Empty Calories? Give Me a Break.

apples & baking dish for clafouti
apples & baking dish for clafouti

As my more zealous colleagues like to point out, desserts are fats, sugars, and refined carbohydrates with minimal nutrition return for the calorie investment. Agreed. Desserts can certainly be indulgent. Granted, desserts are usually high in sugar and fat. But what exactly makes the calories empty? Boggles my simplistic mind.

MyPlate states that solid fats and added sugars are empty. But I have a hard time visualizing just what that means. The presence of butterfat in whole milk does not negate the value of the protein does it? With or without fats, milk has nutritional value.

MyPlate also states that some “empty calories” are okay and can be limited by eating small portions. This approach makes more sense to my simplistic mind. I struggle with the concept of “empty” but appreciate the permission to make my own discretionary decision. Eating my food whole and controlling my own portion size has always made good commonsense to me.

Consider my apple clafouti. Small can be beautiful. Especially when it is sweet, custardy, made with baked apples, fine fresh butter, brown sugar, perfumed with cinnamon, and accented with just a pinch of salt. Whole wheat flour adds better nutrition than white refined all purpose.

For those people who sit at my table and like a generous serving, my sweet, custardy clafouti will cost them about 270 calories. Nutrition return will be 7 grams protein from milk & eggs and 4 grams fiber from the apples & white whole wheat.  If you choose to eat fewer calories, remember small is beautiful and have a smaller portion. Fewer calories and less saturated fats, but also less protein and fiber. Not empty. Just less of everything.

Apple Clafouti

 

my apple clafouti
my apple clafouti

The aroma of baked apple, sweet custard, and cinnamon perfumes the air about forty minutes after this apple flan / clafouti goes into the oven. Easy to make, forgiving for beginning cooks, and appreciated by everyone. I have tried many varieties from the sourest green to the sweetest, mushiest red and have yet to find a variety that does not work.  Apples pictured here are red delicious, granny smith, golden delicious, and honey crisp – all organic.

Recently I went back to my original source, Francoise Bernard’s Les Recette Facile, and compared her version with mine. I have rationalized her metric measures, kept the basic ratio for milk and eggs, and significantly reduced the sugar. Probably because French sour cherries are really sour and American apples are sort of sweet.  English translations of her recipes were most recently published in 2010 and can be found at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Cuisine-Everyday-French-Home-Cooking/dp/0847835014

FOR 4 SERVINGS

300 grams apples, 2 medium cored, trimmed & sliced or about 2 generous 2 cups
50 grams flour, about. 7 tablespoons
50 grams sugar, 1/4 cup
3 eggs
300 ml milk, about 1 1/4 cup
15 grams butter, 1 tablespoon
pinch salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)

sugar & flour | photo by gourmet-metrics
sugar & flour | photo by gourmet-metrics

  USING THE SCALE

Pre-heat oven to 350ºF (180ºC).  Weigh out or measure sugar, flour, milk, and butter. Wash, quarter, remove seeds and cores from apples.  Slice in a food processor using the thin slicing blade.  Leaving the skins on adds flavor, fiber, and other good things, so whenever possible use organic apple.  Combine flour, milk, eggs, cinnamon, pinch of salt, and sugar to make a thin batter.  Place sliced apples in baking dish and push them down.  Pour  the batter over the sliced apples and distribute remaining butter on top.  Cover the dish and bake for about 50 minutes or until, an internal temperature 85° C / 185° F.  After about 40 minutes, the aroma of baked apple and sweet custard lets you know baking is almost done.  Serve hot, tepid, or cold.  Garnish with a sprinkle of fresh cinnamon.

Per  Serving: Calories 270, Fat 8g, Saturated Fat 4g, Sodium 115mg, Carbohydrate 42g, Fiber 4g, Sugars 29g, Protein 7g

Classic Risotto

The good, the bad, and the ugly.

Good risotto requires three essentials – time, patience, and a healthy dose of respect for ingredients.  The last risotto I made was at Thanksgiving.  My brother in law, an aspiring amateur, volunteered me.  He had crafted a non-conventional spread, got caught up in other preparations, and asked me to give him a hand.  All the right stuff was assembled and my job became the time and the patience part.    Once you get the hang of making risotto, you really do not need a recipe because much of the work is coaxing the rice into absorbing just the right amount of broth then stirring in some more cheese and butter.

The process is straightforward.   Melt about half the butter in a pan, stir the rice into the melted butter, let it sizzle softly, start adding broth little by little until at the end the broth is absorbed and the rice is cooked just al dente.  Incorporate the rest of the butter and cheese.  Serve immediately.

When one of the essentials is missing, you get a bad risotto.  Not enough time.  Not enough patience.   Or insufficient respect for the integrity of the ingredients.  My first risotto was not all that good, but with practice you get the feel of it and with each repetition, the risotto gets better.

Classic proportions for four people as listed in my favorite Italian recipe source, Le Ricette Regionali Italiane: Quarta Edizione 1976, are as follows:  400 grams rice, 100 grams butter, 1 ½ liters stock, 80 grams parmigiano.  Optional ingredients:  medium onion, olive oil, white wine, saffron, salt, and pepper.   Translated into common American measure:

2 cups short grain rice, measured dry

               7 tablespoons unsalted butter

               6 cups chicken or beef stock

               1 cup grated parmigiano

Now, you may be asking, what has to be done to a sumptuous, sinfully delicious dish like risotto to make an ugly risotto?  Let me explain.

Way back in 1997, as New York City restaurants were expanding their portion sizes and Americans were expanding their waistlines, four nutrition professionals and an intrepid food writer at The New York Times conducted a calorie counting experiment.  The original article is still available at the Times website “Losing Count of Calories as the Plate Fills Up” and that is where I found it recently.

The purpose of that article was to highlight expanding portion sizes in restaurants.  The signature dish was a risotto, which laboratory analysis determined contained 1280 calories and 110 grams of fat.

Under the most benign conditions, risotto is certainly not what you would call a light dish.  Just check out the nutrition numbers below for a classic portion.  Good risotto needs the right amount of butter and cheese to make it decadently delicious.

So I said to myself, what would you have to do to classic proportions to get 1280 calories and 110 grams of fat?  Classic proportions by weight are consistent no matter which source you choose, so establishing a ratio is relatively easy.  Ratios work by weight, so bear with me and we will walk through the weights together.

The ratio of rice to butter for the classic version is 4 to 1.  In other words, four parts rice to one part butter plus the handful of cheese.  In metric units, that is 400 grams rice to 100 grams butter.  Or in common measure about 2 cups rice to 7 tablespoons butter.

It actually took me a while to retrofit the ratio to yield 1280 calories and 110 grams of fat.  When I finally succeed, there was a lot more fat and a lot less rice.  The calories from fat go from 44% for the classic risotto to 77% for this risotto.  Starting with the same 400 grams / 2 cups rice, the butter needs to be increased to 600 grams.  That is 43 tablespoons or 1 ⅓ pounds.  Plus that handful of cheese.  And who knows what kind of fat the restaurant used?  Fresh unsalted butter?  Margarine?  Fats of unknown origin?

So how did it taste?  To my great disappointment, not one of the nutrition professionals or even the intrepid food writer commented on how this risotto tasted so we will never know.  What we do know, however, is that whatever this risotto was, it was not classic.  I love butter.  And I love cheese.  But too much of a good thing can get ugly and that is why I decided to call this risotto ugly.   So back it goes filed under nutrition in the archives of the New York Times.  I plan to stay with a small portion of my decadently delicious and very good classic risotto.

 

One Portion Classic Risotto,  about 1 ½ cups (364g):  Calories 530, Fat 26g, Saturated Fat 16g, Sodium 370mg, Carbohydrate 59g, Fiber 2g, Protein 13g.
One Portion Ugly Risotto, about 2 ½  cups (640g):  Calories 1280, Fat 110g, Saturated Fat 70g, Sodium 350mg, Carbohydrate 55g, Fiber 2g, Protein 12g.

Fresh Pasta

My experiment for this batch of fresh pasta was to try white all purpose whole wheat flour and it worked beautifully.  Cooked in salted water and dressing with say Roman artichokes, grated parmigiano, and extra virgin olive oil, the final product was delicious.  I used a hand cranked pasta machine with a four inch roller and “fettuccine” cutters for this batch.

  • makes 1/3 pound (150 grams) fresh pasta

  • cost $2.70 per pound

  • serves 2 to 4 depending on portion size

INGREDIENTS

 white whole wheat flour, ¾ to ⅞ cup  (100g)

egg, 1 large

METHOD

Weigh out (or measure) flour.  Place in bowl or on a board.  Add the egg.   Knead until the moisture from the egg has absorbed as much flour as it can hold.  Form dough into a ball, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for about an hour.  Divide the dough into 6 pieces.  Working one piece at a time, finish the kneading process by putting each piece through the large rollers until it is soft and pliable.  Then flatten the piece by progressing from the wide roller setting to the narrow roller setting and cut the piece using one of the two cutting blades.  Form into a nest, use immediately, or freeze.

  • The exact amount of flour depends on the moisture content of the flour and the moisture in the egg.  The goal is just the right amount of flour and moisture and is more dependent of getting a feel for the dough than on an exact measurement.  If the dough is too dry, it becomes brittle, lacks pliability, and cannot be rolled or cut successfully.  If the dough is too moist, it gets stuck in the rollers and the cutters and ends up making a sticky mess.

  • Using the same ratio of 100 grams flour to 1 extra large egg, different combinations of flour can be used:  all purpose unbleached white flour, whole wheat all purpose flour.  You can also experiment with using semolina flour, up to 25% of the total amount.   Because the recipe is weight based, proportions are expandable.

NB:  Making fresh pasta requires a pasta making machine.  Models available today come with a wider cutting surface which makes the process go faster.  If I were getting one today, I would get the wider cutting surface.  But I don’t make enough pasta to warrant replacing the one I have and my machine has a lot of sentimental value for me because I bought it on my first trip to Rome and hand carried it back home.

 METRICS

Cost.  I priced fresh pasta and it runs $3.50 to $4.00 per pound in one of my local supermarkets.  Making it at home cost me less, but the difference is not significant enough however to justify my labor.  Pasta only gets made at home if you like the taste better and you think it is fun.

 Calories.   Proportions for fresh pasta used consistently in my Italian source books are 200 grams flour and 2 eggs for 4 people. These classic proportions are a little larger that our current Serving Size for pasta which is 1 about cup. I prefer a smaller portion, say half the size of the classic Italian portion.

Classic Italian Portion (163g):  Calories 210, Fat 3.5g, Saturated Fat 1g, Sodium 270mg, Carbohydrate 36g, Fiber 5g, Protein 10g.
My Smaller Portion (82g cooked):   Calories 100, Fat 2g, Saturated Fat 0g, Sodium 135mg, Carbohydrate 18g, Fiber 3g, Protein 5g. 

Clams & Linguine

Fresh, local, and in season depends on where you live and what is accessible.  During the summer, I have easy access to clams because my local greenmarket is on the south shore of Long Island and offers a constant supply of fresh, local fish and shellfish.  All last summer I cooked flounder, bluefish, porgies, tuna, even a swordfish caught off Montauk Point.  And all last year I kept looking at those delicate Long Island little neck clams.  I never bought them because I’m just not used to clams.  Love to eat them and never cooked them.  So this year I decided to do it.  How else can you keep on learning if you don’t try new things?  I pulled out my best reference sources, put together a starting structure, and am ready to share the results.  Steaming little neck clams open is easy once you get the hang of it.  I used a 3 liter pot (actually the bottom of my steamer) as you can see in the picture below.  White wine or dry vermouth can be substituted for all or part of the water needed to steam the clams.  100 grams linguine gripped firmly in the hand measures about ¾ inches or 2 cm in diameter.  You will also need a medium sized sauté pan and a 2 liter saucepan to cook the pasta.  Proportions listed below are for 2 modest servings.

Linguine and Clam Sauce

makes 2 cups

cost $11

serves 2

440 calories per serving

RECIPE

2 dozen little neck clams (about 900g measured raw in shell), scrubbed and de-sanded as required

1 cup water (¼ liter) for steaming

4 robust cloves fresh garlic (25g), peeled and smashed

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (30ml)

⅛ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

½ teaspoon oregano

3 ½ ounces dry linguine (100g), made with 100% hard durum wheat or semolina flour

½ cup chopped parsley (15g)

Assemble all ingredients before starting.

Bring water to boil in the bottom of a large pot.  When the water is boiling, add the clams.  As the clams open, remove each one carefully to a bowl retaining every drop of the flavorful liquid.   Steaming the clams open takes about 5 minutes.  As soon as the shells are cool, remove clams from shells.  Keep clams in a small bowl and strain the remaining liquid to remove any remaining sand or grit.  Put aside keeping clams and juice separate.  As the clams are steaming, add olive oil to the sauté pan and slowly soften garlic over low heat.  Add crushed red pepper and oregano to garlic oil, letting the mixture steep for about five minutes.  Add reserved clam juice, increase heat, and reduce volume to about half.  Keep sauce warm.

Cook linguine al dente in salted water.  Remove with a pasta fork and transfer to the sauté pan.  Retain cooking water.  Stir in clams and parsley.  If more liquid is required, add some from the pasta cooking water.  Serve immediately.

METRICS

Clams are a significant source of protein as well as many essential vitamins and minerals.  Olive oil is a natural source of oleic acid.

Total fat exceeds “healthy” limits, but please remember to put this disclaimer in the context of the great fat debate.  Saturated fats are within “healthy” range.  Your may be asking where does the saturated fat come from?  It is the olive oil.  Rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, olive also contains a fraction (14%) saturated fatty acid so a couple tablespoons adds up.  Sodium is within the current standard of less than 480mg per serving and 140mg per 100 grams.   Now let’s step back a moment and consider carbohydrate metrics.    My favorite Italian recipe source, Le Reccette Regionali Italiane, lists 100 grams dry pasta per person.    My version reduces that amount by half to 50 grams per person.    My preference is less pasta and more clams.  But that’s the joy of cooking!  It is completely up to you.

References:  Le Riccette Regionali Italiane (La Cucina Italiana, Quart edizione: settembre 1976), Fish without a doubt, Rick Moonen (Houghton Mifflin Company 2008)

 

Pper Serving (255g):  440 Calories, Fat 17g, Saturated Fat  2.5g, Sodium  240mg, Carbohydrate  45g, Fiber 3g, Protein  25g.
Excellent  Source:  Protein, Vitamin A,  Vitamins B1,  B2, B3, B12, Vitamin C, Folate, Iron. 
Good Source: Vitamin B6, Vitamin E, Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium, Zinc.  

Sardine Sandwich with Horseradish Mayonnaise

I love sardine sandwiches.  Always have.  I learned how to make them from my mom.  She used red onion, some mustard, some lettuce, and always a robust whole grain wheat bread.  So I was pleased to see two version of the sandwich honored recently in The Sandwich Issue of SAVEUR Magazine and delighted to fine both versions were provided by Michael Colameco, an engaging and knowledgeable New York City food writer and broadcaster.

The moment was right and the version with the horseradish mayonnaise caught my eye.  A can of slightly smoked Portuguese sardines packed in extra virgin olive oil was sitting in my cupboard ready to go.  Next to the sardines was a jar of imported roasted red peppers from Italy.  With some improvisation in the making of the horseradish cream and a quick switch from lettuce to arugula, I put together my amateur’s version.  But I stayed with the whole wheat bread.  We never used rye bread when I was growing up in California.  And it is heresy to admit this, but I have never really developed a taste for rye despite the great selection that is now available to me living in New York.

My amateur version is detailed below.  For Chef Mike’s version, check out SAVEUR #137 The Sandwich Issue for his Sardine Sandwich with Horseradish Cream.

 

makes 2 open faced sandwiches

cost $7.00

calories 660

serves 2

330 calories per serving

RECIPE

2 to 4 pieces thinly sliced red onion (30g)

2 tablespoons (30g) mayonnaise

1 teaspoon (1.6g) horseradish powder dissolved in 1 teaspoon water

2 large pieces (100g) multi grain or whole grain wheat bread

10  arugula leaves (20g), trimmed and washed

4 ¼ ounce tin sardines (120g), packed in oil and drained

1 piece roasted red pepper (85g) cut into slices

Incorporate the horseradish powder into the mayonnaise about 20 minutes before assembling the sandwich and keep refrigerated.  Assemble the rest of the ingredients.  Toast the bread.  Start by spreading the horseradish sauce on the toasted bread.  Place the arugula leaves and sliced onion on next.  Remove the sardines from the tin, divide in half, and arrange on top of the onion slices.  Now garnish with the slices of roasted red pepper.  Finish with some black pepper and an optional dash of salt.

METRICS

There are many good nutrition based reasons to enjoy this sardine sandwich.  In return for slightly “unhealthy” levels of fat and sodium, you get exceptionally “healthy” levels protein and fiber, an impressive array of vitamins and minerals, and a respectable amount of omega-3 fatty acids.  This one really needs to be put in a manageable context.  When going out to a diner or a deli, comparatively speaking the sardine sandwich is one of the healthiest items on the menu.   When deciding between a tuna sandwich or a sardine sandwich, the sardine sandwich definitely has the edge.

How to determine when the risks out way the benefits continues to be a raging debate.  There is a saying I heard first in the business world but which, I have just discovered, can actually be attributed to the French philosopher Voltaire:  The perfect is the enemy of the good.   I am beginning to wish the nutrition experts were better read in Enlightenment philosophy.

 

Per Serving (162g):  Calories 320, Fat 19g, Saturated Fat  2.5g, Sodium  630mg, Carbohydrate  18g, Fiber  5g, Protein  17g.  
Excellent Source:  protein, fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, Vitamin D, calcium, riboflavin, vitamin B12.
Good Source:  iron, niacin.