Thursday, December 30, 2010

Top 16 Foods and Foodie Things of 2010

You are what you eat! So here are 16 things that made my year.

16. Apple Chips
A great (and sweet) alternative to a potato chip or a granola bar.

15. Sugar Snap Peas
Like to munch snacks on the road? Put a bag of these in your passenger seat. Thirty-five calories for 2/3 cup and some serious Vitamin C too.

14. Brussels Sprouts
This emerald vegetable is like the helpless nerd everyone loves in spite of himself. Don't cringe, just try them.

13. The Orange
Have you ever had that post-dinner sweet tooth? An orange will do the trick. They were a delicacy in the Victorian era, you know. Hydrating, fun to eat, and packed with a full day's worth of Vitamin C. Forget the juice. The real thing has only 80 calories and 1/5 of your daily recommended fiber.

12. Fresh Basil
Smashed up into pesto, sliced into pasta noodles, sprinkled onto a sandwich...I kept a happy plant on my porch until the first frost. Then the plant...not so happy.

11. The Baguette
Though I haven't quite mastered the art of Julia Child's French baguette, I have certainly enjoyed trying.

10. Figs
Dried or fresh, these taste great as a snack. The dried ones taste just like the Newton, but minus the cakey exterior and the weird ingredients. Fresh figs are expensive, so buy them in the fall, when they are in abundance. In 2011, I'll experiment with figs in recipes.

9.Free Range Eggs
My go-to dinner is scrambled eggs with onion, garlic, carrots, green pepper, and any other misfit veggies or meats around the kitchen. This year I learned that chickens are meant to roam free and peck at bugs and other critters on the land. When they eat this way, the fat content in their egg yolk is an ideal ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats. Chickens kept in pens and fed grains, or chickens fed "organic" food, or chickens on a vegetarian diet are deprived chickens that produce a lesser egg. The low protein diet upsets the balance between the omega-3 and omega-6 fats in the egg yolk. Why does this matter for humans? The type of egg you eat determines the type of fats you consume. Buying free-range eggs is costly but worth it.

8. Goat Cheese
Besides the fun of saying "Fromage de Chevre," this stuff has a unique flavor that reminds me of tinkling bells and purposeful "baas" high in the Pyrenees. Put it on a pizza, pair it with a cracker and fig jam, toss it in a salad with pears and walnuts.

7. Soft Corn Tortillas
Like a little hug for your breakfast burrito or your turkey taco. And corn tortillas stack up against flour. Seventy calories versus 140. One gram of fat versus three. Fourteen grams carbohydrates versus 25. Careful--most grocery store corn tortillas contain preservatives. Grab them at Whole Foods. Extra points for sprouted corn. (And for those of you who have hated corn tortillas your whole life--try browning in a pan before eating.)

6. Plain Lowfat Yogurt
Gone are the days when I'd eat a Yoplait in two bites and go into a sugar crash. Gone are the days in which I'd eat fat free, sugar free yogurt and still feel hungry. Plain, lowfat yogurt is great by itself. Or, try stirring in a little honey, jam, or granola. It has the same amount of protein as two eggs and a third of your daily recommended Calcium.

5. Fresh Pasta
Mama mia! This is the real deal. Makes boxed pasta look like a diet drink.

4. Butter
Julie and Julia author Julie Powell claims you can never have too much butter. I disagree. But for goodness' sake, why use margarine or that sneeze of a cooking spray when you can use good old butter? If you don't believe me, grab some mushrooms and brown them in three separate pans. Use Pam, margarine, and butter. Then, tell me which tastes the best and leaves you the most satisfied.

3. "Five" Ice Cream
Haagen Dazs makes up for a name that prompts a "Gesundheit" with this simple, honest-to-goodness ice cream. A pint of this got me through a lot of tough spots. Excuse me, did I say a pint? I meant a single half cup serving. Who eats a pint of ice cream in one sitting?

2. Olive Oil
Olive Oil was the starting ingredient for nearly every dinner I made this past year. I learned that "Extra Virgin" olive oil is the best because it comes from the first cold press of the olive. Other olive oils, such as "pure" and "light" are really lesser olive oils in disguise. They use second-rate olives and go through multiple presses.

And the #1 Food of 2010...
...drumroll please...
...I can't hear you...

1. Lobster!
I cracked open one of these babies for the first time on the Fourth of July. I ate her on the lawn of a 17th century farmhouse at a Benedictine Abbey. Quite an adventure, but tasty nonetheless, especially dipped in butter. Lobster: not a date food.

All-Natural Snack Bars

Munching on granola bars has practically replaced baseball as America's favorite pastime. Ok, not quite. But they are a popular snack. Many people reach for a bar (or two) in the morning, or during the mid-afternoon crash. I kept a box of Fiber One bars in my desk at school for several years.

Today I don't typically go for the granola bar. Why? The everday granola bar contains too few calories for a sustaining breakfast or snack, too much simple sugar, the wrong kinds of fat, and not enough fiber. If the granola bar claims to compensate for any of these problems, it probably does so artificially. If you eat a granola bar, you'll end up feeling hungry and tired, and you'll probably grab a second one. Additionally, most 'sport' granola bars have vitamins and minerals that are added chemically, instead of occurring naturally in the ingredients of the bar. Check out a PowerBar or Luna Bar label sometime.

There are also suspect ingredients in most commercialy-produced bars. Three examples:

Quaker Granola Bar: High fructose corn syrup free. That's good, right? includes regular corn syrup. It also has the preservative BHT(1).

Special K Chocolate Delight Protein Snack Bar: Contains partially hydrogenated oils and the preservative TBHQ (2).

Hint: If an ingredient is an acronym, it's probably not naturally occuring and it probably isn't good for you.

Fiber One Chocolate Chip Snack Bar: Its 22-ingredient recipe contains high maltose corn syrup, caramel color and mixed tocopherols "to retain freshness" (3).

There are some naturally commercially produced bars that offer a change of pace, like Larabar. The bars come in unique flavors, and, because they contain all-natural ingredients, are a great blend of protein, fiber and carbohydrates. I like the "Apple Pie" bar, which contains the following ingredients: dates, almonds, unsweetened apples, walnuts, raisins, and cinnamon. That's it!

I returned home from the 2008 Austin Marathon convention with my runner's bag full of tiny Larabar samples. While munching on some savory flavors, I began to wonder if I could recreate the Larabar experience in my own kitchen. You can buy all the ingredents at the store, after all. So, I set out to make my own all-natural snack bar.

Warning: This is a pretty horrible recipe as far as measurement and technique go,even though the final result tastes great. Making it is kind of like working with adult Play-Dough. I just kind of winged it. Wunged it. Whatever.


6 Cups dried Dates, pitted
3 Cups dried Apricots
2 Cups dried Figs
2-3 Cups Nuts of your choice (almonds, cashews, walnuts, etc.)
1.5 Cups Oats, Toasted
Olive Oil

Wooden Spoon
Flat Baking Sheet, preferably 1/2 inch deep
Large Pot
Knife and Cutting Board
Wax Paper
Tupperware Containers or Ziploc Bags

1. Chop up the dried fruit and the nuts and place in separate bowls. (I like fruits and nuts coarsely chopped, but you could also find a machine or take the time and finely chop the ingredients.)
2. Add about 3T olive oil to a large pot and place it on the stove over medium temperature. Dump the dried fruit into the pot. Heat it until the fruit softens and becomes sticky, stirring often with a wooden spoon.
3. When the fruit is very soft and sticky, gradually stir in the nuts and oats into the mixture. Mix until fruit, nuts and oats are evenly distributed. (You might consider adding a tidbit of molasses if the dry ingredients refuse to stick with the fruit.
4. Turn off stove and transfer mixture from pot onto cookie sheet. It will be hot! Using your hands and the wooden spoon, spread the mixture evenly across the baking sheet until the entire sheet is covered. Leave mixture to cool in the baking sheet.
5. After several hours, cut your fruit bars in the desired size, and transfer them into plastic bags or a tupperware container. Since the bars will be slightly sticky, make sure stored bars are separated with wax paper.
6. Enjoy for breakfast or snack! And share. (I think this recipe made about 60 bars.)



Thursday, December 23, 2010

Un Déjeuner Fantastique

Like simple ingredients combined in an effective dish, several factors transported me from a small corner cafe at Clay Terrace mall to a rustic country restaurant in France. The Zay women lunched at Petite Chou in Carmel, Indiana. We ate immersed in wintry natural light around a thick wooden table as long and broad as the side of a barn. Coffee was self-serve at a bar; croissants beckoned delicately from behind glass. Large 18th century maps of Paris stretched across the walls. Newspapers were on hand. People leaned over tables and plates in earnest conversation.

My aunts and cousins were tempted by breakfast crepes, open-face egg sandwiches, and goat cheese salads, and I ordered Warm Mushroom Duxelles. In classic French cooking the mushrooms are cooked until all liquid boils away, then the mushrooms are made into a kind of paste and spread over bread. I enjoyed Petit Chou's mushroom duxelles, which consisted of a variety of local mushrooms, coarsley chopped and cooked slowly, then served with a butter and white wine sauce over thick slices of French bread. It was a fantastically simple yet satisfying meal. I would make mushroom duxelles at home and would certainly try Petit Chou again.

Check out the website:
Check out the menu:

(And yes, I had to use a translator to write the title. Sigh.)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Wild Yeast Breads

Below: Some breads I've made with the wild yeast. Yum!
First photo: Simple white boule.
Second photo: White/wheat batards.
Third photo: Multi-grain dinner rolls (white, wheat, rye flour, oats, flaxseed, pumpkin seed, bulgur, molasses, brown sugar).

Monday, December 20, 2010

Mortar and Pestle: For an Adventurous Cook and a Strong Arm

When I was in second grade, I was having a hard time sharpening my pencil in Ms. Frye's obstinate manual sharpener. Ms. Frye laughed at me. "You need to give it a little oomph!"


Ms. Frye laughed again, finished sharpening my pencil, and explained that "oomph" is slang for some serious muscle power.

A mortar and pestle is a kitchen tool that indeed requires 'oomph,' or 'elbow grease.' To use it is to assume a task far less delicate than mincing or chopping, but the mortar and pestle is an iconic reminder of a cooking truth--things taste better smashed.

Some may say it better, but simply put, I think smashing ingredients brings out more flavor than making clean cuts. That's why garlic presses are so popular, and why crushing half a lemon over a tilapia filet adds more flavor than simply placing lemon slices on top.

I have seen mortar and pestle sets at Target, Ikea, and World Market for anywhere from $10-$20.

Some ideas for the mortar and pestle:

Season a Stir Fry (3T): Obtain fresh ginger, garlic, and any spices you wish. Coarsley chop a few cloves of garlic and chunks of raw ginger (take the skin off the ginger first). Add them to the bowl. Then, add some sea salt (the coarse sea salt adds friction and aids in the mashing of the tough ginger). Mash until a paste is formed. Add it to your stir fry. Add in the final moments of cooking for an especially loud flavor.

Make Guacamole (1 cup): Chop onion and garlic in whatever quantities suit your taste buds. Cut an avocado in chunks. Add the onions, garlic and a little salt to the bowl and smash. Then, add the softer avocado and blend. Dice a roma tomato and stir it in. Season with salt, pepper and lime juice. Eat it right out of the bowl!

Mix spices: Blend spices in traditional baking recipes with the mortar and pestle before adding them to the batter. This "activates" the flavors.

Friday, November 26, 2010

You Have to Try This

A Disclaimer: I thought this would be gross, too, the first time I heard it.

But it's not.

Why does everything we put on ice cream have to be sweet? Try the following (in small quantity, because it's very rich): Vanilla Ice Cream** + A Drizzle of Olive Oil + A Drizzle of Sea Salt.

I first heard this suggestion from a caller on NPR's The Splendid Table, a cooking show that airs Saturdays at noon.* I was very skeptical, until one night I found I had all the ingredients and tried it. It's so rich it knocks you flat after a few spoonfuls, but it is deeeeelightful. (And I don't use that many e's lightly.)

*Is it sad that I plan my Saturdays around listening to this show? At least it's not Saturday night...
**I Suggest the "Five" line of ice cream, which contains only five ingredients.

One Year Later

When I started this blog after Thanksgiving last year, I thought for sure the project would be abandoned by now. Happily I continue to pursue all-natural eating.

A few reflections:

1. It's nearly impossible to eat all-natural socially.
I've had little success eating all-natural at a table other than my own. This isn't a knock on friends, it's just a fact of life. Most packaged food purchased at a store has some kind of preservative in it. And most institutions I know who prepare food en masse start with packages. And most people I know can't spend an hour cooking dinner from scratch. In keeping with my original goal, I don't want my healthy eating pursuits to impede healthy community. So, I've become at peace about breaking the rules sporadically at social functions and community dinners. Sometimes I actually can feel the effects of this decision later, because I'm no longer used to eating certain ingredients that are common in most American diets, but I'm okay with this. It's not always about having full control over what you eat. Plus, I know I'm eating all-natural when I'm by myself or cooking for others.

2. I used the "Ingredients, Okay" and "Ingredients, No Way" list a lot less than I thought.
Why? Probably because I'm mostly shopping around the "perimeter" of the grocery store, where the fruits and vegetables, meats, cheeses and dairy items are located. These don't really have a lot of artificial ingredients, or extra ingredients at all.

3. The numbers don't lie.
When I have a chance to crunch the numbers, I'll show you my triglyceride and cholersterol levels last year, versus this year. In spite of eating more butter, eggs, dairy and meat this past year, everything bad that's in the blood...went down!

4. Eating naturally is a great opportunity for creativity and culture.
I feel like a primitive artist when I create my plate. Natural foods have great colors, textures and unique flavors on their own. In the absence of artificial additives, the foods come to life. I've also begun delving into different cultural staples that weren't a part of my upbringing--coconut oil, raw ginger, eggplant, and others.

5. The fridge got a face lift.
What was in my refrigerator at this time last year?
Diet Coke
Sugar Free, Fat Free Yogurt
An onion and a green pepper
Sugar Free Ice Cream
Sugar Free, Fat Free Caramel Syrup
Lean Cuisines
Shrimp, Ground Beef and Ground Turkey
Corn Tortillas (with preservatives)
Salsa (with preservatives and high-fructose corn syrup)

What is in my refrigerator now?
Coconut Milk
Fizzy Water
Free-Range Eggs
Eggplant, Onion, Garlic, Celery, Carrots
Pomegranates, Apples, a Mango
Frozen Spinach, Corn,
Shrimp, Ground Beef and Ground Turkey
Organic Sprouted Corn Tortillas
Salsa (no preservatives)

Goals for the Coming Year
1. Drink more water.
2. Eat more raw foods.
3. Rathern than focusing on the negatives (what is this food additive and will it kill me?) Research the health benefits of specific foods and implement them as homeopathic and preventative medicine.

Bread Book

Continuing in my adventures with wild yeast, I've purchased this book by Daniel Leader from Leader has his own bakery in the U.S., but has traveled extensively in Europe exploring different breadmaking techniques from the most state-of-the-art bakeries to the most traditional holes-in-the-wall across Germany, France, Italy, Poland, and more. All the recipes in the book begin with some kind of starter. The starters vary in composition depending on the origin and type of bread. Currently I have three starters in my fridge. I've had a few successful recipes and will post some pictures soon.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Sweet, Sweet Potato

A friend and I tried a delicious pizza this evening from RealSimple magazine. The toppings: thinly sliced sweet potato and shallots, tossed in olive oil and seasoned with fresh thyme, salt and pepper. Spread the ingredients over a whole wheat pizza crust, and bake in the oven. When pizza is halfway done, dot the top of the pie with cubes of brie (as much or as little as you desire).

Serve with a side of mixed greens, tossed in a balsamic vinegar and olive oil dressing.

While this pizza is meatless, I think a nice spicy sausage would compliment the sweetness of the sweet potato and the creaminess of the brie.

For dessert, hold your friend's three month old baby on your shoulder and nuzzle his soft cheek while you burp him.

See the recipe at: (baby not included)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Wild Yeast

I will never forget baking bread with my friend Betsy for the first time. In the first crucial step of the bread recipe, we added a packet of yeast to a bowl of warm water. When the yeast began to bubble, she shrieked, "That is so cool!"

Even cooking enthusiasts view the bread making process as arduous and obtuse. However, leavened bread (that is, bread that rises) follows a simple template. The primary ingredient is yeast. Yeast is an everyday term for several common strains of unicellular fungi that feed on carbohydrates, creating the gaseous byproduct that causes bread to rise.

Active Dry Yeast is commercially produced en masse; it comes in packets and jars. I used this magic ingredient for several years in bread recipes until a recent radio program, The Splendid Table, introduced a question that should have been obvious to me. Before yeast packets, how did bakers make bread rise?

Ken Albala, a guest on The Splendid Table and author of The Lost Art of Real Cooking, explains that yeast occurs naturally in the environment. "This is the simplest thing to do," he says. "Put out some food, and the babies find it. They like to eat flour. Simple as that." Albala boasts that using wild yeast to make bread results in a better texture and flavor. Just as the flavor of cheese is distinct based on the region in which the cheese is produced, the type of yeasty fungi varies based on location. This isn't harmful; rather, it is essential to the bread making process.

This week, I tried Albala's method. I obtained a large glass bowl and made a "sludge" of about 1c. Organic Rye Flour and 1c. Water. I left this mixture on the counter, uncovered, for 24 hours. Then, I added more Rye flour and water, mixing these ingredients so the sludge maintained its consistency. I covered the bowl loosely with a towel. I repeated this step once a day for three days. Every few days I would transfer the mixture to a clean bowl, in order to avoid mold growth. Day by day, I noticed an increasing amount of bubbles appearing in the flour and water mixture.

Yesterday evening, I added more flour and water. This morning, I noticed the bowl of yeast had doubled in size! Albala's advice worked. I trapped fungi from the environment and created a natural yeast. Though this yeast works more slowly than yeast from packets, it promises to produce unique and especially flavorful bread.

I'm making bread this weekend. I'll let you know how it turns out.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

A New Cookbook

Very excited about this purchase from In addition to a myriad of interesting all-natural recipes, this book contains helpful charts that give the low-down on the storage and usage of fruits, vegetables, meats, legumes and cheeses.

New Veggies

This fall I've added some adventure to my regular culinary lineup by trying some new vegetables.

Eggplant looks like a creature that would bound happily behind the Hamburglar in a McDonald's commercial. I harbor bad memories of choking down large slices of eggplant parmesan, hockey pucks with a cheesy toupee.

I avoided my eggplant, all alone in the second vegetable drawer, for about a week. Finally, I chopped it into french fry sized pieces and sauteed the eggplant with onions, green peppers, carrots and mushrooms. Then, I added red pasta sauce and cooked sausage.

The eggplant absorbed the flavors in the sauce and and was a nice filler (30 kcal = 1 cup) in a pasta meal that otherwise might be high calorie.

The only problem with eggplant, besides the fact that it looks like a jelly bean of renown? A little eggplant goes a long way, and I was racing to eat it all before it went bad. When you buy an eggplant, find a friend to share it with.

Brussels Sprouts are a family favorite--to joke about. The first time Dad ate dinner with Mom's family, my mom's father, a ruddy and boisterous German, kept piling these green golf balls on my dad's plate. Bewildered, Dad kept eating them, which only increased the supply. "He was kicking me under the table the whole time," laughs Mom, recounting the tale.

Most of my family wrinkle their nose at Brussels Sprouts, but I find them tasty and a vehicle for a nice olive oil. Cut six or seven brussel sprouts in half. Drizzle with olive oil. Bake at 350 degrees until soft. Add salt and pepper, and a little more olive oil. Eat without utensils (while watching Alfred Hitchcock's The Lodger).

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Toxic America

See's special page on toxins present in American lifestyles:

Thursday, May 20, 2010

So, I haven't been doing a good job.

I noticed my last post was on March 31. And now, reader, you know why. I have been cheating! Yes, I have been eating foods with artificial ingredients. Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot, sometimes alone, sometimes with others, sometimes on accident, sometimes on purpose.

Rather than wave the white napkin and call this project a failure, I'd like to assess the damage and rise above the current predicament.

In the 6 months since I began this commitment, I've made many changes for the better.

Change for the Better #1: I have said au revoir to aspartame and its minions. From sophomore year of undergrad until last year, I consumed anywhere from 20 to 120 oz of Diet Coke or Diet Dr. Pepper each day. Now I drink a nice cup of black coffee in the morning and water after that. I don't miss diet soda. Sometimes I drink carbonated water because I like the gentle texture of the carbonation.

Change for the Better #2: Less 'fake food' enters my home. I no longer buy some products I used to consider healthy, such as fat-free foods, sugar-free foods or TV dinners. Now I habitually read the ingredients list before the nutrition facts. I've also found I can typically pass over all the middle aisles in a grocery store and 'shop around the perimter' in the produce, meat, dairy, and frozen foods section.

Change for the Better #3: I have winnowed my understanding of a healthy animal product. A healthy meat or dairy product contains no artificial preservatives and ideally comes from an animal that has been raised in natural conditions. For example, I'd prefer eggs from a free-roaming chicken rather than one living cooped up, or beef and milk from a cow that eats grass outdoors rather than one eating grain and waste in a stall.

Not only are there health benefits to choosing these types of animal products, I've also found them more satisfying. I used to blow through a pint of sugar-free, fat-free yogurt and still feel hungry. Now I'm pleasantly satisfied with a spoonful of strawberry jelly stirred into a cup of Greek yogurt.

Change for the Better #4: I eat a healthier ratio of carbohydrates to fruits & vegetables. The principal reason for this shift is that many carbohydrates (crackers, chips, breads) contain artificial ingredients. To satisfy that desire for a crunch I'll snack on carrots or apple chips. If I'm craving something sweet I'll eat dried fruit or satisfy my sweet tooth with a sweet potato. Since I usually crave something sweet after dinner, I've followed the Victorian tradition of eating an orange for dessert.

Unfortunately I still crave sugar in large quantities and this has been the most difficult side effect of removing staple sweets from my diet, which leads me to believe I was probably on track for developing adult onset diabetes in a few decades. These cravings were getting better until I started cheating.

Change for the Better #5: I've developed a greater appreciation for cooking from scratch. The ding and whir of a microwave as it cooks a frozen burrito doesn't compare to the crack and sizzle of an egg in a pan, or the rising scent of onion from a chopping board. My five senses and I enjoy picking out a fresh tomato. As I sift and slice and sautee I feel I'm something of a primordial artist.

Hm...perhaps I should change the title of this blog entry. I have been doing a good job. But there have been some pitfalls as well.

Pitfall #1: Almost everything in American grocery stores that isn't straight from the earth contains artificial ingredients. Between a disorganized FDA and the avaricious advertising industry, there's no one to speak for the dignity of a food product. Labels are misleading. Food products may be marketed as natural or healthy and aren't. And woefully, many tasty indulgences are truly as good for the body as gnawing on a rubber tire. Even the fresh sushi at Kroger contains aspartame! And forget restaurants. Something tells me that people who market meals on an industrial scale aren't concerned with the quality of invisible ingredients. Unfortunately, on days when I'm tired

Pitfall #2: Foods containing artificial ingredients are at my fingertips all the time, and for free. Breakfast muffins in the teacher's lounge. Basalmic vinegar containing caramel-coloring at the salad bar. Thursday Chik-fil-A biscuits, which students and teachers alike sometimes purchase for me. Tiny toothpicked samples at Costco.

Pitfall #3: Artificially-flavored foods taste good. One of the stipulations of this project has always been that my all-natural preferences aren't burdensome when I'm eating dinner with others. I never want to resemble the holier-than-thou vegan that loudly discerns her food preferences and refuses the generosity of others like a martyr to her cause. No. But often times good people who don't abide by the natural food standard, and for understandable reasons (See Pitfall #1), offer me delicious food that I, well could politely refuse. Would I like some chocolate cake? Yes, yes I would. I'll worry about the vanillin in it later. I can't see that right now. I am beckoned by the delicious, chocolatey...

Pitfall #4: It's possible to eat an all-natural diet and still have terrible eating habits. Did you know there's a whole line of fantastic all-natural potato chips with many flavorings? Did you know Whole Foods devotes half an aisle to all-natural chocolate products? Do you know the ice cream companies have industriously produced all natural lines of ice cream, such as the Five brand? I did. A lot.

The fruits of this project thus far outweigh the pitfalls. In their own way, the pitfalls are also helpful realizations. However, the reality is that I've been unable to sustain all-natural eating habits. One question remains. Do I continue with this project? I'd like to. I'm fueled by the memory of the intense energy, focus, and relaxation I felt at the beginning of this project.

So if you, reader, will forgive me, I'll forgive myself and begin again this May 20.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Calcium Chloride

One of my favorite pasta dishes is Penne alla vodka, but I don't keep vodka around the house long enough to cook with it. Ha! Just kidding. I don't keep vodka at all.

I usually buy the canned version of vodka sauce. I finally examined the label of one I bought recently. (On a side note, I now find myself automatically looking to the ingredient labels, not the nutritional data, which I think is a good adjustment. A product can have fantastic nutritional data and be full of artificial chemicals.)

Most of the ingredients on the sauce label were natural, if not a little processed--things like tomato paste, garlic powder, etc. I wondered of Calcium chloride also fit the bill.

It does. Calcium chloride (CaCl2) is a salt much like Sodium chloride. It's added to foods as a "firming agent (1)." The FDA bestowed GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe) status on Calcium chloride, so it can be found in many foods such as cheeses, tofu, or sauces. It is also used in de-icing agents and wastewater treatments (1).

In highly concentrated doses, Calcium chloride can cause skin irritation. In the human body, CaCl2 dissolves in water. It is absorbed in the intestines and the rest is passed through urine. (1)

Safe and natural it is, but is it necessary in foods? Once again, I find that if I made my sauce from scratch I would not be adding Calcium chloride as an ingredient. This salt aids in preservation of texture; it is a staple of the processed food industry.

Calcium chloride. Safe? Da. Necessary? Nyet.


Sunday, March 14, 2010


Tuna salad. A Friday Lenten food I've been eating all my life. There are three main ingredients--a can of tuna, pickle relish, and mayonnaise.

But how does it fare when given a natural spin? It took some time to find all-natural pickle relish. I finally did, in Whole Foods. Mayonnaise I have not found yet. Thinking that mayo itself is a set of simple ingredients whisked together (oil, egg yolks, lemon juice, vinegar), an all-natural version shouldn't be difficult to find. However, all the brands of real mayonnaise at the store contained EDTA.

No, not the Educational Theatre Association or the Electric Drive Transportation Association, as Google would have it.

Here, EDTA refers to ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid. The FDA has approved its usage in salad dressings, sauces, mayonnaise(s)? and varieties of canned beans, even in substances that contain dried bananas. (3)

Like disodium phosphate, EDTA is a sequestrant. EDTA binds to metallic ions such as copper and nickel, lead and mercury. Normally, the presence of these metallic ions in a fatty food like mayo would catalyze (or speed up) the breakdown of fats, and the mayo would go rancid faster. EDTA binds to these ions, rendering them unable to affect the breakdown rate of fat. (1)

EDTA is also used to treat heavy metal poisoning. While powerless against the musical stylings of Kiss, Disodium EDTA introduced into the body binds with the lead and mercury ions before they can be absorbed into sensitive tissues (2).

So EDTA is helpful in the medical world, but the question remains: should we be eating it? The European Amino-Carboxylates Producers Committee states, "There is at the present time no indication of harmful effects of EDTA due to long-term exposure to low concentrations" (5).

Three thoughts follow, which have not been tested or researched to my knowledge.

1)EDTA may prove beneficial when mayonnaise is incorporated into a tuna salad, because the sequestering properties of EDTA may bind to the mercury in the tuna, saving the body from absorbing harmful mercury.

2) EDTA may sequester beneficial metallic ions such as magnesium, calcium and iron, minerals the body needs. EDTA could keep a can of black beans fresher, longer. But how much of the iron cannot be absorbed by the body because EDTA inhibits absorption? Is the nutritional information on the can accurate?

3) Why not just buy black beans in a bag? Why not just make your own mayo?

EDTA UPDATE (03.31.2010)

After skimming the Whole Foods list of unacceptable ingredients, I noticed Calcium disodium EDTA and general EDTA are listed as "unacceptable." After a little more research it seems that all-natural foodies claim EDTA is toxic to a notable degree, especially when baking soda and ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) are other ingredients in the food, such as in soda (6). Perhaps the main reason Whole Foods bans this ingredient is because EDTA, also used in industrial products and cleaners, is a major polluter(6).


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Chocolate Cake, Oui

I have made this delightful cake for a friend's birthday.

I shouted for joy when the egg whites formed stiff peaks.

I oohed and ahhed as the chocolate mixed with the yolks and sugar.

I at the crunchy parts of the crust that fell off.


Sunday, February 14, 2010


In honor of the feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes, I made French bread. Baguettes, which are long loaves, cannot be baked in a regular oven. Batards are a shorter, rounder loaves made of the same ingredients.

I consulted Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume II, for the recipe. It was seven pages. Four simple ingredients--unbleached flour, salt, yeast and water--took seven pages of masterful cooking technique (science really) to accomplish. The process takes a minimum of eight hours. Most of that is sitting and waiting for the yeast to act in the flour.

When all was said and done, I had six loaves. I was told they were tasty, but there were tons of problems. The bread didn't rise in the oven. I could tell because the slits I cut in the top just before baking were about the same size afterward. The bread had a slightly sour taste, indicating the yeast did not have enough time, or too much time, to work. The outside of the bread was perfect and crusty. The inside did not have enough holes.

While I walked the Camino de Santiago, I passed a woman delivering bread from the back of her car, just west of Ponferrada. I do not remember her face, but I remember almost 100 loaves, unwrapped, jutting from baskets.

I have a newfound and tremendous amount of respect for that woman.

Bon Appetit.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Side Effect of Eating Naturally

So I had some bad weeks, vanquished by Papa John's pizza and the Christmas chocolates my mom sent out in little dishes around the apartment. But! I have returned to eating naturally and today, as I was packing up my things up after school around 3:45, I thought,

"I could sure use some water."

Water? Three months ago at this time I would have been scarfing down granola bars or snatching at the dregs of the principal's free candy bowl, draining two diet cokes and stopping off for chocolate on the way home. Okay, so I still sometimes stop off for chocolate on the way home.

But! Studies indicate we often eat when we're just thirsty. The amazing thing for me today was that I did not have a sensation of thirst in my palate, but experienced a physical need for water. To me, this is evidence that when we stop giving our body the smoke and mirrors of processed, artificial food, it is better able to regulate and communicate what it actually needs.

I read once, somewhere, that there was no link between what we crave and what substances our body is deficient in. I disagree.

Thursday, January 28, 2010


"I thought I'd never have to say this but...did you wash that hammer before you used it?"

That was my friend Jim, eyeing my pesto-making methods warily one weeknight. We had decided to make homemade pesto. In the absence of a food processor, I resorted to cutting basil leaves into thin strips, then spreading them over a large cutting board and mashing them with a hammer. The result was messy. And tasty.

Hammer or food processor, pesto is a unique alternative to red or white sauce when cooking pasta, or making pizza. While it has a high fat content, most of that is from olive oil and pine nuts or walnuts.

The other benefit of eating pesto is that the olive oil is not heated, and thus retains all the complexities of its flavor. Many people are not familiar with its great taste, which comes from chemicals that evaporate in the high heat of sauteeing and frying (1).

A nice recipe for pesto can be found here. The ingredients are simple and from there it is a game of ratios. Increase and decrease amounts to suit your palate. I recommend using regular olive oil, not extra virgin, because it gives pesto a little bite. Toss with linguine noodles and chicken with no preservatives for a tasty dinner. Fresh noodles, found in the refrigerated section of the grocery store, compliment pesto nicely. If you want some adventure, try these Luscious Oatmeal Dinner Rolls as a side.

A strange note: pesto made with a hammer, while not recommended for the faint of heart (basil brutality), tastes better than pesto made with a food processor. It may be because of (1) the manner in which the basil leaves are cut, (2) the quality of parmesan cheese used, (3) the quality or type (extra virgin or regular) of the olive oil used, (4) the well-known fact that food tastes better after hard work!


Disodium Phosphate

Gas station food is nearly all off limits since pledging to eat all-natural ingredients. But the other day, while harriedly filling at the pump and wishing energy could be dispensed this way for humans, I found some cheesy popcorn that claimed to be all-natural. Disodium phosphate, an ionic compound of Sodium (Na), Phosphorous (P), and Oxygen (O), was one of the ingredients.

Disodium phosphate is added to white cheese popcorn as a sequestering agent(2). The cheese flavor comes from an evaporated dairy product, and Disodium phosphate, as a sequestrant, stabilizes ions in this substance, inhibiting their reaction with other ingredients or the air (3).

Disodium phosphate is also marketed as a nutritional supplement. Rocky Mountain Wellness claims it supports liver and gallblader function by maintaining the balance between acidity and basicity in the body. Their marketed Disodium phosphate capsules also contain gelatin, stearic acid, water, and "colors." Hm. (1)

It seems Disodium phosphate does not have any immediate health hazards. However, its presence in my popcorn reinforces a persistent question on this food journey. Even with all-natural ingredients, how processed is too processed? Should I have saved $1.89 at the gas station, gone home, and popped some popcorn kernels tossed with oil and sea salt, and maybe eaten a piece of cheese? No preservatives, even natural ones, are needed for this snack. This would have taken time and energy, but would it have been better for my body, in the long run, than dehydrated dairy products and Disodium phosphate?


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Recipe 1: Spaghetti and Meatballs

Here is a hearty, wintry spaghetti and meatballs recipe.

For an all-natural recipe,
1) Use fresh Parmesan instead of canned, and
2) olive oil instead of bacon drippings.
3) If you're a stickler, make sure the wine you use doesn't contain sulfites.

Serve with a salad and whole grain pasta; make bread, if you're feeling adventurous.

Happy cooking!

Xanthan Gum

I have been examining many ingredient labels lately, and Xanthan gum is present in nearly all the processed foods I look at. This ingredient, which sounds like some sort of martian chicle, is a type of sugar that has been fermented with a bacteria species called Xanthomonas campestris .

The bacteria consumes and digests the sugar, creating a starchy byproduct. This substance is used to thicken foods or create a creamy texture in low-fat dairy foods. It is also a substitute for wheat gluten. (1)

Xanthan gum is naturally made, so in terms of my yearly commitment, it makes the cut. However, I wonder how the body digests and processes this type of ingredient. Most importantly, is it necessary? If I can have natural oil and vinegar salad dressing, is that better than a low-fat basalmic vinegarette that contains Xanthan gum?

To me, yes.