Tuesday, March 30, 2010

I Could Quit Anytime I Want

 Thanks to some German researchers, my vice just became "therapy."

The researchers, studying more than 19,000 people for about eight years, report a link between daily consumption of a small amount of chocolate and a reduced risk of heart attack or stroke. Study subjects who ate an average of 7.5 grams of chocolate per day, or roughly the equivalent of one square of one chocolate bar, had a 39 percent lower risk of heart attack or stroke compared with those who consumed an average of 1.7 grams daily. The study was just published in the European Heart Journal.

This isn't the first study of potential health benefits tied to chocolate, although it is the first to follow people over such a long period.

(Note that the the square of Valrhona at left, at 11 grams, could be considered an overdose -- as if there is such a concept when it comes to chocolate.)

The study's lead author, Brian Buijsse, with the German Institute of Human Nutrition, and other experts cautioned against going crazy with cocoa and said more research, specifically randomized trials, was needed to confirm whether chocolate was the cause of the benefit and if so, how it worked. Maybe people who eat small amounts of chocolate also like to exercise. Or maybe they don't eat as many potato chips (or other junk) as non-chocolate consumers. Pigging out on chocolate could just make us all gain weight, which itself is a risk factor for heart attacks and stroke.

Hmmm, what to do? I think I'll run to the pantry for a little piece of chocolate -- for medicinal purposes.

You may also like: Chocolate Surprise Madeleines

Meet the Jetsons
I use my microwave oven mainly to reheat leftovers, occasionally melt butter or bake a potato. But in the past week or so, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times have informed me that I've missed the latest developments. Apparently, I was living in a cave when the convection-microwave and the microwave-steam oven hit the market. However did I manage not to starve?

Kim Severson reports in the Times about not just microwaves but all sorts of appliances designed to do the work -- and the thinking -- for me. "Forget sous vide and braising and the farm-to-table ethos. We are a nation that cooks with an index finger," she writes. Among the other gadgets: one that with a single touch will poach an egg simultaneously while browning toast, an oven with a "perfect turkey" button and a bread maker that bakes a cake with the press of a finger.

I don't take offense as much as author-chef Michael Ruhlman seems to in his rant ("America: Too Stupid to Cook...") in response to the assumption that consumers either can't cook or don't have time. But I do find the bells and whistles pretty ridiculous and funny.

Now find me a washing machine that folds my laundry and I'll stop laughing and open my wallet.

You may also like: MIT brains design a concept for a 3-D printer that would "make" food.

A Farm to Table Bottleneck
The demand for locally raised meat, part of the buy-local food (or locavore) movement, outstrips the capacity of slaughterhouses in some areas, writes the Times' Katie Zezima in "Push to Eat Local Food Is Hampered by Shortage."

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Maple Syrup and Thoughts on Climate Change

There's a lot of debate over global warming, or climate change, and what the effects would be if it continues.

Perhaps maple syrup would become a rare and precious substance.

This year, in fact, a little less maple syrup will be flowing to foodies because of an unusually early warming trend this season. The atypical weather has cut maple syrup production in southern Vermont, reports Katie Zezima for The New York Times in "Spring Came too Soon for the Syrup." According to the story, one producer was able to boil out only about a third of what she produced last year. Some producers in New York state also have faced a shorter tapping season, although prices for consumers in the near-term are not expected to rise, according to the Utica Observer-Dispatch.

I'm not saying this year's shorter tapping season can be tied with certainty to climate change. But thank goodness the problem was local, not global, and affected a non-necessity rather than staple crops.

Under a worse case scenario, in a Stanford University study on potential results of climate change, a 2.7 degree Fahrenheit increase could result in a drop in crop yields and price increases from 10 percent to 60 percent for such staples as wheat and rice. The result would be an increase in poverty and hunger for many people. There is a lot more to consider, including two other less-severe scenarios in the report, which was presented last month in San Diego for an annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

But even though the scenario I mentioned is not cited by study authors as the most likely one, it's ugly enough to serve as warning.

In other words, it's not nice to abuse Mother Nature; she can really kick ass.

 You may also like (updated March 30, 2010): A U.K. panel has announced it did not find evidence to support allegations that scientists at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit misrepresented data in advance of a climate conference in Copenhagen last year.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Pumpkin Red Lentil Soup

So much for spring. I wake up to the temperature below freezing and the windchill well below that.
I guess it's a hot soup day again.

One of my favorites is this pumpkin red lentil soup. My husband, when he was still my fiance, introduced me to a vegetarian version of this recipe that I've adjusted for my taste and whatever is on hand. That's what I love about this soup. It's so convenient and tweakable.

Make it with vegetable stock, chicken broth, coconut milk or a combination. Add grated carrot and ginger. Use roasted pumpkin, canned pumpkin, baked or poached butternut squash or frozen winter squash. Keep the seasoning simple with salt and pepper, add lemon zest, or spice it up with cumin or curry or hot pepper.  Top it with roasted pumpkin or acorn squash seeds, or freshly grated parmesan, or pan toasted bread crumbs or croutons. Serve it with a sandwich, or salad and bread, or build it up by adding some tubettini or orzo pasta to the pot. No matter what you do, it works and my three picky kids will eat it.

The fact that it's healthful is just gravy. There's lots of nutrition and fiber in the pumpkin puree and the lentils.

Roasted Pumpkin and Red Lentil Soup With Tubettini
Serves 8

1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped onion or shallots
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 clove garlic, smashed with flat of chefs knife
1/4 cup dry white wine (optional)
1 quart chicken or vegetable stock
8 oz. red lentils (1/2 pound), sorted and rinsed
1 14-oz. can pumpkin puree (or equivalent quantity roasted pumpkin or other squash)
1/2 cup tubettini pasta (optional)
Salt and pepper, to taste
Parmesan cheese (optional)

1. Chop celery and onion and add to pot together with smashed garlic. Cook on medium-low until translucent, adjusting heat if necessary to avoid browning.

2. Stir in wine and stock and add lentils. Simmer until lentils are soft and break apart, about 30 minutes.

3. Add tubettini pasta and cook according to directions. Just before pasta is cooked, add pumpkin puree and stir to incorporate. Season to taste.

When serving, garnish with freshly shaved parmesan. Allow diners to grind their own pepper on top.

* The "red" lentils I've used always start out an intense orange color, and become a golden yellow during cooking. They also break down much more than the French lentils I also use. That's all normal.

* I have used roasted pumpkin, and roasted butternut and acorn squashes in this recipe. But canned pumpkin is easy to keep on hand and allows you to throw this soup together very quickly. You can also use the precooked pureed winter squash available in the freezer section of the supermarket.

* I go light on the seasoning for my kids, but you can add a teaspoon or more of cumin or a sprig of thyme or cilantro (good with the coconut milk version of the soup), or warm it up with some cayenne or Chinese white pepper (the same kind that puts the heat in hot and sour soup). You can also add a splash of fresh-squeezed lemon juice to brighten it up.

* This recipe is easy to convert to vegan or gluten free. For a vegan version, use vegetable stock and skip Parmesan. For gluten-free soup, use gluten free pasta in place of tubettini.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A little hungry

I've been missing dim sum (yam tsa, as my mother also calls it) ever since we left New York and moved to the Midwest.

I came across a story today in the Wall Street Journal that reports that the art of dim sum is losing experts. How sad. The good news is that the little eats are not in danger of disappearing entirely.

Although I don't imagine I can match the skill of a true dim sum master, I guess I'd better learn to make a few dumplings, buns and other goodies.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Grain of Salt

PepsiCo announced that it plans to "encourage people to live healthier lives and to address growing consumer desire for healthier, great-tasting products."

I'm a skeptical type, so I'm not jumping for joy yet.

Among the improvements will be an increase in the whole grains and other healthful ingredients in its products and a reduction of the average sugar content by 25 percent and the average saturated fat by 15 percent per serving in the coming decade, PepsiCo said in a news release. The company, which offers salty snacks through its Frito-Lay business, said it also will reduce the average amount of sodium by 25 percent in each serving within the next five years. The announcement echos similar statements by other food companies including Kraft Foods Inc. and ConAgra Foods Inc. about making products more healthful.

We'll see what they come up with. My significant other needs to keep a lid on  his sodium intake because of high blood pressure, and a 25 percent drop in sodium in the majority of packaged foods still leaves too much for him. Besides, does a decrease in sodium intake create a benefit for those of us with low blood pressure?

I think that any genuine efforts to make foods better for consumers -- maybe I should say less harmful -- is a step in the right direction. But will reducing sugar or salt by 25 percent or cutting 15 percent of the fat actually make these foods good for us? Will we get other unwanted ingredients? I remember when low-fat, light, "lite" and fat-free foods such as cookies hit store shelves many years ago, I looked at the label and often noticed an increase in sugar and other ingredients that you don't want to eat in excess.

Besides that, I prefer the flavor of potato chips without too much salt, although a PepsiCo representative has told the Wall Street Journal that a specially engineered salt will decrease the amount of sodium while keeping the same salty taste.

Is there any scientific evidence to show that such changes will benefit the health of consumers?
Karen Kaplan of the Los Angeles Times cites some studies that project the prevention of hundreds of thousands of strokes and heart attacks, and the savings of tens of billions of dollars in health care costs if Americans consumed less salt.
On the other hand is an interesting take on the salt debate from John Tierney in "When It Comes to Salt, No Rights or Wrongs. Yet" in the New York Times.

You may also like: Salon's food geek Francis Lam figures out how much sodium meat absorbs from brining.

New York State Assemblyman Felix Ortiz introduces a bill that would ban New York restaurants from adding salt to food and levy a fine of $1,000 for violators who "use use salt in any form in the preparation of any food." More at the Daily News.

Japan's Fish Industry Angling for Consumers That Got Away
Who would have guessed that fish consumption is falling in Japan, the land that brought us sushi and sashimi? According to a story March 22 on page A1 of The Wall Street Journal, a campaign is under way to win over consumers who are increasingly turning to land-based meat. Writing for the Journal, Yuka Hayashi reports that since 2000, the average household's monthly spending on seafood has decreased 23 percent. Part of the campaign includes rock singers singing about the benefits of fish.

Bitter Battle Between Sugar and Taro Interests
The Wall Street Journal this week reports: "Two important sides of local history are fighting over water rights in the central valley of Maui, pitting the last of the state's once-powerful sugar plantations against native farmers who want to grow [taro,] a vegetable tied to Hawaii's ancient culture. ... After a half-decade of hearings and legal maneuvering, the Hawaii Commission on Water Resource Management is set to issue a key ruling in the dispute in coming months. The decision ... will dictate how much water will be returned to four major streams in western Maui and how much will continue to flow to the sugar plantation. ...
The ruling could have significant consequences: The sugar plantation says it could close if it loses water, while native Hawaiians hope it sets a precedent for a case involving a bigger chunk of water the plantation diverts daily."

Related: On October 30, 2009, the Honolulu Star Bulletin reported that Gay & Robinson harvested its last sugar crop on the island of Kauai, Hawaii, leaving the struggling Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company the last producer of sugar in the state.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Tofu-ling around

When I was growing up, my mother had to make a special trek to a Chinese grocer to find soy sauce or tofu. Yogurt was just becoming the magic health food, and tofu was unheard of at the local supermarket. Forget about asking the store manager about it -- hardly any non-Asians had even heard of it.

Now it's so easy to get all sorts of soy products, including tofu -- soft, firm, refrigerated, vacuum-packed shelf-stable blocks, organic, plain or preseasoned -- at many suburban supermarkets.

Even so, I've had an obsession with making it. From scratch. From a cup of dried soybeans. Someone maybe has too much time on her hands? Hardly. But I do like to know a little about where my food comes from and how it's made. I've learned from my research online that making tofu is pretty simple if you have a little time. Just some water, soybeans and a coagulant (to form curds). That's it.

And talk about economical. I got close to four quarts of soy milk from a scoop of dried beans that cost me only 90 cents. I drank a couple cups of that and still got more than a pound (17.5 ounces) of tofu from the rest of the soy milk.

The flavor was super fresh and tasty, although the texture of the tofu wasn't nearly as smooth as the Mori Nu tofu I get at the supermarket. I couldn't find a traditional coagulant such as calcium sulfate or nigari (which is mostly magnesium chloride), so I used lemon juice, which gave the tofu a tanginess better suited to a more heavily seasoned recipe such as hot and sour soup or ma po tofu.

If I were just making soy milk, I'd make only half a batch. If I were to do this regularly, I'd get a soy milk maker, which would save me labor and mess (and therefore time).

For me, the three most useful internet sources in learning to make tofu were:

Homemade soy milk
Yield: 3 1/2 to 4 quarts

1 pound roughly (400-500 grams) dried white soy beans (amount does not have to be exact)
water for soaking dried beans
3 1/2 quarts water

1. Soak beans for 8 to 11 hours in water (change the water a few times).

2. Discard the soaking water and buzz the soaked beans in a food processor with 2 to 3 cups of fresh water (taken from the 3 1/2 quarts) for about 2 minutes until they are finely ground. The result should look about the consistency of cooked farina or loose mash potato. You probably would have to do this in more than one batch. For instance, in my food processor I ground half of the beans with about 1 cup of water. Then I processed the rest of the beans with another cup of water.

3. Combine the pulpy mixture in a very large stockpot with the rest of the water (no more than about halfway up the side because the liquid tends to foam up a lot). Or divide equally between two pots. Bring to a simmer and continue to simmer for about 20 to 25 minutes.

3. Extract the milk by placing the mush into clean muslin or similar cotton material and draining/squeezing the liquid into another pot or large bowl. You could use rubber gloves to protect yourself from the hot liquid. I had no gloves and so had to let the liquid cool enough for me to handle.
You could try straining with cheesecloth too, but I imagine that you'd have to use many layers to prevent the small grinds from passing through the holes.

4. Dump the solids into another bowl. Called okara in Japanese (I don't know the Chinese word for it yet), the crumbly solid can be used in place of bread crumbs in meatloaf, and there are recipes on the internet for using it in baked goods too.

5. Enjoy the fresh soy milk or use it to make tofu as I did.

Homemade tofu
Yield: about 1 pound

3 1/2 to 4 quarts homemade soy milk
coagulant (1/4 c. lemon juice mixed with 3/4 c. water, or nagiri mixed according to package directions)

1. Heat the soy milk in a large pot to 175 degrees F.

2. Add coagulant until you start to see curds.

3. Cover and maintain heat 10 to 15 minutes.

4. Check for formation of larger curds separating from the liquid leaving a clearer "whey."  If large and many curds are not forming, add a little more coagulant if needed (if so, cover and allow 10 more minutes to separate).

6. If curds have formed, ladle out excess whey (shielding curds with a strainer).

7. Ladle tofu curds into a makeshift tofu press (a drainer or strainer lined with muslin or layers cheesecloth), fold the cloth over the top of the curds, and put a light weight (eg. an empty bowl) on top. Let sit until the curds come together into a block, anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes. More time means a firmer tofu.

8. Remove tofu from cloth. If it's bitter or sour, give it a very gentle running water wash for about 20 to 30 minutes. Otherwise store in airtight container for same-day use or pack in water for use within a few days.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Sweet (and sour) memory

Born half Chinese and half German-American, and reared in a New York City suburb densely populated by Italian-Americans,  my younger sister and I were obligated to like pork. On our round woodish-laminate dinner table, we often found pork schnitzel (breaded cutlets), bacon, baked ham, Italian pork sausage, Black Forest ham sandwiches, Chinese pork sausage (la chang), ro sung (fried finely-shredded seasoned pork), prosciutto, Chinese ribs, bratwurst …

So on Saturdays when my parents took me and mei to a little Chinese restaurant crammed into a shopping strip in Emerson, NJ, it was only natural that I’d ask for sweet and sour pork. Sometimes I'd want egg foo young or a pu pu platter. Occasionally they'd indulge me, but my made-in-Taiwan mother didn’t herself care for those American favorites. (She also cruelly denied me fluffernutter sandwiches, Cap'N Crunch cereal and a host -- or should I say Hostess -- of other childhood necessities.)

Most times I'd be left scorning the hot tea poured into my water glass and the crunchy duck or ma po tofu on my plate. At the end of the meal, after my dad separated the check from the fortune cookies and orange wedges, I'd peel myself from the reddish-brown genuine Naugahyde-covered banquette and vow that when I grew up I would eat whatever I wanted. (Then when I grew up, what would I order but crunchy duck and ma po tofu...)

Still, in recent years, I’ve been craving and learning to cook some of my old Chinese-American restaurant favorites. But preparing regular sweet and sour pork takes more time than I usually have.

In this dish, using whole cutlets saves me from having to cut a gajillion bite size pieces, then dip ALL of them to get the special coating on every piece, then deep fry the multitude. And pan frying the chops in a skillet cuts down on the cooking oil (and helps reduce the amount of grease that pops and splatters all over the stove and floor).

The list of ingredients looks long, but throw together the sauce ahead of time. Then later, prep the other ingredients, or if you're really short on time, buy bagged pre-cut fresh or frozen vegetables.

Sweet and Sour Sauce


2 1/2 Tablespoons ketchup
2 teaspoons plum sauce
2 teaspoons oyster sauce
2 teaspoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/4 teaspoon rice vinegar
1 teaspoon hot sauce or red pepper flakes (optional)

1. Combine all ingredients in a cup. Set aside.

Easy Sweet and Sour Pork*
Serves 4

4 pork cutlets or thin loin chops, lightly seasoned with salt and pepper (or marinated with 2 teaspoons soy sauce and 1 teaspoon rice wine or cooking sherry)

1/4 cup flour mixed with
1/4 cup cornstarch

canola oil or peanut oil (enough to fry chops)

1 red bell pepper, cut into 1 inch pieces**
1 green or orange bell pepper, cut into 1 inch pieces
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, smashed
1-inch piece ginger, grated
1 8-ounce can pineapple tidbits
5 scallions, cut into 1 inch pieces (reserving some of the green portion to garnish if desired)

1 recipe sweet and sour sauce
1 Tbsp cornstarch dissolved in
1/4 cup cold water


1. Dredge chops in flour-cornstarch mixture.

2. Pour enough oil to cover bottom of a hot skillet.

3. Fry both sides of cutlets in skillet until golden brown, and transfer to a plate in a 275 degree F oven.

4. Remove all but 1 tablespoon of oil from pan. Cook peppers and onions over medium flame to desired degree of tenderness and add scallions, smashed garlic and ginger. Cook another minute. Mix in pineapple chunks and sauce. Remove from heat.

5. When ready to serve, return pan to heat, add cornstarch dissolved in water and let thicken. Serve with chops and rice.

* If you don't eat pork, use chicken.

** Once cooking starts, there is little time for mixing or slicing, so prepare sauce and vegetables ahead of time. I make the sauce and slice the vegetables early in the day or even a day before cooking this for dinner.

*** You could coat cutlets or chops in breadcrumbs or panko bits or a tempura batter if you prefer.
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