End of August means ratatouille.

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My end of August tradition is a ratatouille. The vegetables are ripe and ready to go in incredible abundance and we love the way it tastes. But trying to write out “my” recipe is really hopeless because I just can’t seem to make the dish the same way each time.

My proportions are usually roughly the same. One big beautiful eggplant will weight about 1 pound / 500 grams. Then I look for an equivalent weight of zucchini and peppers. Green or yellow are both good. As for the peppers, different colors contribute rich beautiful colors. Olive oil, some onion, garlic, basil, or other herb de province and that’s that. And salt. Don’t forget about the salt.

Some recommend cooking it all in the same pot. Others strictly detail the step by step procedure for cooking each vegetable separately before combining them into the final presentation. Most recipes specify stovetop braising, but I though to myself today while I was washing and trimming “I wonder if anyone has ever slow braised a ratatouille in the oven?” And sure enough you can do it that way too. There are celebrity chef versions and regular folk versions. Just in my own collection of books I have several English versions plus at least two French versions.

I have experimented at one time or another with them all and my google search brought up a momentous amount of data which suggests that ratatouille is still trending.

Each year I seem to end up doing something new. So we’ll call this my 2014 version.

I used the two step method of browning in one pot then transferring to bigger pot. Eggplant is a thirsty vegetable so I added extra oil and cut back a little from the zucchini and peppers. After each browsing, I deglazed my pan with white vermouth so as to have a clean start for the next in line. Never tried that one before but it’s a keeper.

To save some chopping time, I tried chopping the onions in the Cuisinart. Ended up with onion mush. I salvaged some of the mush and hand chopped my last yellow onion. Will never make that mistake again.

And instead on braising on top on the stove, I baked my ratatouille uncovered in a slow oven 275 degrees Fahrenheit / 135 degrees Celsius. The ratatouille slowly released its moisture over about 2 1/2 hours. This is easier that watching a pan in the stove so this one is a keeper too.

Since my preference is not too much excess liquid, I usually do a final reduction after the vegetables have are cooked. Just remove the vegetables and boil the remaining juice down to a thick sauce. Makes for a better presentation.

Tonight I will have vegetables for dinner garnished with some grated parmigianno. The ratatouille always tastes better the day after and we will indulge tomorrow with an appropriate protein accompaniment.

Can we eat healthy and high fat?

summer flounder | gourmet metrics
summer flounder | gourmet metrics

 

Wednesday is fish night and summer flounder is what I served for supper a couple weeks ago. The piece I picked out weighing about 2/3 pound (300 grams) so at $15 a pound, I paid about $10.

At my table small is beautiful, so a little bit of protein goes a long way. Just the two of us that night and we split the flounder. That piece pictured above was my half. Cooked and ready to serve let’s say about 4 ounces (120 grams) which by American standards is on the skimpy side. But taste wise and protein wise (15 grams) it’s enough for me.

Some of my more zealous colleagues look at flounder as a low calorie / low fat option because the fish is so lean. Not me. Now I love flounder or fluke as some call it because the flesh is so delicate and the taste so subtle, but even this eater has to admit that all by itself flounder tends to be on the bland side.

My way to cook flounder is to pan-fry in olive oil, season with salt, kiss with pepper, finish with whisper of unsalted butter, and serve with a twist of lemon. Delicious but not low fat.

For the rest of the plate, steamed local spinach and farro. Local fresh spinach has plenty of flavor and to my taste at least needs nothing else, not even salt. I added some farro for whole grain carbohydrate but I took the picture before putting it on the plate. We finished off with a salad of finely diced kohlrabi, red Boston lettuce, Napa cabbage, and a couple of hydro-tomatoes dressed with my vinaigrette. And local blueberries for dessert.

The calorie count ran around 650 per person. Not a big meal by American standards but more than enough for us. It was a work night and we prefer not to have a heavy meal before going to bed.

Sounds pretty healthy doesn’t it? Let’s take a look.

Protein. A modest portion. Bonus points for seafood.

Vegetables. 6 different kinds of vegetables, total of 2 cups. Bonus points for dark green.

Fruit. Blueberries, rich in Anthocyanins, 1/2 cup. Bonus points for whole fruit.

Whole Grain. Farro is a wheat (not gluten free) and one of my favorite ancient grains. Bonus points for whole grain.

Fatty Acid Ratio: excellent which means more olive oil and less butter.

Sodium. 780 mg for the meal and 33% DV.

And for added value the meal qualifies as sustainable and affordable. In New York, flounder is local and not currently overfished. And despite the high price per pound, a modest serving size makes the cost manageable.

But there is always that question from the back of the room. How about fat? No problem. I’m a nutrition nerd and I always have the numbers. The percentage is above the recommended cut off which puts my meal into the high fat range. Not a meal for someone who needs to adhere to a low fat regime or who believes only low fat meals are healthy.

And because regulatory compliance is cast in concrete leaving little flexibility for humans to exercise judgment, labeling my meal healthy would be illegal.

It’s what I call healthy versus healthy.

And that’s why, when it comes to my own table, I exercise culinary judgment.

“Judgment is to law as water is to crops. It should not be surprising that law has become brittle, and society along with it.” The Death of Common Sense, Philip K. Howard, 1994

Does it matter where my garlic came from?

photo | gourmet metrics

 

That is one beautiful, robust clove of garlic pictured above. It came from a small local market where I do a lot of my shopping. It stored well down to the last piece, no shriveling or mold spots, and cooked up beautifully with all the rich umami flavor I expect from an honest clove.

The garlic was imported. The sign above said “IMPORTED GARLIC” but no information on the country of origin was included.

So I started looking around for someone to ask. The store is run by a bunch of guys who love the business I give them but do not always have time or inclination for all my questions.

Now I am not easy. I want to know everything about everything. That’s me. A real pain in the ass. So when I shop for food I am always attentive to managing a constant tension between my desire to know and someone else’s desire not to be bothered.

And my observation over the years is that guys who work in the food business usually do not appreciate curious ladies with questions, unless they work at Whole Foods. But I was not shopping Whole Foods that day.

My first try was the young man attending to scallions. His English was at best somewhat broken but he understood my question, just smiled when I asked if he knew where the garlic came from and he just said ” Nooooo … ”

One of the managers would probably would have known was elbow deep in piles of delivery papers so I decided not to interrupt.

Then I saw one of the principles, usually tolerant of my insatiable curiosity. As I approached he took a quick turn from my path into the refrigerator storage room. So I gave up, paid for my purchases, and left the store garlic in hand.

In the parking lot behind the store is a holding shed for produce to wait before it goes into the store for sale. I was parked near the holding shed so I put my bags in the car, went back to door to the shed, and looked in.

No one there. But I could see lots of boxes. I know the country of origin always appears on shipping crates or boxes. So I went in and started poking around and I found it!

Printed clearly on one of the boxes were these two words: GARLIC Argentina. No other indicators like organic or fair trade or nonGMO, but I had my country of origin.

But I got to thinking on the drive home, is it my right to know? Where do you draw the line between frivolous curiosity and legitimate need? Sometimes it is critically important. If there is a recall for example, where that cantaloupe or peach came from becomes critically important. Clearly a legitimate need.

And then there is that very long list of other nice to know things like fair trade or nonGMO or organic or heirloom. These labels are good marketing tools, but do they fall into the category of legitimate need?

Thinking through the issue on the drive home, I conceded that it’s not really my right to know unless it is a safety issue.

Developing a good relationship with your customers has encourage many vendors to make it their business to answer questions. That is why I have such good relations with many of the Whole Foods staff. But this particular store I shop at does not have that kind of business. It’s a family affair and run by people who have been in the produce for two generations. Twice a week they go to the Hunts Point distribution center and refresh the stock. I shop there because they are expert at buying produce. And for perks, they bring in blood oranges from Sicily in the winter and green figs from California in the late summer.

Besides there is more than one way to discover a country of origin. I had my answer and came home with a great garlic. So I have decided to cut them slack on this country of origin issue.

Look what I found in the farmer’s market!

snap peas, French breakfast radishes, carrots
snap peas, French breakfast radishes, carrots

Just in the Catskills for the weekend so not much time to cook. We usually go out for dinner before going back to the city, but there is always lunch. And I was in the mood for a surprise.

It’s early summer in the Hudson Valley and the growing season has begun. We picked up some cheddar cheese, crusty bread, and these radishes, carrots, and snap peas so small and tender you can eat them in the shell.

The little carrots needed a good scrubbing, but the radishes and peas were much easier to wash. I arranged them on a little plate with the red on the top, the orange on the bottom and the green in the middle. Really nice presentation.

Living in France introduced me to eating little radishes with butter and salt as an appetizer. My radishes from market were not that small and delicate, but tasted pretty good all the same. The carrots are actually mature despite their small size. The softest and most delicate of the lot were the little green snap peas.

You just never know what you are going to find at the farmers market.

A lot of folks would rather shop familiar settings. You know the predictable kind of layout where the choices are available all year round. Shopping these stores actually permits list making. People can decide what mood they are in, decide what they want to eat, write out the list, and now with technology punch it and have it all delivered to their door. As for me I love to be surprised.

The modern supermarket is truly a miraculous phenomenon. But surprises are something you will not find at a super market. What I really love about shopping these farmer’s markets is I can almost always find something I have never seen before. Like those dwarf carrots.

My idea of fun is arriving at the market with an open mind, wandering around and picking up what looks interesting, bringing it home, and then deciding how to put it all together.

Just like I did with my early summer medley of radish, carrot, and green snap pea. I love surprises.

My First CSA Box

photo | gourmet metrics

 

Tuesday was the night I picked up my first box. Never been a member before so I did not know what to expect. But I arrived on time with about 10 other people and we walked into a room with about 50 boxes stacked on two tables.

“Pick a box, empty it into your bags, fold the box, and put it over there with the other boxes. It’s really easy.” And it was so I got home within 15 minutes with over 4 pounds of greens. Now that is what I call healthy. It’s also what I call work. Spinach, Baby Bok Choi, Lettuce Mix, Arugula and Red Kale to wash, trim, and eat before the next pick up.

That night I washed and trimmed enough lettuce and arugula to put together a large salad. Added tuna, some small cannelloni, some tomato, scallions, my own vinaigrette and served supper within 30 minutes. Last night was more time consuming. Sorting through the lettuce mix and arugula took some time but we have enough salad mix ready to go through Monday. For supper that night I steamed spinach to serve with a locally caught filet of summer flounder picked up on the way home from work.

Today I am going to think about the rest of the load. Kale chips are trendy, so I think I will give them a try. I mean how hard can it be? Kale, olive oil, salt, bake in slow oven till done. What else do I need to know?

The kale is much prettier than the chips. Paper-thin, darkened, crumpled so no before and after pictures posted. My technique needs some refinement, but the chips are edible and now I know for my next batch to use a little less oil. When I try something new I go for edible. Refinement can come later.

Now all that’s left is my baby bok. How does this sound: small piece of fish, ancient grains, shiitake, scallion, and the baby bok. Sounds like a plan to me.

It’s illegal to label my green salad healthy!

mesclum mix | gourmet-metrics
mesclum mix | gourmet-metrics

 

Like pornography, healthy food might be tough to define but you know it when you see it. Now a simple green salad should be the picture of healthy. Right? But since healthy means different things in different contexts, defining healthy gets confusing at times.

Take the green salad I am serving tonight. The choice of greens always depends on availability so some mesclun from my local greenmarket will serve as the base. A handful on each plate, a few tomato pieces (still not seasonal I admit), some thinly sliced scallion, and for the final touch, a tablespoon or two home crafted vinaigrette made with a fine California Arbequina, some sherry vinegar, and salt. Delicious? Yes. Healthy? Of course. Who would say no?

Those rich dark greens and shades of almost purple are the colors of healthy.

Not boring or austere thanks to good oil, salt, and pristine greens. Not too much sodium. Nutrition points for dark green vegetables. Expensive, local, fresh, and natural. Organic? Now that one I am not completely sure about. The mesclun is probably organic. But tomatoes and scallions? Just not sure.

And the vinaigrette is not unprocessed. Grinding olives to olive oil is complex, but the oil is unfiltered with shades of green in the sunlight and was pressed within the last 6 months so I am am going to say “good” processed. As far as the salt and the vinegar, those two products are complex too.

Looking at the nutrition numbers, the fatty acid ratio is excellent. Well above the ratio recommended by the Healthy Eating Index. This ration is a calculation used by nutritionist nerds like me to evaluate the quality of the fat for clients who want to reduce dietary saturated fat.

My plate of salad counts for about 180 calories out of my usual dinner of 700 to 800 calories.

So far so good. Eating salads before the meal makes good nutrition sense for two reasons. First it is nutrient dense. And second, salads fill you up so you are less likely to devour the main course.

But think about this scenario. And until the FDA finalizes nutrition guidelines for restaurant menu labeling, we won’t know for sure. As an off the shelf product, my salad could not be labeled healthy. Sodium is okay, but there is too much fat and too much saturated fat. What that means is that if the restrictive labeling criteria remain intact when the restaurant regulations are finalized, it would be technically illegal for a restaurant or deli take out to label my salad healthy. That’s what I mean about healthy meaning different things in different contexts.

I am still going to give it a healthy thumbs up.

How about you?

In Defense of Salt

 

Salt Crystals thanks to Creative Commons. Attribution: Michel32nl AT Wikipedia
Salt Crystals thanks to Creative Commons.
Attribution: Michel32nl AT Wikipedia

Cooks love salt.  Robust and exceptionally effective, salt is the most powerful flavor enhancer know to man.  Or woman.  Because of its power, I have always used a light hand and treated salt with tremendous respect.

Dietitians are not suppose to love salt, so as a dietitian, saying I love salt can get me in trouble.  But it’s the truth. Let me explain.

Salt has always been controversial and salt wars have been waged for thousands of years.   The current battleground is our national health. Since upwards of 75% of the sodium ingested comes from processed and restaurant food, the enemy targeted is the food industry.

Remember Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution back in the fall of 2009?  Jamie’s goal was to bring healthier foods to a school in West Virginia.  He revised the school lunch menus and starting cooking from scratch.  It was a fascinating reality show.  After the series ended, somebody ran the numbers.  Jamie’s menus were analyzed for nutrition content.  Fat and saturated fat were over target, but sodium came in below target.   In other words, cooking from scratch, using mostly whole foods, and salting to enhance natural flavors may have actually resulted in a net reduction of sodium intake.  Interesting …

It seems to my simplistic mind that salt in the hands of a knowledgeable and talented cook is a great asset.  For example, how else can we make healthy foods like robust greens, legumes, soups,or salads palatable to skeptics who come to sit at our table?  There are no guarantees for success, but I know where to start.  A judicious amount of salt, a generous amount of fat, perhaps some acid, and some culinary expertise.

Celery Root Salad

celeriac, fennel, and avocado salad

Celery root makes no claim to beauty.  It is a knurled, knobby, usually dirty, dull, brown root also called celeriac.  Peeled, grated, and dressed, however, celeriac presents well.  The inspiration for the salad was a picture in La Cucina Italiana.  Don’t think I even bothered to follow the recipe, just started with the root and worked out the proportions from there.  Using the fennel was an afterthought, but a good one since it adds a hint of licorice and a characteristic crunch.  I make this salad a lot during the fall and early winter when celery root is available at the GreenMarket here in New York.  Making a salad does not require the same precise measurement as baking a cake, but knowing the weights is useful for shopping, developing a ratio, or expanding the recipe to serve a crowd.  Look for a medium celery root about 1 pound or 450 grams and a fennel bulb about ⅔ pound or 300 grams.  Proportions listed below make about 1 ¼ liter or about 5 cups.

 

 

 

INGREDIENTS

1 celery root, about 5 cups grated or 300 grams

½ fennel bulb, finely sliced, about ¾ cup or 100 grams

haas avocado, 1 whole or about 240 grams as purchased

extra virgin olive oil, 4 tablespoons or 60ml

lemons , 1 to 2 depending on taste

3 scallions, trimmed & chopped, about ½ cup or 50 grams

fresh parsley, chopped, ¼ cup  or 15 grams

Dijon mustard, 1 tablespoon  or 15 grams

flake style salt , ¼ teaspoon  or 700 mg

METHOD

Assemble all ingredients except avocado.  Wash celeriac, fennel, scallions, and parsley.  Trim and thinly slice fennel.  Trim and chop scallions and parsley.  Juice one lemon.  And finally peel and grate the celeriac.  Celery root oxidizes quickly; the acid of the lemon juice protects against oxidation retaining the root’s creamy white color.    Put the grated root in a large bowl and stir in a couple tablespoons lemon juice.  Add fennel, olive oil, scallions, parsley, mustard, salt, and stir well.  Add the rest of the lemon juice to taste and adjust seasoning.  Not everyone likes the same level of acidity and not all lemons are created acid equal, so it is important to taste at this step and to know the preferences of the eaters at your table.    Use the second lemon if needed.  Transfer to storage container and hold in refrigerator.  About half an hour before serving, remove salad and transfer to serving dish.  Cut avocado in half, remove seed, peel, and cut in wedges.  Make a border around the parameter of the serving dish using the avocado.  Serve the salad at room temperature or slightly chilled.

METRICS

Calories are the best food metric to manage portion size.  Most people use common sense.  Divide the salad into 4 parts and one serving provides 240 calories.  Divide it into 6 parts and one serving provides 160 calories.  Others prefer common measure.  Analysts like me prefer calories per gram.  That number lets you calculate any serving weight required as well as the calorie density of the item in question.  This salad worked out to be 126 calories per 100 grams.  Less than a baked potato at 193 calories per 100 grams but more that steamed broccoli at 28 calories per 100 grams.  Why?  Because this salad is not low fat.  Olive oil and avocado, however, are over 80% unsaturated and considered to be the healthy kind of fat.  The analysis below is for 6 servings:

Per Serving (126 g each): Calories 160, Fat 14g, Saturated Fat 2.0g, Sodium 140mg, Carbohydrate 10g, Fiber 4g, Protein 2g.  Vitamin A 8%, Vitamin C 25%, Calcium 4%, Iron 6%.

 

 

Ratatouille

ratatouille — my tribute to Julia Child

Julia Child was our first celebrity chef.  She changed the way Americans think about food, encouraged us to eat better, and inspired us to cook more often.

She was not afraid of fat and in retrospect we can say she was slightly ahead of her time.  Ongoing research is chipping away at our fat fobic fears, the latest piece being a study published recently finding no connection between dairy fat or butter and subsequent cardiac death.  She would have liked that a lot.  And so do I.

She is reputed to have used unpleasant words like “nutrition terrorist” or “food nazi” when referring my fellow dieticians.  And in many ways, I am with her on that one too.

But I have to confess, her recipes never did it for me.  Loved her presence, loved her attitude, loved her influence on the American palate, but I did not like the way she wrote her recipes and, through I was given her two volume set as a wedding present, I have only used the books once.  By the time I got married, I had already lived in France and was committed to la cuisine française.  But we were hosting a Sunday brunch and among the dishes I prepared was her version of ratatouille, an eggplant casserole.  Julia warned that a really good ratatouille is not one of the quicker dishes to make because each vegetable was to be cooked separately.  She was right.  Her method probably does make a more elegant and refined dish.  But I confess, I do not have the patience, so the recipe that follows is my simplified adaptation.   I have also take the liberty to add back in metric measures she so meticulously replaced with cups as she was putting her book together.

INGREDIENTS for 4 to 6 people

eggplant, 1 small, generous ½ pound or 250 grams

zucchini, 1 to 2, generous ½ pound or 250 grams

flake salt, about 1 ¾ teaspoons or 5 grams

extra virgin olive oil, 4 tablespoon / 60 ml

garlic clove, 2 each or 6 grams

yellow onion, medium, generous ½ pound or 250 grams

red or yellow peppers, 2 to 3, generous ½ pound or 250 grams

tomatoes, 1 pound or 450 grams

METHOD

Wash all vegetables.   Remove stem from eggplant and cut in pieces.     Julia’ version says to peel the eggplant, but I would rather leave the skin on because it adds good color.  Slice off the ends of the zucchini and cut in rounds.  Julia wants us to salt the vegetables and let them stand for about 30 minutes to render their water.  I tend to skip this step.  Peel and slice onion.  Peel, seed, and chop the tomatoes. Remove stem and core from peppers and chop in pieces.  Peel and crush garlic.

Julia lays out an elaborate sequence for cooking each vegetable separately.  This method, however, will work and to my taste is somewhere between almost and just as good.  Soften onions in 2 tablespoons olive oil and gently cook them until they turn translucent, begin to caramelize, and turn light brown.  Add the tomatoes and gently simmer for several minutes.  Then add eggplant, zucchini rounds, peppers, crushed garlic, salt, pepper, and remaining olive oil.  Cook covered to encourage the vegetables to sweat out the water, then remove the cover so that excess liquid can evaporate.  Keep heat medium to low to avoid scorching.  Simmer until vegetables have softened and excess water has been reduced, but the vegetables retain their shape and texture.  In a pinch, pour off excess liquid, reduce in another pan, and add back to vegetables.  Serve hot as a vegetable accompaniment; serve cold as an appetizer.

METRICS

Proportions noted above will make about 4 cups cooked vegetables.  Served as a hot vegetable to accompany the protein of your choice or as a cold appetizer garnished with chopped parsley, recipe makes 6 servings 130 calories each.  Served as a main course with a slice or two of ham and some crusty bread, recipe makes 4 servings 200 calories each

Recipe inspired from Julia’s Eggplant Casserole — with tomatoes, onions, peppers, and zucchini.  Volume I of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, Simone Beck, published by Alfred A Knopf, New York, 1967

Per Serving for 6 people: Calories 130, Fat 10g, Saturated Fat 1.5g, Sodium 330mg, Carbohydrate 12g, Fiber4g, Protein 2g.
Per Serving for 4 people: Calories 200, Fat 15g, Saturated Fat 2.0g, Sodium 500mg, Carbohydrate 18g, Fiber5g, Protein 3g.

Turkey Salad

turkey summer salad

turkey salad with greens and chickpeas

Protein, greens, legumes, vinaigrette, ready to go in 40 minutes — my kind of summer workday supper.  The turkey I use comes from an old school Italian grocery store in my neighborhood.  It is made on site so I guess that would make it an artisanal product.  However you call it, to my taste this turkey has better flavor and less salt intensity.  Other customers buy it sliced as a cold cut.  I get a chunk and make salad.

For the vinaigrette:

1 ⅔ tablespoons vinegar with acidity at least 6% (25ml)

½ teaspoon kosher style flake salt (1.7g)

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (75ml)

dried herbs, basil, oregano

For the salad:

½ cup chickpeas, rinsed and drained (100 g)

¾ cup red cabbage, washed and coarsely shredded (50 g)

3 ½ cups washed assorted greens or mesclum mix (100 g)

½ cup washed, cored and coarsely chopped cherry tomatoes or 1 small local tomato in season (130 g)

1 fresh carrot peeled and grated  (90g)

2 scallions washed, trimmed, and chopped (50g)

1/3 pound piece roasted turkey breast cut into small pieces (150g)

METHOD

Make the dressing in the bottom on a bowl with a 2 quart (2 liter) capacity.  Add the vinegar and salt.  Let salt dissolve.  Then add the olive oil and herbs.  Whisk until thoroughly emulsified.

Put chickpeas and cabbage in first, then greens, then carrot, scallion, and tomato. Arrange turkey pieces on top.  Mix salad just before serving.

 METRICS

Protein, greens, legumes, extra virgin olive oil – my kind of healthy!  Hard to go wrong with locally sourced vegetables.  Nutrition return is excellent – fiber, carotenoids, vitamin C, folate, iron, magnesium, potassium.  The olive oil even enhances carotenoid absorption.  But calories still count.  So here is the scoop.  Proportions listed provide 500 to 600 calories per serving and work well for those of us have a vested interest in not eating too much on workdays.  For larger portions, count about 170 calories per cup (120g); for eaters at your table with robust appetites, add crusty bread and dessert.

 

Summer salad with turkey, greens, and chickpeas (1/2 recipe, 400g):  Calories 550, Fat 38g, Saturated Fat 5g, Sodium 420mg, Carbohydrate 27g, Fiber 8g, Protein 30g.  Vitamin A 280%, Vitamin C 60%, Calcium 10%, Iron 20%.