Saturday, May 24, 2008

A Good Food Book

In between frantically writing, learning electroosmotics, and praying to the various callous gods of candidacy, I have been reading Michael Pollan to unwind. He's actually quite brilliant.

In the muddle of diet fads where entire food groups or macronutrients are excluded in a usually futile attempt to eat healthier and/or lose weight, Pollan takes some time to unscientifically un-muddle how we eat and explain why our Western dietary habits are screwing us over. I don't much like nutritionists. With respect to my friend R. (who is a fabulous cook, incredibly healthy individual, and the relatively new mother of a giant baby - I'm not kidding; her little man is HUGE), the field of nutrition relies on a lot of well-disguised hand waving and recovering anorexics.

First, a short anecdote that describes many - not all - nutritionists. R. went to NYU with me, and she went through the NYU nutrition program. One night at fencing practice, she told me how her classmates had turned away from their salads and yogurts with a mixture of horror and drooling jealousy to watch as she ate a slice of pizza for lunch during lecture. She ate one slice of pizza, not three. It wasn't unfrozen reconstituted chain pizza, it was actual pizza made from real pizza dough, sauce, and cheese from the pizza place on the corner.

Honestly, what were they looking at?

(Author's Aside: One time, R. and I bought young coconuts at the organic market up the street from our dorm. You know, the ones that are white on the outside with the shell shaved off? Anyway, we crouched on the floor of R.'s dorm room with hammers smashing them open to get at the water and the cream inside for a snack. It was fun. And tasty. And I'm sure there's an easier way to open them, but we lacked a hack saw.)

Anyway, a diet of salad, yogurt, and carrot sticks every day for lunch is impossibly monotonous, simply impossible for an athlete, and unpleasant to eat on a cold day. Pollan doesn't buy into the starving/deprivation thing to tell us how to eat right. He doesn't even explicitly tell us how to eat right. It's brilliant! He promotes eating real, actual, unprocessed food to get what you need to live and be healthy and happy.

One great point he makes is we need to look at cultures that have been around for a long time, and take notes from them. Why does he say that? Because in order to be around for a long time, you need to SURVIVE. Obviously, if you've survived for thousands of years, you've got a good thing going nutritionally because you have the strength - as a culture - to reproduce a lot. And reproduction is very energetically costly.

Another noteworthy Pollan point is "we are what what we eat eats."

I'll give you a second to parse that.

In other words, if our cattle eat things they aren't designed to eat (like corn instead of grass), they'll pass on their nutritional deficiencies to whatever eats them. That would be us, folks.

Think for a minute. Everyone's on about omega-3's these days. So we're told to eat fish, right? Well, where do you think the omega-3's in fish come from? From what the fish eat, photosynthetic plankton. All the fish do is concentrate the omega-3's because they're higher on the food chain, and they eat the plankton.

Moving back to cattle, beef used to have higher levels of omega-3's and less crap because they ate plants, and the ultimate source of omega-3's are plants. Now that cattle are fed on grain instead of the leaves they evolved to eat, not only do they require antibiotics to survive long enough to get to the slaughterhouse, but they don't get the full battery of nutrients they're evolutionarily designed to get. And, as a result, neither do we when we eat mass-marketed industrial beef (Pollan really delves into this in "The Omnivore's Dilemma"). So simple and so smart.

Speaking of smarts, Michael Pollan isn't a scientist, but he uses a very powerful tool many of us have forgotten, observation. We're so obsessed with finding the one magic compound that'll cure all ills. It's kind of amusing, really. Think about the new revelations about cholesterol; all of a sudden, the low cholesterol orthodoxy is being overturned. Maybe high cholesterol does NOT implicitly equal heart disease... maybe the whole system is more complex and relies on feedback systems we haven't even started to uncover. In a way, it's kind of comforting.

Check out one of my favorite passages, from "In Defense of Food." It pretty much sums it up:

"Indeed, to look at the chemical composition of any common food plant is to realize just how much complexity lurks within it. Here's a list of just the antioxidants that have been identified in a leaf of garden variety thyme:

"alanine, anethole essential oil, apigenin, ascorbic acid, beta-carotene, caffeic acid, camphene, carvacrol, chlorogenic acid, chrysoerial, derulic acid...[I'm cutting the list short; it's long enough to make the point]...

"This is what you ingest when you eat food flavored with thyme. Some of these chemicals are broken down by your digestion, but others go on to do various as-yet-undetermined things to your body: turning some gene's expression on or off, perhaps, or intercepting a free radical before it disturbs a strand of DNA deep in some cell. It would be great to know how this all works, but in the meantime we can enjoy thyme in the knowledge that it probably doesn't do any harm (since people have been eating it forever) and that it might actually do some good (since people have been eating it forever), and even if it does nothing at all, we like the way it tastes..."

I have to say, it's comforting to know there are things that are so complex, we don't have a prayer of understanding them at the moment. On one hand, knowing there is no one right answer means we could be horribly wrong, but on the other hand, that means there are so many more ways to be right. Me? I'd rather explore the ways to be nutritionally right, which in Pollan's view means eat diversely. Yum.

The thing is, fads will come and go. Soon everyone will be off protein, or something and taking yogurt enemas again. (Yeah. Yogurt enemas. And this dude's name is on a huge number of cereal boxes in American homes these days. Heh, little do they know he was a great proponent of yogurt enemas. Go ahead. Click on it. You know you're curious.)

(Another interesting fact; Oneida, the silverware company, another American mainstay, had quite an interesting beginning as well. We are SO closeted as a culture, it's amazing. Australia got the convicts, Canada got the French, we got the Puritans, and we've never really gotten over it.)

Imagine how they'll laugh at us someday. In the meantime, read Michael Pollan (I suggest "The Omnivore's Dilemma" or "In Defense of Food"), and contemplate eating similarly to non-Americanized Greeks and Japanese.

Thursday, May 22, 2008


OMFG. My proposal is slowly morphing into a paper on molecular modeling, about which I know even less than usual. Seriously, I feel like Neo from The Matrix when he opens his eyes and says, "I know kung-fu."

I know extrapolated motion.

Well, I know it in a cocktail party kind of way, although if I ever find myself at a cocktail party where they're discussing extrapolated motion I will either immediately leave or hit the bar. Hard. I am probably the most self-hating scientist out there. I don't explicitly hate scientists, but society expects all the borderline-autistics and collective weirdos to enter science, so we get 'em all.

But speaking of bars, I went to a free steak dinner with an open bar Tuesday night. I was thinking, "Hey! Open bar! Free food! Awesome!" It sucked hardcore. It was with a bunch of people from NASA, so the company was duller than dull, and it was in NASA's version of a fucking rec hall. I mean. Fuck! You're NASA! You got shit up in space, and this is where you hold a dinner for winners of some school science fair? Some of those little whippersnappers did projects that sound more impressive than what I'm doing right now! Then we were bored to death by some totally self-obsessed, boring-as-all-hell, NASA scientist who showed us INTERMINABLE PowerPoint slides of radar images. One after the other. And I couldn't even get more wine. Completely foiled. And all this after spending a day fighting with my proposal.

Anyway, it reminded me why I don't eat out. The best part of the whole meal was actual arugula and raw broccoli in the salad (can't overcook raw broccoli!). Everything else was overcooked and bland, and I could have spackled my walls with the cheesecake. But there was free wine! (And Miller Light, but come on, Miller Lite?)

Today was the bio department's BBQ, and I scored some more free food, but again... it was crappy. They even messed up the hummus. Right now I'm burning off that overcooked hamburger trying to put citations into my proposal. I learned Reference Manager today. Seriously, I need to do a massive core dump. I have learned so much in the last 2 months, I can't even believe it. I'm rapidly approaching "brain stuck cannot go anymore" but I'm staving it off with small pieces of chocolate.

A big thank you to one of my labmates who brought in said chocolate today. :)

(I think I deleted the word "fuck" roughly 8 times in this post. That's how strung out I am right now. I need to go to the gym, but I can't. MUST. FINISH. CITING. IMAGINARY. PAPERS. I. ONLY. PRETENDED. TO. READ.)

Monday, May 19, 2008

Can't Be Beet

I went on a mandolin expedition this weekend. The purpose was to find one of those nifty adjustable ones so that I can get uber-thin slices of beets. Why, you query? Because I love raw beet salad.

The raw beet salad in discussion is made with raw beets, fennel, carrots, radishes, and celery. I forgot the basic proportions; it's a Jamie Oliver recipe which I totally cannot find right now. Raw beets are rather woody and hard to chew in large chunks, so mandolined slices (or julienned sticks) are most manageable. I tried using a food processor attachment and a veggie peeler, but the slices were a trifle too thick for woody beets, and grating them leaves you with limp, shapeless, shredded beet crud. I prefer a little extra chewing, so in the absence of a mandolin, I recommend the food processor attachment because it's faster than the veggie peeler and you get similar results. (I do not suggest the $10 mandolin from Bed Bath and Beyond. It is not adjustable, and it generally is crummy because the interchangeable attachments don't make paper-thin slices. I'm returning the blasted thing.)

I like salad a lot, so I start with ~4 peeled beets, 3 fat carrots, 1 small bulb of fennel (keep the fronds on hand), a handful of radishes, and 1-2 stalks of celery. Oh yeah, I couldn't find fennel anywhere, so I incorporated fennel seeds into the vinaigrette - more on that later**. If you can find fennel, make sure you slice it really thinly. Perhaps a mandolin would be good for this, too. Fennel has a very strong liquorice flavor, so add it carefully. Anyway, peel and thinly slice the beets and carrots, and give the celery and radishes a thin slicing, too. There's your salad. On to the vinaigrette!

Danny likes his roasted poblano chilis. A lot. Roasting poblanos is tricky. You can either own a dry grill which goes over the burners on your stove (Anti-Fire-In-Your-Kitchen-Tip: snip the stems off your chilis before roasting because they'll burn and the embers could set your shirt on fire), or you can balance them on your gas burners and keep the flame really low and watch them VERY carefully (risky, but I did it without setting anything on fire). You could probably do it in an oven too, but it's a lot harder to get some char without complete conflagration. Alternatively, save this for a BBQ side-dish and roast the chilis on the grill. When you roast chilis, the skin should char. The more char, the better. Once almost the entire chili has charred and is mostly black on the outside, put it in a bowl covered with foil or just make a foil packet and seal the chili inside. Let it steam in there for a while. 20 minutes, maybe? The steaming makes it easier to peel. Once it's steamed and cooled off, peel it. The charred peel should come off very easily. It doesn't have to be perfect. Then, you can clean the chilis. The fire comes mostly from the ribs and the seeds, so get 'em out if you don't like the spice. Now you have cleaned, seeded chilis ready for vinaigretting!

(You can use regular bell peppers in the vinaigrette - which are actually super mild chilis! - and roast them the exact same way. Now you can make your own freshly roasted peppers! Whenever you want!)

So anyway, 2 roasted poblanos seem to work. Throw them into a blender. Add 1 part sour (lemon juice rocks in this case), 2 parts grease (olive oil for me), some salty (salt), and some pepper. Adjust to taste. It's a green thick vinaigrette. Put on salad, lightly sprinkle with some fennel fronds, and crunch away!

(**If you can't find fennel, take some fennel seeds - 1 or 2 tsp worth - and crush with a mortar and pestle or fold them in some aluminum foil and take a hammer to it. Add to vinagrette.)

Friday, May 16, 2008

Spread 'Em

In light of easy and fast food that just so happens to be healthy and delicious, I'm going to write about three of my favorite spreads that can go on anything. Except chocolate cake.

Hummus, pesto, and tahina.

Hummus and tahina both start with, well, tahina which is ground sesame seed paste. This paper tickled me; just the idea that anyone literally published a paper analyzing tahina is hilarious. Bottom line is that tahina has a ton of niacin and some B vitamins and proteins. Also, it has some vital minerals. And I love it because it tastes good.

Let's start with tahina. You can buy ready-to-eat tahina in a can in the store, but why bother? It's not as good. To make it at home, get plain tahina, some garlic, and lemons. Mix the tahina after you open the can/jar because it'll settle like natural peanut butter. Scoop ~3-4 spoonfuls of tahina into a bowl. Crush one clove of raw garlic into it. Dump the juice of half a lemon in there, followed by ~2 pinches of salt. Mix it up. It should resemble mortar. Add a little water and mix well. Taste it.

If it tastes flat: Add more lemon or salt. If it's too tangy, add salt. If it's too salty, add lemon. Salt and acid buffer each other. If all else fails, add more tahina.

If it's too watery: Add more tahina.

If it's too thick: Add more water or lemon juice if it needs it.

I say start small because amounts vary and it's the kind of thing that benefits from you having a feel for how to make it versus blindly following a recipe. Also, you inevitably end up having to add more of one thing or another so it kind of grows. :) The end consistency should be in between a dip and a creamy salad dressing, depending on what you want to use it for. Thicker for crudites, thinner for salad dressing or if its final destination is to dress falafel.

Which brings us to hummus!

Start with a can of chickpeas, drained with liquid reserved in a cup. Throw 2-3 garlic cloves in a food processor and process until finely chopped. Then I scrape down the sides and re-process. That gets them fine enough, usually. It's up to you; if you like killer garlic sneak attacks, don't process as much. :) Then dump in the can of chickpeas and maybe 1/4 of the liquid. Process. If it's stuck, add a little more liquid. Then glop in ~2 heaping spoonfuls of unprepared tahina. Add the juice of one lemon, and I like to add a little olive oil. Throw in some salt. Process. Taste.

If it's stuck in the food processor: Add more liquid. Taste it first, though. If it's flat, add more lemon juice and then some of the chickpea water.

If it's flat: Add more lemon or more salt. Same rules apply here as above.

If you want a more creamy consistency: Add more tahina or olive oil and process some more.

Again, you can adjust quantity as much as you want. You can make it just for you or for a crowd. it is probably the cheapest healthiest party dip under the sun. But you can totally dress it up. Hummus is typically served with powdered sumac, not the poison variety, sprinkled on top. I like to drizzle it with some good olive oil, sprinkle sumac over top, and put really good (not too salty) pitted kalamata olives in a ring on top. It's good in pita quarters with Mediterranean pickle slices and really good with the crudites, especially carrot sticks.

Let's move slightly west, and deal with pesto. Pesto is garlic, olive oil, basil, and nuts, cheese being optional. Preferred, but optional. The nuts are typically pine nuts, but I grew up on pesto with walnuts because walnuts were infinitely cheaper. Both are good. The basil usually came out of my mom or grandma's gardens, and when it came out of my grandma's garden, it was always somehow... basil-lier. I think it was because she watered it less. We always got super-hot chilis or spicy radishes or tomatoey tomatoes when there was less rain, so I'd guess it extends to herbs, too...?

But I digress.

So, pesto. In the food processor, throw in 1 or 2 cloves of raw garlic depending upon how much basil you have and process till chopped, same as for hummus. Throw in the washed and dried leaves of your basil, some (start with a 1/4 cup?) of the nuts, a little romano or parmesan if you want cheese, a little salt (less if you're adding cheese) and pepper, and a glug of olive oil. Process. Scrape down the sides, process a little more, and taste it. (I don't like a homogeneous paste in this case, so the nuts in little chunks... very desireable. I also don't make it swimming in oil.) But this won't have a tanginess, like the hummus and tahina did.

I've found that it tastes very green initially. Give it a few minutes to just sit. I don't know why this works, but it does. Maybe the flavors need a little while to mix? But if after a few minutes it tastes flat, add either salt or cheese, but not too much. Another pesto caveat is adding too much nuts. Then all you taste are nuts. I'm a basil fiend, so I'm always very careful about the nuts and don't add too much. I've found that pine nuts do have a certain pineyness that adds to the basil's flavor, but it's very subtle. Walnuts work just fine. This traditional pesto can go on pasta (of course), or you can make carrot noodles with a vegetable peeler and microwave them in a covered vessel until they're juuuust soft enough and toss with pesto, or you can make a sandwich with it (tomato and mozzarella or a veggie burger) or put it on cooked chicken, or eat it plain. Pesto rocks cut into mashed potatoes.

You can also make pesto out of whatever fresh herbs/greens you want. Arugula and parsley with a little tarragon... cilantro, garlic, and jalapenos (actually, without nuts, this tastes great on hummus which always benefits from the right hot condiments, and it's amazing in scrambled eggs/omelettes... and it turns them pale green! Green eggs, anyone?)

Bottom line is these spreads work on anything. And they're really flavorful. Be forewarned that you'll probably reek of garlic, so either (a) get your significant other to eat some too so neither of you will notice, or (b) avoid it pre-date. Happy spreading... ;)

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Fast Food, HungryGrad style...

When immersed in a project as time-consuming, mind-numbing, and draining as your candidacy proposal, the time one has to mess around in the kitchen is drastically reduced. So when you decide that going to the gym and worrying about food later is better than cooking and not going to the gym, you need a backup.

Mine? Dr. Praeger's veggie burgers, available at Costco in large quantities. They are veggie brugers that buck the trend of people trying to forcibly change veggies into meat. They are patties of plant parts smushed together, green and unabashedly vegetable. The ingredient list says it all. The highlights are the fact that you get 25% of your daily fiber in one burger. Personally, I like to think of fiber as intestinal exfoliation. They're a little high in sodium, and they have a little fat, but it's not the end of the world when you look at the vitamin exchange. So it's more bang for the caloric buck.

So I heat up a pan (nonstick works even without grease in it) but otherwise a little olive oil is nice. They say you can grill them, but I've never tried because they seem a little too mushy and soft. They get a really nice crust in cast iron if you have it. Otherwise, remove from package in the freezer, put in moderately hot pan, fry until brown on one side, flip and repeat.

I take toasted bread, pour some balsamic on it so it soaks in, put burger on one slice, put slices of tomato and raw onion on top, add feta cheese, and last night I had some fresh dill, so I added some of that too, and then I ate it open faced, with partially melted feta toppling off. Madd tasty, yo.

And madd fast. The bread is a little crunchy, burger and cheese are warm, creamy, and soft, the vinegar goes "zing," and the tomato and onion add some flava and moisture, and the dill is just nice and cool-tasting. It makes you feel better. It's healthy. It's fast. It's got lots of veggies and fiber. It's warm. It goes equally well with milk/juice/water and beer/ wine. It can be riffed out of its mind. It can be inspired by Asian, Italian, Mediterranean, Provencal, etc. cuisines all depending on what you throw it on, and what veggies/sauce/starch you put it on.

I can visualize brown rice, veggie burger, a Thai inspired sauce (soy, lime, fish sauce, honey/brown sugar) with fresh basil, mint, watercress if you can find it, tomato, and cucumber. Turn it Israeli by putting it in a pita with finely chopped cuke, onion, tomato, and a little parsley, squeeze of lemon and tahini or hummus. Do it with brie, sauteed mushroom (you already have the pan dirty from the burger), and throw fresh baby greens (aka, lettucey things) and tarragon on it on a baguette. Hell, throw some red wine into the pan with the 'shrooms and let it reduce and pour it on top. Tres bien, no?

Hellz yes. This is how I do fast food. With a little glass of wine for after the gym. ;)