Ratatouille, Julia Child, and Eating Healthy.

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Julia Child was born August 15, 1912 and would be turning 105 years old if she were alive today. She brought French cooking into the homes of millions, changed the way Americans think about food, encouraged us to enjoy our meals, and inspired us to cook more often.

During the1990s fat hysteria, she was reputed to have used unpleasant words like “nutrition terrorist” or “food nazi” when referring my fellow dieticians.  I love her attitude. I love her spunk. And I totally agree with her description of my more zealous colleagues.

I made my first ratatouille following each of her meticulously laid out steps. Julia warned that a really good ratatouille is not one of the quicker dishes to make because each vegetable was to be cooked separately.

Every August I make a couple of ratatouille and I say thank Julia. Not for the recipe. I just don’t have the patience to follow her meticulously written recipe so I’ve developed my own sloppy method.

I says thanks Julia for celebrating fat and supporting my belief that fats are part of healthy eating despite those dark restrictive years back in the 1990s when for the best of intentions even a ratatouille was labeled unhealthy for having too much fat.

You need vegetables – zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers combined to make about a kilo (2 pounds). And you need good olive oil – about 60 grams (4 tablespoons) and some garlic, parsley, basil, or any other fresh herbs you have on hand. Cook it all up, salt to taste, you’re good to go.  At my table we get about 3 – 4 servings per batch.

Use fresh, local, just harvested vegetables for the best taste and flavor. Most of the calories do come from fat, somewhere in the vicinity of 68%. Excellent fiber, not much complex carbohydrate because vegetables are mostly water, and some simple natural sugars from those vine ripened tomatoes. And don’t worry about too much fat.

First olive oil is mostly healthy unsaturated fatty acids. And second because Julia says so. It’s the best way to honor the memory of Julia Child on her birthday. Just enjoy your ratatouille.

 

 

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Eating more fish is healthy. Finding good fish is hard work.

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That’s what I call a beautiful piece of fresh tuna. Good fat marbling for flavor and nutrition. Drills down to fatty acids including omega-3 fatty acids. Beautiful color. Pan fried with just a little salt and pepper and we’ll be good to go.

My fishmonger assured me it was caught off Montauk point Long Island. And I have no reason to doubt him.  There’s good reason to find folks you trust and buy from them. Yes I know it’s a gut response but I believe it’s the best way to source.

My first experience shopping for fresh fish was the local farmer’s market was in Garches, a suburb outside of Paris. The men did the fishing, wives and daughters did the selling, and my French was good enough to establish myself as a serious customer. I learned how fresh fish smells and tastes. And what it looks like. And I experienced firsthand the value of relationship building.

It’s been a couple of years now that I have been cultivating my relationship with the fishmonger at the farmers market. At one market I buy from the fisherman himself. At the other I buy from the fisherman’s wife. Sometimes they make fun of my curiosity but most of the time I seem to be able to get answers my questions. More important, over the last couple of years that I have been cultivating relationships.

Trust is not something you can build with just any old person or any old supplier. Building a good relationship happens on a personal level. Building trust is important with any person you buy from, but to my way of looking at the world it is especially important to establish trust with the person who sells you fish because there are so many issues out there. Mislabeling. Adulteration. Sustainability. Toxicity. And exactly how long ago was that fish was caught and exactly how has it been handled. I can count on one hand the places I have enough faith in to feel comfortable buying or eating fish.

So during the summer farmer’s market season, Wednesday is fish day and we are eating very well.

Are we just a nation of disabled eaters?

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I sure would like to think we’re not. But I listen to my colleagues talk about their own food fears and those their clients struggles with. Good foods. Bad foods. Cheat days. Calorie paranoia. And I’m very grateful that I already knew how to eat, and how to cook, before I studied nutrition.

If not, I too might be struggling, terrified of eating the wrong food, and burdened with food fears. I loved food before I became dietitian and I love food today. The difference is that today I know enough to break the rules and have confidence in my decisions. Let me share how I make a salad and how I adjust the rules to fit how I eat.

Salads are for summer. So I start with lots of healthy greens, vegetables, and legumes. Then I add a protein. And I finish with enough delicious vinaigrette dressing to make my zealous colleagues cringe and keep the folks at my table coming back for more. Fat. Salt. Acid. Works every time.

INGREDIENTS FOR 2

GOOD EXTRA VIRGIN COLD PRESSED OLIVE OIL – 60 grams or 4 1/2 tablespoons

SHERRY VINEGAR – 20 grams or 4 teaspoons

DIJON MUSTARD – to taste up to 1 teaspoon

SALT – 1.2 grams flake salt or 1/2 teaspoon (1/4 teaspoon table or most sea salt)

CANNELLONI CANNED OR HOME COOKED BEANS – 100 grams cannelloni beans or 2/3 cup

TOMATOES –  100 grams cherry tomatoes or a handful

CUCUMBER – 80 grams or 1 small

MIXED GREENS – 200 grams greens or 4 cups chopped – mesclun, endive, radicchio, red leaf, green leaf, romaine

HAAS AVOCADO – 100 grams or 1/2 whole

GRILLED CHICKEN BREAST – 170 grams or 6 ounces – other protein options are tonino, hard cooked eggs, feta cheese, salmon.

METHOD

Make dressing first by mixing olive oil, vinegar, mustard, salt together in the bottom of a 2 liter salad bowl. Wash and dry greens. Wash and prep other vegetables. Cut up and add chicken pieces. Add legumes, tomatoes, greens, chicken, and avocado.  Mix just before serving.

Proportions are important. My ratio of dressing to everything else is about 9 to 1. In other words, 1 ounce dressing (2 tablespoons) to 9 ounces everything else that goes into the salad. These are weight based measures. Please don’t be concerned if you’ve never used a scale. Here’s your chance to develop your eye and manage your own taste preferences. You might find you like more dressing or less dressing than I do. Practice makes perfect and the more salads you make the better you’ll get at using your eye and tasting as you go.


NUTRITION

Nutrition Facts per serving: 560 calories, 41g fat, 19g carbohydrate, 32g protein, 470mg sodium.

And yes 41 grams of fat per serving is lots of fat and, trust me, some of my zealous colleagues are not happy because well over 50% calories in the salad come from fat. But here’s how I look at that percentages. What matters is best measured over the course of a day or even better over the course of a week. Olive oil and avocado are calorie dense; greens and vegetables are calorie un-dense. So of course most of the calories are going to come from fat.

Now let’s dig down a level and check out the ratio of unsaturated to saturated fatty acids. Most fatty acids are unsaturated from the olive oil and avocado. Those unsaturated fatty acids are what my more flexible colleagues refer to as “healthy” fats.

As for protein, my tule of thumb is about 25 grams per meal. So a serving of salad is a bit over. Note too that protein comes from mixed sources – chicken and plant.

Notice too, there’s not a lot of carbs and no refined carbohydrate. Just intact carbohydrates from the vegetables, some sugars from tomatoes, and 7 grams dietary fiber per serving. Now 7 grams may not sound like a lot, but think about that fiber like this. One serving puts 25% of the Daily Value on the plate.

Last word goes to potassium. The new label format will mandate potassium be listed as a line item. Note the sodium is 470mg per serving. Now compare that number with 1200mg potassium per serving. In other words, more than twice as much potassium as sodium. That’s a really good ratio.

Food Composition per 100 grams is only for NERDS like me: 10g fat, 4g carbohydrate, 9g protein, 77g water.

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Almond Meal Chocolate Chip Cookies

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Guaranteed these little beauties are easy to make and delicious to munch on. My version is adapted from Cuisinicity, a recipe website developed by Catherine Katz. Definitely worth the time to check out especially if you are looking for vegan / vegetarian options. Catherine is a lovely, creative, energetic cook who write recipes that work.

I got to know Catherine when I did some metric re-engineering on some of her recipes. She’s French and has many followers from Europe who appreciate metric measures. Catherine’s original version is made with agave syrup instead of maple syrup. I used maple syrup because that’s what I had on hand and the recipe worked just fine. Reading through the comments I can see other adapters used honey. So it’s really up to you.

When I bake, my preference is to use my digital scale because to my way of thinking it’s easier. Before I start, the oven gets set at 350 F. Next I put a medium sized mixing bowl on the scale and zero out. Now comes the fun. Weight out each of the 4 ingredients directly into the bowl zeroing out after each addition. No mess. No extra spoons or cups to wash. No waste.

  • 100 grams almond meal  | 2 2/3  cups
  • 80 grams canola oil | 6  tablespoons
  • 120 grams maple syrup |  6  tablespoons
  • 100 grams chocolate chips | 3/4  cup

Remove bowl to counter and mix thoroughly.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, form dough into 24 little balls, and press each one down to flatten out into a fat pancake. Mine bake them for about 17 minutes, longer than Catherine recommends, or until lightly browned. Then cool on a wire rack and store in an air tight container or freeze.

INGREDIENTS – I’m particular about ingredients and am willing to pay a higher price for more specific and detailed ingredient credentials. But that’s me and I’ll okay with other folks choosing other options because just making your own cookies is such a big step towards eating healthier.  One caveat. Almonds and real maple syrup are not inexpensive and these cookies will cost $11 to $12 dollars per pound.

• Ground almonds come in two forms. Actually it’s three forms if you count grinding them yourself. The major provider of ground almonds is Bob’s Red Mill and he makes two versions: almond meal and almond flour. The meal is made from almonds with the skins on whereas the flour is made with balanced skinless almonds. I prefer the whole meal but either type will work.

• Canola oil comes in two forms too. Conventional or nonGMO. I use the nonGMO version. Not because I have concerns about genetically engineered ingredients – I remain neutral in that volatile issue – but because the oil is expellor pressed. Conventional canola oil is heat processed and expellor processing is a gentler way to get the oil out of the rape seed. Consider price and choose the one that works best for you.

• Maple syrup comes from the north east mainly Québec, New York, and Vermont. I use New York State dark syrup because I live in New York and buy local when I have the choice.

• Chocolate chips are the easiest to source. My preference is bittersweet or the darkest chip I can find. The ones I use for these cookies are the 67% cocoa Whole Foods house brand.

NUTRITION – Healthy has a very specific meaning as per FDA regulations and up until recently there’s no way I could label them healthy. Things are beginning to change which is, in my opinion, a positive and long overdue move.

The nutrition tag reads as follows: 140 calories per cookie, 11 grams fat (1.2g saturated), 9g carbohydrate (2g dietary fiber, 6g added sugar), 3g protein. Recipe analyzed using Bob’s Red Mill almond meal.

• Fat Profile. Don’t be concerned when I share with you that 72% calories come from fat. That fat comes from almonds, canola oil, and chocolate chips. I still can’t label these cookies healthy but one of the changes recently introduced by the FDA allows me to talk about the ratio of saturated to unsaturated fats. I won’t be able to calculate that ratio until Bob revises the nutrition facts label and lists mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated fats, but I can tell looking at the total fat and the saturated fat that the ratio will be very favorable. In other words, most of those 11 grams fat will be coming from “healthy” unsaturated fats.

• Carbohydrate. Both added sugars and dietary fibers get counted as carbohydrates. Each cookie has 6 grams added sugars about half from maple syrup and the other half from chocolate chips. I used USDA bittersweet chocolate chip for my calculation which breaks out the added sugars. Each cookie also has 2g dietary fiber from the almonds because I used almond meal which includes skins.

• Protein. Well we all know we don’t eat cookies because we want protein. However nuts are a source of protein and these cookies are almost 50% almonds, so it’s not surprising that one cookie delivers 3 grams.

ALLERGENS – Tree Nuts

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Roasted Chickpeas

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Aren’t they beautiful? My first attempt at roasted chickpeas turned out extraordinarily well. I don’t use the term food addiction lightly, but these little beauties are about as close as I get to addictive eating.  I had to stop myself from demolishing the whole bowl in a single sitting one handful at a time.

The chickpeas need to be really dry before you start. I learned how important the drying step is the hard way through trial and error. This step is crucial to the success of the finished dish.

The first time I roasted chickpeas, they were thoroughly dried and tasted especially crunchy. Used my own home cooked chickpeas, drained them, and left them uncovered on a plate for 24 hours in the frig.  The second time I made it, didn’t have time for a thorough drying and the result was tasty but just nearly as crispy. The third time I made it, I used canned chickpeas and no amount of drying seemed to counter the slightly sodden soaked texture of the canned product. My take away is cook up your own chickpeas from dry and be super attentive to drying them out prior to roasting.

Here’s what you’ll need to make up your first bowl about 6 handfuls.

350 grams (2 generous cups) chickpeas, cooked and drained

15 grams (1 tablespoon) olive oil

2 tablespoons Za’atar

700 mg (1/4 teaspoon) salt or to taste

Spread chickpeas out on a flat surface and pat dry with paper towels. Let them air dry for at least an hour. Based on the three batches I made, the longer the drying process the better and overnight in the frig is best.

When you’re ready to roast, heat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a pan with parchment paper and spread the chickpeas out evenly on a pan. Bake until crunchy, about 30 minutes, stirring or rotating every 10 minutes during the roasting process. While the chickpeas are roasting, add olive oil, spice/herb mixture, and salt to a bowl.  When chickpeas are completely roasted, pour them into the bowl and stir to distribute the oil, spices, herbs, and salt evenly.

My roasted chickpeas was inspired by a recipe from The New York Times Recipe Box, Melissa Clark’s Crunchy Roasted Az’atar Chickpeas which in turn was featured in Maureen Abood’s Rose Water & Orange Blossoms, published in 2015.

BUY GOOD STUFF

• Home cooked chickpeas roast crunchier than canned. So I’m always throwing dry chickpeas in my bag

• My salt of choice is Diamond Chrystal Kosher Salt. Because it’s flaked, the salt sits light in the spoon. If you’re using either table salt of a coarse sea salt, reduce volume to 1/8th teaspoon.

• Sumac is a reddish purple powder ground the berries of the sumac plant and is used extensively in middle eastern cooking to add a tart acidic taste. It was a new discovery for me but I know we’re going to be friends for life. I love bitter. I love acid. And now I love sumac.

• Za’atar can be purchased from stores that specialize in Middle Eastern products. I just made my own using the following proportions: 4 teaspoons dry thyme, 1 1/2 teaspoons whole sesame seeds, 1/2 teaspoon sumac.

Now for my Nerdy Nutrition Note. The recipe serves 6 and each one of those servings fits nicely in my hand. I’m not sure about you, but I tend to eat roasted chickpeas by the handful. Now that handful is about 120 calories. Along with those calories, I put 5 grams of predominantly unsaturated fatty acids from olive oil and chickpeas, about 16 grams carbohydrate 20% of which is fiber, and 5 grams of excellent plant based protein in my hand.

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Delicious, nutritious, sustainable mussels.

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If you’ve never cooked mussels before but are willing to try, you get 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
  • couple cloves smashed garlic
  • handful chopped parsley

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.

Some eaters demand transparency and full disclosure. They expect more from the plate and have the patience to dig a little deeper. So here’s an ingredient audit, nutrient analysis, and allergen alert.

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.

Mussels also bring minerals like manganese, selenium, iodine, iron, phosphorus, zinc, magnesium, copper, potassium. Sodium is just part of the total mineral package.  And like all seafood, mussels are a source of omega 3 fatty acids (1 mg per 100 grams cooked).

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

My pasta amounts are small by American standards. The usual amount of pasta listed in most recipes is 2 ounces (56 grams) per person. The bigger the portion size of pasta, the more calories you put on the plate

Olive Oil – Extra virgin olive oil from trustworthy brand harvest date clearly marked. Use within a year or two of harvest.

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

Nutrition Analysis per 1/2 recipe: 520 calories, 25g fat, 470mg sodium, 35g carb, 28g protein.

CONTAINS: SHELLFISH, WHEAT

 

 

 

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 brutal business of steaming clams.

Long Island little neck clams
Long Island little neck clams

I have a lot of culinary respect for Chef Dan Barber. Never been to the restaurant, but I have read his recent book The Third Plate. It’s a good read.

Earlier this summer, Dan Barber did an interview with Eater New York

“Why Farm-to-Table King Dan Barber Believes Meat Is Hyper-Seasonal”. Here is the response to a question posed by the interviewer: “Do you believe people who eat meat should see an animal being slaughtered at least once to gain appreciation for what’s on their plate? If so, why?”

Intuitively I subscribe to that, but I don’t know that you need to see the sacrifice to be worthy of eating meat. There’s a part of me that believes that all cooks should, which is what we do here at Blue Hill. We make them part of slaughter because they’re working with these animals, with a ton of meat throughout the course of a week. I feel that it’s pretty important that they get that kind of side.

If you’re eating meat and you’re knowing the farmer and you’re supporting the right kind of ecology I think that’s enough. Or I’ll put it to you another way, if I were to demand everyone who eats meat thoughtfully should also slaughter or be a part of a slaughter of meat I would say the same thing about the harvest of a plant of kale or the harvesting of a tomato. You need to be there for the harvest.

Now you may be asking what in the world does a carniferous celebrity chef have to do with me learning how to steam clams? Let me explain.

I have always believed that people who eat meat should be prepared to slaughter and butcher the animal. Or the chicken. Or the fish. So to find someone of Dan Barber’s statue actually saying this out loud is notable. To me at least.

Would I actually be able to do it? Slaughter and eat an animal? I don’t know. I’ve never had a chance to try. But that is the connection with clams and this is the rest of the story.

Linguine and clam sauce is a truly delectable dish. One of the first restaurant meals I had after arriving in New York and it was love at first bite.

Being a California girl, the only clams I had ever heard of before moving to Long Island were Pismo clams. Pismos grew big up to seven inches and I think folks made chowder with them. I had never seen a small delicate clam before I arrived in New York.

We all tend to feel comfortable doing the things we are used to. So the first time I saw a native Long Islander dig up a clam, break it open, and eat it raw, my stomach wretched. It was way out of my comfort zone. Still can’t do it to this day.

But love is a powerful motivator and I really love linguine and clam sauce. So a couple of years ago, I took action. My analytic left brain knew if I ate clams someone had to get them from the shell onto the plate and logic demanded either I forgo the pleasure or I be prepared to do the job myself. Mind over matter is easier said then done. So for almost a year I just looked. Then one beautiful summer day I took the plunge and purchased a dozen little neck clams.

And yes the linguine and clam sauce was delicious. Been making variations ever since.

So I say thank you Casey, my greenmarket fishmonger, for picking out the smallest ones just for me. And I say thank you Dan Barber for giving me the courage to say out loud something I have felt in my heart but have been reluctant to say before.

Here is one healthy sustainable fish.

Porte or Scup | photo from NOAA fishwatch.gov
Porgy or Scup | photo from NOAA fishwatch.gov

Stenotomus chrysops, more commonly called porgy or scup, is one of my favorite whole fishes. I didn’t know how to call the fish the first time I bought one, but it was love a first sight. The right size and so fresh I could smell the sea. I like my fish whole. Grilled, steamed, broiled, pan fried. Just give me a whole fish.

I lived on the south shore when I first moved to New York, so I had good access to fresh fish. My curiosity and sense of culinary adventure have always been my best teacher, so although I never heard of a fish called a porgy or a scup before, it was the right size and the right price and I bought a couple on the spot.

Living on the South Shore of Long Island provided good access to fishmongers and local catch and we ate a lot of scup. The fish is just the right size for two modest portions or one big e.g. generous restaurant size portion.

Calculations for whole fish are easy. Count 50% edible and 50% for bones, skin, cooking loss, and all that other stuff. A fish that weighs 1 1/3 pounds (600 grams) as purchased means about 10 ounces (300 grams) cooked. The nutrition nerd in me really diggs those kind of calculations. I prefer using the gram amounts because I can do the arithmetic in my head.

My scup was a resounding success. They do have bones, but practice makes perfect and my daughter learned to tackle whole fish by the age of 12 with skill and gusto.

I no longer live so close to the shore and I have discovered that scup is not easy to come by. Greeks are fish eaters and whole scup or porgy is often served in Greek restaurants. And I also know there have been periods of intense regulation due to over fishing which has periodically limited the catch.

But my favorite Greenmarket fishmonger was the person who told me the real reason. Although scup is plentiful now, they just don’t sell.

“I bring them but no one buys them so I am stuck with the whole lot.” Next question of course is why don’t your other customers like them as much as I do. “Probably because they are sold whole.”

Since early 2013, an national organization called Chefs Collaborative has been holding Trash Fish Dinners around the country to bring attention to undervalued and underutilized species of fish. The goal is to encourage chefs and diners to focus on fish that have historically been left off menus to help to take pressure off of overfished species and help support our fishing communities

Sounds to me like scup fits that description well. It’s plentiful, sustainable, local and underused. Personally I like it much better than tilapia, another popular inexpensive mild flavored fish. The flavor profile is more interesting to my palate and because it’s local I can buy the fish whole. And serving it whole means the filet gets cooked protected by the skin so moisture and flavor are better retained.

So there you have it. For you fish eaters who live on the east coast and are looking for an underutilized “trash” fish to cook whole, give scup a try. Healthy. Sustainable. Delicious. Who can ask for more?