Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Study: Beware restaurant calorie listings

It's no shocker that a study this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the calorie contents listed by popular restaurants was sometimes blown away by the actual calorie contents of the food.

To be fair, the majority of calorie listings were pretty much on the mark. But if you need to watch your calories, that isn't good enough, especially considering that some of the discrepancies were huge - as much as 1,000 calories more than what the restaurant had posted.

This underscores why we all should know the basics about nutrition and use a little common sense. If a salad is delicious because it's drowned in dressing and buried in other toppings, doesn't it stand to reason that simply containing a wedge of iceburg doesn't make it diet food? Imagine it without the lettuce. And if you put half a pound of cheese on some nachos, could the dish possibly be just a 100 calories?

You can find nutrition information from the Mayo Clinic and the federal government. You also can pick up a lot of knowledge by reading labels at the supermarket. A tablespoon of butter has about 100 calories whether you eat it at home or in a restaurant. So if you eat out and your order of steak or broccoli comes dripping with butter, you probably don't need a menu or web site to tell you that you've probably got a couple hundred extra fat calories added to your dish.

That doesn't excuse restaurants from either fixing the calorie listings or fixing their preparation to better match the listings. But as the old saying goes, caveat emptor.

More about the study: "One in 5 restaurant calorie listings is off"

You might also like: "Restaurants to offer more-healthful fare for kids"
"On the Plate, a Pinch [of salt] or a Pound?"

Friday, March 11, 2011

Sea no evil (salmon or trout with coconut sauce recipe)

Trout with coconut sauce

The pun is deliberate. As lent has gotten under way, Catholics spend several weeks eating no meat (at least not from land or air) on Fridays and heading for the fish counter.

The problem is that many choices, at least at my supermarkets, can be bad for the oceans (and us) in the long run. Some species, including Chilean sea bass, are overfished to the point that their populations will not be able to sustain themselves if we continue to consume them at current rates. Other species, such as Atlantic salmon, may be farmed in ways that contaminate the environment, weaken wild populations through interbreeding and disease, or consume excessive amounts of smaller fish.

If you look at seafood guides from such organizations as Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, Blue Ocean Institute in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., and Natural Resources Defense Council, based in New York City, it's easy to get overwhelmed. But they all seem to consistently name certain fish as bad choices. The ones I see most often where I live:

Atlantic salmon

Atlantic salmon in the wild is considered endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Most Atlantic salmon sold to consumers is farmed in pens that are open to the ocean and release waste and parasites into the wild. Additionally, the Environmental Defense Fund warns of elevated levels of PCBs in farmed salmon. Instead of buying Atlantic salmon, choose wild Alaskan salmon. Alternatives to salmon include char and farmed rainbow trout.

Chilean sea bass

Chilean sea bass, which is not a bass but a toothfish, is overfished and especially vulnerable because it takes a long time to reach reproductive age. Consumers need to beware elevated levels of mercury. The usual fishing methods damage the sea floor and can kill endangered albatross and other sea birds. Further, the overfishing of Chilean sea bass is implicated in the decline of a population of killer whales in the Ross Sea, off the coast of Antarctica. The Monterey Bay Aquarium suggests consumers look for Pacific halibut or sablefish (also called black cod). The Marine Stewardship Council, based in London, has certified a small Chilean sea bass fishery as sustainable, but I've never seen any offerings with the council's blue seal of approval.

Eel (also sold as unagi)

Until very recently I ate Japanese style unagi because my local Asian food market sold frozen precooked unagi that was ready to eat after minutes of reheating. I didn't know that the overwhelming majority of eel sold is farmed in ways that threaten the wild population and send waste into the environment. So much for my uber-convenient meals. But there are other fish in the sea.

Orange roughy

Orange roughy, sometimes called red roughy or deep sea perch, is very long-lived and can take 30 years to mature, meaning they often are caught before they've had a chance to reproduce. Populations are badly overfished according to many groups. As with Chilean sea bass, orange roughy can contain elevated levels of mercury.

Others to avoid include shark, swordfish, blue fin tuna, red snapper, Atlantic cod, Atlantic halibut, Atlantic flounder and Atlantic sole.

As I've said, there are other fish in the sea, and the seafoods that most groups say are particularly good choices include U.S. farmed tilapia, U.S. farmed catfish, farmed rainbow trout, farmed Arctic char, wild-caught pink shrimp from Oregon, wild Alaskan salmon, dungeness and stone crabs, and farmed mussels, clams and oysters.

Salmon with coconut sauce

Salmon (or Trout) With Coconut Sauce Recipe
Serves 4

1 Tablespoon canola or peanut oil
1 pound wild Alaskan salmon* or farmed rainbow trout fillets

1 Tablespoon canola peanut oil
2 scallions, chopped
1 small to medium shallot, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
2 to 3 teaspoons green curry paste**
1 Tablespoon chopped ginger
1 Tablespoon chopped lemongrass
1 well-shaken can (13.5-ounce) coconut milk
1 Tabespoon fish sauce
1 roasted red bell pepper, chopped or cut into strips

1. Heat oil in hot skillet, add fish and cook just until flesh flakes apart. (Time varies depending on thickness of fish.) Remove fish to plate and tent with foil.

2. Add oil to same pan used to cook fish. Saute scallions, shallot, garlic, curry, ginger and lemongrass until fragrant, about a minute. Add coconut milk and simmer until slightly thickened. Add fish sauce and red pepper. Serve with fish and brown jasmine rice. This goes well with Thai style cucumber salad.

*I prefer fresh fish, but I've done this dish with canned salmon too. Canned salmon is already cooked.
**Two teaspoons curry paste make the sauce mild because I serve this to toddlers. For your own taste, sample the sauce and adjust seasoning as needed.

For more information on seafood sustainability:
Shedd Aquarium's Right Bite wallet guide
Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program
Natural Resources Defense Council
Blue Ocean Institute's seafood guide
Greenpeace International Seafood Red List
World Wildlife Fund's international seafood guides

Related news:
Costco Wholesale Corp., in its seafood policy updated last month, said it will stop selling "certain wild species that have been nearly universally identified as at great risk." Those include Atlantic cod; Atlantic halibut; Chilean sea bass; Greenland halibut; grouper; monkfish; orange roughy; redfish; shark; skates and rays; swordfish; and bluefin tuna. Costco said it won't resume sales unless sources are certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). The move followed a highly public campaign by Greenpeace last year.

A California bill would ban the sale and possession of shark fins.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Sweet day

If it were up to me, the only gift acceptable or traditional on Valentine's Day would be chocolate. Just try eating roses, diamonds or lingerie. Well, maybe I should leave the latter off the list. There are purportedly edible versions, BUT ...lingerie isn't really a gift for the recipient anyway.

Here's to chocolate.

My husband bought me the chocolate pictured. He knows me. Sweet.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Wrapping up another year (dumpling recipe)

These dumplings tasted delicious in spite of improper folding.

Gong xi fa cai, xin nian kuai le, or happy new year, everyone!
The eve of the Chinese New Year found the family and me snowbound. The only thing I forgot to pick up before the storm was a package of dumplings, or jiao zi, for our dinner to celebrate the arrival of the Year of the Rabbit.

That's almost like forgetting the stuffing or dressing to go with the Thanksgiving turkey. Heck, it may even be like forgetting the turkey in my home.

The only thing to do was make them from scratch, including the wrappers, or skins, for each dumpling. I've seen dumplings made, but when I was growing up my only contribution was eating the finished result. More recently, when I did make them occasionally, I usually bought a package of already-made wrappers. Oh, well. There's a first time for everything. I wasn't about to give up on my favorite traditional food for such an important holiday.

The filling was easy. In the refrigerator I had half a pound of ground pork that I originally planned to use in chili or empanadas. Pork was just what I needed for the dumplings, which I planned to pan fry until the bottoms were golden and crisp. When prepared that way, they are guo tie, or pot stickers. You can also steam them on a cabbage leaf or boil them. I like the crunchy bottom, so I fry them.

To go with the pork, I had some leeks (use garlic chives if you find them), napa cabbage and ginger. In the pantry were about 10 pounds of all-purpose flour, way more than enough to make the dough. The Year of the Tiger may have lashed us with a blizzard on its way out, but even if the weather outside was frightful, the food was so delightful.

Pork Dumpling Recipe (Guo Tie)
Makes 20 to 24

1 cup chopped napa cabbage
1/2 pound ground pork
1 cup chopped leek
2 Tablespoons finely minced fresh ginger root
2 Tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
1 Tablespoon rice wine
1 Tablespoon corn starch

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 to 3/4 cup warm water


1. For filling, sprinkle a little salt over the chopped cabbage and let sit about 15 minutes. Squeeze cabbage in your fist over a cup or bowl to extract excess liquid. Discard the liquid. Mix all filling ingredients in a large bowl, cover bowl with plastic wrap and place in refrigerator until ready to use.

2. For wrappers, put flour in a large mixing bowl, mix water in and knead to get a moist but not sticky dough. I had to use 1/2 cup plus 2 1/2 Tablespoons water. The amount you need to get a dough that will hold together may vary, depending on the type of flour you use. King Arthur all-purpose, flour, for example, has a higher protein content than something like White Lily brand. Lower protein flours may not soak up as much water.

3. Cut the dough in 2 or 3 strips, roll into logs, about an inch and a half thick, and slice into 1/2-inch thick "coins." On a floured surface, roll out the pieces into circles about 3 inches in diameter. Lightly dust with flour. (My first several circles stuck together because I just piled them on a plate. I was able to separate the ones I later floured.) Place wrappers on a plate and cover with a damp (not wet) kitchen towel to prevent them from drying out.

4. To fill the dumplings, put about 1 Tablespoon of filling in center of wrapper, fold wrapper into half circle, pressing center of outer edges together. Pleat one side, pressing the pleated edge to the unpleated edge as you go. (The pleated edge should be on the outside curve of the dumpling. You might want to look at someone else's until I can make another batch and take more pictures. I pleated this batch backward. Hey, cut me some slack. I shoveled snow for two hours.) Lightly flour bottom of dumpling and place on plate. Cover with damp towel to prevent drying. Repeat with rest of wrappers. This recipe should make roughly 20 dumplings. Dumplings can be frozen at this point, and cooked later.

5. To pan fry dumplings, heat 2 Tablespoons peanut oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Arrange dumplings bottom down, pleats up, in pan. Allow to sizzle half a minute to a minute, then add 1/2 cup water to the pan and cover immediately. When water has evaporated, add another 1/2 cup water. When water has evaporated a second time, continue cooking dumplings until the bottoms are golden (their shape is supposed to suggest that of gold ingots as a symbol of prosperity for the coming year). Place a large plate upside down over dumplings, and holding plate in place, invert the pan so that the dumplings are bottoms up on the plate. (Please do this with care to avoid unfortunate incidents such as burning yourself or dropping a heavy skillet on your foot. Oh, and try not to drop dumplings on the floor.)

Serve with dipping sauce of your choice.

Sauce that I use:

Dipping Sauce Recipe

1/4 cup soy sauce
2 Tablespoons black vinegar
2 Tablespoons water
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
green portion of one scallion, chopped (or some chopped fresh cilantro)
1/2 teaspoon sriracha (pepper sauce) or chili flakes, optional

Place all ingredients in a small bowl and mix.

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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Soup dreams

A blizzard is whipping the house, it's effectively 4 degrees below zero outside with the wind chill, and the family and I are relaxing. We don't have to be on the roads, and there's plenty of food to keep us fed for a couple weeks.

Not so long ago I was one of those people who rushed to the supermarket the day before a major storm (or even after the deluge of flakes started) to grab what I could for the next couple of days.

Since then, I've learned to keep some staples in the kitchen, not because Mother Nature might trap me at home but because having a full pantry makes life easier. (And, yes, when a storm blasts in, I don't have to rush to the supermarket to scavenge supplies.)

When I'm not inspired to make anything particular or I haven't had time to do my regular shopping I can still have a good meal. Sometimes it's a burrito stuffed with beans, rice and leftover meat or vegetables; sometimes it's a pasta salad bright with lemon vinaigrette and roasted red peppers; sometimes it's soup. Homemade soup tastes better than the stuff sold in cans, and even a non-cook can make it pretty easily. A bonus is it's more healthful.

Just yesterday the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services announced the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans, saying that we as a nation need to eat fewer calories, less salt, less added sugars, and more vegetables, fruits and whole grains. When it comes to salt, processed foods, especially most ready-to-eat soups, are big offenders.

Not only do most canned soups contain a lot of sodium per serving, the serving size printed in small type on the back of the can doesn't reflect what people normally consume. For instance, those microwavable bowl-like containers of soup that people take to work look like a single serving. One "bowl," one serving, right? Nope. But who eats just half or shares the bowl with a co-worker? So when figuring the amount of sodium you get from one of those, you may as well double the number on the label, which means you've consumed more than 800 milligrams in a low-sodium soup, or more than 1500 milligrams in a bowl of regular soup, exceeding some people's recommended maximum for an entire day under the USDA guidelines.

You can control the salt.
Make your own soup instead.

Last night, we had lentil soup (very similar to my lentil stew) with braised lamb shanks, which give a wonderful flavor to the soup. If I weren't using the lamb shanks, I'd probably brown some sausage (merguez or chorizo would work), good bacon or pancetta and use that as the meat component. Or you could skip the meat and use vegetable stock in place of water. Except for the lamb, all the ingredients are things I keep on hand.

Among the things I nearly always have: dried split peas and lentils (green and red), canned and dried beans, noodles, rice, all-purpose flour, canned fish (sardines, tuna and wild red salmon), canned tomatoes, canned coconut milk, peanut butter, chicken or vegetable stock, frozen vegetables, fresh carrots, potatoes, onions, shallots, scallions, ginger root, lemon or lime, and, of course, soy sauce, olive oil, butter and some vinegar. What kinds of pantry staples do you keep around? Or what do you like to make when the weather outside is frightful?

Lentil Soup With Braised Lamb Shanks Recipe
Serves 4

2 Tablespoons butter
2 lamb shanks

one medium onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
2 cloves garlic, smashed
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

1/2 cup good red wine
4 cups water
1/2 cup to 1 cup tomato sauce (I use leftover sauce, but you can use canned chopped tomatoes or tomato puree and add some of your own oregano or basil, etc. if you want)

1 cup French green lentils* (about 8 ounces, or half a pound), picked through and rinsed

4 lemon wedges, to squeeze over each bowl, optional


1. Melt butter over medium-high heat in a heavy 4 quart pot or high-sided 12-inch pan (whichever is large enough to hold the shanks). If butter starts to burn, lower heat. Season shanks with salt** and pepper and place in pan, browning on all sides. Don't worry about browning the entire surface perfectly. You just want some browning for flavor. Remove shanks to a plate.

2. With heat on medium to medium low, saute onion, celery and carrot until onion pieces turn translucent. It's okay if edges start to turn golden, but you don't want to burn the vegetables. Stir in garlic and thyme, letting them cook about a minute.

3. Add wine, water and tomato sauce to pan, scraping any brown bits from bottom. Stir in lentils, then return shanks to pan along with any meat juices. Bring soup to boil, then reduce heat to lowest setting, cover and let simmer until lamb is cooked, about an hour and a half.

4. Remove meat from shanks, pull apart or cut into pieces and return to soup. Discard bones. 

*French green lentils tolerate the long cooking time without turning to mush.
**When you salt food, be aware that one half teaspoon contains about 1200 milligrams of sodium. Also keep in mind that some ingredients, such as canned tomatoes or tomato sauce, usually contain added salt.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Braised leeks with lemon vinaigrette

When my husband and I went to Paris (while we were still dating), we went to an old-fashioned little neighborhood restaurant that we had found. I don't remember how we found it, but we had heard that the former prime minister liked the place and we wanted to check it out.

Since we were in the neighborhood, and it was a weekday and we were early (and presentable) for dinner, I figured we could swing by and see if it was busy. If not, we'd drop in. If it was packed, we'd just call the next day for a table.

Only one of maybe a dozen small tables was occupied, so I asked the host about dinner. "Non, non, non! We have no table for you. You must have a reservation," the older man responded in French, looking at us as though we had tried to crash a royal wedding. My husband and I looked at each other, then over the man's shoulders at one couple and nearly a dozen empty tables.

In New York, we might have walked out and kept going. But it occurred to me that maybe walking in off the street wasn't something a diner did at an old neighborhood restaurant here. When in Rome ... er, Paris ...

I asked the host for the telephone number, he gave us a card, and we went for a little walk. In less than five minutes we found a public telephone, made the call to find out when we could make a reservation and found out that we could come for dinner in 15 minutes, OF COURSE.

Back at the restaurant the man greeted us as though we were regulars. "Come, come," he said with a smile, seating us, then bringing a small glass of white wine to each of us. In other words, we had learned our manners. I guess at sit-down restaurants in Paris, they don't want some tourist to walk in as if the place were some lowly McDonald's.

And when the host presented us with an appetizer of braised leeks, I also learned that the mild member of the onion family was worth it's own dish.

I didn't have the presence of mind to ask for a recipe for the leeks (what with the free flow of wine and other things), but they weren't too hard to figure out.

Braised Leeks With Lemon Vinaigrette
Serves 4 as an appetizer

4 leeks
1 cup chicken or vegetable stock (or 3/4 cup stock plus 1/4 cup dry white wine)
1 teaspoon mustard
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
4 Tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
salt and freshly ground black or white pepper

1. Clean the leeks. Start with a rinse under running water to remove dirt from the roots (but don't cut off the roots) and strip off the outer layer. Then cut off the tops (dark green parts) that are too ratty to be used for anything at all.

Keeping the root end intact, slice the leek in half lengthwise, starting about half an inch from the roots going toward the top. Under running water, gently separate leaves just enough to rinse out the dirt and grit. When the leek is clean, trim the rest of the tops and save them for making stock. Sometimes the inner leaves higher up are lighter green and more tender. Those can be chopped and saved for cooking fish. (I keep my chopped leeks in little plastic bags in the freezer.)

Finally, trim the root end before putting the leeks into a medium pot (about 1 1/2 quarts to 2 quarts) together with 1 cup of chicken or vegetable stock.

2. Bring stock with leeks to boil, then reduce to simmer and cover. Simmer about 20-30 minutes, or until leeks are very tender, and remove from heat.

3. In a glass measuring cup or small bowl, whisk together mustard and lemon juice. Gradually add olive oil while continuing to whisk, then add thyme and a pinch of salt and pepper. Taste and add more salt if desired.

4. When ready to serve, place each leek on a small plate and spoon vinaigrette over the top.

This is a good appetizer or side dish with chicken, fish or egg dishes, such as quiche. It's also good as a snack with fresh baguette and a glass of white wine.

NOTE: Instead of making a lemon vinaigrette, you could reduce the stock, add a bit of butter and seasoning to finish the sauce and pour that over the leeks.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Homemade Galette des Rois for Epiphany

A galette des rois, or king cake, is relatively easy to put together.

When I was 5 years old my family moved to an apartment complex in St. Louis, Mo., where my mother got to know a French Canadian woman and I got to play with her daughter, Nathalie.

One evening we went to visit and played what to me was the coolest game. My parents and I and Nathalie and her parents sat around a table for dessert. Nathalie's mother gave us a piece of a king cake, and told us whoever found a little figure inside, I think it was a baby, would wear a crown and be king or queen for the party.

I don't remember how I ate it, whether I used a fork or my hands. I don't even remember what the cake was like. All I remember is the anticipation, the tension as I took careful bites hoping I'd find the prize, without swallowing it. I wanted to wear that crown. I don't recall how much I ate, but I found the trinket.

Of course, looking back, I realize that Nathalie's mother must have rigged it so that I'd win.

A year later, we moved again, nearly haflway across the country, losing touch, and for a while I forgot about Nathalie and the cake.

Recently, I kept coming across references to French king cakes, called galette des rois and gateau des rois, traditionally eaten to celebrate the Epiphany, which marks the visit of the three wise men or kings to the infant Jesus. Who am I to ignore what fate keeps putting in front of me? Since the Epiphany falls on Jan. 6, I made a galette des rois this past weekend, partly because the galette version uses puff pastry, or pate feuillete, to enclose a central layer of almond cream, which I love. (The gateau des rois is more of a brioche cake.)

You can use frozen ready-to-use puff pastry dough, but none of the supermarkets in my area carried any made with butter. As I've mentioned before when developing a pie crust for my quiche, I don't care for the feeling that vegetable shortening leaves in my mouth, so I had to make it from scratch.

The pastry dough wasn't as difficult as I thought it might be. It just took time because it needed to chill several times for an hour in the refrigerator. No biggie. I made the dough and filling on Saturday, then assembled and baked the tart Sunday. I didn't have a feve (bean) or figurine to bake into the galette, so I used a whole almond. It took longer to bake than the expected 40 to 50 minutes, and I think it could still have used a bit more time in the oven. I also had some dough and almond cream left over, so I made mini tarts too.

The tart disappeared in less time than I needed to make it. Good thing custom lets me eat these all month if I want. I can't resist the buttery aroma or the slightly sweet, moist almond filling contrasting with the flaky layers.

Galette des Rois Recipe
Serves 8 to 12


1 cup ground almonds
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon flour
1 stick butter, softened at room temperature 
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract, optional

1 package premade puff pastry dough (thawed if frozen)
1 large egg

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
1. Combine almonds, sugar, salt and flour.

2. In a large mixing bowl, stir butter until softened, then mix the dry ingredients into the butter. Mix in the eggs and extracts.

4. Just before assembling galette, beat one egg and keep next to work area. Divide puff pastry dough in two. Roll out one portion of the dough on nonstick parchment paper to between 1/8 inch and 1/4 inch thick and cut out a large circle, using a 9-inch or 10-inch cake pan as template. Cover with plastic and refrigerate the circle. Repeat, making a circle that is 1/2 inch in diameter larger than the first circle. Cover with plastic wrap, and remove the first circle of dough when you put the second circle in the refrigerator.

5. Place the first circle of dough on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Brush outer inch of the circle with the egg wash. Spread the almond cream over the first circle of dough except the outer edge that has been brushed with egg. Press a whole almond into a random spot of the almond cream.

6. Get the second circle of dough, put it over the first, and press the edges to seal them shut. Use a knife to score curved lines radiating from the center to the outer edge, without actually cutting through the dough.
 Then cut a steam hole in the middle of the tart and brush the surface with egg wash.

7. Bake at 450 degrees F. for 10 minutes, then lower the oven to 400 degrees F. and bake the galette until puffed and golden brown, about 40 to 50 minutes, but check on the galette at 20 and 30 minutes. If it is getting dark too quickly, cover with a sheet of foil to shield the top.

8. When done baking, put the baking sheet on a cooling rack and allow to cool 15 or 20 minutes. Cut into wedges and serve warm. I also like to eat it for breakfast the next day.
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