Reducing a radiantly complex plate of food down to a couple of nutrients is insane.

Photo Credit: gourmetmetrics
Photo Credit: gourmetmetrics

That’s not to say that nutrients aren’t important. Because they are. They’re very important. But nutrients are only one of many parts to a complex story.

Take my beautiful salade composé pictured above. There is so much more going on than a string of numbers can communicate.

THE NUTRITION FACTS STORY

First take a cold hard look at that small little subset of information called nutrition facts.

660 calories, 48g fat, 8g satfat, 660mg sodium, 30g carbohydrate, 8g fiber, 6g sugar, 26g protein.
It’s hard to say whether that string is healthy or not. My first though is always that I need more information. Without checking the ingredient list and without the picture, there’s no way to tell what foods are on the plate.

AND NOW FOR THE REST OF THE STORIES.

Every recipe has a story to tell. Even when as is the case here, there was no recipe. Its confession time and that means I’ll have to admit that I didn’t actually follow a particular recipe. I followed a pattern. For those who feel more comfortable with a recipe, however, there are hundreds available via a google search.

When I put a salad like this one together, I use what’s on hand. Each salad is different. Depends on what’s is the frig, how big the plate is, what’s in the pantry, how creative I am feeling, and who else will be sitting at my table.

Some recipes have a backstory, but I checked my Larousse Gastronomique and all I could find was the fundamental distinction between tossed salad versus composed salad. Tossed gets well tossed. And composed just sits. Timing of the dressing is the same in both cases, just before serving.

Every ingredient has a story too. Pictured above are arugula, chickpeas, tuna, cucumber, tomato, egg, farro, red cabbage, parsley. All artfully arranged or “composed” on plate and dressing with a classic vinaigrette.

Where were the chickpeas sourced? Canned or home made. And how were they grown? Organic. Conventional. Regenerative. And how about how old are the chickpeas because age really does make a difference when you’re cooking chickpeas from scratch.

What about the tuna? Is it domestic or imported. Line caught or net caught. Skipjack or yellowfin or albacore or one of the lesser known species. Jared or canned or fresh. Just for the record, the tuna pictured above is Tonnino, a branded product packed in Italy.

What about the vegetables? Where were the cucumber, red cabbage, and parsley, tomato grown. Organic. Regenerative. Conventional. Local. How long they kept in storage before hitting the supermarket shelf or were they picked up that day from the farmer’s market.

Are the eggs from pastured hens or caged hens? Is the farro imported Italy or home grown in the US? Is the vinaigrette classic clean home made or an off the shelf branded?

So many, many stories to tell for one very simple salad …

WHERE DOES FOOD FIT?

Governments have been slow to act but most home cooks, chefs, and foodies already know food counts. Perhaps that’s why this group tends to pay so little attention to what the government does and does not say about healthy.

Other countries has been more aggressive with consumer package goods labeling than we have been. The Brits worked out their traffic light system of food labeling over a decade ago. The Australians implemented their Health Star Rating System a couple of years ago. But the real breakthrough came last year when the French government approved a voluntary front of the packaged label Nutriscore that actually counts food in the calculation.

AND WHAT DOES ALL THIS HAVE TO DO WITH A SALAD?

While trying to reduce something as radiantly complex as food down to a couple of nutrients really is a bit crazy making, putting food back into the equation might actually work.

So I began to wonder what would happen if I borrowed the French approach to consumer packaged goods and applied it to a recipe?

First identify the Negatives, which do happen to be nutrients. Then identify the Positives, which are a combination of nutrients and foods. Then balance the Negatives against the Positives and assign a color coded range.

Using this concept, my salad scored reasonably well. Not completely healthy because I do use more salt (sodium) and lots of olive oil (satfat). But better than somewhat healthy because the salad is a good source of protein and fiber and is mostly plant based. You can tell by looking at the picture the salad is mostly plant based. The actual calculation is 52% by weight — cucumbers, tomatoes, chickpeas, arugula, cabbage, parsley. Nutriscore doesn’t count grains in the calculation so I didn’t count the farro. But farro is an ancient whole grain wheat berry with all the benefits of whole wheat

Using the Nutriscore color code, my salad whole be light green. If the salad were rigidly healthy, I would could use dark green circle. If the salad were somewhat healthy, I could use light orange. But the salad is in between so it would light green circle. I’m going to call it reasonably healthy.

Not sure about the FDA, but reasonably healthy works for me. How about you?

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Christmas Dinner 2017

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Pictured above is the center piece of my Christmas meal this year – a roasted rack of pork. You can see from the rib bones that the butcher has employed a presentation technique referred to as “Frenched” and the rack was roasted with the skin on. Those crusty squares you can see on the top are cracklings. They’re delicious. Almost as good as the tender juicy roasted pork.

A center piece needs to be carefully positioned with surroundings to be fully appreciated. Properly selected, the appetizer announces there’s more to come without being too filling or overwhelming. This year, I made an escarole salad with Forelle pear, walnuts, and Parmiggiano dressed with an apple-cider honey vinaigrette dressing. Cooling, refreshing, lightly salted and slightly sweet. A well positioned beginning for what is to come.

Moving on to the main course, let’s consider side dishes. This year, I selected winter greens and baked sweet potatoes. Rapini braised in olive oil and garlic is my dish of choice but not everyone has developed my taste for bitter greens so I always serve steamed green beans along side. I sliced the rack of pork between each rib bone, arranged the pieces on a serving plate with the sweet potato along side accompanied by the two bowls of greens. There was a moment of silent appreciation and then we dug in and I have to admit we did eat well.

To accompany the meal, we offered beer, apple cider, or a red Bordeaux.

The ending of a meal should never in my culinary opinion at least outshine the centerpiece. So I prepared an apple pudding, derived from one of my favorite French desserts – clafouti. And of course a dish of mandarin oranges from my beautiful California. No meal, even a celebration meal like Christmas, is complete for me without some seasonal fresh fruit at the end.

MEAL METRICS

The holliday season is a time for celebrations and my Christmas meal is my celebration of the season. From the beginning salad appetizer to ending piece of fruit, the meal clocks in just a little over 1400 calories.

Like all combination plates, a meal is a mixture of different foods some clearly more healthy than others.

The health promoting aspects of my meal are the abundance of vegetables and fruits (59% plant based by weight), good protein (74 grams), and beneficial fiber (71% Daily Value) from intact sources. On the not so healthy side, we note 21 grams saturated fats, 970 mg sodium, and 18 grams sugar.

Now what I would like to have is an algorithm that would balance the value of the healthy foods against the risks from the not so healthy components and seasonings. My thesis that is in the final analysis, the benefits outweigh the risks. Now I need to find my self algorithm that will do that kind of computation.

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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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Fat, Salt, and Split Pea Soup

 

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Thank goodness fats are no longer considered a toxic substance. I did my nutrition studies during the height of the low fat is healthy years. Just imagine how confused I felt when I ran my own numbers and discovered my daily pattern was based on an unhealthy amount of fat.  That was just 20 years ago and as you know things have changed.

My split pea soup depends on fat to bring out the flavor of aromatic vegetables – onion, carrot, and celery. Finely chopped and sweated in lots of olive oil, this mirepoix adds color, hearty flavor, and sweetness to the soup. Without that generous dose of olive oil, the recipe wouldn’t be as delicious.

Salt of course is the other critical component. I learned I use too much fat but I also learned I under salt.  Salt is critical to good cooking but if you know your way around the kitchen you know how to squeeze flavor out of all the ingredients so there’s no need to use so much salt.

Recipe writing is not my strength. I do provide proportion but in both metric and common measure and some instruction. But if you’re a beginning cook and need basic instruction or technique, I suggest you check out a website like Simple Recipes or New York Times Recipe Box or one of the reputable collections available via the internet.

Rest assured that messing up a split pea soup is really hard. Burnt onions. Rancid olive oil. Confusing table salt with kosher flake salt. These are mess ups. But proportions of split peas to onion, carrots, celery can be highly variable as can the amount of liquid. So making this soup is good practice for trying your hand at no recipe cooking.

RECIPE for 3 liters (12 cups)

• 500 grams split peas (2 1/2 cups – generous pound)

• 400 grams mirepoix (1 1/4 cup chopped onion; generous 3/4 cup chopped carrot; generous 2/3 cup diced celery)

• 100 grams olive oil (7 1/2 tablespoons)

• 2 to 3 liters water or stock (8 to 12 cups)

• 12 grams salt (4 teaspoons Diamond Crystal® Kosher Salt or 2 teaspoons table/coarse sea salt)

Start by rinsing the split peas. Then gently sweat chopped onions in olive oil until golden browned and aromatic at least 30 minutes. The longer the onions sizzle softly in the oil the more aromatic they get. Add carrots and celery and sauté another 30 minutes. Now add liquid, split peas, herbs of choice, salt, and gently simmer partially covered until split peas are fully softened and starting to fall apart. Pass the soup through a food mill for an even textured consistency.

INGREDIENTS – Good flavor starts with sourcing the best ingredients. Look for split peas from the most current harvest. Sometimes these dates are hard to find. Store managers often really don’t know and in all due respect many could care less. Best to buy from a trusted supplier. As for the olive oil, no reason to use your best. High heat destroys some of the healthful properties and delicate taste aromatics. I use an everyday extra virgin olive oil from California. As for the liquid use water or vegetable stock or chicken stock in any combination. What’s important is the final volume, about 3 liters or 12 cups.

NUTRITION – I run numbers on all my recipes but I don’t post label results, however I’m happy to send you those numbers if you want them so just let me know.

I prefer using common measure. Most folks can visualize a cup of soup and once you know a cup of soup puts about 230 calories in the bowl, you can do the math yourself. Serving sizes always vary depending on how the soup gets served.  Appetizers are usually less than a cup. Main course soup for supper is usually more than a cup. Snackers I’m sure have their own favorite amounts.

Here’re a breakdown for the nutrients per cup that I check for:

• Protein. This soup qualifies as vegan so all 10 grams per cup are plant protein. Ham hocks or bacon or cheese are common additions to split pea soup. They add more protein and you’ll end up with an animal plant protein mix.

• Fiber. Both soluble and insoluble dietary fibers are beneficial from a health perspective. All legumes are fiber rich and split pea soup has lots of fiber, about 11 grams per cup.

• Fat. Olive oil is the source of fat and contribute 35% of the calories as per proportions used above. Using olive oil ensures that the fat profile will be predominantly unsaturated fatty acids. Adding ham hocks or bacon or cheese adds saturated fatty acids and changes the fat profile.

• Salt. Essential for a good tasting soup. Keep in mind however it’s important to salt to your own taste. So the most important step is learning to salt is to know your own salt tolerance. Always keep in mind that under salting is safer. You can use a sprinkling of finishing salt just before serving. Desalting an over salted soup is hard.

Using 4 teaspoons Diamond Crystal® Kosher Salt Diamond for 3 liters soup, one cup of soup has about 410 mg sodium. Sometimes I use only 3 teaspoons of salt which works out to 320 mg per cup. I don’t seem to need as much salt as many other cooks and eaters like to use. For me, a little bit of salt goes a long way. Salting to your own taste is really important because we don’t all taste salt the same way.

Why you may be asking do I specify salt by brand name? The answer is because brand and grind make a difference. So I’m not writing a sponsored post. There are two brands of kosher salt and one brand sits much lighter in the spoon than the other brand so it makes a difference which one you use.

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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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OMG Did my Roast Chicken Just Get Healthier?

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Here’s a picture of my beautifully roasted chicken right out of the oven.

Now feast your eyes on that lovely crispy skin. Like my granddaddy always said “Skin’s the best part.” And my granddaddy was always right.

Not everyone agrees however. Many health professionals along with some of my zealous colleagues still advise us to discard the skin. Current USDA MyPlate handouts and the 2015 Dietary Guidelines continue to recommend “lean” proteins. And lean always means skinless chicken breast when referring to poultry.

Now I’m not sure how you’ve done it, but for me I’ve always served my roast chicken with skin intact. My foodie friends and the chefs I know also honor the whole bird. Besides being absolutely delicious, the skin protects the chicken as it roasts keeping the meat moist and flavorful.

Officially we’ve been a fat phobia nation for a while now. Back in 1980 when the first dietary guidelines were published, Guideline #3 said it all: avoid too much fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol.

But another 10 years passed before the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 (NLEA) authorized the FDA to regulate labels for packaged foods and we actually start having food rules. Now I’m the first to agree that a few good rules isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but some of these rules like criteria required for labeling a food healthy were draconian.

Industry insiders used to joke that the surest way to guarantee a food offering failed was to label it healthy and health messaging started to develop a reputation as the kiss of death. Using low fat as the most significant market for a healthy food meant avocados were not healthy. Neither were nuts. And even a simple green salad vinaigrette dressing could not be labeled healthy.

Like all research, nutrition science continued to forge ahead and a better understanding of fats began to emerge. The low fat kiss of death criteria however remained cast in regulatory concrete.

Then in September 2016, the FDA announced its intention to review the rules for healthy. The process is going to take years, but in the meantime, we have this interim statement:

Foods that use the term “healthy” on their labels that are not low in total fat should have a fat profile makeup of predominantly mono and polyunsaturated fats (i.e., sum of monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats are greater than the total saturated fat content of food).

Since most folks don’t even know that these rules exist, it’s worth asking what difference does it makes. Most of my foodies friends for example are not paying much attention and could care less what the FDA decides to do.

Being an RDN however I really do care and here’s why.

Dietary rules and guidelines impact public policy. They are written into federally mandated programs like school nutrition. They regulate nutrition labels on packaged food. And effective next year, the rules will be extended to restaurant menu labels.

But getting back to my roast chicken, the FDA interim statement has a significant impact on whether or not it’s healthy to eat the skin.

The fats in my roasted chicken are primarily in the skin with the rest marbled into the leg muscle. That’s why the skinless breast was lauded in the first place. Dry and tasteless but no fat.

Now let’s take a closer look at the fat profile for a roasted chicken. Total fat is composed of saturated fats and unsaturated fats. Mono-unsaturated fats and poly-unsaturated added together equal total unsaturated fats. When we compare the two values, we can determine which type of fat predominates. Are there more saturated fats? Or more unsaturated fats?

Some folks find it easier to think in terms of a ratio. My roasted chicken has a good ratio. For every gram of saturated fats, we have over 2 grams of unsaturated fats. Clearly the unsaturated fats predominate. And that ratio looks pretty good to my eye.

The FDA doesn’t directly regulate recipe tags, but folks like me who develop recipe tags need to keep a watchful eye on the rules. Personally I have mixed feelings. On one hand, I would prefer that the FDA did less micro-managing. On the other hand food manufacturers need to be held accountable and a few good rules helps keep them honest.

But I’m thrilled the FDA has decided to review and revising the rules. It will probably take a couple of years before they decide what those revisions will be, but in the meantime it looks like my roasted chicken most certainly did get a little healthier.

BUY GOOD STUFF.    The breed of the chicken determines the flavor. My preference is a chicken that grows slowly. Heritage breeds are grown here in the states but most are descended from a French breed called cou nu or naked neck. This “slow grow” bird takes almost twice the time to reach market weight. The birds are not cheap because they require more feed, fuel, water, and land per pound of meat to sustain their growth. But for folks like me who appreciate a really flavorful bird, the extra dollars are well spent.

COUNT WHAT MATTERS.  Nutrition Facts per 5.5 ounce serving roast chicken: 350 calories, 21 grams fat, 0g carbohydrates, 38 grams protein. That serving size reflects 1/8 of a whole chicken that weighed  about 4 pounds as purchased raw.

Fat breakdown for those 21 grams total fat is 6 grams saturated and 13 grams unsaturated (5 grams poly and 8 grams mono). In other words, unsaturated fats predominate in a ratio of 2.2 to 1.

 

 

 

 

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Do You Like Your Salads Well Dressed?

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Summer is the season for salads.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COUNT WHAT MATTERS

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

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