Friday, September 23, 2011

Food Politics

I finally finished reading "Food Politics" by Marion Nestle last month. I'm not gonna lie, it's kind of a tough read, but definitely worth it.

Basically, the whole point of the book is to bring attention to the fact that the FDA basically has no power and every time it tries to assert itself, it loses even more ground. Nestle discusses this from several different angles and also gives a rough time line of what the FDA has done (or been stopped from doing) over the last 40 or so years.

What was especially disparaging was the way food companies began being able to put "health claims" on their packaging and in their advertising, mostly thanks to the supplement industry. The supplement industry helped build a grassroots effort to allow consumers the "right to choose" what is best for them. After the passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), the supplement industry was allowed to put health claims on their products, even if those claims had little or no scientific evidence to back them up. Following this was the creation of functional foods, the sole purpose of which is to act as a "healthier" alternative to traditional food. Companies marketing functional foods made the claim that these foods had added supplements and under DSHEA, they had the right to advertise the things that made them so "healthy."And so they did. And now everything in the supermarket seems to have one health claim or another on it.

Furthermore, the FDA seems to be blocked from every possible side. Nestle talked about her time working on the Surgeon General's Report on Nutrition and Health, and how she was explicitly told she would not be allowed to make any recommendations that would suggest that a person eat less of any particular food because the food industry would pull its financial support from the elected officials responsible for its release. As such, Nestle had to resort to attacking specific nutrients rather than types of food. Instead of telling people to eat less red meat, she had to say "Choose a diet low in saturated fat." These types of statements are confusing to consumers and allow other equally unhealthy foods to take advantage of advertising their low-fat status (even though they are full of sugar or high fructose corn syrup). Even more interestingly, the FDA has no control over what gets put in advertising that is not on the package, because that has to go through the FCC.

What's worse is that the FDA has 120 days from when a food company petitions to put a health claim on its product to determine if the claim is accurate and must prove it is inaccurate within that time frame in order to prohibit its use. If the 120 days expires, the claim is automatically approved. And should the FDA later determine the product is unsafe, the FDA can't actually do anything about it. They can only "request" that a food company recall the product. As you can imagine, the FDA is totally underfunded for such a task and so most of these petitions go through without so much as an eyelash batted at them.

Nestle's book is very technical, so it's a slow read. But the information is invaluable and really makes me think carefully about the health claims I hear, where I hear them, and who is paying for them. As Michael Pollan said, if a food makes a health claim, it probably isn't real food. Words to live by right there.

In other book news, I'm currently working on "The Story of Sushi" by Trevor Corson, which is mostly a bookumentary on a group of aspiring sushi chefs. Most of it is sort of funny stories about their time at sushi school, but there are a lot of interesting bits about how sushi is made traditionally and how sushi has changed over time and since its arrival in the United States. I don't have much time for it now that school is started, but I'm slowly working my way through it. I also bought a fun book called "Insanewiches" by Adrian Fiorino, which is basically a picture/cook book of crazy sandwiches. Not all of them are healthy (Most notably the Quadruple Down, featuring four fried chicken breasts, bacon, cheese, mayo, etc. I'm having a heart attack just looking at the picture), but there are many that are at least reasonably good for you. And they're cute. So I will probably make some and post them on here at some point.


Let me just preface this whole post with something. Generally speaking, I hate leftovers. There are a few exceptions to this rule (lasagna), but for the most part, I'm pretty sick of eating something after one or two days in a row. Furthermore, my husband is not really any better, which is apparently weird.

One time, a few years back, I was at my (male) friend's parents' house and I was trying to make room for the food that was going to be dinner that night, and with three teenage boys living at home, there wasn't much room left. So I threw away my friend's leftovers from the day before thinking, Who's gonna eat these leftovers when we have all this fresh food that needs to be eaten? And that's when I found out that you're apparently not supposed to touch a man's leftovers. Ever. Unless they're my husband's leftovers. You can throw those away because he's not gonna eat them unless I make it happen.

That being said, I'm trying to do three things in regards to leftovers:

1. Figure out how to make things in smaller portions.

2. Re-invent my leftovers to take on a new form.

3. Freeze everything else.

I've successfully made a few things with smaller portions. My best accomplishment to date, is making mini-lasagna. My original recipe is for a 9x13 pan, but my husband and I could barely finish it. I would usually eat three or four big pieces and make him eat at least three (He is not as big of a fan of these leftovers as I am). So we cut it down to a 9x9 pan, which makes about 5 servings, which is just enough for the two of us. More recently though, I made lasagna for myself is an 8x6 which was just right with about three servings. I've also made a single serving eggplant burger, chicken, and a few other things. My biggest problem tends to be anything with eggs or yeast, because you can't really include half an egg or half a yeast packet, can you?

Going along with making smaller portions, I've also been working on purchasing smaller portions. Sometimes when I'm at the farmer's market, I'll see these huge baskets of tomatoes or okra or strawberries or whatever, and I know there's no way I'd be able to finish the whole basket. Some of the farmers have been kind enough to offer me a half-portion or allow me to buy the amount I need. I had a really nice farmer at one market that was selling a big basket of tomatoes for $4. I told him I really only needed one or two, so he gave me two "ugly" tomatoes for $1. Another farmer was selling quarts of strawberries and I didn't think I could use that much, so she offered me a pint for half the price.

My other problem area is meats. I feel silly asking for only half a pound of ground beef, but when I'm only making food for one or two, that's really all I need. So I've been brave and asked for the amount I need.

My other other problem area is restaurant leftovers. I never seem to eat them after we leave the restaurant. Why I ask them to box them up is beyond me, but I do it. In order to prevent this whole predicament, I usually try to get my husband to share something with me. Unfortunately, we often have different tastes or he's "really hungry" and won't want to share. Last time we compromised and I got a small dish (quesadilla appetizer) and he got a big dish that I also wanted (burrito) and we split them.

Reinventing has been my most successful endeavor, I think. It is especially good with leftover meat dishes from restaurants. My leftover steak from Benjy's? I put it in my omelet the next day. My leftovers from the Vietnamese place? Omelet. My leftovers from my fajitas? Stir-fry, though they might've made a nice omelet too, I don't know. I put leftover chicken on salads. Leftover ribs can become pulled pork sandwiches. The list goes on. My biggest problem is just not knowing how to make it different from what I was already eating, but throwing stuff in my omelets seems to work pretty well as a fallback plan for now.

Freezing things has also worked pretty well. I already freeze my pizza dough because it makes enough for two large pizzas, but now I've started freezing it in smaller portions and I make mini-pizzas. I've also been making batches of pancakes and freezing whatever I don't eat. This has been the best thing ever because it makes making breakfast so easy. I just pop a couple in the microwave and BAM! Breakfast is served.

I added banana slices one time but I don't think they froze as well. They were excellent fresh though!

Whole Wheat Pancakes (From Better Homes and Gardens, p. 137)
1 3/4 cups whole wheat flour
2 tablespoons packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 1/2 cups milk
3 tablespoons cooking oil

1. In a large bowl stir together flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. In another bowl use a fork to combine egg, milk, and oil. Add egg mixture all at once to flour mixture. Stir just until moistened (batter should be slightly lumpy). If desired, stir in desired fruit.

2. For each standard-size pancake, pour about 1/4 cup batter onto a hot, lightly greased griddle or heavy skillet, spreading batter if necessary. For dollar-size pancakes, use about 1 tablespoon batter. Cook over medium heat for 1 to 2 minutes on each side or until pancakes are golden brown, turning to second side when pancakes have bubbly surfaces and edges are slightly dry. Serve warm. If desired, top with syrup.

Meatballs was another very freezable meal. I can add a few to spaghetti, make meatball subs, or just eat them by themselves. What I really like is that I can put all of them in one freezer bag and pull out just what I need.

 Open-Faced Meatball Sandwich

Meatballs (from The Newlywed Cookbook, p. 72)

1 pound lean ground beef
1 small onion, diced (about 1/2 cup)
1/4 cup Italian-style dry bread crumbs
1 egg
2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley (or just regular, dried parsley, or Italian seasoning)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 teaspoons olive oil

1. In a large bowl, combine beef, onion, bread crumbs, egg, parsley, salt, and pepper. Mix well with your hands and form mixture into 16 2-inch meatballs.
2. Heat oil in a large non-stick skillet over medium heat. Add meatballs and sauté 5-7 minutes, or until browned on sides.

Top with marinara, cheese, etc. Same goes for the leftovers. Just dump whatever you want on them and throw them in the microwave.

Houston Restaurant Week/Month/Something

My new neighbor friends were really into Houston Restaurant Weeks last month, and so we went to a few different restaurants showcased during the event. The basic premise is that during the event, participating restaurants will offer a special menu ($20 for 2- to 3-course brunch or lunch, $35 for 3-course dinner) to showcase their food and $3 of each meal sold goes to the Houston Food Bank.

Of course, I went to Sorrel. I've already talked about them a ton. I also went to Benjy's which offered a delightful brunch, as noted by the photos below:

Benjy's Famous Crunchy French Toast

 Steak and Eggs with Hash Browns and Grilled Tomato

And there was dessert too, but I ate that before I remembered to take a picture.
I've also hit a few other local restaurants worth mentioning. I've found a few yummy Mexican places, most notably Chuy's and Lupe Tortilla. Chuy's is sort of sketchy looking on the outside, but it's very eclectic and fun on the inside. I've gotten a burrito and quesadilla there, both were excellent. They also sell funny t-shirts and other paraphernalia such as CAPES! And yes, I bought one. No judgment. Lupe, on the other hand, looks like a pretty typical Mexican restaurant on the outside, but inside are the best freaking fajitas of all time. No lie, they are "world famous" and huge portions! I definitely need one or even two people to split it with me next time.

Last weekend, I also went to this fabulous Vietnamese restaurant (but I have no idea what the name of it was). I was at a concert with one of my classmates and afterward (at like, 2 AM), we were both a little hungry. She told me about this Vietnamese place that was open until 4 near her apartment, so we went over there. I was thinking this was going to be a little hole in the wall late night place, but it was a full-fledged, and dare I say mid- to upscale restaurant. I ordered some Vietnamese fajitas and once again, I was more than impressed. It was a large portion for about $11 dollars and I used my leftovers in my omelet the next day. I also seriously enjoyed the "tortillas" which, when they were delivered, were like giant see-through communion wafers. But then I got a bowl of water and when I dipped them in, they became pliable little spring roll papers.

I haven't been to too many other places yet, but I've got a couple on my to-do list and I'm sure I'll find more to go on and on about in the coming months. Meanwhile, I need to bulk up my menu at home with inspirations from these new delicious treats.

Okra and Eggplant

Hello, blogosphere. It's been a while. Here's a quick update on my non-foodie life: I've been working a lot. And I started school again in August. So I've had zero time for blogging. BUT! I have had time for cooking. And eating. Which we will discuss. Today.

So as I mentioned in my previous entry, I decided to experiment with the okra and eggplant that I bought at the farmer's market. I've eaten okra a few times prior to this, but I'd never cooked it on my own. Eggplant, on the other hand, was completely foreign to me. And so, my adventure began.

For my first cooking experience with okra, I decided to stick with something simple, so I pan-fried it. Basically I sliced it, covered it in olive oil, covered it in bread crumbs, and tossed the whole thing in the frying pan for a while.

Okay, so it wasn't exactly "covered" in bread crumbs, but you get the idea.
The final result was pretty good. Not amazing, but definitely edible. After I got tired of that, I still had quite a bit of okra left over, so I had to start getting creative. This is when I learned an incredibly important fact: You can put okra in just about anything. And so I did. Okra got put in salads. Okra got put in fajitas. Okra got put in chili. Okra has also made several appearances in my omelets. 

Okra, Tomato, and Feta Omelet. And also a bagel.

My adopted brother, Ben (who grew up in the South), told me the ONLY way to cook okra is to fry it in butter. I haven't yet tried this method, but it's on my list.

Perhaps the biggest complaint I hear about okra is how slimy it is, but there are ways to get around this. As noted in this blog, oil-based cooking works better than water-based cooking. I've also heard that cooking them whole works better than slicing them, but I haven't tried this technique yet. Overall, I would say my okra experience includes a mild slime, but it's not so bad. Probably my best results come from mixing it with a lot of other stuff, such as the omelets and fajitas. It blends pretty seamlessly, and therefore slime-lessly. Truth be told, I don't even notice it most of the time, and neither does my husband when I sneak it in his food.

 Eggplant has been more of a problem for me.

My first eggplant experiment was awesome. I made this eggplant burger and it was such an excellent meat substitute:

Mmm... cheesy.

Eggplant Burgers (from Simply in Season, p. 143)
2 tablespoons oil
2 teaspoons wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper

Whisk together in a small bowl. Cut 1 large eggplant into 1/4-inch thick slices to make 12-16 slices. Brush with oil mixture. Place on grill over medium-high heat. Close lid and cook, turning and brushing occasionally with remaining oil mixture, until tender, 5-10 minutes. Remove from grill. (Eggplant slices may be cooked under the broiler or sautéed in a fry pan until tender.

Simply in Season recommends adding cheese, tomatoes, red peppers, fresh basil leaves, etc. I just added the cheese, which was perfect.

After the excellent first attempt, I thought eggplant would be another successful venture. But I was wrong. Oh so wrong.

I tried a few other recipes and I just couldn't get them right. The eggplant always came out wet and chewy. It wasn't bad, but I just didn't like it very much, and it quickly became difficult finding ways to eat it. Here are some that I tried and maybe I'll try them again later and see if I have better luck.

Spicy Roasted Eggplant (from Simply in Season, p. 121)
1/2 cup fresh cilantro sprigs (chopped)
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
pinch of ground cinnamon

Stir together. Cut 1 large eggplant in 1/4-inch slices. Brush cilantro mixture on both sides of eggplant slices and transfer to greased baking pan. Broil eggplant 5-6 inches from heat until golden and cooked through, about 10 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste.


Broiled Eggplant with Crunchy Parmesan Crust (From Farmer John's Cookbook, p. 177. I used their recipe for making my own mayonnaise, but I did a pretty bad job. I think it's one of those things you have to follow the directions closely, or else. Maybe I'll make/buy better mayo and this will turn out better next time. Also, you can never have too much cheese.)
Oil for greasing the baking sheet
eggplant, cut into 1/4-inch slices
freshly grated Parmesan cheese (about 1/2 cup)

1. Preheat the broiler. Lightly oil a baking sheet.
2. Spread mayonnaise sparingly on both sides of each eggplant slice, then dip the slices in the grated Parmesan cheese, thoroughly coating both sides.
3. Arrange slices in a single layer on the oiled baking sheet and place under broiler until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Flip the slices and broil until golden brown and crunchy on top and the eggplant is soft, about 3 minutes more.

Served with pan-crusted tilapia, bread, and of course, fried okra
I really think the mayo was to blame for this one. I'm going to retry it later. And maybe make the mayo right this time.