Archive for March, 2007

Taking pleasure in food: a new genre of diet books.

Sorry about the lack of blogposts lately. I’ve been traveling in North Carolina and West Virginia, visiting family and enjoying the sudden spring. (My mother’s peach tree is in full bloom, and my sister’s yard is dotted with tasty little bittercress.)

Whenever I’m around these parts I try to visit my favorite Appalachian independent bookstore—Malaprop’s, in Asheville, North Carolina. And of course, being the person I am, I spend a good deal of time in the food section. I noticed something funny this time: French Women Don’t Get Fat seems to have spawned a whole new genre of diet books. Mediterranean Women Stay Slim Too and Japanese Women Don’t Get Old or Fat  were nearby on the shelf.

Now, I didn’t study the books in depth, but the gist of each of them seems to be that if you follow this or that culture’s intact food tradition, you’re likely to be healthy. Right. Eat traditional foods, stay away from industrial processed “food,” get moderate exercise in your daily life, and you’ll be healthy. This is not a surprise.

But these books are onto something else most diet books tend to miss: the importance of taking pleasure in food. This gives me hope for the future of American eating. Maybe these books can begin to erode our culture’s peculiar brand of food Puritanism—the stubborn belief that bad-tasting food is good for you and good-tasting food is bad for you, that pleasure in food is a sin, and that bad health is punishment for the sin of pleasure in food. And if we can get over that ridiculous hangup, imagine how healthy we might be!

Pleasure in food is one of my favorite topics. Watch this space for more on some fascinating research that suggests that we get more nutrition from food we enjoy.

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Trans fat update: bureaucracy + marketing = bad food.

Okay, get this: Starbucks is now using margarine instead of butter in baked goods so they can label them “trans fat free.” No, I didn’t mix that up.

You see, “trans” just refers to the shape of the fat molecule. And it turns out that nasty partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (the stuff that New York City banned) isn’t the only fat that’s shaped this way. Butter and other animal fats naturally contain some “trans” fat molecules. The thing is, the naturally occurring trans fats don’t seem to be harmful. In fact, it seems likely they’re beneficial.

But guess what? The FDA doesn’t distinguish between the two kinds of trans fat. So even though all the research suggests that artificial trans fat is the thing to worry about, on an FDA-mandated food label, trans fat is trans fat is trans fat.

So Starbucks sees trans fat hysteria brewing. And Starbucks wants to have nice pretty “trans fat free” labels so people will feel cozy and happy and buy their processed food. The result? Croissants made with palm oil instead of butter. Ridiculous.

(The NY Times article on this is good, but you have to pay to get it from the archives.)

Related post: Trans fat-free industrial food is still bad food.

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Citrus season: candied grapefruit peel (and bitters too).

Candied Grapefruit PeelLast week someone gave me a lovely ripe grapefruit from a backyard tree in Florida. Quite a gift when there’s 3 feet of snow on the ground.

The peel was so aromatic I couldn’t bear to compost it, so I did what my great-grandmother used to do: I made candied grapefruit peel. And while I was at it I made a bitter liqueur from the cooking water.

Candied grapefruit peel was a Christmas tradition at Nanny’s house, but I think it’s wonderful any time of year. It tastes like essence of grapefruit—perfumed, and a little bit sharp. (I don’t remember Nanny ever making bitters from the cooking water, but I’m sure she would have loved the idea.)

To make the candied grapefruit peel:

Slice up some grapefruit peel and remove most of the white pith.

Put the slices of peel in a pot with enough water to cover them by about an inch. Add a pinch of salt.

Bring the mixture to a boil and simmer it for 15 minutes or so. Drain the peels and set aside the cooking water to make liqueur. Return the peels to the pot, add fresh water, bring it to a boil, and simmer it for another 15 minutes. Drain again (don’t forget to reserve the cooking water).

Now return the peels to the pot with about 1/2 cup sugar per grapefruit. Stir and lift them gently with a fork over low-medium heat until all the liquid has evaporated. Be careful about sticking. (This should take maybe 20 minutes.)

Once the liquid has evaporated, spread the candied peels out on wax paper to dry. (Nanny used to roll them in more sugar, but I don’t think it’s necessary.)

You have candied grapefruit peel!

To make the bitter grapefruit liqueur:

This recipe depends on what kind of alcohol you have. It’s easiest if you have 190 proof grain alcohol, but you can also make it with vodka if you can’t get grain alcohol.

If you have 190 proof grain alcohol: Bring the reserved cooking water to a simmer with 1/2 cup sugar per cup of water. Let it cool and then add 1/3 cup alcohol per cup of liquid.

If you have 100 proof vodka: Bring the reserved cooking water to a boil and reduce it by about a third. Now add 2/3 cup sugar per cup of water. Stir to dissolve. Let it cool and then add 1 cup of vodka per cup of liquid.

Bitter liqueurs like this one are a great way to get your digestive system ready for a meal. Take a little bit mixed with water (or something more creative) about a half hour before you eat. A classic aperitif.

Related post: Citrus season: pickled lemons.

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Paying attention: herbalism from the ground up.

(This is the last post in a series on my herbal philosophy. Previous posts in the series: The body is an ecosystem, The body is not a war zone, Escaping the body-as-battleground trap and Respecting human ecology.)

My approach to herbal practice is very simple: pay attention.

Pay attention to plants. Look at them. Touch them. Smell them. Taste them. Spend time with them. Get to know what they like, where they hang out, what they’re up to. Learn who their relatives are. Learn their history with humans.

Pay attention to people. Watch them. Listen to them. Don’t pretend you know all about them. Investigate carefully. Ask questions and listen to the answers. Follow the threads. Don’t ignore nagging ideas in the back of your mind. Study how bodies work. Don’t expect to figure everything out.

Pay attention to ecosystems. Notice things affecting each other. Remember the microscopic and the macroscopic, the inside and the outside. Observe elemental qualities: heat and cold, moisture and dryness, tension and laxity, intensity and lack. Discern where support is needed.

Pay attention. That’s all.

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Citrus season: pickled lemons.

Pickled Lemons

Rebecca asked for details on my citrus liqueur recipes because she has too many meyer lemons on her hands. What a lovely problem!

I’ve had the same “problem” on occasion myself—whenever I visit my grandmother in California, I come away with shopping bags full of meyer lemons from her prolific backyard tree.

One of my favorite ways to preserve an onslaught of lemons is by pickling. I do my pickled lemons Sephardic/Moroccan style. They turn out sharp and salty, like sour olives. You can use them almost anywhere you would use green olives, and the pickling liquid makes an interesting vinegar substitute for salad dressings.

Oh, and these pickled lemons are lacto-fermented. Which means they’re full of helpful critters for the human ecosystem. And they’re very simple to make.

Here’s what to do:

Use fresh organic / unsprayed lemons.

Cut each lemon almost into quarters: slice lengthwise from the stem end toward the blossom end, and leave the last quarter of an inch intact.

Coat the inside of each lemon with a generous amount of coarse salt.

Put the lemons in a clean glass or ceramic jar, sprinkling some extra salt over each layer of lemons.

Cover the jar. For the first few days, shake and turn the jar as often as you remember. After three or four days the lemons will have juiced out. At this point, add enough fresh lemon juice to cover the lemons. The lemons should be fully submerged in the liquid. Now cover the jar, but not too tightly—enough to keep insects out but allow a bit of air in.

Put the jar in a cool, dark place and wait a month or so.

You have pickled lemons.

Related post: Citrus season: candied grapefruit peel (and bitters too).

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