A friend had a heart-to-heart with his doctor and realized it's time to get his diet in order. I'm not a fan of "diets," as they are generally doomed to fail. I’ve altered my diet over the years by watching what I eat and thinking differently about food. Knowledge and awareness lead to action without feeling restricted by a bunch of "no no" rules.
Here are some ideas as I gave them to my friend.
Make your changes a little at a time. Your habits took decades to build; don’t expect to change them tomorrow.
Don’t think “no.” That is, don’t think about what you can’t or shouldn’t have. Telling yourself no doesn’t work.
Instead, think “yes.” What -can- you have?
Eat consciously. Go buy yourself a really good apple and eat it without reading, watching TV, or doing anything else. Pay attention to the apple. A fine apple on a pretty fall day actually better than a fried whatever once you start paying attention.
One of my rules is “only eat good food.” I will still have a hamburger but dammit, it will be a good hamburger. No way I will waste my hamburger treat on a McD or BK: I am having my burger at a place that makes them medium rare and fresh. When I started to focus on quality, I lost most of my interest in cheap chains. I am conscious of what I will get at the cheap chain, so it's really easy to drive on by. I don't feel like I am denying myself because I know I won't really enjoy what's there. When I do have a burger or fried whatever, it’s really good, and I savor every bite!
Eat slowly to give your appetite gadgetry time to sense that you have eaten.
Variety is your friend. Look up the “French paradox.” The essence is that the French and most Asians have good nutrition because they have varied diets. Americans have among the least varied diets in the world.
Vegetables and fruits are your savior. Instead of taking things OUT of your diet, you can ADD things. Adding veggies and more variety mean you get to eat MORE! Eat things like apples and carrots all day, as much as you want! Buy expensive, great quality produce. Shop Farmer’s Markets. Treat yourself. It’s all so good once you get past the must-have-fried-crap programming.
Sugar water is your biggest enemy. Cut out the soft drinks a little at a time. That includes diet drinks. And it includes fruit juices! Fruit juices are mostly sugar minus the fiber. Apple juice, orange juice, not good. Whole apple, orange good. Water, good.
Do all this a little at a time. You can still eat whatever you like, just start to moderate.
One mantra is Dr. Dean Edell’s “Eat whatever you like. Just not so much.” Another is Michael Pollan’s “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.”
One more idea I will toss your way is a book recommendation: Sweet Fire by Mary Toscano.
The book focuses on carbohydrates. While weight loss is mostly a matter of calories in minus calories out, carbs affect how you metabolize and how your insulin works. Watching my carbs has made a big difference for me. Mainly, I avoid big loads of sugar and flour, white rice, etc. unless they are a part of a diverse meal with proteins and fat and fiber. Toast: Not good. Toast with bacon: Good. Well, not exactly but kind of. Juice: bad; whole fruit: Good.
It’s not a diet book! Just read it and let it change how you think, see how it alters what you eat.
Not to me, it isn't! I sometimes make popcorn the whole meal and I am pretty particular about how it's prepared. Done well, it's both light and hearty, crisp without being dry, and full of the flavor of corn and butter. I serve it with a variety of toppings — herbs, garlic, parmesan cheese, sriracha, so each bowl can be different.
I wrote about popcorn in 2006, detailing my method for perfect popcorn, and explaining why hot air and microwave popcorn are evil. It's still all true, so go read that. Then come back and I'll tell you how to make it even better. Go ahead, I'll wait...
Everything about the 2006 popcorn was perfect except for one thing — the butter. I was struggling to find a way to get more and better butter flavor and to distribute it well. When you add enough butter to taste, there are kernels that are lightly touched and others that were wet with drippy butter. I tried adding the butter a little at a time, drizzling with various tools, and briefly considered a sprayer. I tried adding it to the bowl first, but it solidified there. And throughout, there was inconsistent coverage and greasy fingers.
So why not add the butter to the cooking oil, I thought? Good idea but butter smokes at a temerpature well below the popping temperature and was quite browned by the time the popcorn was done. (Not a bad taste — like a brown butter sauce and popcorn flecked with brown bits — but not the proper popcorn I wanted.)
I knew mixing oil and butter would not work because, contrary to popular belief, oil does not increase the smoking point, it just dilutes the smoking components (and the butter flavor).
A Better Butter
Then I thought of clarified butter.
Butter contains butterfat, milk solids, and 15-20% water. Clarified butter is butterfat alone. You can buy it or make it yourself. I knew that without the milk solids, clarified butter has a much higher smoking point and doesn't brown. What would happen at popcorn temperatures — especially with the very hot Stir Crazy popper I favor?
I put some clarified butter in the popper and fired it up with a few kernels. I watched...and watched. What I was looking for was popping without smoke.
Uh-oh. It's smoking. I was thinking this might not work, when — pop! Interesting. The pop temperature is very close to the smoking temp. I tossed in the rest of the kernels and that immediately dropped the temperature to below smoking.
An Even Better Butter
Clarifing butter isn't too difficult but I wondered, how about ghee? An Indian traditional ingredient, ghee is clarified butter which is "brought to a higher temperatures of around 120 °C (250 °F) once the water had evaporated, allowing the milk solids to brown. This process flavors the ghee, and also produces antioxidants which help protect it longer from rancidity. Because of this, ghee can keep for six to eight months under normal conditions" (Wikipedia).
Advantage: Inexpensive, shelf stable, and very convenient!
Many grocery stores stock ghee, generally in the gourmet or ethnic foods section.
So here it is: Our popcorn upgrade!
Recipe: Proper Popcorn 2.0
Makes 6 quarts: Adjust amounts if your popper makes less.
1 cup of popcorn (I use Bob's Red Mill)
Fine salt to taste
2.5 ounces (by weight)=1/3 cup ghee
Popcorn popper, preferably a Stir Crazy
Measure the ghee. If you refrigerate your ghee, it's hard to spoon in a cup so meter it into a bowl on a kitchen scale. You can also soften it in the microwave, but that is tricky because ghee has no water and is transparent to microwave energy.
Put butter in the popper with two kernels of unpopped corn and plug it in.
The instant the test kernels pop, add the rest of the kernels.
Alton Brown says to add the salt to the oil and corn before popping -- hmm, good idea. I need to try that.
When popping slows to about once every two seconds, turn off popper and pour popcorn into the giant bowl, and add salt, a little at a time, stirring between additions.
Serve while still warm, you can clean up later.
Serve with napkins — and get this, it's important — give everyone a soup spoon. It's geeky, I know, but once you eat popcorn with a spoon, you'll be hooked.
If you are in the Bay Area, here is a do-not-miss event! As a foodie, I love this. And it's for a cause I care about (I am on the board of directors for the organization).
“Star Chefs and the Wines and Spirits They Love” is a benefit event for food and wine lovers. 16 top Bay Area Chefs* serve their creations and paired wines and spirits at stations around the room. Over 400 guests mingle and visit whatever stations they like. We’re talking world-class cuisine. It’s huge fun and the food is fabulous.
Then we adjourn to another room for a live auction and dessert.
The event benefits Child Advocates of Silicon Valley, which matches foster children with volunteer court-appointed advocates who provide critical educational and emotional support, ensure the child's needs are met, and their voice is heard while navigating the court dependency system. Kids with advocates have a much, much better outcome. For instance, 91% of our foster children complete high school, compared to 50% of foster children nationwide! I am on the Child Advocates of Silicon Valley board.
Michael Bauer, food critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, spoke out against sous vide. Outrageous!
Sous vide is the (rather poorly named) modernist cuisine technique in which food is sealed in a pouch and cooked in a water bath at a precise temperature. Until a few years ago, it was strictly a restaurant procedure since the equipment cost thousands of dollars, but now home cooks, like me, have available gadgets for $200-500 which work wonderfully.
I love what it does for meats, especially. Medium-rare from edge-to-edge is not just possible, but easy. Meat that slow cooks well, such as short ribs, can cook literally for days at the perfectly controlled temperature. And for delicate custards, eggs, and confections which need to reach finely chosen temperatures, it's like magic.
So what's Michael Bauer's beef? Mushy beef. Flabby fish.
He's right. Every sous vide chef learns, pretty quickly (the hard way — ask me how I know), that cooking fine meats, especially finely textured, lean muscle such as loin cuts, become spongy when cooked too long. But it's easy to avoid: don't cook lean, already tender meats longer than an hour or two and chill it when done.
Apparently not all the fine restaurants have figured this out.
Everyone knows: To keep a cut avocado green and fresh, just leave the pit in the cut half!
Except that everyone knows it doesn't work. Funny how something so easily disproven still floats around as kitchen advice.
So, what does work? Epicurious did some tests on some methods I've used and a few I haven't. On the no side: The pit, plastic wrap, lemon juice, and one that sounded smart to me but doesn't work, non-stick spray.
(By the way, plastic wrap does work if you use wrap that's not oxygen-permeable, such as Saran Wrap Premium.)
So what did work? "Combining lemon juice and plastic wrap was by far the winning solution."
And if you're making guacamole or cutting the avocado, just use the method that kept the Titanic fresh for 73 years. Place it in a bowl and cover it with water.
For guacamole, the national Super Bowl super snack, mash it, press to remove captured air, add 1/2" of water and refrigerate. The next day, pour off and mix.
My household includes someone with celiac disease, so I cook gluten-free most of the time. Celiac (or coeliac) disease is an autoimmune disorder which is triggered by even tiny amounts of gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Affecting roughly 1 in 133 people, the complications are serious and the damage is lasting, so it's not just a case of avoiding gluten most of the time. For celiacs, the prohibition is total and permanent.
As a cook, it's not too difficult to manage once you learn what to look for on labels. There are many surprise sources of gluten on labels that don't say "wheat" — soy sauce, modified food starch, malt. Because even tiny amounts of gluten can trigger a reaction, contamination is an issue. Labels now will generally warn when a product is prepared on shared equipment, where wheat products are also prepared. For instance, oatmeal has no gluten, but Quaker oatmeal is processed alongside wheat products and has enough contamination to trigger reactions. Nuts are frequently processed on shared equipment. Once we learned the labeling, it became manageable.
Gluten-free has become a bit of a craze. An unknown percentage of the population, said to be as much as 20%, has (or believes it has) a gluten sensitivity not as severe or as sensitive as celiac disease. And a lot of others have decided to avoid gluten, based on no real science. Many believe it's a weight-loss strategy. The good news is that valid or not, and fad or not, the popularity means many more gluten-free products are becoming available and manufacturers, restaurants, waiters, and suppliers are more knowledgable, all of which is good for the celiacs.
There are many, many gluten substitutes. Some are more successful than others. It depends on the application. Some things are pretty easy, such as sauces where flour or a roux is used as the thickener. A range of thickeners can be used: Potato, corn, or tapioca starch, xanthan gum, even mashed potato flakes.
Baked good are harder, Cakes, especially highly chocolate ones, are not too difficult. Scones and relatively dry products like cookies work pretty well. And you can get creative, using cornbread instead of bread.
There are numerous flour substitutes, from Pamela’s, Glutino, Bob’s Red Mill, and others. I don’t bake much so can’t tell you how they compare. One I want to try is Cup 4 Cup, a supposedly excellent flour sub which came from Thomas Keller’s pastry chef. Keller backs the company. It's hard to find (the day I went to Draeger’s for some, it was sold out). It's available mail order, too, and at high=end places like Williams-Sonoma.
As a general rule, anything that has a stretchy, gum-like or elastic texture, like pizza or bagels, is very hard to do; things without masking flavor like white bread, where wheat is the main flavor, are hard. We have made some GF pie crusts that are surprisingly good.
Pasta is a huge challenge but happily there is a new kid on the block. Previously, the only passable one we found was Tinkyada, which is quite good. But now, Barilla has a GF variety which is so good, I even serve it to non-GF people.
I'll post some GF recipes from time to time. Here's a really great one. These GF chocolate chip cookies are so good, it's hard to tell they are GF except for the tell-tale, grittiness in the after-taste. But it's the only defect and it's minor. And I'm looking at some formulation changes that may improve that aspect.
Alton's Chewy Gluten Free Chocolate Chip Cookies
8 ounces unsalted butter
11 ounces brown rice flour, approximately 2 cups
1 ¼ ounces cornstarch, approximately 1/4 cup
½ ounce tapioca flour, approximately 2 tablespoons
1 teaspoon xanthan gum
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 ounces sugar, approximately 1/4 cup
10 ounces light brown sugar, approximately 1 1/4 cups
1 whole egg
1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons whole milk
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
12 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
Melt the butter in the microwave* or a heavy-bottom medium saucepan over low heat. Once melted, pour into the bowl of a stand mixer.
In a medium bowl, sift together the rice flour, cornstarch, tapioca flour, xantham gum, salt and baking soda. Set aside.
Add both of the sugars to the bowl with the butter and using the paddle attachment, cream together on medium speed for 1 minute. Add the whole egg, egg yolk, milk and vanilla extract and mix until well combined. Slowly incorporate the flour mixture until thoroughly combined. Add the chocolate chips and stir to combine.
Chill the dough in the refrigerator until firm, approximately 1 hour. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
Shape the dough into 2-ounce balls and place on parchment-lined* baking sheets, 6 cookies per sheet. (The recipe makes 24 cookies, so you'll do two pans at once, two batches). Bake for 14 minutes, rotating the pans after 7 minutes for even baking. Remove from the oven and cool the cookies on the pans for 2 minutes. Move the cookies to a wire rack and cool completely. Store cooked cookies in an airtight container.
* Don't skip the parchment paper. These cookies do stick.
"Dave the inquisitive" asked another of his provocative questions:
Since foodies go for medium-rare, and most recipes optimize for that, there must be a set of different techniques among that small black-sheep subset of the foodie world that actually prefers med-well or well-done, and has found ways to achieve that and still have tenderness and flavor.
For example, I’ve had over-done fillet mignon, and it’s still to die for. So…
Any tips, meat-choices or cuts, cooking techniques, etc, for the well-done crowd?
Medium Rare: Snobbery or Sense?
Medium rare is the ideal for meats like filet mignon, pork loin, and loin cuts, which are simple muscles with little fat or connective tissue. The ideal of “medium rare” is not arbitrary snobbery; it maximizes tenderness and moistness. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt of Serious Eats and Cook's Illustrated have both tested it. As Kenji writes in Serious Eats, doneness is a matter of personal taste, but perhaps there is a subjective consensus and a reason chefs prefer medium rare. Kenji "cooked five prime-grade New York strips at temperatures ranging from 120°F to 160°F and fed them to a group of a dozen tasters."
Illustration: Serious Eats
The most popular was good old medium rare, done to an internal temperature of 130°F. I've replicated this test myself, though not with a dozen tasters.
There is a good reason. As food cooks, moisture starts to release from the cells and become available but as we exceed medium and move toward well done, the meat contracts, squeezing out moisture like a sponge and the maximum fresh meat flavor is long gone. Moisture and flavor are at their peak at 130-135°F.
When people like well done, I think it’s because they are enjoying the seared flavor and most cooks fail to achieve a good sear in medium rare cooking. The ideal is a dark sear and pronounced crust while keeping the interior at 130-135.
Whether we consider them gastronomically right or wrong, those who like their meat well done are our guests. So back to Dave's question. How do we accommodate a range of tastes?
For a pan steak or grilled steaks, we just cook to order, bringing each steak to the desired doneness. For a roast, there are two ways. One is to serve the ends to the well-doners. This is ideal because they are not just getting well-done meat, they’re getting a lot of seared meat, which is probably what they really want. I am not immune to the lure of the end cuts. When there is carved roast beef on a buffet line, I always ask for an end, after I get a normal cut, because the ends are so well seared in a properly done larger roast. Knowledgable servers smile and appreciate the request.
But there are only two ends, so restaurants use a different strategy. They toss the steak into a pan and give it an extra shot of cooking, sometimes in the gravy or juices or finishing sauce. Some places keep some of the roast beef in the warmed juices so that even at room temperature, they pick up color and they serve that to those who ask for more doneness.
How can the home cook maximize the quality of well done meat?
Pan finish briefly and gently, and in the juices, to minimize damage.
"It’s very common to find seared ahi (tuna), which I love. However, even though ahi, salmon, snapper and other fish make good sushi (raw), it is rare (ha ha) to find seared anything-else. Why?"
Dave raises a great point. Is there something unique about ahi, or is it just customary?
I think there are two reasons ahi is commonly seared. The first is that the tuna steaks used for seared ahi are very low in fat and can't tolerate even slight overcooking. Unlike salmon, which remains moist whether cooked medium or even well-done (hence its frequent appearance at large catered dinners), tuna becomes chokingly dry when cooked anything past rare. Searing is one of very few ways they can be cooked.
The second reason is the fresh taste of cool, raw tuna. It tastes like the sea. Pair that with a seared outside, crusted with sesame seeds and some soy, and you have a unique contrast.
Seared ahi requires extreme heat, to brown the exterior without cooking past a couple millimeters of depth. That's tricky to do in home kitchens. Alton Brown demonstrates how to turn a charcoal-starter chimney into a blast furnace. I tried it and it works, though I usually use cast iron on the stove top. I have also tried a blowtorch.
I very often cook salmon so it's rare in the middle. It's the same idea as seared ahi but not quite the same doneness profile since the goal with ahi is to have it mostly raw with just the outermost edge seared; with salmon I just want it rare or medium rare, not necessarily raw.
By the way, the way to sear salmon is with skin-on. Crispy skin on moist salmon is da bomb.
Serious Eats Serious Eats is another blog which plants its stake, and its steak, in the fertile land where food meets science. There is lots of great material here, much of it by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, or Kenji. If you like FeedMe, you will like Serious Eats.
Cooking for Engineers What do you get when you apply the engineer's mind to the kitchen? Straightforward, practical recipes and tips and a passion for simplifying without sacrificing quality.