Friday, August 19, 2011

A Thoughtful Process

Trans fats are bad, very it!  Most of us seem to be receiving that message loud and clear.  In fact, the subject of what NOT to eat is often front-page news.  But what ARE we supposed to eat?  Given that I am now the proud holder of a graduate degree on this very topic, I tend to think that I have a pretty good handle what makes something a good food choice (which is not to say that I always pick it!)  Every now and then, even I catch wind of a tidbit of information that throws me for a loop, and makes me pause and think critically about what I am hearing.  Some people are able to make very compelling arguments regarding their food beliefs.  Sometimes, the information they provide is accurate, and sometimes it is not. It can be tempting to believe things that are presented energetically, and surrounded by “facts” that sound convincing, but are not often based on real science.  I’m grateful that I can debunk most food myths that I come across, and I encourage you to take in new nutritional information with healthy skepticism.

Case and point:  Olive oil.  Good guy right?  Rich in heart healthy “good fats” that we hear about, like essential Omega-3 fatty acids.  It’s cholesterol free, and trans fat free making it a much better cooking oil choice than margarine, butter, or palm oil.  So why did someone try to tell me recently that people should avoid olive oil because it is a processed food?  Huh?

I got myself involved in a conversation about a new program that promotes cooking with, and eating strictly unprocessed foods.  Foods that are, shall we say…Whole.  Sounds good right?  I was told that a tenet of this program is to avoid cooking with all oils, including olive oil.  Why?  Because olive oil is refined, and therefore does not fit into the philosophy that one should eat only unprocessed foods.

Red Flag, Red Flag…but olive oil is good for you, no?  When I mentioned the various health benefits of cooking with, and consuming olive oil, I was told by the program’s representative (who is incidentally NOT a credentialed health or nutrition professional) that program participants are encouraged to eat olives (unprocessed) for their healthy fats, rather than rely on their (processed) oil for health benefits.   Um…again…what?!!!?  Olives that we buy for eating have been brined or cured…they have to be to be edible.  As far as I can tell brining and curing are not only processes, just like pressing olives to make oil.  Additionally, brined and cured olives have a heck of a lot of sodium by nature, as salt is used in both "processes."  We are all supposed to be avoiding excess sodium right?  I say this program's philosophy is hooey, and we should cook with oil and limit your consumption of brined and cured olives.  Who’s right here?

Lately, one thing everyone seems to agree on is that processed foods are to be avoided, but work still needs to be done so we can all adopt a definition of what is meant by "processed foods."  

I think you would agree that planning a diet free of ALL processed foods is completely impractical and probably impossible (isn’t chopping a process?)   Instead, peruse the grocery aisles critically, and apply a little realism to your decision-making.  It’s also never a bad idea to consult with a registered dietitian if you have questions about the nutritional quality of foods.

If I had my druthers, and an idyllic life, I would grow my own food, raise my own animals for meat, milk my own cows to drink their milk raw, and bake my own bread.  Unfortunately, I’m just as busy as the rest of you, and it’s not likely for any of that to happen anytime soon.  I do however take the time to apply a critical eye to the foods that I eat, and the information that I come across.  And I compare food choices in search of those that are as minimally processed as possible, within reason! 

Friday, August 12, 2011

Five Alive!

Shrimp and Watermelon Salad ~ A treat for all 5 tastes!
Today I offered to cook lunch for a friend of mine who is also a nutrition professional.  When she arrived, my whole apartment smelled like BACON.  This could have been seriously embarrassing.   As luck would have it we both appreciate great tasting food, and live by the mantra: "everything in moderation."   Thankfully, she was not appalled to learn that I featured bacon in our light summer lunch: Shrimp and Watermelon Salad with Fizzy Mandarin-Hibiscus Iced Tea.   My afternoon could have gone very badly if I had served this dish to mixed nutrition-ista company!  Bacon doesn't exactly scream health food. 

I hate to disappoint, but you should stop reading now and check back in with me next week if you are anticipating a declaration that bacon is health food.  I am not going to preach that bacon has health benefits.  In this dish though, it does provides another B word...balance.  This recipe has only two slices of bacon in it, and serves 4 people.  So, even though bacon has become the universal measurement against which unhealthy things are compared, it only plays a supporting role here.  It is not the main event and is not to be feared unless you are on a strict diet.  It provides a salty balance to sweet watermelon, which, in turn, mellows bitter arugula, whose flavor is brightened by a squeeze of fresh lime juice, the acidity of which is mellowed by shrimp's delicate umami.  See, I promised you balance.  Each ingredient in this recipe serves to boost the flavor of another.  Isn't food fun! I love that this recipe appeals to all 5 of our tastes.  I'll admit, it's definitely intended for the more adventurous eaters among us, but trust me, if you can get past the fact that the ingredients don't seem like they would be school-yard friends, you will be amazed at how delicious it is!

Mandarin-Hibiscus Fizzy Tea

The fact that I can make and enjoy this recipe is a  testament to just how far I have come in the kitchen, and how sophisticated my palate has become.  There was once a day when I would have not gone near a shrimp, had never heard of arugula, and wouldn't eat a thing that was the slightest bit spicy or bitter.  It is also representative of why I am writing this blog, so that I can attempt to provide an ounce of inspiration to anyone out there that believes that they can't cook, or that they are stuck being a life-long picky eater.  You can is not anywhere near as difficult as you might think, trust me!  And, believe it or not, your palate can be trained to like just about anything you set your mind to!   

The recipe for becoming a great cook for yourself, your friends, and your family is this:  

Step 1: Bravely blend 1 part curiosity, 1 part determination, a dash of passion, and a heaping handful of humility.   

Step 2: Be prepared to receive compliments!  

That's it.  Don't believe me?  When I first made this dish, I had no recipe...but I had determination and passion, and...I wanted to eat it, so I had to make it.  Let me explain.

I have taught myself to cook.  Out of necessity...and frugality I suppose.  I have spent the past 17 or so years working in a variety of restaurants.  It's been the food from these restaurants that I have learned about (and have been encouraged to try) over the years that has inspired me to learn to how to cook.  I have always eater well at work, (a restaurant industry perk!) and wanted to eat well at home too!  I began to snoop in the kitchens of great chefs, and watch their every move.  After some time, I got brave and started emulating their moves in my kitchen at home.  At times I had success, at others, I had failures.  I noticed after a while that my food was tasting better and better!  I began to be my own inspiration to try new things, and I hope to pass some of that along.

When I first met this salad a few years ago in a wonderful restaurant in Boston's Back Bay, I fell in love with it and new I had to try to write my own version of a recipe for it.  It was too good to only have once!  I cannot, and will not claim to be as skilled or creative as the award-winning chef whose dish inspired me recreate this.  I will however, humbly say that my copy-cat recipe makes a dish that provides a rare adventure for your taste buds that is not to be missed!

Shrimp and Avocado Salad :
Serves 4

2 pieces bacon, or panchetta
20 frozen cooked shrimp (thawed)
1 package arugula
1/2 cup chopped basil leaves
2 cups cubed watermelon (save any juice that might linger on the cutting board from cutting the melon)
1 avocado (cubed)
1 can butter beans rinsed and drained
1 tbsp chili oil (or extra virgin olive oil + 1 tsp red pepper flake)
Juice of 1 lime
Salt & pepper to taste

1.  Cut the bacon into small (1/4 inch pieces)
2.  Saute the bacon in a medium sauce pan until crispy.  Drain the oil from the pan.
3.  Off of the heat, toss the shrimp in the pan with the bacon.  Set pan aside.
4.  In a large bowl lightly toss the arugula, rinsed and drained beans, basil leaves, watermelon, and avocado together
5.  In a small bowl combine the watermelon juice, lime juice, chili oil, salt and pepper in a small bowl and drizzle over the arugula mixture.
6.  Top the salad with the shrimp and bacon.
7.  Serve immediately.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Fill 'Er Up!

One of the things that I love and hate about nutrition is that it is always changing.  You know what I day you see an article that says something is good for you, and the next day it seems like someone is reporting that it is bad.  Believe me, I get that it can be confusing and frustrating to know what to eat.  Part of what makes my job fun is that I get to sort through all of the information that gets published, and use my trained mind figure out what information is backed by scientific proof, and what information is spun by the media to make for good news.  Researchers are still learning so much about what our bodies do with food.  So, yes, from time to time, the facts do change, and we have to accept that this is progress. 

It can be hard to understand why experts are constantly changing their minds about what is good for us, but it's not opinion, it's science.  It's important to remember that this sort of change and discovery happens in all areas of science from time to time.  Need I remind you of poor know, used to be a planet, now...not so much?  I know, I know, we have a much more personal relationship with food than we do the planets, so we tend to get a bit more bent out of shape when the science of what we are supposed to eat changes.  Here's my advice on how to handle confusing (and sometimes conflicting) information...I strongly believe that you should follow your gut, literally.  The trick though, is that first you and your gut need to learn to speak the same language!!  I'm also a fan of employing a little simple logic to any food related situation.  If something makes good, honest sense...then do it! 

One of the things that has changed is the advice on how to stay properly hydrated, and what exactly that means.  I know as well as you how life can sometimes get in the way of maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and it can be so easy to forget to hydrate.  In the summer months though it becomes increasingly important NOT TO FORGET!   

So there I was the other day, all stressed out about one thing or another, tired, and on my way to work in 90+ degree weather.  What did I do, I grabbed a GIGANTIC iced coffee...I mean huge.  Did I know better? OF COURSE!!!  Should I have had a nice big bottle of water instead of the iced coffee?  YES!!!  But I lived, and learned, and that's the point of all this share my own trials and tribulations, so that you know that I'm human, and I make mistakes from time to time just like everybody else!  It is my hope that I can gain your trust and give you some valuable advice so you can avoid the same pitfalls that I have fallen victim to.

Now, we used to be told that 8 glasses of water a day was the key to hydration, but now scientists have conceded that we may not need quite that much, and that even beer and caffeinated beverages can help a person stay hydrated...WHAT!  Ok, Ok, let me decode this for you.   You may not need as much liquid as was once thought (unless you are living in an extreme situation or participating in an extreme activity) and all liquids provide you with at least some level of hydration.  This is all true, but it also needs to be applied to real life on a case by case basis. 

Back to me and my iced coffee.  I consider working in a restaurant in 90 degree weather with less than optimal AC to be kind of an extreme situation, so I should have consumed more liquid than I would in an average day, according to the recommendation above, and I did not.  Lets call that mistake #1.  Also, I can tell you from a bit of my own scientific research that if you don't water a plant for days, it gets limp and lifeless, and I can also tell you that if you then water it with iced coffee (or beer) does not bounce back, it DIES!!!  Ok, mistake #2 = giant iced coffee instead of water.  

What did I learn? Well, I was thirsty and tired so I thought I was listening to my "gut" by getting an extra large caffeinated beverage.  In fact, I was assuming my gut speaks English...not so much.  I should have applied some logic before imbibing, and gotten an extra large H2O instead!!!  If my car runs out of gas would I put iced coffee in the tank!!!  No!!  Duh!!! 

Your body looses 6-10 cups of water on a normal day (from breathing, sweating, peeing, and so on and so forth) and more on a really hot and humid day, so shouldn't you put that much water back in at least?  I think it's not a bad goal.  If you plan to consume other beverages (the cafinated or alcoholic kind in particular) then consider them bonus liquid intake and don't forget to drink the water as well, it will make you feel far more refreshed in the long run than even soda or sports drinks.

I have probably lost a few people preaching about the virtues of water consumption, but hopefully you think I am an amusing read, so you have gotten this far anyways...yes/no?
So lets just say that you're not big on water, not fond of it, not in the mood to drink it, bored with it...whatever.  Well, you are not alone, I hear that lots of people feel that way.  But I beg you, don't give up...find a creative way to get it into you.  Some simple tricks are to add lemon, orange, or cucumber slices to give it some flavor, or even a tablespoon of fruit juice or so.  And don't forget, caffeine free iced tea (unsweetened of course) is just flavored water, so drink up!!! 

This may surprise you, but food can provide you with water too.  Typically, we take in about 20% of the hydration that we need from food without even realizing it.  There's no reason that you can't make that a higher percentage by eating more hydrating foods.  You can kill two birds with one stone by eating great nutritious fruits and veggies that also have a high water content.  These things won't replace the fact that you need to drink fluids, but they'll certainly help you to hydrate if you're having a hard time remembering to drink lots of water on a hot summer day!  How do you find hydrating foods?  Well, apply a bit of logic again here.  When you cut or bite into something does it leave the knife wet or does juice run down your chin? If the answer is yes, then it contains a high water content and eating it transfers that water into you!!!  Bonus!  Here's a few things to try:

Watermelon (of course right?!)
Citrus fruits
Bell peppers

And a few more no brainers...Remember, if it started watery, or is made of water, it will help to keep you hydrated, just think outside the box!!