Here’s the secret to a great ratatouille.

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Every August I make ratatouille. Zucchini is still coming in. Tomatoes and peppers are bursting on the scene. Fresh garlic and fragrant basil are in season and abundant.

JULIA KNEW THE SECRET.

I made my first ratatouille to rave reviews using a Julia Child recipe. Her version was spot on because she knew the secret so I just did what she said and used a generous hand and the best olive oil I could afford.

Julia made her mark in the 1960s and 1970s so she missed a head on collision with the fat phobic era that gripped our nation starting mid 1980s.

DECADES OF FAT PHOBIA IMPACTED RECIPE DEVELOPMENT.

By the time I went back to school to study nutrition in 1993, low fat was firmly entrenched. Manufacturers had already jumped on this bandwagon as noted in an article from 1993 in the The Washington Post. It took a little longer for recipe modification to take hold however.

In October 1998,  Eating Well a magazine dedicated to healthy eating published a recipe for ratatouille. Enough olive oil was removed to get the calories from fat down to 33%. In other words about half the amount of olive oil as Julia called for in her recipe.

The most austere recipe I pulled up searching for low fat ratatouille was from 2008. This recipe substituted cooking spray for olive oil and successfully reduced the calories from fat down to an austere level of 10%.

LOW FAT HITS VEGETABLES ESPECIALLY HARD.

That’s because vegetables by weight are mostly water and water has no calories. Vegetables have lots of positives like fiber, some protein, sometimes sugars, and a rich array of vitamins, minerals, pigments, phytonutrients. Just not many calories.

Fats like olive oil are calorie dense so when the oil gets added to eggplant, zucchini, peppers, and tomatoes — all of which have practically no calories — of course most of the calories will come from fat. A well crafted ratatouille clocks in between 60 TO 70% calories from fat.

WE NEED A BETTER SCORING SYSTEM.

Vegetables, some of the healthiest foods out there, got punished when salt and oil were added just because vegetables are so low in calories. With all due respect to our regulatory officials, there has just got to be a better way

So I decided to keep an eye out for a better scoring metric. I discovered some research done at Oxford a decade or so ago that counts both negatives and positives. Then I adapted this approach to my own recipe analysis.

Ratatouille tastes much better made with salt (40% sodium) and lots of olive oil (13% saturated fat). Sodium and saturated fat currently count negative.

Ratatouille is mostly eggplant, zucchini, peppers, and tomato by weight (over 90%). Vegetables, protein, and fiber currently count positive.

The negatives are about equal to the positives with a slight edge to positives and that sounds healthy to my simplistic mind.

AUGUST IS MY MONTH FOR CELEBRATION.

August is the optimal month for ratatouille. August is the month Julia was born. And August is the month I finally figured out how to score ratatouille healthy.

There are so many classic recipes for ratatouille available via the internet. You can find Julia’s recipe here. And Alice Water’s recipe here. And the recipe from The Kitchn here.

Or you message me via LinkedIn or Facebook and I’ll send you my recipe.

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Here’s why indulgence has a place at my table.

photo credit: gourmetmetrics
photo credit: gourmetmetrics

An omelette is my go to meal when I’m hungry, pressed for time, and feel like indulging myself.

Pictured above is a quick and dirty meal I put together a couple of weeks ago. Bitter greens and cannelloni beans mixed with calamari, restaurant leftovers from a meal the night before, filled up half the plate so all I did was make the omelette.

My meal was delicious. Greens and legumes fall into the healthy column, but I’m wondering about that omelette …

First cholesterol and now veganism.

Since the 1970s, we’ve been told to avoid foods high in cholesterol and egg consumption has taken a major hit. In 2015, cholesterol was removed as a nutrient of concern and the 2015 Dietary Guidelines say eggs are now okay with this disclaimer. Eggs like all animal based proteins should be consumed in moderation.

Vegans take that advice one step further.Eating an egg is as bad as smoking cigarettes.” That claim was made in a recent Netflix movie funded and produced by folks promoting veganism. What the Health got mixed reviews but vegan messaging tends to be aggressive and the message is clear — eating eggs is not okay.

Does anyone think eggs are healthy?

An Organic egg farmer in New Hampshire recently filed a citizens petition asking the FDA to allow them to label eggs healthy based on the revised guidance issue by the FDA. The petition points out that the fatty acids in an egg are predominantly unsaturated.

Eggs do have an impressive nutrient profile. Excellent protein with all essential amino acids, a favorable mixture of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids, and a very impressive list of micro- and phyto-nutrients.

So what is it — are eggs healthy or unhealthy?

Here’s the problem. Eggs are a mixed bag and making an omelette with butter or oil and salt adds more variables to the bag.

My omelette has strong positives. Complete protein plus all those other micro nutrient benefits.

And my omelette has strong negatives. Saturated fat, calorie density, and sodium.

Here’s why I use the word indulgent.

Swinging back and forth from one extreme to the other is not helpful. We need a better approach. Some kind of hybrid system that scores the omelette as a whole.

Towards this end, an approach developed in the UK and recently implemented in France has potential. The metric is weight based and positives are balanced against negatives to come up with a single score. I’ve adapted this approach for recipe analysis. When I ran the numbers, my omelette got more negatives than positives.

Actually got a lot more negatives than positives and that’s why I use the word indulgent.

Some final thoughts on healthy.

• Nutrition research is constant and ongoing. Saturated fat and sodium score negative because current guidelines from both the US and EU recommend moderation. Both nutrients however remain controversial in some research circles. Especially the complex issue of saturated fats.

• Ingredient quality and degree of processing aren’t scored. Pastured local eggs, California certified olive oil, and home cooking add value for me but are not part of the scoring metric. And because I value home cooked from whole minimally processed foods, delicious indulgent is okay at my table as long as I source my own ingredients and make it myself.

• Putting my omelette, or any other meat based protein, on the same plate as greens and legumes makes the whole plate healthier.

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

Photo Credit: gourmetmetrics
Photo Credit: gourmetmetrics

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

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

THE NUTRITION FACTS STORY

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

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

AND NOW FOR THE REST OF THE STORIES.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHERE DOES FOOD FIT?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Will 2018 be the year I can finally eat healthy?

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Healthy eating has been in a state of transformation now for the last couple of years. It’s hard to date exactly when the sea change started but we’ve gradually been moving away from low fat, restrictions, and deprivations.

During the 1990s healthy really was synonymous with low fat, restrictions, and deprivations. That was decade when restaurants stopped using the word because they quickly determined that labeling a new menu item heart healthy or low fat was the kiss of death.

Home cooks and creative chefs have probably never paid all that much attention to nutrition guidelines and, just between you and me, I never cooked low fat at home even though I did my nutrition studies during the 1990s. But mainstream Americans embraced carbohydrates and sugar and cut out the fat.

I knew things were happening in the academic community when I started seeing studies like these here and here and here.

And if I were asked to provide pivotal dates, I would cite the publication of the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines because of the implicit acknowledgement that the sum may be greater than its individual parts.

Previous editions of the Dietary Guidelines focused primarily on individual dietary components such as food groups and nutrients. However, people do not eat food groups and nutrients in isolation but rather in combination, and the totality of the diet forms an overall eating pattern.

Or perhaps the FDA decision to exercise enforcement discretion as the agency reviews labeling criteria for manufacturers who want to label their products healthy.

But when I see a statement like the one below from a restaurant consulting group suggesting deprivation and restriction need no longer be a necessary component of healthy eating, I begin to think 2018 may actually be the year when the pieces fall into place. Healthy Dining is a San Diego based restaurant consulting group. Here’s that quote from the CEO from a recent blog:

There’s a new trend in healthy eating and restaurant dining, and it is leaving behind restriction and deprivation in favor of savoring great meals at restaurants that support a healthy lifestyle.

So you may be wondering what all this has to do with my lovingly prepared and very tasty chicken tagine pictured above?

Well let me explain. Even by current liberalized criteria, my tagine is not technically healthy.  Despite using quality ingredients and significant amount of vegetables to compliment the chicken thighs, my cooking uses more olive olive than is currently recommended.

Since the 1990s when those draconian criteria were cast in regulatory concrete, many of my zealous colleagues have dutifully taken classic recipes like the one I used for the tagine and made adjustments to the proportions to restrict fat, saturated fat, and sodium.

Relief is in sight however. To their credit, the FDA has acknowledged the need to revise that criteria. And I say congratulations. Maybe a little late, but better late than never …

What will the new criteria look like?

Hopefully a better way to asses the food and nutrition values of a dish like the one pictured above. We need a scoring system that awards points for making half the plate vegetables plus positives like fiber and protein. Then we need that same scoring system to balance those positives against sodium and saturated fats.

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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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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

 

 

 

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 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.