Trying to reduce something as radiantly complex as food down to a couple of nutrients is insane.

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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?

Up until recently, neither recipes or ingredient lists were counted by the experts.

Most home cooks and chefs and other foodies however figured out long ago food does count and perhaps that’s why this group tends to pay so little attention to what the government does and does not say is healthy.

Our FDA has only recently agreed to reconsider what constitutes healthy, but other countries has been more aggressive. The Brits worked out their traffic light system of food labeling over a decode ago. The Australians implemented their Health Star Rating System a couple of years ago. And last year, the French approved a voluntary front of the packaged label Nutriscore that counts vegetables, fruits, legumes, and nuts.

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 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. The salad is 52% plant based (cucumbers, tomatoes, chickpeas, arugula, cabbage, parsley) and that’s not counting the grain farro.

If the salad were completely healthy, I could put a dark green circle. If the salad were somewhat healthy, I could put a light orange circle. So let’s say the salad is reasonable healthy and give it a light green circle. Not sure if it works for the FDA but it works for me. How about you?

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Do we need a food based nutrition label?

 

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Since the first release of the Nutrition Facts Label, healthy has been a nutrient based construct. Recently, the FDA agreed to review and revise the regulatory criteria for healthy and the new regulatory requirements could be released as soon as this year.

When I posed a question to a group of dietitians asking them if healthy should be food based or nutrient based, to my surprise, my colleagues all favored food based. When I asked for examples however of a food based scoring system, no one volunteered.

So I decided to investigate and went out looking for scoring options. I found three. Then using one of my favorite recipes, I ran three sets of numbers. Here’s are the results using my home baked pumpkin pie pictured above.

NUTRIENTS

If you’ve ever tried to make sense out of a Nutrition Facts Label, you already know the label is not easy. Deconstruction is based on the belief that the best way to understand something is to break it into parts. This view of healthy assumes individual nutrients are what counts and the parts are more important than the whole. Deconstruction has dominated the healthy labeling conversation for the last 30 years.

Using a simplified format Facts Up Front , here’s what deconstruction looks like:

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The “get less” numbers for a modest piece of my pumpkin pie are 3.5 grams saturated fat, 65 milligrams sodium, 22 grams sugars.

What do those numbers and percentages mean? As one astute observer shared with me “I have zero idea what the … label on the boxes means and generally ignore them … “

Making a decision based on a string of unconnected numbers with no context or big picture is hard, even for someone like me who understands nutrition. At best the process is confusing. At worst no one pays attention.

FOOD GROUPS

Food groups have been part of the healthy eating conversation since the USDA released farmer’s bulletin No. 149 in 1916. More recently, the USDA developed a scoring system to determine how compliant or non-compliant Americans are when it comes to following government guidelines.

The Healthy Eating Index (HEI) scores sample days, market baskets, or menu offerings at a fast food restaurant and, since it scores both food groups and nutrients, it’s a hybrid system. Unfortunately, the HEI is not helpful for my purposes.

Besides being kludgy and very complex, the system is not intended for scoring a single item like a pumpkin pie. And I’m still left making a decision based on grams of saturated fat and added sugars, along with 1/8 cup pumpkin and 1 ounce-equivalent whole wheat flour. No big picture. No synthesis. Still just a string of unrelated numbers.

HYBRID

I need a algorithm that gives me a single score based on both food groups and nutrients. Wishful thinking perhaps, but consider what just happened in France last year.

In October 2017, the French government officially sanctioned Nutri-Score, a hybrid system for front of package labeling. Originally developed out of the in the UK, Nutri-Score is now been adopted in France on a voluntary basis.

Nutri-Score is different from Facts Up Front and here’s how.

First, Nutri-Score is weight based using 100 grams instead of serving size. Second, food groups are included in the score. Third, positives are balanced against negatives to produce a single color coded grade. Now that’s what I call a simple, straightforward, and very cool scoring system.
76CA7999-F737-4E01-8AAF-7D25AC17882FSo I said to myself, maybe I can make a little algorithm modeled after the Nutri-Score. I gave it my best shot. And I succeeded. My home crafted quite delicious pumpkin pie did okay.

Using this algorithm, my pumpkin pie scored a “C plus” or “B minus” depending on ingredient amounts entered. Translating that grade into a scale of 1 to 10, that’s a food score of 6 or 7.

And I’m thrilled. I’ve put together a scoring system that works on a recipe basis. Here’s how it works. Identify negatives, nutrients like sodium, sugar, and saturated fat. Then identify positives, food groups like vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts plus nutrients like protein and fiber. Then balance negatives against positives to get a single food score.

METRICS

My ingredients are always carefully sourced and minimally processed. For the crust, I use whole wheat pastry flour and a grassfed whole milk yogurt / olive oil combination in place of butter. As for the pumpkin purée, I use a canned product with no fillers or flavor enhancers. Food score for my pie was helped by having a healthier fatty acid balance, a moderate amount of added sugars, protein from eggs and milk, and more fiber from the whole grain.

Guaranteed, it tastes just a good as it looks and if you’d like me to send you a copy of my recipe, please message me via LinkedIn or Facebook.

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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

 

 

 

Will 2016 be the Year of the Kitchen Scale?

 

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2016 has been declared the Year of the Pulse. But will 2016 also be the year of the scale?

Fannie Farmer published the Boston Cooking School Cookbook over 100 years ago and Americans have practiced her sifting, spooning, and leveling technique ever since. But things may be changing. Consider this. A prominent New York blogger starting adding weights to her recipes back in 2010. And as each year passed since then, the buzz has gotten louder. More books and articles and food writers are including weight measures in their recipes, especially for home baking.

Most professional bakers and pastry chefs already use weight and most food service recipes are written with weigh measures. A recent check of  The New York Times recipe box, a collection of over 17,000 recipes, showed more and more recipes with weighted ingredients. Most of the rest of the cooking world already writes recipes by weight and I am wondering if 2016 could be the year the practice goes mainstream in this country.

ROLLED OAT, WALNUT, AND APPLESAUCE COOKIES – about 25 cookies

  • 100 grams unsalted butter (7 tablespoons)
  • 100 grams turbinado sugar (1/2 cup)
  • 100 grams canned unsweetened applesauce  (7 tablespoons)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 100 grams walnut (1 cup chopped)
  • 100 grams whole wheat flour (3/4 cup fluffed, spooned, leveled)
  • 100 gram rolled oats (1 cup)
  • 100 gram raisins (2/3 cup packed)

Besides the scale, you will also need one larger mixing bowl, a couple of smaller bowls, an electric mixer, and baking sheets. Remember to remove one 4 ounce stick of butter from frig or freezer a couple of hours before starting so the butter comes to room temperature.  Also remember to preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit at some point before starting to bake.

Turn on the scale. Place a small bowl on the scale, zero out, and weigh sugar. Place another small bowl on scale, zero out, and weigh applesauce. Set both sugar and applesauce aside.

Place the larger mixing bowl on scale, zero out, and weigh the butter. Remove bowl from scale and cream butter using the electric mixer. Add sugar slowly to creamed butter and continue to mix until thoroughly blended.  Then add applesauce, eggs, vanilla, and just a dash of salt (optional). Mix thoroughly and set aside.

Place smaller bowl on scale. Weight walnuts and remove. Chop walnuts and set aside. Return bowl to scale and weigh flour, rolled oats, and raisins, zeroing out after each addition.  Add the dry ingredients from the smaller bowl plus the walnuts to wet ingredients, folding in gently with a spatula.

Line baking sheets with parchment paper or use silicon liners. Form the raw dough into little balls about the size of a rounded tablespoon and arrange these rounds on the baking sheet leaving about 1 inch (2.5 cm) distance between each one. Flatten each cookie before baking. Place cookies in oven and bake until cookies start to darken, about 17 minutes.  Cool on rack. Store in air tight container.  Or freeze for long term storage.

Deciding to bake my own cookies was an easy decision. They are better, healthier, and cheaper than the competition.  My cookies are better because I can control the sweetness and if you’re like me and do not like your cookies too sweet, you can adjust any recipe to just enough.  My cookies are healthier because I source really good quality ingredients like whole grains, whole nuts, and seasonally dried fruit.  And my cookies are cheaper. Each pound costs me a little over $6.00.  And those are New York City dollars.  Prestigious artisan cookies say from a farmers market or pricy bakery boutique cost as much as $20 per pound here in the Big Apple. And even more, sometimes a lot more.

CONTAINES: WHEAT, TREE NUTS, EGGS

Nutrients per one cookie serving: 120 Calories, 2 grams Protein, 14 grams Carbohydrates, 7 grams Fat, 1 gram Dietary Fiber.

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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.

When healthy makes you gag!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the proportions I used:

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

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

My favorite sustainable seafood linguine.

clams, scallops, shrimp, linguine | photo gourmet-metrics
clams, scallops, shrimp, linguine | photo gourmet-metrics

Sustainability is not technically a nutrition issue or a health issue, but it’s a noble goal. So why not eat more sustainably when we can?

As with many noble goals, what is and is not sustainable is not always easy to decipher, so I am starting with something really obvious. Local fish and shellfish. Fish that are locally sourced and responsibly gathered so as to maintain the population. Living as close to the Atlantic Ocean as I do, seems logical to me.

And since I was in Long Beach, I visited one of my trusted fishmongers and picked up some clams, scallops, and shrimp. Ooooooooops! Clams and scallops are local. Shrimp is not. Baby steps.

My recipe is my own version of that classic dish linguine and clam sauce. My method is really straightforward. Get everything ready to go, prepare any side dishes before you start, decide the time you need to serve, and be prepared to multi-task like crazy!

1 dozen small littleneck clams / 540 grams
2 – 3 dry sea scallops / 100 grams
4 large wild caught domestic shrimp / 100 grams
7/8 cup dry white vermouth / 200 ml
Couple cloves smashed garlic
fresh parsley or basil
2 ounces Italian linguine / 60 grams

Assemble and prep all ingredients before starting. De-sand clams if necessary. You will need a 3 liter covered pot for steaming the clams, a sauté pan large enough to hold cooked pasta, a 2 liter pot for cooking pasta, and a couple of small bowls.

Remove shell, devein shrimp, cut lengthwise, and set aside. Cut scallops in half and set aside. Scrub clams and place in bottom of large pot. Add vermouth, raise heat, cover pot, and steam open. As clams start to open, remove each one to a bowl carefully retaining any cooking liquid. As the shells cool, remove clams from shell, cut in half, and set aside. Strain remaining liquid to remove any sand or grit and set aside.

As clams steam open, add olive oil to sauté pan, sweat garlic, and sauté shrimp and scallops removing each piece as it finishes cooking. Then add reserved clam juice to pan, increase heat, and reduce volume if necessary.

As clam steam open, start pasta cooking water. Do not salt pasta water. Start to cook pasta about 10 minutes prior to serve time. Cook al dente and add to reduced clam juice / vermouth. Add herbs of choice, the clams, shrimp, and scallops back into pasta. Drizzle with good olive oil and serve immediately.

The proportions above serve two people. Those bits of red you see in my photo are the plum tomato I added at the last minute, part of this weeks CSA pickup. Not part of my usual recipe but a delicious addition.

Now this is exciting. I have arranged to get a Porgy at the market next week. Porgies are a locally caught, wonderfully flavorful fish that is not easy to filet because of the bone structure. According to my fishmonger, most of his customers are unwilling to tackle a whole fish so I had to put in a special order. I have no problem cooking the whole fish. In fact, I find it’s the best way to preserve delicate flavor.

So far sustainable fish looks like a good way to go.

Cheaper, better, healthier cookies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ROLLED OAT, RAISIN, and WALNUT COOKIES

100 grams walnut halves (1 cup)

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

100 grams rolled oats (1 cup)

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

100 grams unsalted butter (7 tablespoons)

100 grams turbinado sugar (1/2 cup)

2 each large eggs

2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/8 teaspoon flake style salt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do more words on the label make it healthy?

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Don’t get me wrong. This veggie patty is a is fine product and with the addition of some avocado, tomato, a healthy amount of BBQ sauce, and two slices of robust whole grain bread, my lunch yesterday was very good.

But take a look at the package. Being the prototypical nutrition nerd, I read the whole package as I ate my lunch.

Gluten Free. Dairy Free. Soy Free. Made with organic vegetables, quinoa & walnuts. No GMOs.

Turning the box on its side, I found more. 0g Trans Fat. No added MSG. No Preservatives. Vegan. All this plus the now familiar Nutrition Facts and allergy disclaimers.

I finished up my lunch, was enjoying a slim can of Perrier, and I got to thinking. There is a lot of data on that package. I counted up 11 food related terms / product verifications and 12 ingredients.

There is no doubt in my mind that every statement on that package is honest and accurate. And since I had a little extra time yesterday, I went back and checked the items I added to enhance my lunch. Here is what I found.

The avocado comes from Mexico. Period. I always choose California when I have the option, but that’s only because I’m a native and believe in supporting your own. Mexican avocados taste just as good. The BBQ sauce is USDA organic. The tomatoes are hydroponic and imported from Canada. Fresh greenhouse vegetables / légumes de serre frais in environmentally friendly packing. No comparison with a heirloom seasonal summer tomato ripened on the vine but with the advantage of year round availability. My whole grain bread is doubly certified both USDA and Northeastern Organic Farming Association organic. And it’s local.

Note to self. Checking out labels takes a lot more time than preparing the sandwich. Add second note. It’s better for your health to cook than to check labels.

The last thing I checked was sodium. My rough estimate for the patty plus BBQ sauce plus bread is about 900mg. To my palate, it all tasted pretty good, but it might be on the high side for sodium sensitive people.

So is it all healthy? Of course it’s healthy for most people, but I could have told you that before checking all those labels. How can you go wrong with avocado and whole grains?