Archive for the ‘cooking: new ideas’ Category

A better school lunch: Greeley in the New York Times Breaking News

Saturday, August 20th, 2011

It's time for a better school lunch

I was reading the NYT breaking news on my Kindle this morning, when to my surprise I saw an article, "Schools Restore Fresh Cooking to the Cafeteria," on school lunches in Greeley, Colorado. We live 20-25 miles northwest of Greeley and I'd never thought of the city as being a hotbed of innovation.

At a tad under 93,000 inhabitants, Greeley is mid-sized at best, but 60% of its 19,500 students qualify for lower-priced or free meals, so they have decided those meals will be healthy ones.They're not alone in this endeavor. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has a campaign whose motto is,"Foods served in schools should promote the health of all children." Their 2008 school lunch report card ranked twenty school districts across the nation with letter grades from A to F.

Here's that URL:

At the top with A's were schools in Montogomery County, MD, Omaha, NE, and Pinellas County, FL, I was pleased that my grandson Jordi's schools in Fairfax County, VA got an A-.  At the bottom were schools in two areas of Louisiana. I bet Greeley will climb up the list in the next few years.

So what's their plan? Like many Colorado schools, they've participated in Cooks for America, a group that runs a chef's boot camp for school cooks  Here's what that organization's website says: "Distinguishing the Cook for America® approach from that of countless other school food reform projects is its emphasis on holistic, systemic change through the creation of a school foodservice work force that is both capable of preparing healthy scratch-cooked meals from whole, fresh foods, and empowered and motivated to do so."

Greeley schools will be cooking from scratch, roughly three-fourths of the time at the start of this school year according to the NYT article, and aim to reach 100% in the 2012-2013 time frame. They'll be using fresh ingredients, avoiding chemicals (e.g., their bean burritos will have 12 ingredients this year versus 35 last year).

Although Colorado has the lowest obesity rate in the nation, Weld County, where Greeley is located, had rates growing faster than much of the state. So the numbers were crunched with amazing results: cooking from scratch will actually save money. A large foundation grant helped with construction and new equipment and the old central kitchen was renovated, so the budget for staff was actually reduced.

Chenically-colored macaroni and cheese

The district hired an experienced executive chef who trained at the Culinary Institute of America (the other CIA) and worked in high-end restaurants. He hopes his concepts for healthy cooking will wend their way back to the districts homes. One of his innovative ideas is to replace the chemically-colored commercial macaroni and cheese with a version whose familiar yellow will come from the Indian spice turmeric. His salad dressing will have no sugar and only a quarter of the sodium that's been present in the factory-made variety.

My hat's off to Greeley.


A gastronomic slant on invasive species

Tuesday, July 12th, 2011

So that's a lionfish

I normally think of invasive species as plants that are non-indigenous, kudzu comes to mind. Actually, in our Colorado garden areas, a plant called bindweed invades and takes over unless we are diligent about weeding. When I Googled it, I found it did indeed meet the definition more commonly used, a plant or animal imported from another country or continent (in bindweed's case Eurasia), sometimes for seemingly logical reasons (e.g., as an ornamental or to control another species regarded as a pest).

But let's switch gears. There was an article in The New York Times on July 10, 2011 that caught my attention. Its title was "Answer for Invasive Species: Put It on a Plate and Eat It," and it began with a photo of a flamboyant fish, the lionfish. That led me to the website for Food and Water Watch, a non-profit, independent organization with an impressive and eclectic Board of Directors and a mission to ensure the food, water and fish we consume are safe, accessible and sustainably produced.

Their 2011 Smart Seafood Guide now has "Recommended Invasive Species" Many of these, once introduced into a new habitat, have no natural predators, so the suggestion is that we fill that niche. For instance we could eat the lionfish, which, according to the NYT article, is devastating reef fish, both in the Caribbean and coastally, off Florida. But caught by spearfishing and braised in brown butter sauce, lionfish tastes wonderful.

The Nature Conservancy sponsored a lionfish food fair a year ago, paying local fisherfolk $11 a pound for the pesty fish. The fritters made from this invasive species went over well with the crowd. There was concern with lionfish, as with many other species, about the possibility of toxins from microbes, so selective fishing from "clean" areas was necessary.

The Smart Seafood Guide I downloaded from Food and Water Watch lists eight other species as potential menu items. Asian carp, which are not bottom feeders, are caught with nets of several kinds or even on hook and line. They've spread from the Southeast through floods and are moving toward the great Lakes. They eat plankton in amounts out of proportion to their size and thus compete with native fishes. They're a bony fish and a NYC chef, the James Beard Foundation and Food and Water Watch have combined in an effort to develop recipes for these and others of the unwanted species.

The Beard Foundation's VP noted that we've gone from weeding out some plant species to regarding them as delicacies; perhaps we can do the same with our Asian crabs, Asian carp, lionfish, Asian swamp eels, Chinese mitten crabs, European green crabs, rusty crayfish, walking catfish (able to live out of water for short periods and move short distances on land), and two species of tilapia.

spearfishing is the way to catch lionfish

There are a number of other avenues being explored to control these critters and we'll also need to prevent their deliberate further spread once the profit motivation comes into play.

But to me, it sounds like it's time for a fish dinner

The Gut-brain interface

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

The human digestive tract

Today I came across an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal. I've spent much of the day trying to track down background information and, thus far, appear to have only scratched the surface.

The initial article was titled "Hungry? Your stomach really does have a mind of its own." It described an research effort by scientists working for the Nestle SA company, a huge firm headquartered in Switzerland, but operating in 86 countries and employing well over a quarter million people.

When I think of Nestle, I think of chocolate, but they started with condensed milk and baby formulas. They've done some praiseworthy things and some that have been severely criticized. Among the former are efforts to halt child labor in cocoa production; the latter includes promotion of the use of infant formula to mothers in developing countries.

The article I was reading talked about satiety factors to stop us from overeating. Nestle has a group of its scientists working on foods that potentially can trick what is termed the gut brain. That's known to physicians as the enteric nervous system, a huge collection of nerve cells involved in actions and reactions in the GI tract: the esophagus, stomach, small intestine and large intestine.

So here's how it works, or at least some of how it functions, in hunger and satiety. Eating stretches the stomach, causing "I'm full" messages to be sent to the real brain, the one in your head. Chemicals called peptides are released when food is present in the intestine; that also signals the brain. Then there's another mechanism I'd never heard of, one called the "Ileal Brake."

The ileum is part of the small intestine and apparently another "I'm full" message can be sent upstairs when there is an excess of fat reaching that part of the gut, in this case excess means more than can be handled (processed) at the moment.

So the Nestle scientists developed a mechanical model of the human GI system, one that cost a million dollars, is the size of a really big refrigerator and is computer-controlled. Using this machine, their lead scientist, Heribert Watzke, and his crew are simulating the progress of a meal through our GI tracts.

I found a video of Dr. Watzke speaking to what appeared to me to be a mostly college-age audience at Oxford, England. He's a very entertaining speaker, obviously partakes a bit too much of his own company's products (or other food) and admits this. He thinks we shouldn't be called omnivores, but rather "Coctivores," creatures that eat cooked food.

His premise is that cooking allowed mankind to develop larger brains and freed them to be able to move around the planet. He wasn't speaking of the food products his company produces, but rather presented a formula: food + cooking = energy.

I need (pun intended) to digest this concept a little more; I'll return to it at a later time.

Meanwhile I suggest you Google Dr. Watzke and observe his show.

What's Good for General Bullmoose...

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

A Bull Moose has some clout

Several major concerns in Americans' diets have apparently taken another step to resolution. I've written how the dietary salt (sodium really) recommendation has recently been lowered so that about 70% of us (all but the young, white and quite healthy) should be ingesting only 1,300 to 1,500 mg. of sodium per day. That's tough enough to do. I saw a recipe yesterday in a "Light Cooking" magazine my wife gets that was interesting: a steak hash. But per portion it had 1,000 mg. of sodium.  That's over two thirds of what I should eat in a whole day. I didn't bookmark that recipe.

Then there's the relatively high cost of fresh fruits and vegetables compared to some other choices, so called "prepared foods" one can buy in the supermarket. Those mixtures are often filled with sodium, fats and sugars, but they're comparatively cheaper in many instances.

We're fortunate enough, as a pair of USAF retirees,  to be able to buy our fruits at the Air Force Base Commissary closest to us as we did when we drove to Cheyenne to see our Dermatologist today. And in the summer, of course, we've again purchased a veggie share and a fruit share from the local CSA, Grant Family Farms. Next summer two sets of friends will join us in that, so the variety will go up and the price per item down as we purchase larger shares. Then we got a quarter of a "hand-raised" cow this year at a wonderful per pound price. That came through friends whose neighbor has a very small herd and sells a few each year.

So what if you're on a tighter budget and don't live where friends and their neighbors have livestock?

Today in The New York Times appeared an article titled "Promote Healthy Foods."  It details how Wal-Mart (since 2008 I think it's actually Walmart), now the biggest retail concern in the country has a new plan, one that over the next five years will cut down on packaged foots content of the sodium, fat and sugars. That gradual approach doesn't ring well with some; I saw some negative quotes, but other countries have followed the same pattern with success. it's hard to go from high-salt to low-salt diets in one urgent push. I know since I tried that when my own blood pressure first went up in the early 1980s.

I tried some "no-salt" foods and hated them. Yet now, some 25+ years later, I'm quite comfortable adding pepper and other spices and using no table salt and no cooking salt.  We cook with a little salt when we have company, using less than the recipe calls for, and I frequently see our guests adding salt at the table. When we eat alone there's no salt shaker there.

Wal-Mart is also planning to offer fruits and vegetables at lower prices. And the article said they plan to build some more stores in rural and "underserved" areas. The company has been discussing healthy eating and our epidemic of childhood obesity with the First Lady and she apparently endorsed their efforts. Why is this significant? Well it's because they can pressure their suppliers to follow along with the concept. They are the Bull Moose herd leader and others tend to tag after them.

We don't do much shopping with them, but in this case I say, "Hooray for Wal-Mart."

Even more fat for our taste buds

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

A new and expensive burger

I picked up my copy of The Wall Street Journal this morning, opened it to "Personal Journal," the section I usually read first, and gasped. The lead article was titled  "Bring On the Fat, Bring On the Taste."

That certainly caught my attention... negatively. Then I started reading the rest of the article and got even more upset. The subtitle was "Celebrity Chefs Join Burger Wars, Baste Beef Patties in Butter." The text went on to describe how some of the top chefs in America are now getting into the burger business. Some say they are using only the best kinds of beef and specialty ingredients, but a number of food specialists, among them university professors, say what they're chef really doing is serving high-fat burgers.

Another new burger

They're also charging much more than the fast food restaurants. One of the burgers, made from Japanese Kobe beef and served with foie gras and truffles, costs $39. And that's not the most expensive pattie. Another has truffles, foie gras and Madeira sauce and goes for $60.

Why would anyone eat these cardiovascular time bombs? Well they presumably taste good and perhaps they are status symbols. But they also use beef that has up to 30% fat content, or is basted in butter or, in one iteration, has a double layer of beef with potato chips in between to increase the crunchiness.

As for the chefs, they've realized the high-profits creating the monster burgers can bring. Hubert Keller, a French-trained, high-levl chef, makes 9 to 12% margins from his haute cruisine restaurants. His marginal profit on his first burger unit is 37.5%, so he's opened his second and third and has four more in the planning stage.

So let's go back to why this might be a problem, to our bodies even more than to our wallets. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAC) hasn't been released  in its final form yet, but the expert panel's preliminary report, available online, wants us to cut our intake of staurated fats to less than 7% of our total calories.

That makes enormous sense; saturated fats are associated with cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk and people who either have this problem or are at high risk for it need to minimize their intake of these lipids.

We're in the midst of an epidemic of obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes (T2D) and 50 million Americans are said to have the metabolic syndrome (a combination of abdominal fat, high blood pressure, insulin resistance (T2D), abnormal blood lipids and several other blood factors making one prone to CVD).

My opinion is the last thing we need is these expensive new high-fat burgers.

But I'd bet they sell well and make the chefs a bundle of money. When it comes to following the DGAC, we don't have a good track record.

Pea Pod Soup and Pea Pod Soup++

Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

This has been our first closeup and personal experience with a CSA (community supported agriculture) organization. Every Monday we drive about a mile and a half to one of the 20+ delivery sites for Grant Family farms and pick up our Couples Veggie Share and a Single Fruit Share. This was week eight and thus far we've been extremely pleased at the quality and variety of produce we've been receiving.

Our only issue was what to do with it all; we've gotten six to eight different veggies a week. We have friends who split their Couples Veggie Share with neighbors, and we've given our next-door couple a few things. And when we travel we've either donated to the Larimer County Food Bank or, as will happen over the next ten days, while we're up in the mountains at the Y camp with our grandson and then flying him back to his folks in the DC area, a friend will make two pickups for us. She'll keep one for her family and split the second with us when we return.

The real discovery was the recipes. Our CSA sends out a newsletter each week and it took me a week or two to catch on to the sidebars. There are fascinating thins to do with the kale, beets, romaine lettuce, and cabbage we're getting at this time in the veggie season.

Then there were the English peas. The first time we got a large batch of them we just shelled them and added the pods to our kitchen compost bucket. They eventually were transferred to our vermiculture compost bin in a sheltered location just outside our garage.

The following week I spotted a recipe for pea pod soup. I gathered up the ingredients: olive oil, an onion, two cloves of garlic, chicken stock, fresh thyme, zest of one lemon and the pea pods and followed the instructions. I thought the resulting soup was delicious, if a little bland; Lynnette really wanted considerably more kick to it.

Having been local parents to two graduate students from India, we've been introduced to garam masala, a wonderful spice mix. We had a second day's worth of soup left over and heated that up for lunch, adding a couple of tablespoonfuls of garam masala and a teaspoon of minced garlic.

Both of us tried the new recipe and agreed we had made an enormous improvement. I plan to send our suggested alterations back to the CSA. Some may like the "souped up" soup; some may not. We'll probably never make it any other way.