Friday, February 24, 2012

Opry Waste Land

I’ve stowed away on a business trip with my hubby to Nashville. Having a blast – cowboys who play guitars are my thing. When not frequenting the Honky Tonks on Broadway, I’ve been using the time to write. I’m finding a quiet hotel room divinely inspirational, especially when I didn’t pay for it. Getting some good stuff written and catching up on all the blogs I profess to follow.

It’s all good, but I must say that I’m horrified at the collective waste of the average American traveler. That would be me this morning. The picture posted shows our breakfast table. By-passing the fancy dining room (the bill might give away my stowaway status on the T&E report), we opted for breakfast at the hotel coffee bar. I did carry in my own tea made in the room (with no option other than a paper cup because my travel mug is too big for the one cup machine), but there was no way around the rest of the plastic and paper waste if we wanted to eat.

We each ordered a little egg mcmuffin-like sandwich. Both came thoroughly over-microwaved in their own plastic encasement that could have held six mcmuffins rather than just the weenie one. We also ordered some fresh fruit to share. It came with a huge plastic coffin too. Add to that the plastic water bottle for the water my hubby ordered, the paper napkins, and then the biggest waste of all – a thick cardboard tray to carry our delicacies the twenty feet or so to our table.

All that crazy waste and I’m just one unofficial resident at the hotel. The other seven thousand or so (we’re staying at Gaylord Opryland – it is HUGE), certainly created plenty of waste themselves. And beyond that number are all the other hotels in Nashville and beyond. Why are we allowed to do this? When the majority of the earth’s population struggle to put food on the table, we throw away what must be hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of containers, plastic utensils, paper cups, and napkins just for breakfast! The magnitude of this waste overwhelms me this morning. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Look at Those Bubbles Hon!

There’s beer brewing in my mud room. You can hear the occasional “burp” and just in case you don’t, my husband will drag you in there to witness the bubbles escaping the tube coming from the giant glass container of murky brown liquid sitting on the work table next to the sink. This is his first batch in 12 years. That’s the same age as our daughter, whose creation halted his brewing efforts because the smell of fermenting hops made my pregnant self ill.

As the familiar scent wafted through our kitchen on Saturday, I had only a few uncomfortable moments. I had to take my lunch elsewhere. I’m happy to see him back at his craft and we’ve had more than a few chuckles reading through his notes from his brewing past. “Remember the disaster batch with the old bay?”

Coincidentally, I was also fermenting something new this week. I made sour dough starter. It was so easy I have to wonder what has kept me from the task for so long. I utilized my bread maker, but I’m not sure it’s necessary. The starter is made of water, flour, sugar and yeast. It sat on my counter for 7 days under a swath of plastic with some holes punched in it, not unlike the firefly containers of summer. Being a lazy cook, I hadn’t read the entire directions, and didn’t realize until day 5 that I was supposed to stir the concoction 2-3 times a day. Guess it isn’t critical because when I finally baked the sour dough bread on Sunday it was a HUGE HIT. Everyone loved it. No more paying $5 for a loaf at the store. I’ve got a new batch of starter going on the counter as I write this.

All this fermenting got me to thinking – what else is fermented and is it good for your health? Turns out we already eat lots of fermented stuff (pretty much every civilization depended on it for survival). I realize I ferment my yogurt each week when it sits on the counter for 24 hours in the yogurt maker at so low a temperature the stink bugs aren’t afraid to crawl over the cover (yes – they’re still here!). And the cow we buy is “dry-aged” which is a nice way of saying it hangs around in an unrefrigerated barn for 3 weeks before the butcher cuts off all the nasty fuzz that grows on it, and slices it up for us. Obviously wine is fermented, and I definitely appreciate that. Bread, coffee, and chocolate are also fermented products. What’s not to love?

Fermentation is the breakdown of carbohydrates and proteins by microorganisms such as bacteria, yeasts, and mold creating lactic acid (and alcohol in some cases). It may sound nasty, but it’s actually great for your health. Eating fermented food aids in digestion by promoting growth of friendly intestinal bacteria. It also supports immune function and introduces extra vitamins. “Live food” (or today’s buzzword, probiotics) are also believed to protect against and fight certain types of cancers. There is plenty of research that indicates our health truly benefits from fermented foods, possibly some of the increase in illnesses in the past 50 years are due to the fact that so few of us eat fermented foods anymore.

There was a time when we all ate plenty of fermented food, but these days not so much. Fermentation is more an art than a science and that doesn’t play well in mass production. Hence, most of our modern products that started out being fermented are highly processed using high-heat pasteurization which kills the good bacteria along with the bad. Vinegar and sugar are added in such high quantities that they also defeat the fermentation process.

In turning to the internet I read about lots of “crazy” people who are seriously in to fermented food (road-kill, anyone?). There were also quite a few scholarly articles agreeing that eating probiotics or “live” food (food that has been fermented) is good for your health.

Probiotics are all the rage, but they are nothing new. They are simply the result of fermentation. Sauerkraut, relishes, yogurts, and cheeses made traditionally are packed with probiotics naturally. But the probiotic yogurt you see in the grocery store is so loaded with sugar, you might want to call it probiotic pudding with an emphasis on pudding.

I won’t tell you not to eat store-bought probiotics, after all, a little bacteria is better than none at all. But I will tell you to save your money and ferment something yourself. Fermentation is probably the least labor intensive cooking method around. I’m doing it right now as I write. Stop by and see it for yourself. “Wow…look at those bubbles, Hon!”

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Food For Thought (and Health)

What to Eat? This is not only a question every person asks themselves every day, it’s also the title of a wonderful book I’ve been reading. It was a gift from my oldest son. He of the inquisitive mind must have been intrigued by the questions that pepper the cover. Questions like,
“Is organic always more nutritious? How fair is fair trade coffee? Farmed fish or wild fish? White, whole wheat, or multigrain? Are there pesticides on that apple? Are vitamin supplements safe?”
Or maybe he was just responding to his father’s nudge, “Your mom would really like that book,” when they were out Christmas shopping on a crowded afternoon and he was in a hurry to get home to his friends.

Either way, love the book. It asks all the questions I ask and some I never thought to ask. Marion Nestle is a nutrition professor, and author of two other books (soon to grace my shelves or my kindle) – Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health and Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism.

In her book, What to Eat, Marion addresses the things that plagued the concerned parent when she or he enters a grocery store. How do you sort through all the confusing messages and buy what’s best for your family and your health? The book literally takes a tour of the grocery store expounding on every aisle with helpful, clear information.

I want to share some excellent ideas I found in the introduction. All of us struggle with the immense amount of information and the almost daily new studies that tell us what we should and shouldn’t eat to avoid health issues like cancer and heart disease, have more energy, live longer, and maintain a healthy weight. Although I’m certain there are a few factors out of our control (heredity and all the stuff we already ate that we shouldn’t have before we knew better), Marion’s simple directions make sense -

Eat less, move more, eat lots of fruits & vegetables, and go easy on the junk food.

This is a mantra we can all embrace. If we keep it in mind as we make our food and activity choices each day we can feel we’ve done all we should. Sure, the details like organic, fair-trade, GMO, locally grown, sustainably-harvested will play in to your choices, but bottom line start by eating right before you stress the rest.

Another point Marion makes in the introduction is that it’s very easy to be overcome by the marketing of food. Companies, grocery stores, and even our own government encourage us to eat things that are not good for us. As Marion points out,

The produce industry does not advertise fruits and vegetables much because its profit margins are low and its constituents are fragmented and competitive (broccoli growers versus carrot farmers, etc.). …the government does not subsidize fruit and vegetable production the way it supports corn, soybeans, sugarcane, and sugar beets….the lack of profit means that less effort goes into making sure these foods are as fresh, tasty, well prepared, and easy to use as they might be.”

I want to share one last powerful point Marion makes. It’s been darting around my mind ever since I read it. She asks the reader to consider this question:

“What industry or professional organization might benefit if you ate more healthfully?”

Like Marion, I struggle to come up with even one. I want to say the government, because then it wouldn’t have to spend nearly as much on medicare and Medicaid. But that’s a stretch, huh? In my fantasy world I would also say the government because it wants what’s best for the people. But I still reside in the real world.

Here are the industries she lists that benefit from all the confusion and bad decisions we make about nutrition and health: food, restaurant, fast-food, diet, health club, drug, and health care industries.

Food for thought. Be aware of the motivation behind the claims. And remember: eat less, move more, eat lots of fruits & veggies, and go easy on the junk food. Words to live by. Literally.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

What's For Dinner?

What’s for dinner tonight? Are you sick of that question? I certainly am. I believe it might be the most challenging question for any parent. Coming up with healthy dinners seven days a week, 52 weeks a year can make a person nuts. Or maybe it just makes me nuts.

My repertoire is fairly extensive. Even so, I’ve grown tired of it. So this year I’ve challenged myself to expand it. Instead of making one of my tried and true meals, or slapping together something from what’s lurking in my pantry and then being pleasantly surprised (or disappointed) in the result, this year I’m going to try at least 100 new recipes.

100 seems daunting until you break it down to 2 new recipes a week. I’m just finishing my fourth week of the new year and have already nailed down 10 recipes, so I’m ahead of the game. Would you like to join me in the challenge? How about just 50 new recipes?

My shelves groan with the weight of cookbooks I just had to have (or someone just had to give me!). My desk is scattered with recipes torn from magazines, and the cubby in my kitchen is jammed with index cards, papers, and pamphlets full of recipes. I have the best intentions, but the untold potential was beginning to weigh on me. So I collected as many as I could in a 3-ring binder and piled the dog-eared books on the corner of my counter. I’m ready. I can do this.

So far, we’ve all been enjoying the new venture. The Chia Pancakes made the blog a few weeks ago, and were requested a second time (heavens no!) this past weekend. The Balsamic-Roasted Sweet Potatoes resulted in zero leftovers. The grapefruit cake was a monster hit. But my favorite is the Pear-Celery salad. I’ve made a batch each week since I discovered it. I will confess to altering the original recipe quite a bit, but it’s still delicious and super healthy, so it’ll do.

Eating healthy doesn’t have to be boring. My kids are in on my challenge. My oldest son just started a course on Food Management at the high school, which I’m certain will provide endless fodder for our dinner table (and this blog!). I’m thrilled at the idea of someone else teaching him his way around a kitchen. Maybe he’ll realize I’m not the crazy loon he imagines me to be. As he’s gotten older, he’s begun trying more of my creations. I can't wait to try his!

I’m planning on adding a current recipe challenge count on the blog front page to keep myself accountable, but I’d love for you to join me. If you need some recipe ideas, I’ll pass one along right now –

Winter Celery-Pear Salad

2 cups chopped celery
1 cup chopped pear
¼ cup crumbled blue cheese
¼ cup walnut pieces
1 Tablespoon dressing

Cara’s “house” dressing:
½ cup roasted garlic grapeseed oil (or good canola or grapeseed oil, plus 1 t finely minced garlic)
½ cup good vinegar (this week it’s half balsamic fig vinegar and half white wine balsamic vinegar)
¼ t salt
½ t pepper

Happy cooking!