Looks like the French are up to mischief again …

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Something happened in France at the end of last year.

The French government officially endorsed Nutri-Score on October 31, 2017 and that beautifully designed 5 color graphic pictured above because the official voluntary front of the package scoring system in France.

Why voluntary? Because France as a member of the European common market is not allowed to mandate a food label. However, several large French food manufacturers have already agreed to start using Nutri Score and a couple of enterprising young French entrepreneurs have already launched an app that reads barcodes and scores products.

Americans are used to French influence. Think French restaurants. Or Bordeaux wine and Brie cheese. Or Jacques Pépin. And most Americans are familiar with French food. We suspect the French eat perhaps a little more butter and cheese than most of us think is healthy. And we may also suspect the French have a more casual approach to food that allows for enjoyment without guilt. But I’m sure you’ll agree with me when I say that consumer package labeling is not the usual place one looks to for French inspiration.

Besides, why look to France when we have our own version of a front of the package label.  Ever notice those little boxes with numbers and percentages on the front of packaged foods as you’re walking down a supermarket aisle? Sometimes there is just one box. Usually there are four boxes. Sometimes up to six boxes. Here’s what our Facts Up Front label looks like

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The first box always lists calories per serving. The next three boxes provide information on nutrients to limit in the diet: saturated fat, sodium, and sugars. Subsequent boxes if they appear are used for nutrients to encourage.

The two systems reflect two very different approaches to the same problem. One isn’t necessarily easier or better than the other. A shopper who wants to choose healthier packaged items can succeed with either system. But because the approaches are so different, I decided to compare the two, detail those differences, and share my discoveries with you.

  1. The French system is color coded. Facts Up Front is not. So let’s say right up front that the color range makes the label more intuitive. Dark green indicates a healthier choice. A lighter shade of green and oranges in the middle. At the end, a deep reddish orange to indicate not so healthy choices.
  2. The French system is weight based. Facts Up Front is portion sized based. Our American system works well for comparing two brand of potato chips or whether or a portion of potato chips with a portion of an energy bar. The French system is based on a consistent weight and helps consumers compare calorie density and percentage weight. For example potato chips usually are 500 or more calories per 100 grams whereas most granola bars are closer to 400 calories per 100 grams.
  3. The French system sums up multiple nutrient numbers and presents the consumer with a single color coded score. Our American system puts 4 or more discrete values on the front of the package and it’s up to us put a picture together.
  4. The French system scores food groups. Our American system scores only nutrients. The combined weight of fruits, vegetables, legumes, or nuts is summed as a percentage of the total weight. The higher the percentage, the more points a product earns. Our American system focuses exclusively on nutrients, more specifically the nutrients to limit or avoid. There is a place for nutrients to encourage like fiber or protein or potassium, no mechanism for scoring a food group.

So there you have my run down of the differences. The best labeling strategy of course is that strategy that works for you and most folks tend to like the strategy they are used to. So most Americans will feel more comfortable with out American portion sized system and most French people will feel more comfortable with the French weight based system.

As for me I’m intrigued with the concept of including food groups in the scoring algorithm. Especially if those foods are intact whole foods. Fascinating idea and one worthy of more thought …

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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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Almond Meal Chocolate Chip Cookies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ALLERGENS – Tree Nuts

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French Macarons and Added Sugars

 

McDonalds Pastry Selection, Avenue des Champs-Élysées, Paris. @gourmetmetrics

McDonalds Pastry Selection, Avenue des Champs-Élysées, Paris.
@gourmetmetrics

 A beautiful pastry selection. Wouldn’t you agree?  We took the picture during a recent trip to Paris. And yes the pastry selection really was in McDonalds. And yes that McDonalds really is on the Champs-Élysées just about a block down from the Arc de Triomphe.

Now check out those 6 plates in the center. Those are plates of French Macarons. See the two plates in different hues of green. Then a plate of vibrant pink. And two more plates of chocolate-browns and one of cream. All beautifully sculpted and artfully arranged. All perfect. And all tasting deliciously sweet.

If you were standing in front of that gorgeous display, how many would you eat? Just between you and me, I don’t have a well developed sweet tooth so a good French macaron is almost too sweet for me. One or two is all I can eat at a time.

Now if you have a well developed sweet tooth and are feeling an irresistible urge to indulge, here’s the good news. You don’t have to go to Paris to savor the delicacy. There are stores in New York and other metropolitan cities dedicated to Macarons. Specialty manufacturers have picked up on the trend and providing packaged Macarons in stores and via the internet. Websites like Food Network or Epicurious also feature recipes for making Macarons at home.

The cookie is sweet, light, airy, and dainty. Made with sugar, almond meal (no flour and therefore no wheat), egg whites, cream, butter, and flavorings, the list of ingredients is straightforward and simple.

Had I been at a McDonald’s here in New York, calories for these Macarons would be easy to access. Several cities including New York City require it and McDonald’s has decided to be proactive posting nutrient information in restaurants and online. But Paris has no such municipal regulations so no calories and no other nutrient data.

Based on comparing data from boutique providers and recipe nutrient tags, here’s my guesstimate for my two French Macarons. Weights can vary of course but depending on selection one can expect 5 to 6 Macarons per 100 grams. So for calories let’s say 70 to 80 per each or 140 to 160 calories for two.

As for sugars, it’s safe to assume the carbohydrate is all added sugar. The other ingredients (almond meal, egg whites, cream, butter) are not carbohydrate sources except for just a whisper of lactose from the heavy cream. Good news for celiacs and those with a wheat allergy because Macarons are both gluten free and contain no wheat. Bad news for folks with a nut or milk allergy.

But who really cares? I do. But I’m a self confessed nutrition nerd. So who else cares?

A group of committed health professional food activists care. They believe their duty is to help others eat better and healthier. They care a lot. Then there’s a group made up of food manufacturers and restaurants. This group cares too but for completely different reasons.

Now you may be asking what does all this have to do with French Macarons?

Like so many other packages on the shelf, there’s added sugars in French Macaron. Quite a lot of added sugars actually. Sugar by weight is over 40% of the macaron’s total weight. Or calories from added sugars are over 40% of the total calories. However you measure it, that’s a lot of sweet.

The government has already spent significant resources constructing the new regulations. Manufacturers are now being asked to spend significant dollars to research and update their labels. Soon it will be our turn. Were consumers willing to invest the time to read and understand labels, the investment would be easy to justify. Especially if the information transmitted resulted in a decrease in obesity rates.

But here’s the catch. Will listing added sugar grams on the label discourage folks from eating too many French macarons? That’s the crucial question. Personality, I don’t think so.

Do you think the folks who just love these sweet delicate little treats will pay much attention and eat less?

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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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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.

Chocolate Almond Cake

A dense, delicious, intensely chocolate cake.  Serve as is or accompany with whipped cream, frozen yogurt, or ice cream.  The origins for this cake are certainly European, but exactly were remains unclear.  I found one version, gâteau au chocolate et aux amandes, in Elizabeth David’s book French Provincial Cooking.  An internet search brought up multiple listings for an Italian version, La Torte Caprese.  And I found a third version, pastel de chocolate alemendras, in Claudia Roden’s recent book The Food of Spain.  These versions all use bar chocolate.  My version uses high fat cocoa powder (20-25%) because, in my opinion, cocoa powder is easier to source and easier to work with.  Just don’t use Dutch Process cocoa powder because the process changes the acid base balance and may keep the eggs from setting.

  •  cost $10

  • serves 8

  • 310 calories per serving

RECIPE

4 extra large eggs

7 tablespoons / 100 g butter

1 cup / 100 g cocoa powder

7 tablespoons / 100 ml strong coffee

1 cup / 100 g almond flour

½ cup / 100 g white sugar

⅛ teaspoon / 0.4 g salt

a spoonful or two of brandy

Bring butter and eggs to room temperature before starting.  Assemble one large stainless steel bowl for egg whites, one medium mixing bowl, one small mixing bowl for egg yolks, and one 8 inch (20cm) high sided cake pan.  An electric hand mixer helps immensely.  Wash all equipment, utensils, and bowls in hot soapy water before starting.    Line the bottom of cake pan with parchment paper.  Make coffee and put aside to cool.  Preheat oven 325°F / 160°C.   Measure or weigh out sugar, almond flour, cocoa powder, and butter.

Start by melting butter in double boiler or small pan sitting in a larger pan of gently boiling water.  Stir ground almonds into melted butter and add a pinch of salt.  Then, using the medium mixing bowl, dissolve the cocoa powder in the cooled coffee.  Add 1 – 2 tablespoons brandy as needed ensure the cocoa is completed dissolved.  The mixture should resemble a very thick paste and will form a ball.

Now incorporate the cocoa-coffee mixture into the butter-almond mixture.  Keep stirring until the mixtures are thoroughly incorporated and become very smooth.  Do not let the temperature go above 125°F / 50°C.  Transfer back to medium bowl and set aside to cool.  Separate egg whites from egg yolks.  Using the electric mixer, beat egg yolks and sugar in small mixing bowl until yolks froth up and turn pale yellow.  Fold egg yolk mixture into cooled chocolate-butter-almond mixture.

Finally whip the egg whites into a foam that holds a soft peak but does not look dry.  Remember egg whites whip best at room temperature in a stainless steel bowl.  Use electric mixer with the balloon whip at high speed.  Both over beating and under beating produce lower volumes.  Once the egg whites are whipped, move fast because whites start to soften as soon as you stop beating.  Gently fold whites into chocolate mixture a third at a time using a spatula and a cutting motion.  Fold only until no visible streaks of white remain.  Pour batter into prepared cake pan.

Place cake in non-convection oven and bake until the sides are set, the center is slightly soft, and a knife inserted into the center comes out clean.  Usually takes somewhere between 35 minutes and 45 minutes.  Let the cake cool completely, remove from pan, and transfer to a plate.  Hold in the refrigerator or freeze for future use.  Bring cake to room temperature and dust with grated orange peel or powdered sugar before serving.

METRICS

As one of my dietitian colleagues shared with me in a moment of candor “The last think I want to know when I order dessert is how many calories are in a chocolate mousse!”  Many people feel this way.  So if you are one of those people don’t want to know, read no farther.

There is another way to look at the situation.  Indulgences are a significant source of calories and knowing the count enables you to manage the impact.  This cake is made with whole, minimally processed ingredients and provides nutritional value as you can see referenced below.  The problem is the calorie density.  No more, no less than any other chocolate cake out there, but still significant.  For smaller portions, divide cake in 10 pieces at 250 calories each.  For larger portions, divide cake in 6 pieces at 410 calories each.  In my experience, most people just want to enjoy, so when I serve this cake I keep the numbers to myself.

 

Per Serving (80g): Calories 310, Fat 22g, Saturated Fat 9g, Sodium 65mg, Carbohydrate 22g, Fiber 5g, Protein 8g.
Excellent source fiber and magnesium (cocoa, almond flour).
Good source protein (eggs, almond flour), vitamin A (butter), vitamin E (almond flour), iron (cocoa).
Cocoa is a natural source of flavonoids. 
See nutrition label per serving for fat and saturated fat because values exceed reference limits.

Spinach with Currants & Walnuts

makes 2 cups

cost $6.00

serves 4

150 calories per serving

This complex richly flavored dish is best balanced against a simple braised protein like fish or served on its own as an appetizer.  A robust, loose leaf spinach works best, but sometimes this spinach can be hard to find.  I am lucky enough to have a local grocer who carries the real thing all year round.  And since I live in New York City, that means shipping spinach in from California or Texas when local product is not available.  Alternatives are bagged, pre-washed, or hydroponically grown spinach.  For me the taste and texture of the real thing are worth it, but it is a personal decision.  Waiting for local product would have reduced the cost, but what can I say.  I was impatient!

Spinach grows best in sandy soil and each leaf requires washing several times to remove any little pieces of grit that may have lodged in the crevices.  So spinach whether transported or grown locally can be time consuming.  My first encounter with the combination of spinach, nuts, and fruit was in Claudia Rodin’s wonderful book The New Book of Middle Eastern Food.  Her version calls for pine nuts but I use walnuts.  I always have a few walnuts on hand and I prefer the taste.

RECIPE

1 ⅓ pound spinach as purchased fresh and untrimmed (600g)

1 whole shallot (65g) peeled and chopped

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil (15ml)

¼ teaspoon flake salt

4 tablespoons chopped walnuts (30g), about 6 walnuts as purchased in shell

2  tablespoons currants (30g)

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar (15ml)

2 teaspoon first cold pressed olive oil (10ml)

Trim stems and roots from the spinach, wash thoroughly, chop into large pieces, and spin dry in a salad spinner.  Remove walnuts from shell and chop.  Refresh currants by covering with hot water and letting them soften for about 10 minutes.  Assemble other ingredients.

Sauté scallions in olive oil using a sauté pan that comes with a cover and is large enough to hold all the spinach.  When the shallots have softened and turned translucent, add balsamic vinegar and let most of it evaporate.  Then add the chopped walnuts, softened currants, and finally the spinach, pressing the spinach down into the pan.  Do not add any additional water.  Cover and leave over low heat until the spinach softens into a mass.  Incorporate the walnuts and currant evenly into the spinach and finish with remaining cold pressed olive oil.  Tastes as good at room temperature as it does served hot.

METRICS

The experts agree that spinach is a healthy food.  A dark green vegetable as per MyPyramid.   A source of essential micro-nutrients as per Nutrition Facts Label.  The experts however do not agree about fat.  Using olive oil in classic proportions will always exceed the austere requirement of 3 grams per serving* required by the FDA to label a preparation “healthy.”  The role of fat in the diet, especially unsaturated fats and oils, is becoming controversial and consensus has not been reached yet.

My friends and family take a liberalized approach to fats and olive oil and devour my spinach faster as I can wash the leaves with comments like “I can eat this all day!”  If good cooking is the art of creating food people love to eat, than smart cooking is using those skills to encourage people to eat healthy food.  So wouldn’t that mean that olive oil is serving a noble purpose?  But there I go again – me and my simplistic mind!

 

Per Serving  (114g):  Calories 150, Fat 11g, Saturated Fat 1.5g, Sodium 125mg, Carbohydrate 12g, Fiber 3g, Protein 4g.
Excellent source  vitamin A as beta-carotene, folate, magnesium.
Good source fiber, vitamin C, calcium, iron, riboflavin, vitamin B-6, vitamin E, potassium.
A 2,000 calorie diet is used as the basis for general nutrition advice; however, individual calorie needs may vary.