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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Rethinking healthy starts with rethinking nutrients.

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This year looks to be pivotal for rethinking healthy. At the highest governmental level, the FDA has committed to release new guidelines for label claims. As the FDA commissioner put it earlier this year:

“Healthy” is one claim that we believe is ripe for change … Traditionally, we’ve focused primarily on the nutrients contained in food in considering what is healthy. But people eat foods, not nutrients. This is why we’re asking the important question of whether a modernized definition of “healthy” should go beyond nutrients to better reflect dietary patterns and food groups …

Emphatically my answer is yes.

An FDA mandate for nutrient claims only covers consumer packaged goods. And maybe even restaurant menu labels at some point in the future. But what the FDA decides makes a packaged food healthy permeates the general food ecosystem. When FDA defined healthy in the early 1990s as low fat and low sodium, low fat reigned supreme for a decade.

Nutrients are important. No argument here on that point. As a dietitian and culinary nutritionist, I spent a couple years learning just how important they are. But so is food. And taste. And culture. And tradition. Not to mention enjoyment. So I applaud the decision to acknowledge that food is as much a part of a healthy pattern as nutrients. Defining healthy as the sum of the nutrient parts is called a reductionist perspective.

The problem with a reductionist perspective.

Reducing a food to the sum of its nutrient parts tends to skewer the meaning in a negative direction. Especially when, as was the case in the 1990s, healthy was defined in terms of 4 nutrients to avoid:  sodium, cholesterol, total fat, saturated fat.

Now feast your eyes on my shrimp and greens salad pictured above. Note the variety of vegetables on the plate: a generous handful of arugula, a dark green vegetable, some radicchio, a couple of small tomatoes, and some sliced scallions. The greens make up the bed for those lovely freshly steamed wild caught North Carolina shrimp.

Remember that under the original concept of healthy, food did not count. Well, those pristine steamed shrimp are salty. All shrimp are salty. Shrimp live in the sea and the sea is salty. When healthy was measured by counting milligrams of sodium per 100 grams, shrimp are automatically knocked out.

Remember too under the original concept, palatability did not count. Salads taste better when they are served well dressing, but a couple of tablespoons of fine olive oil and sherry vinegar added too much fat and saturated fat.

In other words, the only way to make this plate healthy under the original concept was to remove the shrimp, hold the vinaigrette, and serve the greens naked.

This reductionist view of healthy did a lot of damage. Is it any wonder so many folks rejected such a austere approach and labeling a food healthy became the kiss of death?

What a difference a couple of decades makes.

A lot has changed since 1994. That’s the year the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act became law and the draconian nutrient content claim for healthy was cast in regulatory cement.

In 2016, The FDA released a preliminary working document indicating their thinking on revising the nutrient criteria for labeling food healthy.

Use of the Term “Healthy” in the Labeling of Human Food Products: Guidance for Industry.

And with the release of the most current Dietary Guidelines in 2015, a healthy pattern took precedence over unhealthy nutrients.

Previous editions of the Dietary Guidelines focused primarily on individual dietary components such as food groups and nutrients. … The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines provides five overarching Guidelines that encourage healthy eating patterns, recognize that individuals will need to make shifts in their food and beverage choices to achieve a healthy pattern, and acknowledge that all segments of our society have a role to play in supporting healthy choices.

So what do these changes mean for my shrimp and greens salad?

Bottom line is that my simple little salad of greens, tomato, shrimp, and vinaigrette just got a whole lot healthier.

Thanks to revised thinking from the FDA, the ratio of saturated to unsaturated fats is now more important than just the grams of saturated fatty acids. Olive oil, although it does contain a significant franction of saturated fatty acids has a stellar ratio of almost 6 to 1.

And thanks to the Dietary Guidelines, the pattern and the whole plate are now important. Food counts and you get bonus points for more fish like shrimp and more dark green vegetables like arugula.

We’re not there yet, but my sense is we may actually be moving in the right direction.

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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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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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Getting More Vegetables onto the Plate.

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Everybody should eat more vegetables. Okay. We all agree on that one. But what is the best way to get folks to eat more vegetables? There’s no lack of good ideas and suggestions buzzing around up there in the blogosphere and it’s important to do what works for you. Now I’ve tried a couple of options including telling folks they need to eat their veggies, and after a period of trial and error, here’s what I have discovered works the best.

You see, I cook for demanding folks so I need to use my culinary skills to make those vegetables taste really really good. Irresistibly delicious. Seduction works like a charm. Much more effective than laying down some kind of vegetable law. And do you know what happens next? Those same folks who used to call me the food police when I told them how to eat are now cleaning their plates.

Take Brussels sprouts. This dark green nutritious fiber rich vegetable is not always fully appreciated because to some folks it tastes a little bitter. Steaming the sprouts does nothing to counter that bitterness. But roasting Brussels sprouts helps as does salting because salt softens the taste. Even the visual presentation helps because feeding the eyes is just as important as feeding the gut.

Here’s how I do it.

Start with a generous pound of the best Brussels sprouts you can source, preferably seasonal, freshly harvested, local. Next wash and trim the sprouts.

Next step for me because I cook with a metric scale is to put my trusted blue glass baking dish on my scale, zero out, and add the  sprouts. The weight of the sprouts gives me the basis for my ratio of olive oil.

Most folks don’t t have a digital scale on the counter, so here are the proportion scaled to a pound of trimmed sprouts. For each pound of sprouts (about 5 cups) use 3 tablespoons olive oil and 1/4 teaspoon table salt.

Put sprouts, salt, olive oil, and dried herbs of choice (optional) in a baking dish and mix thoroughly. I use my hand and a latex glove for maximum flexibility because my hand is more flexible than a wooden spoon. Place the dish in a 350 degree Fahrenheit oven and roast until sprouts are caramelized. Adjust temperature, time, and convection accordingly.

Like certain other members of the brassica family, Brussels sprouts taste best when harvested locally after the first frost. We eat lots of roasted Brussels sprouts during the fall here in the northeast. California’s central valley produces most of the commercially grown crop so Brussels sprouts are available year round. I use these sprouts when my local supply stops because sprouts are such a nutritious, healthy vegetable.

COUNT WHAT MATTERS

My recipes call for generous amounts of olive oil. These sprouts for example are somewhere between 70% and 80% calories from fat. But those fats are predominantly unsaturated fatty acids and since vegetables have practically no calories, one serving (about 1/4 recipe) puts only 140 calories on your plate. And consider these other ratios. Almost half the carbohydrates are dietary fiber and because sprouts are such a rich source of potassium, you’ll be getting more potassium than sodium.

Most nutritionists agree you can’t eat too many Brussels sprouts. Not all my zealous colleagues however agree with my approach because they are concerned about fat and salt. So if your doctor has told you to cut back on either one, you should pay attention. For the rest of us, however, the goal is to get more vegetables on the plate. And palatability helps. These roasted Brussels sprouts will be relished, enjoyed , and most important eaten. Even by the folks who say they don’t like Brussels sprouts.

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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.

 

 

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 bounty of the harvest in the middle of winter.

sauerkraut, potatoe, sausage, mustard
sauerkraut, potato, sausage, mustard

Home made sauerkraut braised with potatoes and modest serving of Italian sweet sausage served with good mustard. That was supper last night. Delicious!

Sauerkraut was my cottage industry project last fall when the CSA sent me a humungeous green cabbage and my challenge now mid January is to find creative interesting ways to plate it.

Before the wonders of modern industrial production, most of us had no choice but to eat sauerkraut and potatoes and other good keepers. Being the obstreperous creatures we humans are, lots of people like me are looking past the present back to a simpler time. I plead guilty to occasional episodes of pastoral romanticism mostly because it’s fun and I have a little discretionary time to spend on my favorite pastime which is food. I’m also curious and love to study the science behind why things like sauerkraut work.

We have been working our way through the sauerkraut I make last Fall for the last three months. I never made my own sauerkraut before so I can’t say this is the best I’ve ever made, but I can say it’s the best sauerkraut I’ve ever tasted because the only sauerkraut I ever had before was off the shelf commercial. What a difference my artisan sauerkraut made on a simple and totally American hot dog!

So here we our in the middle of January and the sauerkraut still smells sweet and still tastes good. Amazing what can be done at home! Well you may be laughing but I really do think this process is wondrous. And even more relevant the process is considered safe.

What was once survival and necessity has become an activity for people like me privileged enough to have the discretionary time for experimentation. Fermentation has been part of human history and was vital in human survival in the days before refrigerators, freezers, and processed food. Fermentation allowed us to preserve food in a nutritional and safe way when there was no supermarket to provide it. Cheese, yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchee, olives, salami, jerky, even bread are examples of fermentation used for preservation.

I have made my own yogurt and bread, but don’t do it anymore because an off the shelf product will meet my quality standards and I choose to spend time experimenting in other ways.

Supper last night was a home run. Totally delicious.

Fermentation is marked to become one of the most important food trends of 2015. But because there is no off the shelf product as good as my cottage industry sauerkraut yet, there’s a good chance I will make up another batch next year.

 

My romance with broccoli.

organic broccoli
organic broccoli

 

Pictured above is the broccoli that came in this week’s CSA box. Pristine, lovely, organic, and ready to use. And not a worm or an aberrant insect to be seen.

I love broccoli. We eat seasonal and local which here in the north east means mid-summer into late fall. Seasonal and local also means organic broccoli from a CSA or greenmarket.

My broccoli is usually braised in olive oil, garlic, and a pinch of salt. More than al dente but never over-cooked. I cut the flowered heads off from the stem, removing the tough fibrous skin from the stalks, and cut the stems into bite sized pieces. No need to get too fancy with broccoli because it tastes so good on its own.

We eat broccoli in season, but in the depths of a north east winter, that vibrant green California crop looks pretty good. So not being a purist, we also eat broccoli out of season. I’m okay with conventional during the winter when my local grocer has a good selection.

I used to get romantic about broccoli. Especially a broccoli that I picked myself right off the stalk. But I learned a harsh lesson during that first year I cooked in Garches. And I have looked at broccoli with a realistic eye ever since.

My friend Isabelle has a beautiful house and property in this little suburb half way between Paris and Versailles. She had an arrangement with a local gardener. He could grow whatever vegetable he wanted to and sell them in return for making the garden available to us. And we ate marvelously well from that garden!

I would just go out and pick whatever I wanted each day. Broccoli came in that fall and I was there to pick some for supper. But just once.

Being young and romantic I believed all that was natural was good. Now a farmer knows that when you grow broccoli, you have to deal with worms. Organic or conventional, worms love broccoli. However the farmer decides to farm it, worms are part of the calculation. But I grew up in the suburbs so how was I supposed to know?

Conventional farmers use conventional pesticides; organic farmers use USDA organically approved pesticides. I don’t think this guy used anything. The broccoli was completely natural and completely full of worms.

I put up a valiant battle. But the worms outnumbered and out gunned me. There were so many I gave up trying and ended up dumping everything back out somewhere behind a bush. I could not look at broccoli again for a long time.

My love of broccoli did return but I lost my romanticism. And I still find myself checking for little nasty critters. So God Bless whatever my organic farmer / conventional farmer needs to so I don’t have to deal with worms.

What to do with too many vegetables soup.

vegetable soup
zucchini, collard, potato soup

I love soups. Especially as we move into fall and the days get shorter and the nights get colder. Warm, appetizing, aromatic, easy to make, and one of the best ways to use up vegetables when you have too many. Like when my CSA keeps sending me more vegetables than we can eat.

That’s my soup pictured above. Those very dark green pieces are collards. The softer light green pieces are zucchini. Potatoes blend in to add consistency and softness. And the orange pieces are carrots from the soffritto.

Because the CSA keeps sending me vegetables we don’t usually eat, like zucchini or collards or potatoes, my creative cooking skills have been getting challenged on a weekly basis. But nothing can go to waste, so here’s how I handled the overload from the last couple of weeks.

Every soup gets started the same way. I pull out my AllClad 4 liter soup pot and start the soffritto. Put some olive oil, a chopped onion, some chopped carrot and celery in the pot and let it all slowly sauté until the onion starts to turn color.Soggriggere is the Italian word for sauté and my soups always start with a soffritto.

Now comes the fun part. Open the frig.

First I found those two remaining zucchini from I think two weeks ago. One was big enough to have seeds inside so I had to scrape them out. The other one was smaller and was good to go. Washed, trimmed, and chopped the zucchini goes into the pot. I let the zucchini pieces start to brown in the olive oil. Thank goodness it’s the end of the season because I am running out of zucchini ideas. Could anyone imagine a vegetable more devoid of character or taste than a zucchini?

Then I found the bag of the collard leaves. Collards are an incredibly healthy phytonutrient rich vegetable, but my preference is kale or rapini or chard. Collards are, however, good in soups because they hold both shape and color during cooking. So I washed the leaves, removed the thick spine, chopped then up in small pieces, and put them in the pot.

Can’t forget potatoes! I have eaten more potatoes this fall than I’ve eaten over the last couple of years combined. The potato skin needs good scrubbing but no need to remove it. Just cut them up in pieces and into the pot they go.

Then I add a liter box of chicken stock (low sodium) to the pot along with some dry herbes de province. Fresh herbs work better, but I didn’t have any on hand. And finally 1/4 teaspoon salt.

Everything gets to slowly simmer together for about 40 minutes.

Once all the vegetables soften and start to blend, I run the pieces through my food mill and soup comes out the other end. I prefer the rough cut version you see in the picture so I use the largest grate of the food mill. It’s just that easy to make 2 liters of vegetable soup. Any greens you have on hand should work just fine.

To see how the soup scores on my Healthy versus Healthy infograph, check the tags.