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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My Search for Ceci Neri

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It all started because I love La Cucina Italiana. The food photography is breath takingly beautiful and my Italian is good enough to get through a recipe or short article.

Recently the online magazine had a little blurb on ceci neri / black chickpeas. Color was amazing. A beautiful deep dark shad of sepia. Destiny was calling. How could I resist?

So I googled black chickpeas and began my search. I discovered these little beauties were declared a heirloom vegetable recently and just in time too to keep them from disappearing forever. Asking around if anyone ever heard of a black chick pea, one of my Italian colleagues said yes she heard of them, even seen them in the market but never tried them. Another colleague, an ex-pat American living in Rome, replied she had also heard it them but thought black chickpeas were only used for animal feed.

One benefit of living in New York City is everything is for sale somewhere. And sure enough in the deepest darkest bowels of industrial Queens I found an Italian wholesale importer who was willing to sell me one kilo bag. I took a subway and walked the rest of the way to the warehouse and returned with my kilogram bag.

Once home, I poured out a third of the bag (350 grams), washed them, and started the soaking process. It takes a long time.  At least 48 hours to soak plus another 12 hours to cook.

Two days later the water was so black the chickpeas had disappeared from view. Usually I include soaking water when I cook, but this water looked ominous. What to do. A third colleague who runs a cooking school near Bari in the south of Italy came to my rescue via Facebook and confirmed that folks usually toss the soaking water.

Now for the cooking. Twelve hours requires starting pretty early so I started at 7am and finished off about 7pm using fresh clear water. Once soaked and hopefully cooked, my black chickpeas were actually sort of soft and strikingly beautiful. That deep dark intense sepia must be brimming full of phytonutrients but I wouldn’t know where to start to track down which ones.

Now what to do with them …

I tried them in a couple of different dishes and got nothing but complaints. Just between you and me, the taste was okay for my palate, more robust and earthy than the usual ones, but even after all that soaking and cooking, they were dense and still distinctly chewy.

The only preparation I could find that worked was hummus. I added lots and lots of tahini along with a good amount of olive oil, lemon juice, and salt. All to taste. I used so much tahini in fact I lost track of how much so I couldn’t run my usual nutrition numbers.

The black chickpea hummus was edible, attractive, and acceptable to the folks at my table.

Waste not. Want not. I am committed to repurposing.

We ate lots and lots and lots and lots of black chickpea hummus.

Culinary excursions are always exciting. Sometimes you discover wonderful new foods you love and can’t live without. And sometimes you learn why you’re the only one out there chasing the illusion ceci neri.

 

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Which would you choose for dessert? Panna cotta. Valhrona chocolate cake. Ice cream. Or something else …

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Imagine you’re sitting in a popular Manhattan restaurant. The meal you’ve just finished was worth every calorie invested and every dollar spent because of culinary excellence and ingredient quality. Now it’s time for one more decision. Do you want dessert?

The dessert menu comes and three items catch your eye. Homemade ice cream – a couple of scoops made with heavy cream from grassfed cows. Panna cotta – an Italian creation made from cream, sugar, sometimes buttermilk and molded with gelatin for spectacular presentation. Valhrona chocolate cake – one of the world’s finest chocolates mixed with almond meal and wheat flour, sugars, butter, eggs, and finished with a dark chocolate glaze.

So which one would you go with?

There is always the option to skip dessert of course but when you’re having a meal out with a special person and the wine that you drank with dinner has gone ever so slightly to your head, and you love desserts, most folks just don’t skip this “best part of the meal”.

My choice is none of the above. I ask in my most polite professional manner if the restaurant can provide a fruit plate. And I’m not surprised when most of the time the response is we’re really sorry but we’re not able to do fruit plates.

Most restaurants in or out of Manhattan are not set up for fruit plates. Sometimes restaurants put a little fruit on a cheese plate, but that’s usually considered an appetizer. Fruit also appears in tarts or pies or ice cream flavors. But ripe seasonal fruit beautifully presented on a plate is not readily available in most restaurants. And I understand why.

Fresh fruit is perishable. Stone fruits and berries have a finite shelf life and bruise easily. Apples need to be under constant refrigeration and humidity once they are picked. Melons will keep okay for a while until you cut them open … To sum it up, most fruits, with the exception of citrus, grapes, bananas, or pears, are just not good keepers.

Now my preference for a fruit plate has nothing to do with the calories. Although the difference is dramatic. A piece of the Valhrona cake could run as high as 400 calories in an elite restaurant. Not too bad compared with say a slice of chocolate cake from the cheesecake factors at 1500 calories. But still a hit after good meal and a glass of wine. The panna cotta would be less intense and would run around 250 calories for a serving. And the ice cream depending on the size and number of scoops will clock in between 250 and 500 calories. That fruit plate above at most 120 calories.

The reason for the dramatic calorie difference is of course the water content. Count about 30% water for the cake, 65% water for the panna cotta, 60% for the ice cream, and almost 90% for fresh fruit.

And that’s exactly why I choose fruit. Love that refreshing wonderful slightly acidic water, especially after a restaurant meal. Cool, wet, refreshing, and sweetened with natural sugars. Guess you can figure out where that beautiful picture came from. And the fruit was as good as it looks. Down to the last raspberry.

BUY GOOD STUFF.   Nectarine. Grapefruit. Peach. Blackberries. Raspberries. Buy good stuff even when you eat in a restaurant

COUNT WHAT MATTERS.  Here’s how a nutrition label would look:  120 calories, 1 gram fat, 21 grams total sugars (includes 6 grams fiber, 7 grams sugars, 0 grams added sugars) and 1 gram protein. If you check the food composition for fruit, most of the weight is water weight. Not just any old tap water weight but naturally rich vitamin mineral infused water including potassium plus phytonutrients depending on the color of the fruit.

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Use lots and lots of olive oil for a good ratatouille.

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Every August I honor the bounty of the season by making ratatouille, but I never use a recipe. Now there are a gazillion recipes out there. Precisely 462,000 retrieved in less than 60 seconds as per a recent Google search. So it’s not because I can’t find a recipe.

Ratatouille is basically just a selection of summer vegetables slowly braised in olive oil. It’s a simple preparation. Nothing really complex. But that is not why I don’t follow a recipe. The real reason is because that’s how I was taught.

My first taste of ratatouille was at a restaurant kitchen in Aix-en-Province during a summer cooking class. The chef spoke only French with a very strong Provençal accent but my French was good enough to follow. He didn’t measure a thing, just cut up vegetables and herbs, and tossed them into the pot. All the while poured on more olive oil than my American eyes had ever imagined was possible. And his ratatouille was absolutely delicious. The freshest most pristine vegetables, basil probably picked that morning, olive oil, and salt. I have honored his approach ever since.

The ratatouille doesn’t taste exactly the same each time I make it, but it always taste good. So each August when the farmers markets are bursting with eggplants and tomatoes and zucchini and peppers and fresh basil, I go out sourcing.

What I do keep an eye on however is ratios. I want equal weight of the four major vegetables. In other words, 1 pound (500 grams) each of eggplant, zucchini, peppers, and tomato. I also pick up a bunch of basil, an onion, and sometimes some garlic. Then I add salt and olive oil to taste.*

For those of you who want a recipe, my recommendation is to check the New York Times Recipe box (link listed below under RECIPE COLLECTIONS). That recipe site has only 37 variations, any one of which will probably be delicious. These recipes have been tested and usually work. If you need a recipe you will need one that is reliable.

JUST USE LOTS OF OLIVE OIL. Now some of my zealous colleagues are still reluctant to encourage a liberal use of olive oil and current dietary guidelines still limit calories from fat to 35%. So my zealous colleagues will be upset with my recommendation.

However here’s how I see things. Over time as research nutritionists continue to study fats, here is what I think will probably happen. The print will get smaller and smaller on those limitations. One day they will just disappear altogether from both label and guidelines.  In the meantime, I go with full disclosure. Using a generous hand with the olive oil will get you somewhere between 65% to 70% calories from fat. So if the number concerns you, ratatouille is not a dish you will be able to enjoy.

But that is how the dish was meant to be.

Ratatouille was born in the lovely warm sunshine in the south of France and grew to maturity along the shores of the Mediterranean when folks ate what was available in season with no knowledge of guidelines or limitations other than those imposed by the growing season. Faced with too many vegetables and waste not being an option, the cook did what needed to be done to make the vegetables palatable and delicious.

BUY GOOD STUFF

Source the freshest most recently harvested selection of eggplant, zucchini, peppers, tomatoes, and basil you can find at a nearby farmers market. Make ratatouille is August and September. Use a good olive oil sourced from a reliable provider and harvest dated from the prior year.

COUNT WHAT MATTERS

Don’t skip on the olive oil. And don’t worry about the percentage of calories from fat because since vegetables have practically no calories that percentage will be very high. Unsaturated fatty acids predominate and the combination of salt and oil greatly enhances palatability. Vegetables are an excellent source of potassium especially tomatoes, eggplants, and zucchini, so the sodium:potassium ratio is very favorably balanced on the potassium side.

*For nerds like me, here are the ratios used to calculate nutrition numbers: a generous 1/2 teaspoon Kosher flake salt (1.6 grams) and 2 tablespoons olive oil (30 grams) for each pound (500 grams) vegetables.

NB: If you use table salt or coarse sea salt, cut the volume measure for salt by half.

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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.

 

 

The Naked Berry.

imageSo why do I want my strawberries naked you may be asking when I could have sorbet or shortcake or even a strawberry tart?

Why you ask?  Because they taste sooooooooooooo good.

A seasonal local strawberry picked at peak ripeness is ephemeral and incredibly delicious.

So when strawberry season rolls around each year, I leave recipe round ups to others.

Just make my berries naked straight up to savor all by themselves.

Nature is a harsh master and sometimes here in the northeast, the berries aren’t quite sweet enough and I’ll serve them with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkle of brown sugar. But when nature, weather, and timing line up, you can’t beat the taste of a naked local berry.

Our strawberry growing season is short. Sometimes I get greedy and buy more strawberries than we can eat. So these berries get macerated in brandy and maple syrup for safekeeping. Almost as delicious as straight up.

Strawberries are sold in the farmer’s market by volume and not by weight. How much each container of strawberries weighs depends on how many strawberries fit in each container. Strawberries range in size from SMALL (1/4 ounce / 7 grams) to EXTRA LARGE (1 ounce / 28 grams). The smaller the berry, the more that will fit in the container. That means you get a little extra weight when you buy a dry quart or a dry pint of small berries.

BUY GOOD STUFF.   The berries above are Earliglow Strawberries, grown on the North Fork of Long Island. They were picked, boxed, and sold within 24 hours to folks like me willing to go out of our way for local berries.

Strawberries imported from California or Florida are sold by the pound, but my local berries come in dry quarts or dry pints. Thanks to my scale I know the berries in the dry quart weighed about 680 grams / 1.5 pound. At $5.99 per box that costs me $4 per pound. California conventional berries are price competitive with these local berries but California organic cost more.

Earliglow strawberries are considered by some to be the best tasting berry around. New York State actually can grow another dozen or so varieties which is good because these excellent berries have a short lived season.

COUNT WHAT MATTERS.   One serving of Earliglow strawberries (140 grams or 12 berries):   45 CALORIES, 0 gram fat, 0 mg sodium, 11 gram carb, 1 gram protein (91% water)

We already know eating more fruits every day is healthy and a really good habit to get into. Lots of good nutrients and not so many calories. So you may be asking why bother running the numbers? Read on and you will find out why.

You could almost say naked berries have no calories. Naked strawberries as noted above certainly don’t have a lot of calories. Why is this? Because strawberries like most other fruit are mostly water.

Just think of fruit as the best vitamin water. Fruits have vitamins as well as fibers, minerals, and phyto-nutrients. All this good stuff gets infused in naturally sweetened water and is ready to savor in its own edible package.

Strawberries macerated in brandy with maple syrup doubles the number of calories to 90 calories. Naked berries with sour cream and brown sugar raises it even more to 110 calories.

Now for the answer as to why I need to run the numbers. Because I want to compare my naked strawberries to more ambitious plates. And you will see, the more complex the recipe, the greater the calorie increase.

We need two things. First a couple of good recipes for real desserts that use strawberries. That part is actually not too hard. It’s the second part that can be a challenge. These recipes also need a reasonable reliable nutrient analysis. Up until recently, I would have needed to run those numbers myself. But thanks to the marvels of modern data analysis tools, almost every recipe circulating the internet today comes with a nutrient analysis.

My favorite source for great classics recipes is The New York Times Recipe Box. It’s an amazing site and an amazing collection of well written recipes from some of the best food writers our country has produced over the last 50 years. And now each one comes with an analysis.

When I went looking for what was listed under strawberries and pulled up 260 recipes for strawberries, even I was surprised at how many recipes I found. From sorbets to soups and tarts to shortcakes, anything and everything you could ever think of doing with strawberries has made its way to the collection.

Everyone loves a real dessert on the table when we are in celebration mode, but my preference is always naked berries for daily fare.

And now for the numbers. Here’s how my naked berries ranging from 45 calories to 110 calories per serving compare with a couple of real desserts culled from The New York Times Recipe Box:

• Strawberry sorbet for 300 calories

• Strawberry tart for 350 calories

• Strawberry shortcake for 750 calories

Links to recipe collections / websites with nutrient analysis in sidebar

 

 

 

Delicious, nutritious, sustainable mussels.

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Never tried mussels before but I’m always game for new things. They look delicious.

Adventurous eaters like you deserve 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 ** See Carbohydrates below

• couple cloves smashed garlic

• handful chopped parsley

As you read through the instructions, keep in mind the method requires multi-tasking. 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.

 

Wait a minute! What about nutritious and sustainable?

 

Curious eaters like you deserve transparency and full disclosure. You expect more from the plate and have the patience to dig a little deeper. An ingredient audit, nutrient analysis, and allergen alert provided below.

INGREDIENT AUDIT

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.

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

Olive Oil – Extra virgin olive oil from California. Harvest date October – November 2015.

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

NUTRIENT ANALYSIS

Per serving (1/2 recipe about 1 cup):   520 CALORIES

25g fat, 470mg sodium, 35g carb, 28g protein.

Job one when running numbers is to be as accurate as possible.

The challenge for this dish is the mussels. There is good data on both raw mussels and steamed mussels in my database, but none to tell me the ratio of raw in shell mussels to steamed mussels on the plate. Further investigation reveals the problem. The amount of “mussel liquor” another name for the seawater trapped inside the mussel shell, is too variable for weight based calculation.

So I ran the numbers with steamed mussels using my rule of thumb 20% cooked yield for mussels as purchased in shell. However, if I were doing this calculation for a restaurant menu label, I would recommend laboratory analysis to capture the addition sodium in that trapped seawater.

Calories – the metric of choice for portion sizing.

Restaurant portions of course are large and 1000 calories or more per plate is routine. More relevant is to browse through recipes developed for home cooks so I examined about a dozen from various online sites. Results reflect a range from 470 to 1200 with most clustered between 600 to 800 calories per serving. Putting my recipe into context, a 520 calorie portion size is moderate.

Fats – Olive oil, considered a healthy fat, is the primary source, but a smaller fraction come from the mussels. Like all seafood, mussels are a source of omega 3 fatty acids (1 mg per 100 grams cooked).

Salt – The respectable level of 470mg sodium per serving is probably an under-estimate because as noted above the “mussel liquor” is not included in the calculation.

Mussels also bring minerals like manganese, selenium, iodine, iron, phosphorus, zinc, magnesium, copper, potassium. Sodium is just part of the total mineral package.

** Carbohydrates – My recipe calls for a small serving of linguine. The usual amount found in most recipes is 2 ounces (56 grams) per person. However many classic recipes specify larger amounts, probably because up until recently the standard rule of thumb for recipe from Italy was 100 grams (3 ½ ounces) per serving.

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 significantly higher.

Protein – Mussels are an excellent source of protein (24 grams per 100 grams steamed). Smaller fraction of plant protein from the linguine.

 

 

 

Recipes, Ratios, and Green Split Pea Soup.

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For the longest time I never wrote down proportions for my green pea soup. The soup never came out the same way twice but always tasted really good. Now the way I see it, variability is part of culinary creativity so having my soup just a little different every time just meant it was hand crafted and artisanal.

I still don’t use recipes very often, especially when I’m putting together a meal for supper. You don’t need to either and here’s how:

Start with a mirepoix of onion, carrot, and celery, roughly 2 parts chopped onion to 1 part each chopped celery and carrot. It’s okay to use your eye here.  An onion or two, a carrot, a couple stalks of celery for each pound bag of green split peas should do it.

Now pull out the soup pot, pour in a generous amount of olive oil, add the onions, and let them sweat. As the onions start to caramelize, add the carrot and celery.  While the veggies are sweating, wash the split peas. Sometimes it takes a while for the veggies to release moisture, but when they’ve given up all they can, the mixture starts to sizzle. At that point, in go green split peas and 2-3 liters of water.  Throw in a thyme branch if you have one handy.

Let it all simmer very gently on the stove partially covered for an hour or until the peas have softened. Remove the thyme branch, pass soup through a food mill, adjust seasoning, salt to taste, and voilà a couple of liters of delicious green split pea soup.

But don’t get me wrong, I know the value of a standardized recipe and what they are good for: food service, nutrient analysis, ratios, and editors. So there is a time and place for a standardized recipe and here’s what mine looks like:

  • 500 grams of split peas (about 2 1/2 cups)
  • 200 grams onion (about 1 1/4 cup chopped)
  • 100 grams chopped carrot (about 3/4 cup chopped)
  • 100 grams chopped celery (about 1 cup diced)
  • 100 grams olive oil (about 7 tablespoons)
  • 3 liters water (about 12 cups)
  • 10 grams salt (1 generous tablespoon flake salt or 1/2 tablespoon table or sea salt

If I run the numbers using proportions listed above in compliance with the Nutrition Facts protocol for a serving I get a label that looks like this:

Nutrients per serving (1 cup / 245g):  240 calories, 10 g fat, 29 g carbohydrate (11 g fiber), 10 g protein, 400 mg sodium.

Serving sizes are determined by the FDA and required for health or nutrient contentment claims. The RCAA (Reference Amount Customarily Consumed) for soup is one cup and so that’s the amount I used to run the numbers. I needed to adjust the water because during the cooking process some water is absorbed by the split peas and some water is evaporated so the analysis is based on the cooked weight.

Green pea soup has an exceptionally good nutrient profile. Plant based protein. Good ratio fiber to carbohydrate for a healthy Microbiome. Good source potassium for a favorable sodium to potassium ratio.

 

 

 

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 reason I salt my lentil soup.

lentil soup

 

 

 

It’s a damp, grey, periodically rainy April day here in New York City. It’s spring but you’d never know it. So I’m sitting here thinking about lentil soup instead of tender green shoots. An absolutely perfect day for a big bowl of lentil soup. Spring will come and those first tentative little shoots will appear, but it’s definitely not going to happen today.

My lentil soup is pictured above. Rich, earthy, delicious, and always appreciated on a chilly day like today.

I always make my own lentil soup. Here’s why.

First, doing it myself is economical. Brand name shelf-stable lentil soups are convenient and good to have on hand but will run as much as six dollars a liter whereas my home crafted version is closer to two dollars a liter. And that price includes using small organic French green lentils known as lentilles du Puy. Using conventional grey lentils or brown lentils, the soup would be even cheaper.

Second, doing it myself gives me more flexibility in seasoning and salting.

The soup is so easy to make I don’t bother with a recipe. Except I measure the salt. But I’ll explain why later. Thanks to the Internet, there are a gazillion recipes out there for every skill level from plodding amateur to expert proficiency. So if you need a recipe, please find one that fits your skill level.

My soup starts with a generous pound / 500 grams du Puy lentils plus an onion, a carrot, some celery stalks, and 5 tablespoons olive oil / 75 grams olive oil for a soffrito.  I use a liter of low sodium chicken stock plus enough water for cooking the soup and ending up with 3 liters finished product. Or about 12 cups of soup.

The reason I am careful with seasoning is because I want the people who sit at my table to enjoy and relish my lentil soup.

Lentils are a healthy and nutrient dense vegetable. We count them as either a phytonutrient rich vegetable or a plant protein with a compliment of vitamins, minerals, and fibers.  I want to make the soup palatable because no matter how healthy lentils are, if the soup does not taste good, nobody will benefit.  So I use herbs either in season or dry and an acid either balsamic vinegar or tomato sauce and some pepper.  And I use salt.

The ratio of salt to soup that works for me is 5 grams per liter or 15 grams for three liters. That works out to 5 teaspoons flake salt or 2 1/2 teaspoons sea salt for the 3 liters. Enough salt to enhance the earthiness of the lentils and balance the acidity of the vinegar without being overbearing.

Salt is a controversial nutrient. There are health implication, culinary implications, and cultural implications.  Let me put the amount referenced into perspective.

The amount of sodium in a cup of my lentil soup is about 550mg. That level is a little higher than the FDA disclosure level of 480mg per serving but still below the National Salt Reduction Initiative 2014 target for soup which would be closer to 620mg for a cup.

Because I know how to run my daily numbers, I know that my daily average sodium intake is usually at or below the recommended 2400mg even when I salt to taste as I do when I make lentil soup.

I think it was Anthony Bourdain who is reputed to have said that salt makes everything taste better. The man speaks the truth. Salt works. Here is how I see things. Salt is there to make really healthy things taste good. So I want people who might not eat lentils to taste my soup and find it irresistibly delicious.