Thursday, February 26, 2009

Ban on Artificial Food Dyes Proposed

While national policies have left a lot to be desired regarding food safety, states have taken a lot of steps forward to combat food issues. Consider the state and city bans on transfats, New York's mandate for calorie labeling on fast food menus. Even as the FDA and USDA fail, for many reasons, to step up to protect consumers, individual states are taking action and leading the charge.

Maryland is the next notable state taking action. Two bills have currently been proposed to ban the use of controversial food dyes in the wake of two British studies (PDF) that show some of the dyes may be linked to hyperactivity and behavior problems in children. One of the bills would mandate labeling on the food packages that contain the dyes, and give industry until 2012 to stop using them. The other bill specifically prohibits schools from purchasing, providing and serving any food item that contains the dyes by 2010.

The two dyes that are most concerning, based on the research, are Red 40 and Yellow 5. Currently, American manufacturers make one version of their product without the artificial dyes to sell in the EU, and another version of the product for sale in the U.S. Thus, a healthier version of these products already exists. So why do manufacturers continue to sell a product in the U.S. knowing it was banned elsewhere for such harmful effects on our kids? Good question.

The dyes are in many foods, most of which are targeted for children. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy has a helpful guide, the Brain Food Selector, to all food products containing the dyes. Concerned individuals can search by dye type, brand, and food type for a comprehensive list.

Of course the usual candy and sugary cereals and drinks are on the list, but deceptively "healthy" sounding items can also be found, including "Light 'N Fit" yogurt, salad dressings, and even "Kid's Cuisine Kung Fu Panda Chicken Breast Nuggets." Scanning the list, it's appalling just how many of these foods are targeted to the population the dyes impact most — our kids.

Let's hope the legislation passes in Maryland, and other states follow suit.

Monday, February 23, 2009

No-Meat Loaf

I still love the meatloaf recipe I first created to get the Kiddo used to meat. She still eats at least two servings in a sitting. So do the rest of us. That hasn't changed.

What has changed is that I've been electing to go meat-free a few more times per week. Even though we buy our meat grassfed and direct from the farmer, it's still a good practice to eat a little lighter on the food chain now and again. To that end, I made a version of my meatloaf in a vegetarian format. This shift was inspired by a vegan loaf recipe I love from Eden Alley. Their recipe is a lot different, but arguably better, in some ways.

My take is very similar to the Meatloaf Florentine recipe, but uses mushrooms and "beef-like" tofu product for the meat. It is not vegan since the recipe calls for some Parmesan. I can't give up cheese.

No-Meat Loaf
2/3 cup brown rice
1-1/3 cups vegetable stock
8 oz. "beef" style tofu (tube)
1 tbs. olive oil
5 oz. spinach
6 oz. mushrooms, cleaned and chopped
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped fine
2 oz. sundried tomatoes packed in oil
1 cup whole wheat bread crumbs
1/4 cup chopped parsley
2 tbs. chopped basil
1/2 cup grated parmesan
salt and pepper to taste

Topping
1 28 oz can of roasted tomatoes (I use Muir Glen)
1 small shallot, diced
1 tbs. olive oil
2 tsp. brown sugar
1/4 tsp. red chili flakes
salt and pepper to taste

Cook the rice in the vegetable stock. Cool rice to room temperature.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Heat the olive oil in a skillet. Saute the onion for a few minutes until just turning golden. Add the mushrooms and cook until mushrooms are soft. Add the garlic and saute for another minute. Add the spinach leaves, turning down the heat. Fold in the spinach, just until it wilts a bit. Remove from heat and place in bowl.

Add the "beef" soy, rice, bread crumbs, herbs, cheese, sundried tomatoes and salt and pepper. Mix with hands (hey, it's not raw beef). Press into a loaf pan. Bake for 1 hour and 10 minutes.

Heat oil for topping in sauce pan. Add shallot and saute for about three minutes. Add the tomatoes with juice and brown sugar. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer for 30 minutes. Adjust with salt and pepper to taste. Stir in the fresh basil just before serving.

Serve each slice of no-meat loaf topped with chunky tomato topping.

This recipe is a great one for using "pantry goods" like canned tomatoes, rice, bread crumbs. I'll be adding a variation that uses lentils, too. Or at least a lentil dish ... have lots of those around to use up!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Pantry Raid: An Easy Way to Save Money on Groceries

Each week I find myself engaging in a bit of insanity. We go to the grocery store, we buy food for the week, then we come home and I attempt to stuff new canned items and basics into an already overflowing pantry. Why do I do this?

The food in the pantry is good stuff. I bought it all with recipes in mind. There's only one or two items that are "experimental" in there.

The problem is, I simply forget to start my menu plans for the week from what I already have on hand. I always plan menus around seasonal produce, but I forget about the remaining grains and staples I bought for all of those meals. Now that it is winter, and seasonal produce is all but absent, it's time to focus on the pantry — and save a lot of money. Just by doing an inventory of what you have on hand, planning meals to incorporate the stuff you have already bought, you can limit your grocery cart contents to the few fresh items, meats and dairy for the week.

You'd be surprised at what you can build from you staples. This morning, I found a half cup of oat flakes and a half cup of spelt flakes. Neither quantity was enough for cooked breakfast cereal for the whole family, but both together, ground in the food processor, plus some brown bananas made great wholegrain waffles.

Various kinds of rice, couscous, pasta, quinoa clutter my shelves. All of these ingredients can stretch a small amount of protein and some vegetables, especially canned beans, into a whole meal — with leftovers for my brown bag lunches.

Over the next few weeks (five weeks until the first farmers market to be exact). I need to save up for fresh, local goodness and use up what I have on hand. Look for some recipes that use a lot of grains and pantry staples.

Mark Bitten recently published his list of "must haves" for the pantry. It's an okay list, but there are a few points where I differ. For example, he recommends making your own fresh bread crumbs over the purchased kind, and your own stock. Both of these recommendations are great — if you have time. I don't always have enough of that. Some of the ingredients will be new turf unless you regularly cook out of Gourmet magazine.

The best tip (from me) is to try and avoid buying any ingredient you will only use in one dish, and will only use part of.

Bittman also recommends a healthy list of spices to grind fresh — and that you should toss them out once a year. Spices can be pretty pricey, though you can save money on a lot of them by shopping at Indian food markets. Buy in small quantities if it is a spice you will not use much.

Bittman also recommends using dried beans over canned. I would say fresh shelled is the best, but it's rare to find those even in season, and a lot of work. By all means, try them fresh if you can. If you cook beans often, a pressure cooker can reduce your cooking time for dried beans quite a bit.

The points I most agree with on his list of pantry staples; forget about bottled salad dressings. It's easier and far healthier to make your own, stock a variety of grains and nuts, and keep winter squash and sweet potatoes around. I do that last one really well. Really. Well.



Indian-inspired Fish Curry


I can't really bring myself to call this dish "Indian." The spice mix is definitely the same list of ingredients, but without the work of roasting and grinding each spice. It's this process, though, that gives the cuisine it's unique character.

I learned this recently when a friend of my husband's (and now mine) offered to cook for us and teach us about the ingredients. She showed me the difference between cumin seed, cumin powder, and roasted cumin seeds, fresh ground. The difference is amazing, and the three may as well be completely different spices. So, I won't be calling this dish Indian food. I'm still learning.

I would call it very good for the level of effort it requires. I would also call it a creative way to serve cod. The Kiddo even likes it. But then, it has red peppers in it, so it's a pretty easy sell.

Fish Curry
Looking for this recipe? It will be part of an upcoming book with Ali at Cleaner Plate Club.

I serve this with a variation of coconut rice, adding 1 tsp. turmeric to the rice, water and coconut milk as it cooks. The turmeric adds a nice flavor that compliments the fish and sauce. Turmeric is also intriguing for its many health benefits including anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. The more I can put in what I am serving, the better.

Monday, February 16, 2009

French Preschool Teaches How to Enjoy Food

NPR Story from this morning.

I did a menu comparison for French, European and US schools a while back. Here is an actual French preschool menu that I have translated as well. The NPR story visits a preschool in France at meal time where the children are encouraged to taste their menu of braised leg of lamb, cheese course, carrots, cauliflower au gratin. The kids are also taught to eat in courses, stay seated until all kids are done and to try all the new foods, and enjoy the trying.

The French believe that by teaching kids to enjoy meals in courses, company, real foods, and the dining experience, it will help prevent obesity.

I kind of giggle when I hear these things because I have sent my own child off to school with braised lamb over polenta. This morning, her lunch contained brined and smoked pork chop, mushroom risotto, carrots in artichoke pesto, rustic bread with pepitas, and grapefruit sections. Her teacher jokingly requests for me to pack her lunch, too.

The giggling stops when I look at US menus and what passes for a meal here. There is something horribly wrong in our relationship with food.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Chip Alternative


After the years of battling the whole orange foods oddness, I've realized that you just can't count on constants. A plate of orange basil mashed sweet potatoes may get snubbed, but should I need a pound of sweet potatoes to vanish, a plate of these chips disappears like magic.

2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/4-inch thick
1 tbs. olive oil
1 tsp. kosher salt, coarse
1/2 tsp. Garam Masala spice blend (Penzeys.com, or cumin or Chinese five-spice powder)
2 tbs. honey

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

I used a mandoline to slice the potatoes 1/4-inch thin. To keep the chips from getting burnt in the process of cooking, steam the chips first for 10 minutes. Blend the spices and olive oil together and toss with the chips. Since the insides of the chips are now partly cooked, the chips will get crisp from a higher oven temperature, be fully cooked with less time, and won't be in long enough to burn.

Spread onto a baking sheet that has been coated with cooking spray. Drizzle with the honey. Bake for seven minutes. Turn over and bake for another five to seven minutes.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Peanut Recalls Top 1800, But Who Would Eat Some of It?

The peanut product recall has just topped 1800 products. You can view the whole updated list here. I just scanned it.

As I looked at the items under "Candy," I have to wonder.

Who would eat some of these items on the list:
Bear Poop
Bear Scat
Buffalo Chips
Chicken Coop Poop
Cow Patties
Cow Pies
Deer Droppings
Goo Goo
Moose Droppings
Osprey Poop
Prairie Dog Pebbles

It all, excuse the pun, sounds like sh*t to me.