I’m on my way back from my first trip to BlogHer Food, and I feel a bit like Alice after going down the rabbit hole. It was a mad-hatted tea-party of blogging tips, brand representatives, and cocktail parties. I connected with many fine and passionate folks and I’ll have more thoughts on food blogging in a later post. In the meantime, I want to call everyone’s attention to article in today's New York Times, “Always Hungry? Here’s Why.”
As someone who is often hungry, the title seized me immediately. I learned that caloric restriction may not be having the effect on our bodies that we thought (although the notion that dieting doesn’t work isn’t really news, of course). It may be, however, that the failure has less to do with portion control or willpower and more to do with what we are eating.
As it turns out, many biological factors affect the storage of calories in fat cells, including genetics, levels of physical activity, sleep and stress. But one has an indisputably dominant role: the hormone insulin. We know that excess insulin treatment for diabetes causes weight gain, and insulin deficiency causes weight loss. And of everything we eat, highly refined and rapidly digestible carbohydrates produce the most insulin.
During a conference panel with Christy Denny, of The Girl Who Ate Everything, Julie Deily, of The Little Kitchen, and Amanda Rettke, of I Am Baker, the overhead screen displayed three of their most popular images on Pinterest: savory ham and cheese sliders, a spectacular cake, and an enticing sandwich. One of the panelists observed that all three dishes involved carbohydrates. “People might not like to eat carbs, but they sure like to look at them,” she said. The appeal of home baked goods is universal, but dishes like these aren't the problem. It’s something else:
One reason we consume so many refined carbohydrates today is because they have been added to processed foods in place of fats — which have been the main target of calorie reduction efforts since the 1970s. Fat has about twice the calories of carbohydrates, but low-fat diets are the least effective of comparable interventions, according to several analyses, including one presented at a meeting of the American Heart Association this year.
Personally, I’ve never had a problem with with weight, but I have had problems with always feeling hungry. I usually get plenty of protein and other healthy calories, but I’ve learned that to feel full I need to add fat to my diet. So I make sure I have avocado slices with my lunch, a few olives, or a small bag of potato chips. Otherwise I don’t feel satisfied, no matter how much I eat. I post this here to encourage all of us to think carefully about what we eat and how it makes us feel. And then study it some more:
If this hypothesis turns out to be correct, it will have immediate implications for public health. It would mean that the decades-long focus on calorie restriction was destined to fail for most people. Information about calorie content would remain relevant, not as a strategy for weight loss, but rather to help people avoid eating too much highly processed food loaded with rapidly digesting carbohydrates.
What have you noticed about your diet and its effect on your hunger level? Have you ever thought of adding fat to your diet to stay a healthy weight?
Remember photosynthesis—the process of plants turning the carbon dioxide into oxygen? Trees take the carbon we exhale and fashion it into trunks and branches. Our breath literally becomes something physical, standing there in the forest, waving its leaves in the breeze. Raising kids works much the same way. As I exhale, they grow. Sometimes, I think I can see Nina and Pinta getting taller as I sigh. I’m not saying that they are sucking the life out of me. No, not at all. Quite the contrary. Like the trees give us oxygen, they return love, and who can live without that?
But all this energy transfer leaves little time for the other things we used to do, like have a life. I’m not complaining, just observing, because one thing I’ve also noticed is that this often leads to disagreements—or so I’ve been told—about who is doing what around the house. I’m not saying I have any direct experience with these matters, but I’ve learned that when kids are growing up and two parents are working, everyone can feel like they’re doing too much. It’s as natural as photosynthesis itself.
According to older and wiser married folks, the solution is for each person to contribute 100% and forget about keeping track. That sounds good, but it is human nature to want things to be fair—at least according to my children (do yours do that?). Also, try as I might, there are just some things that I can’t do, such as baking.
I’d done a little baking—I make a fine cornbread (thanks to Sam Sifton) and I've had fun making pound cake—but cookies, cakes, and pies, are as confusing to me as organic chemistry. Santa Maria, on the other hand, loves to bake, and when she’s not buried under her work and domestic tasks, she takes to the oven. Actually, even when she is saddled with a a big work load, she will bake something, be it Hurricane-Watch Oatmeal Cookies, light and sweat Banana Bread, or a killer Almond Torte.
Rhubarb is in season now, and the other day I came home to a sweet and enticing scent, and there on the stove was a lattice-topped strawberry-rhubarb pie. Here’s her recipe. Note the sugar content. She likes her pies like she likes her men—tart.
Santa Maria’s Strawberry Rhubarb Pie with Lattice Crust
Trim and mix fruit with sugar and tapioca. Let fruit mixture sit half an hour while you prepare the pie dough and preheat your oven to 400 degrees. This is important so that you do not have hard little pellets of tapioca in your finished pie.
For the Crust
Mix flour and salt. Cut butter into the flour, until the largest butter lumps are the size of peas. Slowly add ice water/vinegar mixture a tablespoon at a time and press the mixture together until it sticks together. Wrap the dough in two separate bundles in wax paper. Touch it as little as possible so your hands won’t melt the butter. The lumps of butter within the flour are what create a flaky pie crust. Stay at Stove Dad’s sister Eileen is the master of this delicate process.
Sprinkle flour on the counter. Press one ball of dough down on the counter. Roll it out with a pin until it’s just a few millimeters thick.
Turn an 8 or 9 inch pie pan upside down, and place it on the rolled-out crust. Using your hands and/or a spatula, turn the pie pan and the crust over, so the crust is inside the bottom of the pan. With your fingers, press the crust into the bottom of the pan gently, and then use a sharp knife to trim any excess that might be hanging over the edge of the pie pan.
Fill the pie pan with the fruit mixture.
Roll out the other ball and cut the dough into half-inch or so strips. Weave a lattice crust over the top of the fruit mixture. Sprinkle with one tablespoon of sugar.
Depending on how deep your pie pan is, you may have extra fruit and or crust with which you can make delightful little tarts! Bake at 400 degrees for 25 minutes, then turn oven down to 350 degrees and bake another 20-35 minutes until your crust is golden and the ruby fruit bubbling through the lattice crust.
Serve with a glass of cold milk (or, for an extra treat, vanilla ice cream).
Note: I like my pies tart, so you will notice this has less than half the sugar of many fruit pies.
It feels like just yesterday that I was pushing my girls in a stroller on the weekends, and now I can’t catch them while playing tag in the park. Before I know it, they will be out of the house—in college, out on their own, off to seek adventure—and I will be back to cooking just for Santa Maria and myself. I know that my time in the kitchen is limited.
On the other hand…
It also feels, on some days, that I’ll never get out of the kitchen: Breakfast, lunch, dinner—they all add up. I know I’m not alone in feeling this. Santa Maria often reminds me that she’s the one putting dinner on the table the nights I’m working late. And I met a fellow over the weekend with two kids and who works from home. He makes the breakfasts and dinners and he said to me, “My wife told me she has no life. We have no life,” referring to how much time they spend tending to domestic tasks.
And in the meantime…
My children are doing more and more in the kitchen. Just tonight, Nina made up her own way of chopping tomatoes. She prefers to do that rather than set the table (the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree). For her part, Pinta, my little one, has created a new way to eat pancakes.
Pancakes are a weekend treat around our house. I make them from scratch, and once you’ve done this a few times, you’ll find it’s as easy as opening a box of mix. I used to separate and beat the egg whites, to make them supper fluffy, but as I’ve gotten older, wiser, and more tired, I’ve started cutting back. I’ve learned an easier way to make them.
The trick is to do less, not more. This is also useful when discussing problematic issues with one’s spouse. Take it easy. Don’t mix the batter too much. Let it sit, full of lumps. Just as time heals all wounds, if you let the batter rest about ten minutes or twenty, it will turn out much better. And if you take a break when talking over hard issues with your spouse, it can be much more productive to return to them later, after everyone has cooled down.
These days, I thin the batter with extra milk, and make giant, crepe-like pancakes. I do this by putting a spoonful of batter in the middle of the hot, buttered, frying pan, and then tipping the pan back and forth so the batter spreads out in a circular fashion as much as it can.
Once it is spread out, I flip it and cook it like a normal pancake:
Nina and Pinta eat their pan-crepes with cinnamon sugar, and Pinta has taken to rolling hers up and then cutting it crossways, and making wee Rugelach-like bites. This is the fun part of cooking for yourself and the family, seeing how they enoy the food. It makes all the time in the kitchen worthwhile.
Combine the dry ingredients with a fork, and mix well
Combine the eggs, the milk, and the butter.
Mix the wet ingredients into the dry, and stir with spoon until combined, but not too much. It’s fine to leave lumps. Let sit ten to twenty minutes if possible (but not absolutely necessary).
Look at the batter. If it is thick, thin it out a bit with some extra milk. I don’t have a hard and fast rule for this.
Once the batter is thin and runny, spoon a bit into a large, hot and buttered frying pan, and tip the pan back and forth (being careful not to burn yourself) until the batter covers as much as the pan as possible.
As soon as bubbles start to appear, flip and cook through on the other side.
Serve with warm maple syrup or cinnamon sugar, as you please.
When I was very young, I saved up my money and bought a blue ten-speed Fuji bicycle. I polished the chrome it every weekend, and I kept it as shiny as the day I bought it. When I was a little older, I ArmorAll-ed the vinyl of of a 1973 Ram-Air Pontiac Firebird Formula 400 so it looked like new. As a parent, I wipe clean the shelves of a Jenn-Air refrigerator, for that’s what I take pride in these days.
The things that powered the ten-speed (an adolescent me) and what was under the hood of the Pontiac (a thousand raging horses) were thrilling, but my refrigerator runs on something less mystifying, Con Edison. However, what’s inside it can often be exciting, and confusing. I just came back from a trip away, and I found margarine in it.
Since when did we start eating that? And isn’t it bad for you? What is margarine, anyway?
I found an easy answer to the first question: Santa Maria bought it to make vegan cupcakes for a nephew who has food allergies. The other two questions, I couldn’t answer right away. So I looked a few things up.
It turns out that margarine is not necessarily bad for you. It depends on what you need, and who you ask. The Mayo Clinic says it’s better than butter if you need to protect your heart, but it’s important to make sure there are no trans fats, which are usually found in stick margarines. “Opt for soft or liquid margarine instead,” it says. A website called Wellness Mama, however, says it’s to be avoided. Margarines are made from vegetable oils, and those are worse than leaded gasoline, according to Wellness Mama. I’m not sure who to believe, but if someone is allergic to dairy, than there’s little choice.
As for what margarine is, that’s a long story. Created as a butter substitute, it used to be made from beef tallow, and is now typically made from vegetable oils. Some people consider it closer in its chemical composition to plastic than to food, but you can find all sorts of folks on the Internet.
My chief concern with margarine these days is that there’s a tub of it taking up space in my refrigerator, and I’d like to see it gone. So I was delighted the other night when Santa Maria offered make dessert for a picnic we were going to. She emailed the group that she would be bringing vegan cupcakes, and I could see the eyes rolling at the mention of that word, vegan.
But everyone should have had more faith in Santa Maria. She doesn’t mess around when it comes to baking. Her vegan cupcakes, are excellent. She pulled the recipe off the Internet somewhere, but she’s since forgotten. She tweaked it enough, though, to call it her own, and she’s sharing it here. And if you need any margarine, I have some to spare. And I need to clean up my refrigerator.
Santa Maria’s Vegan Chocolate Cupcakes
Makes one dozen
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Mix flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda and salt. Add the oil, vanilla, vinegar and water. Mix together until smooth.
Pour into a cupcake pan with 12 cupcake liners
Bake for thirty minutes, or until done.
Vegan Buttercream Frosting
Mix 1/5 cup Canola spread/margarine, 1/2 tsp vanilla, 1 1/4 cup powdered sugar. (If, like us, you aren’t actually vegan and you do have butter on hand, you can use softened butter for the frosting.)
I just spent three days in Los Angeles with friends, living out of a suitcase and eating out all the time. Last night’s dinner, of local little-gem lettuce and medium-rare rack of lamb at Church & State, which the critic Jonathan Gold recently called, “the closest thing to a first-rate French bistro that Los Angeles has seen in years,” was noteworthy for its flavor, but the others stood out for a different reason: portion sizes.
I know I’m a bit behind the curve on this, but when did three eggs become a standard offering for a simple breakfast of scrambled eggs, and who thought it was a good idea to make a common omelet the size of a throw pillow? And if I wanted a seaside lunch of tacos, does it have to fill a platter large enough to hold a suckling pig? It’s no wonder that nearly 70% of Americans are overweight or obese. This has real consequences. For example, the medical costs related to obesity now exceed the costs associated with smoking. Being overweight is more than just a personal problem.
I don’t have a grand solution, but I have a small one. Learn to cook, and make meals for yourself. That way, you can control the portion size and what you put on your plate.
Cooking does not have to be complicated. Take a basic dish like scrambled eggs. If you don’t know how to prepare them, here’s a link with an easy-to-follow recipe. Here is my even easier way of making them: I crack two eggs in a bowl, add a bit of salt and pepper, combine the eggs and their yolks thoroughly with a fork, and cook the mixture in a buttered frying pan on a medium-high heat, moving the eggs about with a spatula, until they are the consistency I like. It takes about two minutes. One of the nice things about eggs are their versatility. Best known as a breakfast food, they can also become a dinner by making a few additions.
The other night, before my trip to LA, I came home late from work. The kids were in bed, and Santa Maria was out of town. I paid the babysitter, and gave some thought to dinner. I wasn’t that hungry, because I’d had a late-afternoon snack at my office, but I needed something. In the refrigerator, I spied half an avocado left over from earlier in the week, and there’s always a jar of salsa on my shelves. The carton of eggs caught my eye, and a package of soft-corn tortillas called out to me: I could make scrambled-egg tacos. I whipped up two eggs, laid them out on two warmed tortillas, topped them with slices of avocado, salsa, and some fresh cilantro, and I had dinner made in about ten minutes.
As I sat down to eat the tacos, a funny thing happened. I couldn’t finish them. They were delicious, but I had overestimated my hunger. Because I was at home, it was easy for me to control my portion size. I ate one, and put the leftovers in the fridge.
Warm the tortillas in a frying pan.
Scramble the eggs.
Assemble by putting eggs on tortillas, and topping with avocado, salsa, and cilantro.
Serves one (or more, depending).
To me, tomatoes have always been like people: often around, but rarely worth knowing. Still, there have a been a few in my life that struck me with such goodness that I haven’t given up on them. When I was younger, I had one during a bachelor party at the Commander’s Palace, in New Orleans, that still lives in my mind. It animated my mouth with such a fury that I thought I’d be speaking in tongues soon. I might not have been making sense at that dinner for other reasons, the euphoria of youth being the most powerful one.
When I do the shopping for the family these days, I so often feel like I’m under such time pressure—to move the car, to get back to the house, to get to work—that I move rapidly and grab the first things I see. This sounds like a very silly strategy, but I’m no fool. I shop almost excessively at a local food coop, where the prices are low (there’s only a mark up to cover overhead) and the produce flies off the shelf faster than the anxious thoughts move through my head. Everything is there is fresh.
Shuffling down the aisle of the Coop recently and looking for tomatoes, I grabbed a box of Village Farms Sinfully Sweet Camparis. It was a reckless move, for I don’t know if I can go back to any other tomatoes. These things are summer in every bite. Turns out that they are grown in hydroponic greenhouses in a small town in West Texas called Marfa. I have good friends who live in Marfa, which sits on a plateau in the Chihuahan Desert, and it is a strange and fascinating place of “Mystery Lights” and minimalist art installations. To that I have to add the best tomatoes I’ve tasted in a long time, especially in winter.
I sliced a few on Sunday morning, and added them to an omelet of goat cheese, ham, and parsley. That sounds simple, but as I was preparing it, I was in the midst of doing five loads of laundry (we live in an apartment building), making breakfast for the kids, and and cooking black beans, tagine, and Bolognese. I had a lot going on, and I couldn’t sit and eat my omelet when it was ready. By the time I got back to it, the thing was so sorry-looking that I can’t even use the photograph of it here. But the cheese was so rich, the ham so savory, and the parsley so sharp that everything was all right. And the tomatoes were so bright, that they made me feel young again.
With apologies to Gertrude Stein, I wanted to dash off a short note on the simple beauty of roasted fingerling potatoes. When I was a boy, we had baked potatoes every other day, and I was forever mesmerized by my mother’s occasional observation that one might have been “a good baked potato.” What was a “good baked potato?” I wondered. “Didn’t they all taste the same?” I took potatoes for granted and they’ve long been an unassuming staple. But sometimes, they surprise me, and fulfill me more than I might have imagined.
While I was doing the weekly food shop on Saturday, visions of mushroom risotto danced on my tongue, but something in my head told me that I’d be too tired, too busy, and otherwise too preoccupied with domestic and professional responsibilities to stand over the stove stirring risotto. Of course, I still picked up the mushrooms, for like love and fire ants, the hope for culinary bliss is not something easily dispensed with. But I also grabbed a handful of sprightly fingerling potatoes, just in case.
Sure enough, when I got home that evening, there were a hundred and thirty one things that had to be done that did not involve dinner, to say nothing of mushroom risotto. That would have to wait. Instead, I sliced the fingerling potatoes lengthwise, salted them a bit, dressed them with olive oil, and roasted them at 350 for about a half hour. I made sure the pan was not crowded, and they crisped up along the edges nicely, and became creamy and delicious inside. I finished them with a bit of freshly chopped parsley, and they were so good I forgot to photograph the finished dish.
As for the mushrooms, I sautéed those quickly and served them as a side, too, to go with the sirloin steak and asparagus that I was serving. I grabbed a quick shot of a half-set table and the full meal, before it vanished. Something like this doesn’t sit around long. Note the bowl of roasted fingerling potatoes, third from the bottom, again taken for granted.
This post is a reminder to check your frequent-flyer program today. Consider it a public service announcement, amid all my posts about cooking. I recently lost 135,000 miles with American Airlines, and then was able to get them back, simply because of a small act of generosity four months ago. I’m using the miles to cross the country to spend time with an old friend who has fallen ill. I feel very fortunate that I will be able to take the trip, and because I got my miles back—after almost having lost all of them because of inactivity on the account—I want to help others avoid this situation. So check your program today—there may be a small thing you can do to keep it active.
I had accumulated the miles long before I became a parent, by using a credit card linked to American’s frequent-flyer program. I thought someday I might take a big trip somewhere, but all I really ended up doing was visiting the hospital for two births, and then making repeated trips to the grocery store. Paris, Rome, and Bangkok, it seems, would have to wait. Because I wasn’t traveling, I switched to a cash-back card, and put those miles on hold. All I needed to do to keep them from moldering into non-existence was have some kind of activity on the account each 18 months. That sounded easy enough (and once, I gave miles away to veterans, a great service, to keep the balance active) but over the past year and a half, I somehow was distracted (ha!), and lost the miles. They expired March 9.
It was only when my friend called, on March 16, to invite me to Los Angeles, that I made this discovery. Had he called just a few days earlier, I would have had access to them. I couldn’t believe it. The American-Airlines representative was sympathetic, and she pointed out that if I had purchased something from an affiliated partner in the months before the deadline, I might be able to get the miles back.
In December Santa Maria and I sent my mother flowers for her birthday. We used 1-800-Flowers, which, as it turned out, is a partner of American Airlines’s program. I called them up right away, and Diane, in their consumer-service department was extremely helpful. She riffled through her records, found the transaction, and posted the activity to my frequent-flyer account. Just this week, the miles re-appeared in my American account, and I secured tickets to Los Angeles and back.
What happened for me illustrates the untold power and benefits of being generous, in other words, it’s an example of the far-reaching effects of karma. The way I understand karma is this: we don’t know the full extent of our actions, so it’s best to be kind and generous in our actions and accepting of the results, no matter what. If a hurricane starts, as they say, with a butterfly flapping its wings over the Sahara, who knows what might become of what we do. Santa Maria’s generosity—she’s the one who actually ordered the flowers for my mother (full disclosure)—saved the day.
I’m very happy to be seeing my old friend. Spending time with those we care about is hard at times, because we get so very busy with domestic, professional, and other responsibilities, but it is paramount in its importance. You don’t have to cross the country to be generous, of course: just cook them a meal. I know a blog where you can get a few good recipes, ahem… And in the meantime, check your frequent-flyer program to make sure you’re not about to lose out on anything valuable.