recently harvested selection of eggplant, zucchini, peppers, tomatoes, and basil you can find at a nearby farmers market. Make ratatouille is August and September. Use a good olive oil sourced from a reliable provider and harvest dated from the prior year.

COUNT WHAT MATTERS

Don’t skip on the olive oil. And don’t worry about the percentage of calories from fat because since vegetables have practically no calories that percentage will be very high. Unsaturated fatty acids predominate and the combination of salt and oil greatly enhances palatability. Vegetables are an excellent source of potassium especially tomatoes, eggplants, and zucchini, so the sodium:potassium ratio is very favorably balanced on the potassium side.

*For nerds like me, here are the ratios used to calculate nutrition numbers: a generous 1/2 teaspoon Kosher flake salt (1.6 grams) and 2 tablespoons olive oil (30 grams) for each pound (500 grams) vegetables.

NB: If you use table salt or coarse sea salt, cut the volume measure for salt by half.

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Do You Like Your Salads Well Dressed?

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Summer is the season for salads.

The northeast is hot and humid during July and August and the last thing anyone feels like doing is spending hours in a hot kitchen. We want cool and refreshing. And we want it now.

Local farmers markets provide a variety of fresh greens. After that, it depends on what is available, seasonal, and handy.

But whatever you decide to throw in, please don’t be stingy with the salad dressing. Salads don’t make it to my table unless they’re well dressed.

Pictured above is a salad I put together recently. Red leaf Boston lettuce, small tender inner leaves of an escarole, some avocado, a couple of hydroponic tomato, a scallion, one whole chopped cucumber, a hard cooked egg, some nice canned tonnino, some chickpeas, and one of my favorite Italian imports, Roman artichokes that still have their stems intact.

For the vinaigrette, I make my own with California cold pressed Arbequina olive oil, imported sherry or wine vinegar (7 – 8% acidity), and salt. And I used a very generous tablespoon of my artisan vinaigrette for each 100 grams (3 1/2 ounces) salad.

Wait a minute! You’re a dietitian aren’t you?  Isn’t your job to remind us not to use too much oil and to cut back on salt?

My more zealous colleagues do just that. Especially those who work in weight loss or food addiction. Other colleagues separate healthy fats from unhealthy fats but will still recommend restraint. But not me. So I’m the first to admit that what I’m about to say is controversial.

Because flavor reigns supreme at my table, I use LOTS of vinaigrette because my well dressed salads tastes better than a salad topped a skimpy amount of dressing or worse some of that fat free stuff.

Putting an irresistibly delicious salad on the table makes it easy for folks to eat more vegetables. And getting folks to eat more vegetables is what we want right?

Found a wonderful quote in my facsimile edition of The Original Picayune Creole Cookbook originally published in 1901. The book says it is an old Spanish proverb. Who knows? Whatever the source it’s makes good culinary sense.

To make a perfect salad there should be a miser for vinegar, a spendthrift for oil, a wise man for salt and a madcap to stir all these ingredients, and mix them well together.

So please unless you’re committed to a low fat diet or limited fats to promote weight loss, don’t worry about olive oil. The fats in olive oil are mostly unsaturated and have a favorable fatty acid ratio.

Salad greens and vegetables are rich in potassium, fibers, and phytonutrients. Plus carotenoids are better absorbed in the presence of fat. Add some protein to your well dressed salad as I did with a locator mix of tuna, egg, and chickpeas. Serve with crusty whole grain bread and voilá a complete meal.

We normally eat about 2 1/2 cups or so for a meal or roughly 500 calories per plate not counting bread.

COUNT WHAT MATTERS

Heres how the conventional nutrition facts label looks for 1 cup of my well dressed salad:  16g total fat, 250mg sodium, 300 mg potassium, 6g total carbohydrate, 2g fibers, 0g added sugars, 10g protein.

We used to obsess about calories from fat and I’m so relieved the FDA has finally agreed to update the label. This well dressed salad clocks in at 68% calories from fat with a fat profile that reflects predominantly unsaturated fatty acids. Many of my zealous colleagues still obsess about sodium and, don’t get me wrong, for some sodium restriction is critically important. For most of us however it’s probably more important to take a look at how we’re using salt.

 

 

Delicious, nutritious, sustainable mussels.

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Never tried mussels before but I’m always game for new things. They look delicious.

Adventurous eaters like you deserve a gold star. So go for it. And trust me, mussels are delicious no matter how you serve them.

A good place to start would be with a mussels and pasta dish for supper this evening. Proportions are for two people. Not hard either once you get the hang of it. Here is what you will need to get started:

• 1 kg (2 pounds) farm raised mussels, rinsed and sorted

• 100 ml (1/2 cup) white wine or dry vermouth

• 40 grams (3 tablespoons) olive oil

• 70 grams (2 1/2 ounces) linguine, measured dry ** See Carbohydrates below

• couple cloves smashed garlic

• handful chopped parsley

As you read through the instructions, keep in mind the method requires multi-tasking. Rinse mussels and check each one, removing any that do not close when tapped. Add dry vermouth or white wine to 3 liter pot, pour in mussels, raise heat to high, cover, and steam mussels until they open. Discard any that do not open. As mussels begin to open, remove the meat from the shell being careful to catch every drop of cooking liquid, a delicious combination of “mussel liquor” and wine. Discard shells.

Meanwhile, start pasta water to boil. Add olive oil to a sauté pan and gentle sweat crushed garlic. Add chopped parsley. Set aside until mussels are cooked and shells discarded. Then add mussels along with the cooking liquid to the olive oil mixture. Add salt to boiling water and cook pasta al dente. Combine with mussels, olive oil, garlic herb mixture, and serve.

Taste always comes first. That’s the delicious part and it’s easy to like these tender little mussels sweet like the sea, steamed in wine, steeped in olive oil, garlic, fresh herbs, and served over linguine.

Some of us are adventurous eaters and some of us just want good taste. And that’s okay. Next step for folks like you is to go out, get yourself some very fresh recently harvested mussels, start cooking up a storm, and have fun.

 

Wait a minute! What about nutritious and sustainable?

 

Curious eaters like you deserve transparency and full disclosure. You expect more from the plate and have the patience to dig a little deeper. An ingredient audit, nutrient analysis, and allergen alert provided below.

INGREDIENT AUDIT

Mussels – Mussels grow wild in shallow waters along the east coast from Long Island to Newfoundland and are sustainably farmed in Canada.

The mussels I used for the recipe were farm raised from Prince Edward Island. The mussel seed is collected from the wild, not hatcheries, and mussels are harvested from collector ropes suspended in the ocean. Mussels feed on natural food particles, which are present in the water column and do not require feed. They get all their nourishment naturally, from the pristine ocean waters that surround them while they grow.

My preference is farmed from an environmental perspective and from a convenience perspective. Farmed mussels aren’t muddy or covered in silt and usually don’t have “beards” those pesky little hairy outgrowths found frequently on wild mussels.

Linguine – Refined durum wheat slow dried bronze cut imported from Italy.

Olive Oil – Extra virgin olive oil from California. Harvest date October – November 2015.

Dry Vermouth – Good quality imported from France. White wine is a good substitute.

NUTRIENT ANALYSIS

Per serving (1/2 recipe about 1 cup):   520 CALORIES

25g fat, 470mg sodium, 35g carb, 28g protein.

Job one when running numbers is to be as accurate as possible.

The challenge for this dish is the mussels. There is good data on both raw mussels and steamed mussels in my database, but none to tell me the ratio of raw in shell mussels to steamed mussels on the plate. Further investigation reveals the problem. The amount of “mussel liquor” another name for the seawater trapped inside the mussel shell, is too variable for weight based calculation.

So I ran the numbers with steamed mussels using my rule of thumb 20% cooked yield for mussels as purchased in shell. However, if I were doing this calculation for a restaurant menu label, I would recommend laboratory analysis to capture the addition sodium in that trapped seawater.

Calories – the metric of choice for portion sizing.

Restaurant portions of course are large and 1000 calories or more per plate is routine. More relevant is to browse through recipes developed for home cooks so I examined about a dozen from various online sites. Results reflect a range from 470 to 1200 with most clustered between 600 to 800 calories per serving. Putting my recipe into context, a 520 calorie portion size is moderate.

Fats – Olive oil, considered a healthy fat, is the primary source, but a smaller fraction come from the mussels. Like all seafood, mussels are a source of omega 3 fatty acids (1 mg per 100 grams cooked).

Salt – The respectable level of 470mg sodium per serving is probably an under-estimate because as noted above the “mussel liquor” is not included in the calculation.

Mussels also bring minerals like manganese, selenium, iodine, iron, phosphorus, zinc, magnesium, copper, potassium. Sodium is just part of the total mineral package.

** Carbohydrates – My recipe calls for a small serving of linguine. The usual amount found in most recipes is 2 ounces (56 grams) per person. However many classic recipes specify larger amounts, probably because up until recently the standard rule of thumb for recipe from Italy was 100 grams (3 ½ ounces) per serving.

Refined grain has the fiber removed. The linguine is deliciously chewy when cooked al dente, but had I used whole wheat linguine, the fiber count would have been significantly higher.

Protein – Mussels are an excellent source of protein (24 grams per 100 grams steamed). Smaller fraction of plant protein from the linguine.

 

 

 

Recipes, Ratios, and Green Split Pea Soup.

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For the longest time I never wrote down proportions for my green pea soup. The soup never came out the same way twice but always tasted really good. Now the way I see it, variability is part of culinary creativity so having my soup just a little different every time just meant it was hand crafted and artisanal.

I still don’t use recipes very often, especially when I’m putting together a meal for supper. You don’t need to either and here’s how:

Start with a mirepoix of onion, carrot, and celery, roughly 2 parts chopped onion to 1 part each chopped celery and carrot. It’s okay to use your eye here.  An onion or two, a carrot, a couple stalks of celery for each pound bag of green split peas should do it.

Now pull out the soup pot, pour in a generous amount of olive oil, add the onions, and let them sweat. As the onions start to caramelize, add the carrot and celery.  While the veggies are sweating, wash the split peas. Sometimes it takes a while for the veggies to release moisture, but when they’ve given up all they can, the mixture starts to sizzle. At that point, in go green split peas and 2-3 liters of water.  Throw in a thyme branch if you have one handy.

Let it all simmer very gently on the stove partially covered for an hour or until the peas have softened. Remove the thyme branch, pass soup through a food mill, adjust seasoning, salt to taste, and voilà a couple of liters of delicious green split pea soup.

But don’t get me wrong, I know the value of a standardized recipe and what they are good for: food service, nutrient analysis, ratios, and editors. So there is a time and place for a standardized recipe and here’s what mine looks like:

  • 500 grams of split peas (about 2 1/2 cups)
  • 200 grams onion (about 1 1/4 cup chopped)
  • 100 grams chopped carrot (about 3/4 cup chopped)
  • 100 grams chopped celery (about 1 cup diced)
  • 100 grams olive oil (about 7 tablespoons)
  • 3 liters water (about 12 cups)
  • 10 grams salt (1 generous tablespoon flake salt or 1/2 tablespoon table or sea salt

If I run the numbers using proportions listed above in compliance with the Nutrition Facts protocol for a serving I get a label that looks like this:

Nutrients per serving (1 cup / 245g):  240 calories, 10 g fat, 29 g carbohydrate (11 g fiber), 10 g protein, 400 mg sodium.

Serving sizes are determined by the FDA and required for health or nutrient contentment claims. The RCAA (Reference Amount Customarily Consumed) for soup is one cup and so that’s the amount I used to run the numbers. I needed to adjust the water because during the cooking process some water is absorbed by the split peas and some water is evaporated so the analysis is based on the cooked weight.

Green pea soup has an exceptionally good nutrient profile. Plant based protein. Good ratio fiber to carbohydrate for a healthy Microbiome. Good source potassium for a favorable sodium to potassium ratio.

 

 

 

Will 2016 be the Year of the Kitchen Scale?

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2016 has been declared the Year of the Pulse. But will 2016 also be the year of the scale?

 

Fannie Farmer published the Boston Cooking School Cookbook over 100 years ago and Americans have practiced her sifting, spooning, and leveling technique ever since. But things may be changing. Consider this. A prominent New York blogger starting adding weights to her recipes back in 2010. And as each year passed since then, the buzz has gotten louder. More books and articles and food writers are including weight measures in their recipes, especially for home baking.

 

Most professional bakers and pastry chefs already use weight and most food service recipes are written with weigh measures. A recent check of  The New York Times recipe box, a collection of over 17,000 recipes, showed more and more recipes with weighted ingredients. Most of the rest of the cooking world already writes recipes by weight and I am wondering if 2016 could be the year the practice goes mainstream in this country.

 

My interest in the measurement protocol is personal. I have been developing my own recipes with grams and liters ever since I lived in France. So I am thrilled to find a growing number of cooks and bakers out there who are coming around to my side of the table.  I am also thinking now is the time to start sharing my expertise.  Weight based cooking is not hard.  It just requires a change in habits and how we go about doing things.  But if the thought of using a scale sounds foreign to you, here is a step by step guide on how to use a kitchen scale to make my healthier, cheaper, better rolled oat and walnuts cookies.

 

ROLLED OAT, WALNUT, AND APPLESAUCE COOKIES

Ingredients for about 25 cookies:

 

100 grams unsalted butter (7 tablespoons)

100 grams turbinado sugar (1/2 cup)

100 grams canned unsweetened applesauce *  (scant 7 tablespoons)

2 large eggs

2 teaspoon vanilla extract **

100 grams walnut (1 cup chopped)

100 grams white whole wheat flour (generous 3/4 cup fluffed, spooned, and leveled)

100 gram rolled oats (1 cup)

100 gram raisins (scant 2/3 cup packed)

 

Besides the scale, you will also need one larger mixing bowl, a couple of smaller bowls, an electric mixer, and baking sheets. Remember to remove one 4 ounce stick of butter from frig or freezer a couple of hours before starting so the butter comes to room temperature.  Also remember to preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit at some point before starting to bake.

 

Turn on the scale. Place one small bowl on the scale, zero out, and weigh sugar. Place another small bowl on scale, zero out, and weigh applesauce*. Set both sugar and applesauce aside.

 

Place the larger mixing bowl on scale, zero out, and weigh the butter. Remove bowl from scale and cream butter using the electric mixer. Add sugar slowly to creamed butter and continue to mix until thoroughly blended.  Then add applesauce, eggs, vanilla, and just a dash of salt (optional). Mix thoroughly and set aside.

 

Place smaller bowl on scale. Weight walnuts and remove. Chop walnuts and set aside. Return bowl to scale and weigh flour, rolled oats, and raisins, zeroing out after each addition.  Add the dry ingredients from the smaller bowl plus the walnuts to wet ingredients, folding in gently with a spatula.

 

Line baking sheets with parchment paper or use silicon liners. Form the raw dough into little balls about the size of a rounded tablespoon and arrange these rounds on the baking sheet leaving about 1 inch (2.5 cm) distance between each one. Flatten each cookie before baking. Place cookies in oven and bake until cookies start to darken, about 17 minutes.  Cool on rack. Store in air tight container.  Or freeze for long term storage.

 

Cooking Notes:

 

* Applesauce comes in individual 4 ounce / 113 ml serving sizes. Using these little cups means you don’t have to buy a whole big jar for a small amount. Each individual cup contains just a little more than 100 grams applesauce.  The extra amount is not going to ruin the recipe, but for those of you who are nerds like me, just remove about a tablespoon.

 

** I use imitation vanilla for cooking.  The delicate flavor profile of real vanilla does not survive the high heat of the baking process, so I bake with artificial vanilla and save real vanilla for smoothies and ice cream.

 

Nutrition Notes:

 

Deciding to bake my own cookies was an easy decision. They are better, healthier, and cheaper than the competition.  My cookies are better because I can control the sweetness and if you’re like me and do not like your cookies too sweet, you can adjust any recipe to just enough.  My cookies are healthier because I source really good quality ingredients like whole grains, whole nuts, and seasonally dried fruit.  And my cookies are cheaper. Each pound costs me a little over $6.00.  And those are New York City dollars.  Prestigious artisan cookies say from a farmers market or pricy bakery boutique cost as much as $20 per pound here in the Big Apple. And even more, sometimes a lot more.

 

Yes my cookies are healthier, I can’t label my cookies “healthy” because they do not meet the nutrient profile required by the FDA for a healthy nutrient content claim. And maybe that’s just as well.  An indulgence is an indulgence. They are certainly not junk, but aren’t all cookies an indulgence?

 

Allergen Alert: Wheat, Gluten, Tree nuts, Eggs

 

Nutrients per one cookie serving: 120 Calories, 2 grams Protein, 14 grams Carbohydrates, 7 grams Fat, 1 gram Dietary Fiber.

Happy New Year’s Eve 2015

 

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This year has gone amazingly quickly. And the one night we have to celebrate letting go of the old and bringing in the new is almost here.

Looking back on 2015, it’s been a good year for nutrition. The now infamous Dietary Guidelines will probably get released despite all the turmoil and challenges and bickering. As for me, I like the guidelines so I’m happy to see them released

Menu calorie labeling got postponed for a year and the date rescheduled for December 2016. Calculated nutrient analysis requires skill and patience and a standardized recipe. Fast casual seems to have already implemented as have many of the restaurant chains  My preference is for online counts with a tool like Nutritionix that allows for individual modification on demand. How it plays out for grocery take out and for the written menu calorie posting remains to be seen.

One exciting event happened at the beginning of the year. I call it the KIND bar kerfuffle because the FDA sent a letter to the meal bar manufacturer stating, among other things, that the bars could not be labeled healthy because nuts have too much fat.

The word healthy is regulated by the FDA as a nutrient content claim. Nuts by themselves of course contain good health fats and the USDA want use to include them frequently in out diets. When a manufacturer takes those same nuts, adds in some dried fruit, sweets, and maybe a little chocolate, the product now falls under FDA jurisdiction and subject to regulatory control. The criteria for “healthy” was established over 20 years ago with the best of intentions and reflect what was then considered to be good dietary advice. Nutrition science has moved on but the kiss of death criteria remained cast in regulatory concrete.

KIND removed the word healthy and filed a citizens petition asking the FDA to consider updating their regulations. I say it’s about time!

As you can see, it’s been an eventful year for nutrition. And 2016 looks to be just as eventful.

But for now let’s just enjoy ourselves on New Years Eve and not get crazy. Enjoy the food. Enjoy the people. And enjoy the spectacle of your choosing be it noisy Times Square bash or a quite night with the television.

 

Homemade artisan vinaigrette.

 

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Why do I bother making vinaigrette?

Because I really like good olive oil. And no one makes a bottled dressing made with olive oil!

I used to cheat and buy the bottled stuff and believe me I bought the most expensive stuff on the shelf. I looked for front of the package labeling and when I found one with olive oil, that’s the one I picked.

Then one day I turned the bottle around and read the ingredient list. The first thing I noticed was the olive oil was not listed first.  What I found was canola oil or soybean oil. Those are not bad oils, but they are NOT olive oil. And where was olive oil listed? Much further down on the list.

Ingredients must be listed in descending order by weight. For those of you who are not label mavens, it’s okay to market a product and label it olive oil on the front of the label as long as olive oil is listed somewhere in the ingredient list.

That was the day I started making my own homemade artisan vinaigrette.

Now take a look at my vinaigrette pictured above. The ingredient list is short and simple. Olive oil, vinegar, salt.

I should add my cost for ingredients is about three times what I would pay for even the most expensive brand of bottled dressing because good olive oil is not cheap.  This cost factor explains why most people are okay with a blend.

My oil of choice is Arbequina olive oil from California. Olive oil is shelf stable, but unlike wine, olive oil doesn’t benefit from aging. Every November after the harvest, I order 6 liters so my vinaigrette is always made with an oil that is less than 12 months old. I use a good vinegar (7% acidity) and salt.

Most recipes I see for vinaigrette are volume based. My preference is weight based and I use my scale. No measuring cups to wash. No waste. And that’s good because at the price I pay for my olive oil, I can’t afford to waste a drop. Both volume and weight are referenced below however because most of you probably do not have a scale yet.

275 grams extra virgin olive oil like Arbequina (300 ml or 1 1/4 cup plus 1 teaspoon)

100 grams Sherry or wine vinegar (100 ml or 7 tablespoons)

5.8 grams salt (2 level teaspoons)

Healthy versus Healthy.

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Most of us agree now that healthy eating is important. This is new. Just a few years ago, labeling something healthy was the kiss of death. But times have changed.

Is it a seismic shift? Time will tell on that one, but observers agree that it’s big and important and requires attention.

The good news is we all want to eat healthy. The bad news is we can’t agree on what exactly healthy is.

Take supermarkets. The average supermarket has 45,000 individual items. At least that was what the Food Marketing Institute estimated when they did the count for 2013. And every one of those products has a label and many have additional certifications.

Or farmer’s markets. Plenty of good stuff to buy at least in the summer. But the produce is dirty and untrimmed and needs to be stored correctly and cooked. Not easy tasks without a good kitchen set up and lots of time to shop.

Or restaurants. Cooking not required. But you still have to make choices and decide what to order.

Now imagine how much harder all this is if you never took a home economics course or learned cooking skills? Or if you had never seen a farm or had a home garden? Or if you never met anyone who stocked a root cellar or made cheese or baked bread? We have a situation where one to two generations comes to the marketplace without these basic skills.

What to eat is a tough decision. And sometimes all you have to go on is an image or a label.

People may know the words they want but they need help translating the words to the table. Now this is good for those of us in the translation business. We can plate healthy to fit what the person says they want. And that’s good for business.

But labels are like metaphors. They stand for something in the real world. Think about it this way. In Ireland, grass-fed isn’t used as a marketing label. It’s simply the way it’s done. At least for now.

Accessible, normal things don’t need labels. But today’s consumers don’t bring basic cooking and food skills to the table and so they depend on labels.  Healthy is defined by so many different labels today that I could not find room to fit them all in the infograph. Like I say, it’s good for those of us in the translation business.

Confusion continues and labels sell products and marketing works.

And the bright shiny silver lining to the dark cloud of confusion is most people may actually really be eating healthier today. The competition between contenders for the best healthy diet is fierce, but as long as it uses real food and more fruits and vegetables and whole grains, at least the essentials will be in place.

Why count when it all tastes so good?

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Beautiful. Delicious. Let’s Eat.

The perfect late spring supper for our north east coast growing season. Planting has started but only asparagus and ramps are coming in right now so I’m still dependent on California, Texas, and Florida. The arrangement on my plate is what the French call a Salade Composée. Call me a thwarted graphic designer, but I have always loved making stylized plate designs.

Simple ingredients:  greens, vegetables (tomato, cucumber, legumes, red cabbage), grains preferable whole grain, protein, and dressing.

Homemade vinaigrette is always on hand because I make my own and we eat salads all the time.  Basic extra virgin olive oil, vinegar, and salt.

Legumes are always on hand too because I buy dry beans in bulk and cook batches as needed. The only component that requires cooking is the grain.  The one I used for this salad is freekeh, an ancient grain with roots in the Middle East. Traditionally, it’s made from wheat so freekeh is not gluten free. The berries are harvested while still green or yellow, then roasting during processing. Smoky. Nutty. Chewy. Freekeh is a perfect grain for a savory salad. But it needs to be cooked first and that takes about 15 to 20 minutes.

While the grain is cooking, I wash and trim all the vegetables. I don’t measure when I’m doing a quick supper like I did the night I made this salad. But I know from past scrutiny I want about 16 ounces (450 grams) on the plate and look for a distribution by weigh of 40% vegetables, 20% legume, 20% protein, 10% grain, and 10% dressing.

Once everything is washed, peeled, chopped, drained, cooked, and ready to go, the fun begins.

The plate starts with a bed of arugula and green leaf lettuce.

Then portion the protein. That is canned tuna you see up there in the upper right. A couple of tablespoons of a Spanish line caught tuna packed in olive oil. Tonnino Ventresca. Really delicious but on the expensive side.

Next in line going clockwise is the grain. My personal choice is freehka, but farro or buckwheat or quinoa work just as well.

Now some chopped red cabbage. Cabbages are good keepers and help to bridge the gap between the end of the last year’s harvest and the green shoots of spring.

Next are some Kirby cucumbers.

For legumes, I used chickpeas because that is what I had on hand.  Use what you like or use what’s sitting on the shelf or in the frig. Home cooked tastes better, but canned is more convenient when time is a factor.

The final touches are a hard cooked egg cut in six pieces, a handful of cherry tomatoes, and a scallion for garnish. With a couple of generous tablespoons of vinaigrette, the salad is dressed and ready to go.

So at this point you may be asking me why mess up the meal with counting?

I don’t disagree. But I feel a responsible. A cook needs to know what the people they feed are eating. Pleasure and good company is key to healthy eating. But so are healthy food choices. And that means you count, even if it’s only miles travelled between farm to table. Here are some good examples of the kind of counting I do.

  • Portioning the Protein.  Prep cooks in restaurants portion protein for the line cooks for two reasons. The chef needs to manage costs and the customer needs to feel the portion is good value. Some of us, chefs and eaters alike, check for sustainability. But nutritionists like me portion protein for other reasons. We like to know the grams and we like to know the distribution between animal (egg and tuna) and plant (legumes and grain).
  • Salt and Sodium.  Whichever side you take as the salt wars rage on, knowing how much you use and where it comes from is required for baseline.
  • Balance the Plate. The Dietary Guidelines and MyPlate get criticized from both sides of the food spectrum. Manufacturers and producers don’t want to count anything that can be perceived as a negative. The healthy eating crew has for understandable reasons lost faith in the government’s ability to provide valid advice. But here are some observations. Using 16 ounces (450 grams) as the reference amount, my salad provides 3 cups of vegetables, 2 ounces of protein, and 1 ounce of grain. Bonus points for fish, plant protein, leafy greens, and whole grains.

The calorie count for the 16 ounce (450 gram) salad which includes 3 generous tablespoons dressingis 590 calories. As for the other nutrients:  26 grams protein, 41 grams fat, 41 grams carbohydrate, 10 grams fiber. The largest contributor to those 16 ounces is the water weight from the vegetables which accounts for 74% or about 10 1/2 ounces.

And for the usual suspects:  720 mg sodium, 6 grams saturated fat, no added sugar.

Salt sources in descending order:   vinaigrette, chickpeas, tuna, freekeh, egg, vegetables.

Saturated fat in descending order:  vinaigrette, egg, tuna, chickpea.

So why bother counting when it all tastes so good? Because the cook need to know. The people at table don’t necessarily need to know. And it’s important to keep in mind that too much obsession with eating healthy can be as detrimental to good health as too little. But the cook still needs to know that nutrition bases are covered and that salt and fats have been put to good culinary use.

The reason I salt my lentil soup.

lentil soup

 

 

 

It’s a damp, grey, periodically rainy April day here in New York City. It’s spring but you’d never know it. So I’m sitting here thinking about lentil soup instead of tender green shoots. An absolutely perfect day for a big bowl of lentil soup. Spring will come and those first tentative little shoots will appear, but it’s definitely not going to happen today.

My lentil soup is pictured above. Rich, earthy, delicious, and always appreciated on a chilly day like today.

I always make my own lentil soup. Here’s why.

First, doing it myself is economical. Brand name shelf-stable lentil soups are convenient and good to have on hand but will run as much as six dollars a liter whereas my home crafted version is closer to two dollars a liter. And that price includes using small organic French green lentils known as lentilles du Puy. Using conventional grey lentils or brown lentils, the soup would be even cheaper.

Second, doing it myself gives me more flexibility in seasoning and salting.

The soup is so easy to make I don’t bother with a recipe. Except I measure the salt. But I’ll explain why later. Thanks to the Internet, there are a gazillion recipes out there for every skill level from plodding amateur to expert proficiency. So if you need a recipe, please find one that fits your skill level.

My soup starts with a generous pound / 500 grams du Puy lentils plus an onion, a carrot, some celery stalks, and 5 tablespoons olive oil / 75 grams olive oil for a soffrito.  I use a liter of low sodium chicken stock plus enough water for cooking the soup and ending up with 3 liters finished product. Or about 12 cups of soup.

The reason I am careful with seasoning is because I want the people who sit at my table to enjoy and relish my lentil soup.

Lentils are a healthy and nutrient dense vegetable. We count them as either a phytonutrient rich vegetable or a plant protein with a compliment of vitamins, minerals, and fibers.  I want to make the soup palatable because no matter how healthy lentils are, if the soup does not taste good, nobody will benefit.  So I use herbs either in season or dry and an acid either balsamic vinegar or tomato sauce and some pepper.  And I use salt.

The ratio of salt to soup that works for me is 5 grams per liter or 15 grams for three liters. That works out to 5 teaspoons flake salt or 2 1/2 teaspoons sea salt for the 3 liters. Enough salt to enhance the earthiness of the lentils and balance the acidity of the vinegar without being overbearing.

Salt is a controversial nutrient. There are health implication, culinary implications, and cultural implications.  Let me put the amount referenced into perspective.

The amount of sodium in a cup of my lentil soup is about 550mg. That level is a little higher than the FDA disclosure level of 480mg per serving but still below the National Salt Reduction Initiative 2014 target for soup which would be closer to 620mg for a cup.

Because I know how to run my daily numbers, I know that my daily average sodium intake is usually at or below the recommended 2400mg even when I salt to taste as I do when I make lentil soup.

I think it was Anthony Bourdain who is reputed to have said that salt makes everything taste better. The man speaks the truth. Salt works. Here is how I see things. Salt is there to make really healthy things taste good. So I want people who might not eat lentils to taste my soup and find it irresistibly delicious.