Making a Spartan Dessert Sing: Chocolate Squares with Lemon Curd

Lately, I’ve noticed that anyone who seeks to join an Upright Citizens Brigade of self-satisfied health types is told they should happily be willing to make do with a “dessert” of monastic simplicity: a naked square (or two, for shame!) of ultra-dark 78% cocoa chocolate, unadorned and unimproved. They reason, sensibly, that this treat is healthy-ish, as it contains all the helpful flavonoids in cocoa, and only a little of the bad stuff.

I have tried to like this. I truly have. But there’s really no way of getting around the fact that I find it only a tad less depressing than having no dessert at all. It reeks to me of silly, self-imposed deprivation, of nutritionism, and, even, of injustice, because the very notion of dessert has been unfairly stripped of toothsomeness.

However, when out of desperation last week I paired the aforementioned lowly chocolate square with some lovely fresh-made lemon curd from local food-shop extraordinaire, Seasonal Pantry, the chocolate and the lemon both sang. Unadorned no longer, its monkishness replaced with kick and verve for the sweet vagaries of living, the chocolate square was, at least for me, saved.

Now I can have my square, and eat it, too, at least for as long as the lemon curd lasts.

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Dragonbreath Pickles: Homemade Spicy Cucumber Quick-Pickled Goodness

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Here be dragons, as the old maps used to say. You have been warned: these pickles do not mess around. They are perfect for situations such as the long, intimate family gathering I just attended, particularly if others do not care for them, as they are a natural distancing mechanism.

Pickling is all the rage these days, and for good reason. Pickled foods are essential parts of most traditional food cultures, and help repopulate the microcosms of bacteria in the intestines, which it now seems is important for health. Check out Michael Pollan’s piece in the Times recently (which is essentially the last chapter of Cooked, his latest tome), and then take a gander at The American Gut Project, which will analyze your own intestinal output for a small fee and benchmark it against the general population’s microbiome.

More appetizingly, pickling is easy and fun. The below pickled cucumbers produce satisfying amounts of mouth excitement, and the jars belch clouds of sulfurous gas when opened. What could be better?

IMG_1199Like traditional kosher dills, these use salt brine rather than vinegar, and then rely on the natural bacterial process to kick off the ferment. The advantage of salt brined, or “lacto-fermented” pickles, as they are sometimes called, are far higher levels of beneficial microbes. These pickles can be made with many kinds of vegetables, including cucumbers, squash, garlic, carrots, green tomatoes, radishes, asparagus, and just about any other vegetable you can name. Should you be more naturally sociable than me, which is a low bar indeed, and thereby want them less dragon-y, just adjust spices to taste.

IMG_0853Be sure to keep the level of the pickles below the surface of the brine by leaving sufficient headspace and then topping it off with more brine. You can also use this handy tool I recently found for sealing, the Pickle-Pro Vegetable Fermenting Lid, for one jar at a time. When they are cloudish and bubbly, you can halt the fermentation activity by popping them into the fridge. They end up sour, fizzy, tangy, and hot. Delicious, basically.

IMG_0854On jars, be aware that most lids have BPA in them, which is another recent to leave headspace. As I wrote in my recent post on greening your kitchen, Weck, Bormiolli and Le Parfait sell glass-lidded jars with rubber gaskets and metal clips, and the shapes are lovely. (I did these on vacation, so please excuse the hodge-podge of BPA-laden lids!)

The below directions are adapted with gratitude from this Cultures for Health Lacto-fermented Kosher dill recipe, but mine were sliced pickles, and I used many, many more spices per pickle.

IMG_0852What you’ll need:

  • 2.5 tablespoons Celtic sea salt or Kosher salt per quart of water to be used.
  • Chlorine-free water to fill your jars.
  • 4 to 6 grape, oak, mesquite or horseradish leaves (I used 2 oak leaves per small jar; one for the side and another below the lid).
  • 5 to 6 cloves of peeled garlic per small jar.
  • Several pieces of fresh dill per jar (with berries after bolting, if you have them, which is perfect for right now).
  • Ample spices for each jar of (use organic spices if you have them, of course): black peppercorns, red pepper flakes, mustard seeds, herbes de provence, dried dill, and cumin seeds (or dried cumin in a pinch).
  • Enough pickling cucumbers to fill each jar, freshly picked (best within 24 hours) and sliced.

pickle prepMaking the pickles:

  1. Measure the amount of water you will need by filling your jars and make a brine with 2.5 Tbls of Celtic sea salt per quart of chlorine-free water. If it is over 85 degrees in your kitchen, use one extra tablespoon of salt. Mix well, cover, and allow to cool to room temperature. This brine can be kept for days before using.
  2. In each of the small jars you are using, add one of the tannin-containing leaves, 3 or so cloves of garlic, the cuttings of dill, and generous helpings of each of the spices you plan to use.
  3. Pack half of your sliced cucumbers tightly on top of these spices. Repeat another layer of garlic, and spices. Add another tightly packed layer of cucumbers.
  4. Pour the brine over the pickles, leaving 1 to 2 inches of headspace. Place another tannin-containing leaf on top of the pickles as a cover between the pickles and the surface of the brine and push the whole thing into the jar with your fingers. Be sure the leaf and pickles are below the surface of the brine. You can also weight them with the lid I mentioned above, or with a clean, small stone or plate, as it will fit.
  5. Tightly cap the jar and place in a safe place at room temperature for 3 to 5 days. Alternatively, place in a root cellar or cool basement for up to two weeks. The warmer the fermenting temperature, the shorter the fermentation time, though a cooler fermentation temperature is desirable to keep the pickles crispy (less than 80°F). Put something under them to catch any bubbling brew, and burp them by lifting the lid and letting gas escape as needed. Be sure to let your toddler (or anyone young at heart) smell the burp.

You will know your pickles have fermented when the brine is cloudy and bubbling, the pickles have a fizzy sourness, and you can breathe fire after eating a few.

Eat immediately, or store in a refrigerator or basement and enjoy them for months, if you can stop yourself from eating them all right away.

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Why “Let Them Eat Crap” Is Not the Answer to the Obesity Crisis

PolyfaceLast winter, I was invited to attend a nutrition class for low-income and disabled folks held by a local food bank, and I have not been able to write about it since.

But things have suddenly cleared up for me, and I know what I would like to say. I was jolted out of my confusion by a clumsy attempt in the Atlantic Monthly to blame Michael Pollan and his followers (e.g., people like me) for somehow retarding the junk food industry’s progress in creating better living through chemistry. You’ll see the connection in a moment, I promise.

First, the class. Although I went there intending to write an appreciative first-hand account of the food bank’s good work in the community, as I was watching the class, I grew increasingly (but quietly) disturbed. The lessons — and “lessons” they were — provided a short and painful tour through the arid world of what Michael Pollan has rightly criticized as “nutritionism” — dated concepts, an experience of food divorced from its cultural context, and not-so-subtle messages that the obese have only themselves and their poor choices to blame.

For someone like me who believes that environmental exposures like BPA can plausibly be linked to the dramatic rise in obesity, it was uncomfortable, and made only more so by my fast-developing allergy to all forms of fat shaming (which, as it turns out, is not such a great motivational tool after all. Shocker.).

The jury is really still out on the causes for the “obesity epidemic,” as a new brilliant article by David Berreby makes clear. When the public health folks finally lift nutrition sciences out of its squalling infancy, I doubt there will be enough accounting of the psychological harm done to millions of people — especially women — who have learned from the inescapable and constant nutrtition-y messages on “how to eat” and “what we should look like” to experience their own day-to-day through a lens of intermittent self-loathing and personal failure.

But back to the class: although the instructors were clearly well intentioned, well, we know where those lead. While I only got a snapshot of the overall curriculum from a single two-hour class, that session seemed obsessed with reducing fat, in a way that really has not been up-to-date, nutritionally, since at least the mid-90s. The lessons included a tediously detailed explanation of all the types of fats as well as, for one example, comparisons of the amount of dietary fats in low-fat versus regular dressings, exemplified by globby substances trapped in two test tubes that were dutifully passed around.

I was quietly horrified to contemplate how this lesson, should it be taken to heart, would drive class members to buy nasty-tasting, highly engineered, low-fat versions of dressings for their salads. Even the best bottled dressings, of course, are an oil and vinegar balance that requires chemical emulsifiers galore to keep the ingredients in suspension. Should one in fact choose to eat a healthy green salad, as the class was being cajoled to do, topping it with such gloppy coagulation would be enough to cure them of the impulse for quite some time. Not to mention that low-fat often means high-sugar, and almost certainly involves more laboratory than food.

The mostly minority, entirely low income, elderly and disabled class members handled it all with aplomb and grace, joking their way through an exercise in making unnecessarily sweet and complicated yogurt parfaits with layers of granola, yogurt and fruit preserves and gamely grinding up home-made hummus with tahini and canned chickpeas. (I, on the other hand, was childishly restless, wondering per the hummus: 1) um, how is this a “low-fat” food again? 2) why anyone bothering to go to the extraordinary trouble of making a readily available snack-dip wouldn’t use freshly cooked beans, so that they could taste the extra effort?)

In a side conversation while the “cooking” was going on, I learned that the elderly woman next to me, a grandmother of seven, was actually an accomplished and renowned cook among the group. She was on her way home after class to make an enormous batch of authentic Jamaican jerk chicken for the community’s party the following day, using her long-loved and reportedly delicious recipe, which I did manage to sweet-talk her into sharing with me. She should have taught the class, I muttered, sadly, to myself.

Why? Food as culture and as celebration. As the flavors of a people’s past, their ingenuity and history, their resources and adaptation. As a life-force and a gift.

Nutritionism does for the act of eating what Jazzercise did for dance: it sucks out the joy and narrative meaning and turns it into an exercise in forced jumping jacks rife with added potential for humiliation (remember the leotards we all wore?). In the same way, David Freedman’s antiseptic, condescending piece in the Atlantic Monthly is so caught up in his contempt for the arugula-eating food elitists allegedly swarming behind Michael Pollan, and so bought into an utterly simplistic and dated fat-avoidance strategy on obesity, that he misses the subject of food entirely.

His argument marshals so many straw men it’s like watching a parade of scarecrows traipsing through an Agribusiness cornfield: Whole Foods sells some junk food! Certain juice bar smoothies have a lot of calories! Pollan-ites have actually claimed that overpriced organic farmer’s market produce could feed the poor! His citations are almost entirely his own adventures in alternating healthier eateries with trips to MickeyDs. (He also repeatedly misuses “obesogenic,” a term with a rather specific definition, when what he really means is “fattening.”)

What he does get right is self-evident: of course it would be better if fast food purveyors started acting more responsibly and stopped marketing soda with sugar levels attuned to keep the most highly addicted users coming back for more. Of course it would be great if some portion of the marketing budgets of fast food companies went towards promoting healthier fare — though one has to question this given how Freedman rather mindlessly repeats standard industry lore concerning the flopped McLean.

Indeed, the pathetic stories about sneaking the fast food companies’ few health improvements into a small number of products make it seem uncannily like those moms who are so desperate for vegetables in their kids’ diets that they hide ground spinach in pancakes. But those moms, at least, are in the deception game on a temporary basis, until their child’s finickiness resolves or the kid goes off to college, whichever comes first.

On the other hand, if the fast food industry really can’t market healthier choices without turning off their customers, well, that’s a lot of sneakiness for marketing to conceal. A less enthusiastic cheerleader for industry than Freedman is might even see it as an upper bound — and not a high one — on the change that could come from that sector, especially given its historically keen interest in humdrum factors like profitability.

In the end, he makes the very mistake he accuses the Pollan-ites of making: he decides he knows what’s best for all of us, particularly the unwashed masses. “Let them eat crap,” Freedman says, while arrogantly, even angrily, prescribing what will work to change the eating habits of millions, because he knows what their problem is (too many fats and “bad” carbs) and he knows what they will eat (fast food). Problem solved.

Unfortunately for him, and despite publishing a book called “Food Rules,” Pollan is far more exploratory about which foods are best for us (though he does ask folks to, well, eat actual food). As I am an unrepentant devotee of Pollan’s, it just so happens that I recently finished his new book, Cooked, and it’s a far better read than Freedman’s screed.

Pollan’s latest tome is a love letter to the act of cooking, and to the historical, gustatory and communal aspects of food. The best passages in the book are the vivid descriptions of his adventures by the open-pit barbecue, his apprenticeship with a mistress of the braise, and his conversations with a spunky nun who dedicates herself to the art of traditional cheesemaking. There are a few recipes, and inspiring passages meant to open up the possibilities for your own kitchen, true, but nowhere does he suggest that we all need to turn our basements into cheese cellars, or that the ideas in the book are a policy solution to address, say, the crisis of poor nutrition afflicting children raised on fast food.

Instead, he proposes that cooking, and understanding the process and patience required to prepare foods, is a fundamental part of nourishing human connection in a family, or in a tribe, perhaps going back to the pre-historic period given the need to cook — and share — meat around a fire. Moreover, the very process of cooking or fermenting foods creates new substances in them, including flavanoids in aromatics like garlic and onions that ward off disease, or the biota that spring into existence in live yogurt and help to protect our gut.

More traditional modes of food preparation, as it turns out, may have benefits for health that we are only beginning to understand. It follows, sadly, that processed food is both microbially dead and likely incomplete: we can’t engineer nutritional components to add back into foods when we don’t even understand them, and much of how food operates for health is a mystery still grounded in a (beautiful) enigma.

Whatever is making us so sick since just the 1980s must be relatively new in our relationship with food. Yet I would wager we have yakked more about our health, as a species, over that same time period than for all of human history before: we have publishing empires dedicated to the latest news and trends on health and nutrition, and no shortage of advice on eating, health and (lord knows) body image. Despite all this, we are facing serious public health crises, many of which can be linked to food.

Perhaps we should spend less time and energy on prescribing how people should eat and spend more time making good food. We’ll likely figure out one day that the causes of our health challenges are both more surprising and more complex than we ever knew, and that the solutions were right in front of our mouth. In the no-duh category: yes, we should all, including me, exercise more regularly. And, sure, the big food companies have an important role to play, if they will do so.

But I can’t help feeling that Pollan is onto something compelling to both my stomach and soul, a practice essential for the act of being human and living more responsibility on this bountiful planet. Making time to make a decent braise — brown the meat, dice vegetables, brown them in the pan, add back the meat, the wine, the stock and herbs, and simmer for hours, while the house fills up with heavenly aroma — is a meditation on transformation just as Pollan promises. Food this slow becomes, in the cooking, an act of both respect and community.

And let’s give more credit where credit is due. Low-income people may be cash-strapped, but they also know good food. Listening more deeply to people who do this kind of cooking for their own communities — really getting the details down for how they make their particular heirloom recipe for delicious jerk chicken — well, it seems to me that beats either fast food or a nutrition class, every time.

Dinner.

Dinner.

###

I’m indebted to Tom Philpott of Mother Jones for his thoughtful replies to Freedman, including a half-hour radio debate, and for pointing me to the wonderful Berreby piece.

For the short ribs, I used this basic recipe, plus Pollan’s sound advice from the book. I poured in BioNaturae organic canned plum tomatoes from a BPA-free can, and short-cutted the laborious chopping process by leaving things chunky. I also added less salt and more stock than called for. Served over fried polenta.

Post-script:

A further note is required to reply to the unsubtle charges of elitism in Freedman’s article.

My personal perspective on food does play right into the hands of someone like Freedman, as my family prefers organic and beyond-organic foods, like the Polyface Farms beef in the photo. These foods are costly, there’s no two ways about it. And it’s more work, albeit pleasant work, to go to farmer’s markets, arrange for CSA deliveries or pick-ups, and to track down really fresh ingredients.

As I see it, we have the money to spend on these things, and we hope that our investment pays off, in part, by helping in a small way to generate more consumer demand at this end of the marketplace. Buying grass-fed beef is a luxury, certainly, but as far as luxury goods go, it feels more moral than most. We also buy less meat because of its higher price, and make it stretch further over a week.

It’s also the case that government subsidies for all the wrong kinds of commodities and farming practices keep some prices artificially low while smaller, multi-product farms suffer. So our purchase power is swimming upstream against some pretty powerful counter-pressures, making it all the more important to support the practices we prefer.

More importantly, the point about cooking — or even about anything you do for yourself — is that it builds an enduring skill, while making the best use of more wholesome ingredients. A bag of potatoes is still a far better use of a dollar than a bag of potato chips or a container of fast food fries. The costs are scalable to budget, and if more money comes along, you can always upgrade to, say, organic potatoes. Or try to grow your own in trash can (or better yet, wooden barrel), as I just saw on Pinterest.

After all, a drive in window asks nothing of us, while cooking is a valuable habit that must be acquired to make use of the world as it is. Freedman’s suggestion that our health problems can be solved if someone else will just fix (marginally) better food for us misses the point.

There’s a reason that the food industry has spent the last 20 years in the lab, manufacturing flavors, gums and additives and other substitutes to save itself the costs of actually feeding us. Taking back the power to feed ourselves real food affordably will require a considerable shift in government rules, consumer buying habits, and in our ability to take the time to cook and spend time with family. It will likely also require a raise in the minimum wage, better supports overall for families, and economic incentives for farmers to improve, rather than destroy, their local environment.

These changes may be hard to attain or even unattainable given the relentless economic pressures faced by so many families. But that’s a problem with the structure of our lives, and not just our food supply. It also, as it so happens, is the same problem the fast food companies have been profiting from for the past 30 years. The solution is unlikely to lie with them.

Greener Gift Review: A (Delish) Fungus Among Us

IMG_5976When my brother (aka, “the brotherman,” as he likes to say) delivered a mushroom farm as a Christmas gift, I was suitably intrigued. It’s a completely easy winter gardening project for the kitchen counter, and Maya was fascinated. It practically grows while you watch! Best of all, the results are delicious.

It’s also a fairly eco-friendly gift and uses recycled coffee grounds, although some plastic is involved. The bag for the mycelium is plastic, there is a plastic “humidity tent,” and they include a handy small plastic spray bottle, which could be used to mist plants around the house when the toadstools are all gone. It would not really be difficult to imagine a paper-based version of both the bag and tent, at least.

IMG_5876Specifically, the kit grew elm oyster mushrooms, and was from the whimsically named 100th Monkey Mushroom farm, sold at an Austin farmer’s market (they promise their on-line store is coming soon). They are also available from a number of other places, such as these for portabellos and pearl oysters (those are also sold here). Prices are in the low 20-dollar range per “farm.”

The process is simple. You cut a plus sign into the bag, and keep it misted under the humidity tent for 7-10 days.

We made a mushroom risotto, which, we later decided, was not the best use of such delicately flavored ivory shrooms. Portabellos, which I’ve used often, would be instead the stand-by choice for that sort of heavier dish.

I made a basic risotto with thyme and oregano, and added a generous splash of vodka to the base in lieu of wine. A trick learned long ago is to pay real attention to the quality of the stock and to keep it simmering nearby on the stove, so it’s at temperature when added. For even more wholesome fare, you might want to try Marc Bittman’s recently published brown rice risotto recipe.

IMG_5986 IMG_5989 IMG_5997Because I can’t get enough of fungiculture (a real word), now I’m trying for a second “flush” of mushrooms, by drying and then soaking the bag. I’ll let you know how it goes. If you have risotto recipes or others that would work well for the second batch of elm oysters, please let me know!

 

Simple, Delicious Maple Apple Crisp (Optional: Gluten-Free)

Apple crisp

Just in time for the holidays, here’s a wonderfully simple and tasty apple crisp. We’re fully gluten-free at home these days, so we used a flour substitute, but regular flour would work just as well, of course.

If you are also gluten-free, be sure to use both vanilla extract and oats marked as gluten-free as well. Bob’s Red Mill makes some of the oats, though, disappointingly, they are not organic.

Overall, this desert is easy and comforting winter food, and is relatively healthy on that scale. The apples get a wonderful gooey-ness to them, and the oat crisp is just enough texture to keep things interesting. I’ll say that I was initially skeptical of the lemon-maple-vanilla flavor pile-on experiment I cooked up, but it works as well. I’ve made this twice now, and would venture to say that you can’t really mess it up. And you’ll want some ice cream for over top — we used a ginger-flavored local ice cream last night, which was out of this world.

I think I’ll go and eat some of the leftovers from last night right now!

IMG_5651Ingredients:

Filling:

  • 4-5 cups organic apples (no need to peel; and you really want organic as apples have the highest levels of pesticide residues out there)
  • 1/2 cup (organic, unsulphured) raisins (or cranberries)
  • 1/4 cup (organic) maple syrup
  • juice from 1/2 of a fresh (organic) lemon
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg or 8 scrapes of a fresh nutmeg (far more potent!)
  • 1/4 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract (check to be sure it’s gluten-free if so desired)

IMG_5665Topping:

  • 1 cup (organic, or gluten-free) oats
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar (optional, but nice)
  • 1/3 cup (organic) flour or gluten-free substitute (we used gluten-free pancake mix, which worked well)
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • Generous pinch salt
  • 2-3 Tbsp. melted (organic, grassfed) butter, as you prefer

Directions:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a large baking dish, toss the apple slices with the ingredients for the filling.

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Prepare the topping by mixing the dry ingredients together, and adding the melted butter. Spread over the apples and bake for 35 to 40 minutes until the apples are soft.

IMG_5670Top with ice cream or whipped cream. Serve to delighted young (and old!) fans.

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A Green Thanksgiving with Sorrel Soup

Green options at Thanksgiving are always a bit less exciting than the orange and brown delectables. I do love brussels sprouts, roasted, or braised in white wine and topped with gorgonzola, but they are not for everyone. And the green salad we always dutifully prep up is usually intact at the end of the meal, faring poorly against the competition.

So why not kick off the meal with a lovely green soup? While sorrel is typically thought of in the spring, when it’s tender and new, autumn sorrel retains a wonderful lemony flavor, and can still be found in the farmer’s markets, at least where we live in Maryland.

This easy soup is adapted from the mistress of gardens, Alice Waters, and her Chez Panisse cookbook. It can be prepared ahead, and finished at the last minute with a quick reheating and immersion (stick) blender. It has great flavor, and would make a remarkable — and elegant — way to open the feast. It goes without saying that this soup would also be wonderful chilled in the high heat of summer.

You will want some really lovely fresh cream, so if you can obtain the grassfed, organic kind from a farm share or market, that’s the way to go.

Ingredients:

1 Tbl (organic, grassfed) butter

1 medium (organic) boiling potato or several smaller ones, diced

1 cup (organic) chicken stock or vegetable stock (do not use plain water, as there will be insufficient flavor, and if using vegetable stock, you may want more cream and salt)

1 medium (organic) yellow onion, diced

1 1/2 large bunches (organic or near-organic) sorrel (about 1.5 lbs.) (I have added sorrel to punch up the flavor a bit)

1 (organic) carrot or 7 small ones, diced

1 1/2 cup (grassfed, organic) cream (I also added a lot more cream than Ms. Waters — up to a pint is just fine with me)

3 sprigs (organic) thyme, chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

2 1/3 cup water

2 Tbls crumbled (happy pig) bacon, for garnish (optional)

Directions:

Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the thyme, diced potato, onion, and carrot.

Pour in 1/3 cup of the water, cover, and stew gently for 15 minutes, with the lid ajar. Add the rest of the water (2 cups), salt and pepper, and stock, and bring to a simmer. Stew this for another 15 minutes, until the potatoes are soft and easily mashed.

Meanwhile, chop sorrel leaves into thin strips. When the potatoes are finished, add the sorrel, and return soup to a simmer, then turn off and let it stand for 5 minutes. (You can reserve some finely chopped sorrel for garnish. And if you are serving this later, you can let this sit in the fridge or on the back of the stove until ready to serve.)

Purée the soup in a blender (glass is best) or use an immersion blender in the pot, then stir in the cream. Taste (and add more cream). Garnish with bacon and/or chopped sorrel. Serve and enjoy!

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Let’s Get Pickled!

When Hurricane Sandy was still looming, I checked out the bottom of my veggie drawer and the more dubious corners of the fridge, and decided, then and there, to put up some lovely and super-easy vegetable pickles.

This simple preparation is actually a wonderful way to deal with the stubby tail-ends of veggies that are still hanging around (but not actually spoiled). You can also thinly slice and pickle stems, like those on broccoli or cauliflower, that you would otherwise throw away, which is a nice way to use the whole kaboodle.

As a side-benefit, they are surprisingly (and unduly) impressive to guests. I recently served them at a small brunch with friends, and they made a tasty giardiniera (or, less pompously, chow chow) to accompany our fritatta. Maya will occasionally eat them as well, though sour is still a taste category under acquisition.

Since most jars — including the Ball and Kerr jars (now all made by the same company) — evidently have BPA under the lids, I used wonderful Weck jars, which are nothing but glass with a rubber gasket and metal clamps. These are the 1-liter cylindrical jars, which come in a set of 6 (for $21) that is ideal for other kitchen storage, or even making canned goods into gifts. There are loads of other sizes and shapes available as well.

Sidebar: If you’re really into canning per se, about midway down this page is great information about BPA-free options, including how to source vintage glass lids and gaskets on Ebay. In addition to Weck’s jars, Bormiolli and Le Parfait sell glass-lidded jars, though the shapes are more difficult to work with and the price is generally higher.

There are also reusable canning lids, here, that are BPA-free, but are still plastic, and even contain some formaldehyde that the company claims doesn’t get into the food. Er, no thanks! If you know of other options, please let me know!

Anyhoo, back to pickling. Fermented foods, because they contain digestion-friendly microbes and enzymes, are helpful to the health of the gut. There’s almost no limit to the health claims folks will make these days on behalf of ample gut flora, and it’s sometimes hard to sort it all out. Still, what seems indisputable is that most traditional cultures included pickles as a significant part of meals — think kimchi, sauerkraut, kosher condiments, kefir, even the mighty dill spear — yet pickled and fermented foods have largely now disappeared from the Western diet. It also appears that vinegar, when consumed as part of a meal, helps to lower blood sugar levels.

So, we’ve added probiotics (buy the refrigerated kind that boasts about containing millions of live bugs) to our diets, as well as plain kefir, kombucha, lots of yogurt (sometimes homemade), and, when we really put it together, pickles!

Sorry, but those sugary ball park pickles and relishes don’t count. You need fresh pickles without a ton of sugar or heat pasteurization. The good news is that these live foods are easy to make.

There are obviously many options for recipes, but my stand-by is from the always-incredible Jacques Pepin, whose minimal approach still retains the basics of what’s needed for healthy and delicious pickle-y goodness. As adapted from Pepin’s Simple and Healthy Cooking:

Ingredients:

Assorted vegetables, sliced thin as appropriate: this can include (organic) carrots, green beans, fennel (a favorite of mine), red bell pepper, cauliflower (love), turnips, zucchini, turnips, broccoli, and whole or half cloves of garlic, depending on size. Beets are also lovely of course, but will turn the whole thing pink, and so should really be pickled unto themselves.

Fresh dill is optional. (For my pickles, I just stuck the fennel fronds along the sides while layering the vegetables.)

1 cup distilled white vinegar to 2 1/2 cups water

1 1/2 Tablespoon salt

Generous pinch of sugar (optional)

1 Tablespoon Pickling Spice blend, or as much as you have on hand to make same of: cloves, allspice berries, coriander seeds, mustard seeds, dill seeds, and bay leaves.

Directions:

Figure out how much liquid you will need for your jars and the right ratio based on the above. But note that it’s not picky, really.

Pack the vegetables 1/3 of the way in, layering them in the jar.

Bring water, vinegar, salt, sugar, and spices, to a boil and boil gently for five minutes. Pour liquid to barely cover the vegetables in the jar, and, using a spoon or strainer, add a few of the spices floating about in the liquid. Add 1/3 more vegetables and more spices and liquid, packing it all down with the spoon. Repeat these steps one more time. (This slightly elaborate process is to address the issue I’ve found that if you pour the liquid all at once, the spices just sit on the top.)

Ensure that the vegetables are below the liquid and let the jars cool, and even sit out a bit. You can then store them in the back of the fridge. After a week or so, they will be somewhat pickled, and after two weeks, even more so. You can also reuse the pickling water, which becomes more flavorful with repeated use.

You like? Then here’s another post on pickling from me, and another from Men’s Journal:

And do tell, what do you pickle?

Fermenting Dissent (with Determination, Cabbages and Salt)

Later this week, I’ll post about the news on toxics out of the U.S. Senate, which last week passed the Safe Chemicals Act out of committee on a party-line vote. I’m scanning the testimony, much of which is worth a gander. Really, the Safe Chemicals Act is a bit of a no-brainer, so it’s terribly disappointing to see partisan political deadlock on something so common-sense and fundamental to health.

Andy Igrejas, Campaign Director for Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, wrote a great piece highlighting the problems for Republicans and the chemical industry if they continue obstructing progress on this issue. As he points out, educated consumer demand and our skepticism about the safety of products is a real threat to corporations when so many serious questions remain about the chemicals in our products and food. So keep asking questions, my friends, and letting the companies know we are all watching and taking names.

When life is such a mix of sweet and sour, that always feels like an invitation to pickle something. And over the weekend, a golden (or really purple) opportunity presented itself when my new pal Sharon offered to teach me how to make sauerkraut the old-fashioned way.

Here’s what the Nourishing Traditions cookbook says about the power of pickled cabbage:

Captain Cook loaded 60 barrels of sauerkraut onto his ship. After 27 months at sea, 15 days before returning to England, he opened the last barrel and offered some sauerkraut to some Portugese noblemen who had come on board….This last barrel was perfectly preserved after 27 months…and had also preserved sufficient quantities of vitamin C to protect the entire crew from scurvy.

Fermented foods are terrific for health, as they help to balance out the elaborate ecosystems in our gut. Traditional diets around the world use fermented foods far more frequently than we do in the Western diet, where half-limp dills tend to be the only sign of a once-robust spread of zingy condiments.

From kefir to kimchi to kombucha, miso to mango pickle, preserved lemons to pickled beets, fermented foodstuffs are commonplace in other cuisines, and are considered essential to good digestion. In my husband’s native India, meals typically included at least three kinds: intensely spiced pickles of many flavors, as well as fresh-made, live bacteria yogurt (or “curd”) and buttermilk.

Don’t tell the drug companies, but it turns out that making a high-powered new ecosystem to better service one’s digestive plumbing is simple, fun and deeply satisfying. Under Sharon’s expert tutelage, we drank some wine — fermented again! — and kneaded stringy pulpy cabbage pieces until they gave up their water and our hands were stinging from the salt. It was a wonderful and relaxing way to spend our daughters’ nap time on a summer afternoon. Below I provide all the details so that you, too, can share in the fun.

Sharon’s Easy Sauerkraut

Ingredients:

1 head (organic) cabbage

1 Tbl Celtic Sea Salt per head (you want pure, high-mineral salts for this)

Optional: Pickling spices

Optional: a small amount of whey, to jump-start the fermentation (more on homemade yogurt in a future post)

Directions:

Chop cabbage into chunks and then into fine strips and place in a large bowl.

Optional: Sip your wine. Laugh and talk. Discuss the cool new cookbook on fermentation that just made the Amazon bestseller list.

Wash your hands well and add 1 generous Tbl of sea salt per head of chopped cabbage.

Get your hands in there and squeeze and knead the salt into the cabbage. It will begin to give up its water and you’ll learn all about any small cuts and hangnails you may have. After about 12 minutes of kneading, it was limp and beautiful, and about half the volume.

If you like, add the pickling spices at this stage and knead them in a bit.

Stuff the proto-sauerkraut into a crock, glass jar or other non-toxic container (Note: Ball jar metal lids, and most other metal lids, have a coating of BPA on them!) and push it down so that the surface of the cabbage is below the water it has generated. Add the whey in this process if using it.

Leave some room for more water to develop at the top (mine started to leak violet juices after a day when not enough room was preserved).

Cover, put it somewhere where it will stay around 70 degrees F. Wait anxiously for 4 to 7 days before opening and sampling your creation.

After opening, store it in the refrigerator, where it will keep for a month or more. Makes about 3 and 1/2 cups of royal purple goodness. Serve over greens, next to sausage, in soups, or just as a nice condiment.

If you have variations on this recipe, other additions, or great ideas for how to use and serve sauerkraut, please share them in the comments!

Slightly Sprouted Green Lentil Salad

Moong (or mung) beans are eaten far more in Indian cuisine than American, but they shouldn’t be. For a dose of health, you can’t do much better than these. The small, oval dark green lentils known as “moong dal” or “green gram” are high in protein, and Vitamin C, and also contain magnesium, phosphorus and potassium in smaller amounts.

More importantly, they are delicious, and especially when sprouted, very digestible for both adults and toddlers. The flavor is slightly nutty, and they are filling and comforting food.

Mung bean sprouts are very common in grocery stores, but since I prefer them more like beans and less like gangly sprouts, I sprout them at home and eat them just when they are barely ready to slip off their small green skins. (I’m also skeptical of store-bought sprouts, which are a far-too-frequent trigger for e coli and similar food poisoning incidents.)

The recipe below takes 3 days and 30 minutes, but don’t let the advance prep fool you — all you have to do for the first few days is change the water twice a day, morning and night. The hard part, once you become as fond of them as we are, is waiting for the days to pass…

Ingredients

2 cups whole green moong dal

1 rough-chopped (organic) tomato

1 chopped (organic) cucumber and/or raw zucchini

1 chopped (organic) yellow onion

3 cloves chopped (organic) garlic

1 finely chopped small green chili

2 Tbls coriander seeds or powder

1 1/2 Tbl cumin seeds or powder

2 Tbls brown mustard seeds

3 Tbls chopped fresh cilantro

Juice from 2 freshly squeezed limes

Salt and pepper to taste

Olive oil

Optional:  3 Tbls toor (yellow) dal, split

Optional: Grated (organic) carrot

Directions

Place the beans in a vessel with some room in it for expansion and cover with water for 3 days. Twice every day, rinse and replace the water — once at morning and once at night.

On the third day, the beans will be bubbly and look like these (Maya loved the bubbles, and kept poking them):

On the third day, you’re ready! Over low to medium heat in a deep saucepan, saute the onions, garlic and spices. Drain and add the beans to the pan, stirring in the spices and salt and pepper, and warm them through. Remove from the heat.

Optional addition: roast the toor dal in a small amount of oil in a separate pan and set it aside. This adds texture and crunch, but is not completely necessary.

Add the tomatoes, cucumber and zucchini, carrots, and last the fresh cilantro and fresh lime juice and combine. Top with another shake of salt and pepper. Serve while still slightly warm.

The Twinkie Did It, Mom, I Swear: The Crisis in Child Nutrition and What It Does to Our Kids

English: Hostess Twinkies. Yellow snack cake w...When I read Kelly Dorfman’s new book, What’s Eating Your Child, a few weeks back, I was stunned by the number and variety of child health problems that turned out to be related to diet. The book is a quick yet informative read, built from clearly explained case studies of children with health issues ranging from anxiety to Asberger’s, all of whom are significantly helped by her simple, effective nutritional fixes.

Here’s Dorfman’s compelling version of “we are what we eat:”

One basic law of physics says that you cannot make matter from nothing….In the case of the body, its ability to create must start from what it takes in or is born with. In other words, any growing, healing, development and functioning you accomplish must evolve from from what you come with, eat, drink or breathe. You are born with about seven pounds of matter that will expand into a hundred-something pounds….What one eats has bearing on mood, energy, susceptibility to illness, digestion, sleep, learning, healing capacity, and more.

The book centers mainly on Dorfman’s sensitive, case-specific assessments of the issues affecting particular families, and the tone is gentle and explanatory rather than judgmental. But it was nonetheless amazing to me that so many children in the book, living in a food-abundant society like our own, have such utterly crappy diets.

In many cases, though it should perhaps be obvious, diet is the last place it seems anybody looks for a solution, even for serious child health problems. The book is full of stories of families who have been to an elaborate pantheon of expensive medical specialists for their child’s health issues, and of drugged-up children taking medications more suitable for adults — medications that do little to address the problem, and carry a risk of serious side effects. All the while, the kids are snarfing down nothing but Twinkies, Wonder Bread and soda, yet no one apparently connects the dots until Dorfman gently suggests a vegetable or two might improve the situation.

Predictably, she puts it in a nicer way than I just did:

Few parents start out with the goal of feeding their children toaster pastries for breakfast and peanut butter crackers for lunch, yet an astounding number (if my practice is any indication) end up there. … The scenario of a typical diet gone bad starts at age two when a sleep-starved mother hands her red-faced, screaming toddler a cracker or cookie so he will just shut up.

She goes on to rightly label cookies and crackers for toddlers “like crack.” As someone who very recently violated every principle I hold dear to repeatedly stuff “Toppables” crackers into Maya in an attempt to get her to shut up for the duration at recent family memorial service, I can personally attest to their addictive, and seductively taming, properties for toddlers.

Even my own impertinent darling, despite our generally uptight dietary controls, asks for “biscuits” “crackers” and “cookies” daily and by name. While she only very rarely gets them, and the ones she typically does get are made of organic oats and taste like wallpaper paste, this has yet to cool her ardor. Toddler crack? I’d say more like heroine.

And past the toddler stage, things don’t look very bright either. Dorfman reports that most children over-consume salt, bad fats, and added sugar, adding:

An October 2010 study reported that the top sources of calories for 2 to 18-year-olds were [] cookies, cakes, granola bars, pizza and soda. Nearly 40 percent of the total calories consumer were from empty-calorie foods.

Up against these odds, Dorfman is undaunted. To find the cause for a specific problem, she becomes what she calls a “nutrition detective,” putting the clues together either to figure out when a food is a harmful irritant, or to identify a deficiency might be causing the problem. Some of her conclusions are astonishing, as when she demonstrates that chronic ear infections may be related to milk allergy, or that speech delays in two children were likely caused by a lack of adequate essential fats in their diets.

She also points out that each of us has highly individualized nutritional needs, a factor called bio-individuality. This means that even within a family, the dietary needs of one child for a particular nutrient or mineral may be higher than for her sibling, a reality that unhelpfully may conceal the relationship between nutrition and that child’s health issues.

On the flip side, there are also linkages among family members due to genetics, as in the family in which a shared intolerance for gluten negatively affected the behavior of both parent and child, causing irritability, behavioral irregularities and distraction in both.

How a Nutrition Detective Clearly Links Child Health Back to Food

I highly recommend this book. I found its approach balanced, sensible and sensitive. When families and other doctors were skeptical about the contributions of nutritional factors, Dorfman explains how she would patiently allow them to exhaust the traditional medical diagnoses first, and then move in to restate the obvious. Her approach, overall, is both gentle and painstaking. And behavioral change is obviously harder than popping a pill. Still, at times I wished the book was a little more directive, as it lacks a chapter that summarizes all the dietary “do’s.”

Nonetheless, the overall message is obvious: sugars, highly processed foods and refined flour products tend to take over the diets of children, taking up space where real foods should be, and creating taste preferences that lead to “picky eater” syndrome. She suggests a method for insisting that picky eaters diversify their food preferences, and also takes this problem of a mono- (and nutrient-deprived) diet as seriously as it likely deserves.

For stiffer medicine, she also suggests that we not keep anything in the house that we don’t want our children to eat. This is harsh, but good advice. I know the day is fast approaching with Maya that “do as I say” won’t work anymore — and this rule of thumb seems right to me (and will push me into the final clean-up of my own dietary act, as it were. Ahem.).

In addition to emphasizing organic, whole foods and a wide range of fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and highlighting the importance of a protein- and nutrient-rich breakfast (a few of my own ideas on that one are here), she recommends that children (and adults) take a multivitamin, and she touts the significant properties of cod liver oil for its essential fatty acids.

Since I have always been skeptical about the uptake of minerals and vitamins from supplements, her insistence that these additions are important to the diet, and her well-reasoned arguments in support of that idea, are causing me to do a rethink.

I looked around briefly for products that would fit the parameters in the book, and they were hard to find. For vitamins, she recommends one with a good variety of minerals, and the full set of B-vitamins (which gummy vitamins are typically missing), and not more than 2,500 IUs of Vitamin A.

For cod liver oil, she indicates that we need more than 1,000 mgs total of the active ingredients of EPA and DHA. We were already taking a popular brand of fish oil capsules, but a closer reading of the label revealed we’d need choking hazard-levels of 15 pills per day each to get that amount of active EPA and DHA! (She also recommends probiotics — the more live bacteria the better, and chewable ones should be avoided because they are too low in live cultures.)

So I wrote to Dorfman to ask for recommended brands for vitamins and for high-potency fish oil that had been cleansed of mercury, PCBs or other pollutants found in fish. And wonder of wonders, she actually wrote me back, of course with some very helpful answers. Noting that it would have been far more dicey for her to officially recommend particular products in her book, she said:

With [cod liver oil], it is tough to stabilize the potency so to get the higher amounts of EPA/DHA you may have to get regular fish oil.  Nordic Naturals has a patented process for purifying fish oils and are good.  They are available widely.   Their Ultimate Omega (which is also available with vitamin D) comes in a bottle as a liquid.  I recommend it a lot.  However, their products have a strong fish flavor.  If you need a neutral tasting clean product, consider 2 tsp. of Omega Cure.  It mixes easily with other foods.

As far as a well balanced multiple, check out these wafers.   Two per day contain 15 mg of zinc.

We’ve ordered both products, but they have not yet arrived. I’ll just note that the Omega Cure site also includes fish oil chocolates and cookies, thereby introducing significant cognitive dissonance into my nutritional wanderings. I’m so curious about whether these are tasty or not that I’m sure to break down and order some eventually… if you’ve tasted them, please let me know how they are! Fish oil chocolates, mmmm!

Two New Zealand chocolate fish.

They don’t really look like this.

One more note:  Given the frightening lack of any real regulation of food supplements, you may want to check the products you are using against the testing being done by the only private group to fill in doing what the government should be.

Unfortunately, you’ll have to pay for the privilege. The group is called Consumer Lab, and membership is $33/year. They do regularly find problems with supplementation products, so if you spend a lot of money on these kinds of things, it would easily be worth it to join.

You also can and should look for labels on supplements that indicate that they adhere to Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP), the highest sanitation, process validation and quality standards that are voluntary standards from the federal government. Especially if you are feeding the supplements to children, this level of compliance with basic health standards is a no-brainer.

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This book may be for you if…

Because Dorfman’s book presents nutritional solutions to such a wide range of child health problems, below I provide a list of issues with her accompanying suggestions so that readers grappling with these issues in a child’s or their own health will see that this book may offer some useful insights, or at least some avenues to try as an alternative to prescription drugs or mere desperation.

If you are dealing with any of these issues, the list below by no means should replace your review of all of the information in the book, which includes detailed case studies, full descriptions of the problem and methodology and a candid discussion of how well the nutritional solutions worked. Dorfman is also available for consultations and is based in Northern Virginia.

Health Conditions Addressed by Nutritional Changes, by Issue, Cause and Solution

Frequent nosebleeds/stomach pain — Gluten intolerance (despite negative test for Celiac disease)

Lyme disease symptoms not addressed by antibiotics — High Iron levels in Prenatal Vitamins (brief mention)

Very picky eater, upper respiratory and ear infections — milk (casein) allergy or other food allergy

Serious reflux (GERD) — Milk allergy, addressed by alternative formula (not soy-based), probiotics and zinc carnosine

Near-constant stomach pain, craving wheat-based foods, eczema, anemia, severe mood swings and/or behavior issues — Gluten intolerance (again, despite negative test for Celiac)

Very picky eater, deficient growth, lack of hunger — Zinc deficiency

Constipation, Eczema — Milk allergy, addressed with pro-biotic supplements, Liquid-L Carnitine

Rash or “chicken skin,” dry hair, lack of thirst — Essential fatty acids deficiency, addressed with fish oil supplement

Insomnia — Melatonin, in small doses (caution about drug interactions with SSRIs); other practical advice, such as increasing exercise and decreasing sugar/caffeine

Hyperactivity, Aggression, Moodiness — Decrease sugar (she notes that a small subset of sugar-reactive children do get hyperactive from sugar, despite more general findings of no link between hyperactivity and sugar); increase magnesium; DMAE supplements (sardine oil nutrient)

Anxiety — fish oil supplementation to increase amino acids, protein and nutrient-rich diet

Ear infections linked to ADHD — Eliminate common allergenic foods (dairy, wheat, soy and/or eggs); address with probiotics; evaluate auditory processing

Autism with behavioral deterioration from some foods and sudden rash, or                 Itchiness or red cheeks or rashes from certain foods — Pesticides on strawberries (my note: likely methyl iodide or methyl oxide) or other foods, such as fruit

Hives (after all food allergens and contaminants are removed) — Allergy to genetically modified corn and soy

Dyspraxia, or speech delays — Deficiency in essential fats, addressed with Fish oil supplementation, Vitamin E complex, and Choline supplementation (one child also needed Taurine supplementation in addition). The book also helpfully contains a guideline by which to measure speech delays in toddler development, and highlights the developmental urgency in addressing this issue as early as possible.

Hyper-sensitivity (Sensory Processing Disorder, or SPD) — Deficiency in fatty acids, vitamins and minerals, addressed with fish oil, and mineral and vitamin supplementation