When healthy makes you gag!

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Fall is the season for so many good healthy vegetables. Brassica like kale, rapini, cauliflower, sprouts. Celeriac. Onions. Late season storage carrots. And squashes like butternut, spaghetti, pumpkin, and acorn.

My CSA Keeps sending me squashes and I have a problem. Acorn squash and speghetti squash make me gag.

All vegetables are healthy but some vegetables are more healthy. Pigment color is the marker for certain phytonutrients. Red, yellow, and orange fruits and vegetable are rich in carotinoids. And winter squash is nothing if not deep orange. That deep vibrant color marks heavy concentrations. So I have tried on many occasions and failed. Acorn squash just makes me gag.

Besides there is no point in signing up for a CSA and then not eating what arrives each week. Or at the very least giving it away.

Pictured above are two acorn and one sweet dumpling. And I anticipate more squash next week. It’s squash season.

So last week I put on my creative cooking cap and came up with the following solution. Every Thanksgiving I make pumpkin pie. Pumpkin is a squash in the same family as acorn so what would happen is if I just substituted the same amount of steamed acorn for canned pumpkin?

And my good idea worked beautifully. Acorn squash makes an excellent pumpkin pie. We can’t say my pie is as healthy as a serving of the vegetable because the squash comes along with added sugar and more refined carbohydrate which dilute the phytonutrition. However it’s fresh, local, and delicious. I can eat it without gagging and not a single squash will go to waste. Each of my acorn squash pies makes 6 servings so at 340 calories per piece, we are going to need to keep our eye on portion size and frequency.

Here are the proportions I used:

1 2/3 cup purée (pumpkin, acorn squash)/ 400 grams
2 eggs
3/4 cup turbinado sugar / 150 grams
2/3 cup milk / 150 ml
1 tablespoon flour
2 1/2 tablespoons butter / 30 grams
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 prepared 9 inch graham cracker crust

Steam acorn squash or open the canned pumpkin. Melt butter. Assemble ingredients. Combine squash or pumpkin, eggs, sugar, milk, flour, butter, vanilla, spices, salt in mixing bowl. Whisk just enough to blend thoroughly. Pour into 9 inch graham cracker crust. Bake at 425F for 20 minutes. Reduce temperature to 350F and bake addition 40 minutes. Remove and cool at least 2 hours before serving.

Cheaper, better, healthier cookies.

rolled oat, Zante raisin, walnut cookie | photo gourmet-metrics

rolled oat, Zante raisin, walnut cookie | photo gourmet-metrics

Culinary judgment works better for savory than for sweet. That is because sweet usually requires baking and baking requires precision.

Or does it? My mother-in-law remembers her mother’s family, raised in Central Europe, baked without recipes or measurements. This makes sense to me. Practice and experience build good hands and knowing how the dough is suppose to feel goes a long way to getting the proportions right.

Doesn’t really matter because baking illiterates like me need guidance. So when I decided the time had come to bake my own cookies, I went out looking for a recipe or at least a set of proportions to start from.

Rather than page through the tens of thousands cookie recipes available with a key click, I went to the source. Michael Ruhlman wrote a neat book called Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking. My first batch used Ruhlman’s basic butter cookie ratio = 1 part sugar : 2 parts fat : 3 parts flour.

What followed was a year of experimentation. I played around with healthy stuff like whole grains, nuts, dry fruit. I kept the butter because butter just bakes the best. Two eggs, some vanilla, and a pinch of salt got added along the way. One year later, I ended up with a cookie that looks and tastes very different from where I started.

ROLLED OAT, RAISIN, and WALNUT COOKIES

100 grams walnut halves (1 cup)

100 grams white whole wheat flour (7/8 cup)

100 grams rolled oats (1 cup)

100 grams Zante currants or raisins (2/3 cup)

100 grams unsalted butter (7 tablespoons)

100 grams turbinado sugar (1/2 cup)

2 each large eggs

2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/8 teaspoon flake style salt

Weigh out walnuts and coarsely chop. Place walnuts in bowl, place bowl on scale, and zero out. Now weigh out flour, oats, and currants. Add a pinch of salt and set dry ingredients aside. Next weigh out butter and sugar. Cream butter. Add in sugar, then beat in eggs and add vanilla. Gently fold in dry ingredients. Divide dough into three pieces of equal weight and make rolls. Wrap each roll in plastic and chill until firm. Note that the rolls can be frozen at this point to be used later. Prepare baking sheet or use silicon liner. Cut each roll into 12 pieces and flatten. Bake at 350 degree until the cookies start to darken and fat starts to sizzle around the edges. Cool on rack; store in air tight container. Makes 36 moderately sized cookies.

So what do I have to show for my year of experimentation besides multiple, albeit tasty, mistakes?

A better cookie? That one is hard to call. Taste is 100% subjective so it all depends.

Certainly a cheaper cookie. I used the best ingredients I could find. Walnuts are expensive and I used a generous amount. Organic oats, white whole flour, real vanilla, and Zante currants also add up. Sugar and eggs are reasonably priced. Although tempted, I drew the line at organic butter. The last batch I made cost $9 which works out to between $6 to $7 per pound. Hand made artisan cookies of comparable quality would have cost me upwards of $15 per pound here in New York City.

Certainly a healthier cookie. Whole grains are healthier than refined flour. The fatty acid profile is more favorable because I increased the walnuts (unsaturated fat) and decreased the butter (saturated fat). It’s a dense, filling, satisfying cookie that does not invite gluttony. I weighed two cookies at 35 grams and calculated 160 calories.

And certainly a tremendous amount of personal satisfaction. This is my ratio. The recipe works just the way I want it to and the proportions work by weight. If I have to measure, my preference is round numbers on my scale. Easy to measure and easy to make. But that’s just me and my simplistic mind.

Baking illiterates often don’t have much of a sweet tooth. But even I have to admit that a couple of cookies mid afternoon with coffee or tea is very satisfying.

Healthy can be seen, touched, and tasted … sometimes.

photo | gourmet metrics
photo | gourmet metrics

 

These are red, fragile, stem ripened local, end of season strawberries. The picture of healthy. Ephemeral, perfect, delicious.

So how do I know they are healthy? The farmer I bought them from told me they were picked the day before I bought them. They looked good, felt good, and tasted good. But I will be honest, there was no label or organic certification or other guideline for confirmation. And even if there had been, these picture perfect strawberries might have carried some pesky microorganism so you better believe that I washed them before eating.

Strawberry season has come and gone here into Northeast, but looking at those berries in all their pristine beauty helped me put the final piece in place on an observation that has been troubling me since last summer about the same time of the year.

I was picking out vegetables from a farmer I like when an attractive, articulate, well educated young woman came up from behind and starting asking all kinds of questions about the vegetables and the strawberries

Now I am the last one to say don’t ask questions. I ask so many questions that some people don’t want to be bothered with me. A royal pain in the ass some would say.

No, her questions didn’t bother me.

What troubled me was her unwillingness to accept answers.

Now I liked this particular farmer for a couple of reasons. Besides strawberries, she always had excellent local peaches, seasonal tomatoes, and a consistently good spread of local greens. It was also a family affair. The lady in charge looked and talked like she had spend her whole life growing vegetables. She came across to me as credible, authentic, and wise. She knew how to store onions and could tell me that the reason some onions rotted from the inside out while other onions were really good keepers. “You have to pull them out and let them really dry out before moving to storage …” The onions I bought from her never rotted out before I used them either.

She sat in the back of her stand and left most of the customer dealings to her niece. So the articulate woman began her questioning with the niece.

The articulate woman wanted to know if the produce was certified organic. Her questions were pointed and intense and anxious. She knew just how to drill down. The niece answered as best she could but since the farm has not bothered to get certified the answers were not what the articulate woman was looking for.

Now I already knew this farm was not certified organic because I had asked the same questions myself. “We just don’t want to bother with the extra paperwork. Too much hassle. You’re going to have to trust us …”

That was good enough for me.

It was not however what the articulate woman wanted to hear. I could tell she might have been tempted by the way she looked at my selections laid out and waiting to be packed into my bags. “I am just really afraid of all that poison … ”

So she left to look elsewhere.

I looked at the niece and the niece looked back at me and that was that.

This exchange has been haunting me ever since. And what it really comes down to is trust. People can lie. Our senses can deceive. Labels can mislead. Certifications can be fictitious. But we still have to eat and we still have to make decisions.

So the exchange has played over and over again in my head for a year. I keep wanting to reassure that articulate young woman that yes it’s a food jungle out here and yes being skeptical is important, but sometimes it’s okay to go with your gut.

But she went away as quickly and she appeared and I never saw her again.

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

Peaches

fresh peach

The most memorable peach I ever ate was in Normandy at a restaurant on Mont Saint Michel.  We had gone there to experience the local lamb, but what I remember was the peach.  The waiter served it as an after lunch fruit in place of a sweetened dessert.

I learned many useful things living in France, among them the ability to eat a piece of fresh fruit with a knife and fork.  I peeled my peach and cut up the pieces.  Then I tasted it. 

It was so extraordinarily good that in my best most polished French I politely asked for a second peach.

To this day, I love to have a piece of fruit as the ending for a meal.  Fresh fruit in season is the best and peaches are in season here on Long Island in July and August.

The peaches in the pictures come from my local GreenMarket and they are delicious this year.  Local peaches to not have the aura of my French peach, but they are certainly just as succulent, juicy, and sweet.  I am content with just the peach too.  No yogurt, no ice cream, no peach pie, no peach melba, or any other similar preparation.

Not that there is anything wrong with these alternatives and when peaches are in season the cook needs creativity and imagination to manage the volume that nature provides.  It is just that I am so happy and so satisfied with the piece of fruit.  Or maybe two pieces.

calories

My local peaches are medium sized peaches.  My local supermarkets sells bigger cheaper peaches, but they can’t match the flavor of my smaller local peaches.  One medium peach is about 60 calories.   All fresh fruits are healthy.  Some more so than others, but all are optimal choices especially when they are grown locally.

Chocolate Almond Cake

A dense, delicious, intensely chocolate cake.  Serve as is or accompany with whipped cream, frozen yogurt, or ice cream.  The origins for this cake are certainly European, but exactly were remains unclear.  I found one version, gâteau au chocolate et aux amandes, in Elizabeth David’s book French Provincial Cooking.  An internet search brought up multiple listings for an Italian version, La Torte Caprese.  And I found a third version, pastel de chocolate alemendras, in Claudia Roden’s recent book The Food of Spain.  These versions all use bar chocolate.  My version uses high fat cocoa powder (20-25%) because, in my opinion, cocoa powder is easier to source and easier to work with.  Just don’t use Dutch Process cocoa powder because the process changes the acid base balance and may keep the eggs from setting.

  •  cost $10

  • serves 8

  • 310 calories per serving

RECIPE

4 extra large eggs

7 tablespoons / 100 g butter

1 cup / 100 g cocoa powder

7 tablespoons / 100 ml strong coffee

1 cup / 100 g almond flour

½ cup / 100 g white sugar

⅛ teaspoon / 0.4 g salt

a spoonful or two of brandy

Bring butter and eggs to room temperature before starting.  Assemble one large stainless steel bowl for egg whites, one medium mixing bowl, one small mixing bowl for egg yolks, and one 8 inch (20cm) high sided cake pan.  An electric hand mixer helps immensely.  Wash all equipment, utensils, and bowls in hot soapy water before starting.    Line the bottom of cake pan with parchment paper.  Make coffee and put aside to cool.  Preheat oven 325°F / 160°C.   Measure or weigh out sugar, almond flour, cocoa powder, and butter.

Start by melting butter in double boiler or small pan sitting in a larger pan of gently boiling water.  Stir ground almonds into melted butter and add a pinch of salt.  Then, using the medium mixing bowl, dissolve the cocoa powder in the cooled coffee.  Add 1 – 2 tablespoons brandy as needed ensure the cocoa is completed dissolved.  The mixture should resemble a very thick paste and will form a ball.

Now incorporate the cocoa-coffee mixture into the butter-almond mixture.  Keep stirring until the mixtures are thoroughly incorporated and become very smooth.  Do not let the temperature go above 125°F / 50°C.  Transfer back to medium bowl and set aside to cool.  Separate egg whites from egg yolks.  Using the electric mixer, beat egg yolks and sugar in small mixing bowl until yolks froth up and turn pale yellow.  Fold egg yolk mixture into cooled chocolate-butter-almond mixture.

Finally whip the egg whites into a foam that holds a soft peak but does not look dry.  Remember egg whites whip best at room temperature in a stainless steel bowl.  Use electric mixer with the balloon whip at high speed.  Both over beating and under beating produce lower volumes.  Once the egg whites are whipped, move fast because whites start to soften as soon as you stop beating.  Gently fold whites into chocolate mixture a third at a time using a spatula and a cutting motion.  Fold only until no visible streaks of white remain.  Pour batter into prepared cake pan.

Place cake in non-convection oven and bake until the sides are set, the center is slightly soft, and a knife inserted into the center comes out clean.  Usually takes somewhere between 35 minutes and 45 minutes.  Let the cake cool completely, remove from pan, and transfer to a plate.  Hold in the refrigerator or freeze for future use.  Bring cake to room temperature and dust with grated orange peel or powdered sugar before serving.

METRICS

As one of my dietitian colleagues shared with me in a moment of candor “The last think I want to know when I order dessert is how many calories are in a chocolate mousse!”  Many people feel this way.  So if you are one of those people don’t want to know, read no farther.

There is another way to look at the situation.  Indulgences are a significant source of calories and knowing the count enables you to manage the impact.  This cake is made with whole, minimally processed ingredients and provides nutritional value as you can see referenced below.  The problem is the calorie density.  No more, no less than any other chocolate cake out there, but still significant.  For smaller portions, divide cake in 10 pieces at 250 calories each.  For larger portions, divide cake in 6 pieces at 410 calories each.  In my experience, most people just want to enjoy, so when I serve this cake I keep the numbers to myself.

 

Per Serving (80g): Calories 310, Fat 22g, Saturated Fat 9g, Sodium 65mg, Carbohydrate 22g, Fiber 5g, Protein 8g.
Excellent source fiber and magnesium (cocoa, almond flour).
Good source protein (eggs, almond flour), vitamin A (butter), vitamin E (almond flour), iron (cocoa).
Cocoa is a natural source of flavonoids. 
See nutrition label per serving for fat and saturated fat because values exceed reference limits.

Strawberries

Being from California, I have had to adjust to New York’s limited growing season.  Strawberry season is short and sweet beginning about mid-June and lasting into July as weather conditions permit.  Fresh local berries are fragile and perishable.  Pictured below are 1 dry quart (liter) of a variety called Honeoye.  Grown upstate New York, transported downstate, and sold at my local GreenMarket, they were held in my refrigerator from late that afternoon to the next day when I took the picture.  Notice how the berries differ in size and color.  It’s normal because that is how nature grew them.  Most local strawberries are sold by the dry quart (liter) and a dry quart of strawberries weighs about  570 grams.

Fresh local strawberries are expensive, perishable, and special.  They are the first fruit of the season and announce good things to come!

Fresh Local Strawberries

yield 4 cups (1 liter)

cost $6.00

calories 170

serves 4

45 calories per serving

RECIPE

Fresh Local Strawberries:   Can something this simple really be called a recipe?

1 dry quart fresh, local strawberries, picked within the last 24 hours

Hold in refrigerator, wash just before serving leaving stems intact.Serve with brown sugar as needed.

Nature is prolific producing lots of berries all at once.  So what is to be done with the berries you can’t eat?  My preferred approach is sugar and brandy.  It is not the only approach, but it is definitely my favorite.  Sugar acts like salt pulling the juices out of the berries which then mixes in with the brandy to form a bright red slightly alcoholic syrup.  Strawberries macerated in sugar and brandy hold well for at least another couple days.

yieldMascerated Strawberries  3 cups (700ml)

cost $8.00

calories 450

serves 6

70 calories per serving

Macerated strawberries:

1 dry quart fresh, local strawberries, washed, stems removed (540 gram)

3 tablespoons brandy

3 tablespoons turbinado sugar

6 tablespoons 0% strained Greek yogurt for garnish

Place washed and stemmed berries in a bowl.  Add sugar and brandy and carefully stir in berries.  Cover and let macerate in the refrigerator for 24 hours.  Serve garnished with a generous dollop of Greek yogurt.

METRICS FOR 1 DRY QUART (1 LITER)

Notice the calories.  Adding sugar, brandy, and yogurt nearly doubles the calories per serving.  Compared to a calorie dense real dessert, however, macerated berries are a much better choice.  Now notice the cost.  Fresh, local berries are expensive.  I know most people choose a “real” dessert, but I have always preferred to end a meal with a fruit.  Less calorie dense, sweetness balanced against a mild acidity, and unfortunately a lot more costly!

All berries scores well on what is called the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity.  Blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries are all grouped near the top of the scale keeping good company with almonds and pomegranate.  ORAC is a method of measuring antioxidant capacities in laboratory test tubes and as Wikipedia points out “there exists no physiological proof in vivo that this theory is valid.”  Besides a good ORAC score, fresh strawberries are an excellent source of vitamin C.

 

Per Serving fresh (135g):  45 Calories, Fat 0g, Saturated Fat  0g, Sodium  0mg, Carbohydrate  10g, Fiber  3g, Protein  1g.
Per Serving macerated (117g):  70 Calories, Fat 0g, Saturated Fat  0g, Sodium  10mg, Carbohydrate  13g, Fiber  2g, Protein  2g.
A 2,000 calorie diet is used as the basis for general nutrition advice; however, individual calorie needs may vary.