Monday, October 19, 2009

Cooking Class October 28th, 2009

Hello friends... I know it's been awhile since I've posted, but some interesting career and life changes are in the works. I promise to be back soon, but in the meantime, do me a favor and eat some chocolate. Preferably with me on October 28th!

Chocolate in 4 Courses (Gluten-Free)

Everyone could use a few more ways to eat chocolate! Instructor and crazy nutrition girl Chrissy Weiss will give you the inside scoop on the health benefits of chocolate, as well as share some creative ideas on using chocolate in both savory and sweet dishes. You'll learn how to use cacao nibs in a green salad with citrus dressing, make a chocolate mole sauce for garbanzo beans, and prepare quinoa with dried cherries and sea salt. For dessert, you'll try your hand at a rich and decadent flourless chocolate cake.

To register for the class at South Seattle Community College, call 206-764-5339
Tuition: $45, plus $15 materials fee

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Plum Jam

I would like to share with you, in as few words as possible, the joy of September plums.
The stone fruits are fleeting - once that plum or peach tree's fruit is ripe, the fruit falls and the tree goes bare in a matter of days. Out on my daily jog, I noticed our neighbor's apricot tree held precious, rosy-orange fruit. They were starting to fall in piles of delicate mush on the lawn below. By the third day, the tree was bare, and I knew it would be an entire year until our neighborhood would watch the tiny spectacle again.

We just aren't used to food being here and gone in a moment. Now, when we want a peach we go to the store and get it. No matter that it's January. Grapes? Well, it's summer somewhere on the planet. Being a fan of local food, I realize how spoiled we've become. But oh, what a beautiful lesson in the fragility of abundance, to see the plum tree turn red or purple, and to know that the tree will be done in a week's time.

So, with too many plums and a bit more time to devote to the kitchen this September, I've begun to preserve.

As I cut open each fruit, removing each stone, I tried to take my time. It is tedious work, but I wanted to enjoy the repetition, to understand that I won't be feeling the soft flesh and their rough little stones against my fingertips until one more year from now.

As September creeps into our summer, and the rains begin to fall again here in Seattle, let's take a few moments and enjoy the soft fruits at the markets and in our backyards. Take two extra minutes in the morning, and feel the moist air that is returning to us. This morning over my cup of black tea with milk, I cupped the hot mug in my hands, and looked out toward the city. The dark clouds were there, the fog was creeping up the hillside, and Seattle was once again returning to it's deep, brooding self.

There's just a bit of sunshine left, at least in my kitchen.

Simple Plum Preserves

2 pounds plums
3 - 5 cups sugar (or 2-3 of honey, or a mixture of both)

Pit the plums, and place them in a large saucepan. Bring them very slowly to a boil, adding 3 cups of sugar or 2 cups of honey. Turn down to a simmer and continue cooking until the mixture is well reduced. It should be fairly thick. Cool a small portion and taste, observing the consistency. Add more sweetener to taste, and cook until the final product is thick enough with your desired level of sweetness. Jar and give away to everyone you love.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Tangential Tuesday - Conscious Cocoa

It's not nice to enjoy yourself at the expense of others, at least that's what my Sunday School teacher always said. So if you knew that your morning cup of coffee was making certain green-logo'ed coffee companies rich while their coffee bean farmers, toiling in the fields, didn't have enough earnings to feed their families... how would you feel? I'm sure the morning java would turn from an innocent and routine pleasure into a morning cup of guilt.

That's what happens when we begin to learn where our food really comes from. It's a double-edged sword, knowing so much about how our choices affect people all over the world. I can no longer grocery shop in complete peace, as my every purchase is now plagued with a thousand questions - could I possibly buy this with less packaging, from bulk? Where was this apple grown? New Zealand? How much CO2 did that ship emit making it's way through the Pacific? Is that chocolate grown at the expense of rainforest land? Sigh. The more I know, the more my shopping companions begin to notice my hesitation in the dairy aisle, along with my raised eyebrows in the cereal aisle, and then my forlorn looks over the bananas and kumquats. I never thought that the delectable things I put in my mouth would somehow qualify as instruments of oppression. Sheesh.

But then, I go to the farmer's market. (Almost) no plastic. Everything bright and raw and sitting before the people who grow the spinach and feed the chickens bugs and grass. This food grows within 25-40 miles of where I stand, and is sustainably fished from boats that refuse to deplete fish populations and throw wide nets that annihilate anything in its way. This place feels right, and I know others can feel it too. Everybody loves the farmer's market in the summer. There are no ethical qualms about packaging, no bananas from Ecuador where workers are paid barely enough to live.

At these markets, of course you won't find olive oil, tea... and usually you won't find coffee or cocoa either, except now. This time, at the market I saw a small card table set up near the entrance, a tiny table with a few bags of whole bean coffee, and next to them
several silver packages of cocoa powder. The bags said Fair Trade and Organic, and there was a short, tanned, rough-skinned man standing there. He had on a similarly worn straw hat and light-colored, linen clothes. He was from Costa Rica, and with excellent English he was explaining to someone how Alianza and Sol Colibri was bringing farmers out of poverty.

He was so passionate about his coffee and cocoa, he was stumbling over his words, trying to get them out fast enough so that his customers wouldn't lose attention. He was excited, trying to explain how this Fair Trade Organic Co-op was already selling its cocoa to local Theo Chocolate, but trying to get its products into more local stores. He smiled, and his warm, genuine energy flowed through his gesticulating hands, as he exalted his cause, and told how much more money these farmers could fetch for their products once they left the country. He sold me an entire pound of this cocoa for five dollars. I have never seen cocoa of this quality go for less than sixteen per pound at any other market. Incredible. And I know that these five dollars will go directly to these farmers, and it is more than they could ever make by selling it to some other international entity that doesn't support Fair Trade practices.

Fair Trade guarantees that a farmer gets a fair price for his or her product, enough to make it profitable to continue the business. Seems simple, right? It's amazing that expensive, coveted products that are sold for big dollars here in the US (such as coffee and cocoa) are the same products that run farmers into extreme poverty in Latin America. Cooperatives in Costa Rica, such as Alianza which is Sol Colibri's umbrella organization, benefit from banding together their small farmers into an entity which can do business with larger organizations that support Fair Trade Organic practices.

As I made my homemade chocolate mocha ice cream today, it felt great to use this cocoa. No guilt here, folks (except for the guilt that ice cream normally gives me... but I was making it for Mark, I swear!) This cocoa was amazing, and made an awesome dessert (I stole a few bites, of course.) I thought about the gentleman who sold it to me, with all of his smiling and gusto, his excitement about doing something for his people. Here was a man who knew he had something beautiful, and he wanted to share it with me. Next time I'll try the coffee, which I'm sure will be equally good.

If you're at your Seattle market this week, look for the guy in the floppy straw hat. Buy his cocoa, buy his story, and please pass it on.

Sol Colibri Chocolate Mocha Ice Cream

1 cup organic milk
2 cups organic cream
1/2 cup Sol Colibri cocoa powder
1/4 cup Pero coffee substitute, soluble coffee powder, or brewed coffee
3/4 cup Evaporated cane juice (may sub regular sugar, or agave nectar)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

In a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, mix all ingredients and whisk until sugar is dissolved and mixture is completely homogenous and smooth. Chill the mixture completely, and then make ice cream according to ice cream maker's instructions.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Pizza... slowly perfected

Around my house as a kid, pizza never meant calling up Domino's on the phone for a large pie extra-cheese-extra-pepperoni-please. We didn't have cable access, much less pizza-delivery access. I can just imagine my father trying to give directions to our house "Go 15 miles on county road 187, take a right at the old spooky schoolhouse-looking church, cross two bridges (watch out for the chickens running loose 2 miles down!) go 2 more miles, then stop your car, get out your flashlight and find a mailbox in front of a 1/2 mile long driveway that says 'Weiss'." I'm sure the delivery boy's tip would barely cover his gas.
I didn't know our country road had a name until I was 14. The closest Domino's must have been at least 40 minutes away. So, we made our own pizza.

It was always a Saturday or Sunday night activity, and all 4 of us kids (usually my older sister was out on a date) would get excited when Mom would start making the dough. We loved pizza. We finally loved it and not just liked it when Mom eventually perfected her crust recipe. In the beginning, when my mother wouldn't allow white flour in the house, her 100% whole wheat crusts were... um... interesting. They weren't bad per se, especially to a kid who grew up on whole wheat-sprouts-whole-whole-everything. But eventually, as my mother loosened up a bit, so did her crusts. Her cardboard-y experiments slowly became tender when she compromised with a 50-50 mix.

My father's contribution was to make the biggest, baddest mother of a pizza, loaded with the most gut-wrenching toppings, looking so thick and evil and scary that you would swear that sitting atop that burnt cheese were black olive eyes that were staring you down, almost daring you to try and eat a piece of that horrendous, over-baked mess of toppings with a little bit 'o crust. My father thought nothing of slicing large rings of onion and laying them thick on a puddle of barbecue sauce (substituting for tomato sauce, of course), adding olives, green peppers, and then topping the thing with a layer of cheddar cheese that melted and then burnt into a rubbery layer that inevitably landed on your lap after the first bite. This was my father's coup d'etat... and he called it lovingly his 'Garbage Pizza'.

After I left home, I never made pizza on my own. I wasn't a big pizza-eater, really. And then I met Mark. Funny how a relationship changes how you eat. I began making pizza only out of sheer indignation about the pizza I saw Mark buying from the frozen section of the local stop-and-shop. I couldn't let him commit this kind of crime. I had to do something.

My something was to learn how to make a pizza that was both healthy (yes, so predictable) and utterly irresistible to someone who didn't grow up with sprouty, hippy parents. I could have called my mother, but instead I ended up playing around on my own. I started with a recipe for a classic white flour pizza dough, and then made it entirely whole wheat. Blah. It didn't have the texture I wanted - sturdy and crispy but still light. It really was cardboard... I suppose I'm bound to follow in my mother's footsteps. Then, I did an all-white recipe and liked the classic flavor but couldn't help feeling unsatisfied after eating a few pieces. It just didn't fill you up, making you feel as though you haven't eaten something Real. Once you begin eating unrefined, whole foods, you begin to notice that the refined ones leave you feeling like you've just eaten air... you could go on eating white bread forever and never feel satisfied.

Even with a 50-50 flour mix it wasn't quite right, until I found that white whole wheat flour works very well - and the best is when it's sourdough. White whole wheat flour is increasingly available in stores these days. It is a 100% whole wheat flour, made from grains of white wheat which is softer and lighter than hard winter wheat flour. I made a sourdough starter, and followed the steps to making a large batch of bread. I reserved some of the dough from the batch and made it into pizzas. The sourdough process gave the crust a tangy flavor, and the light but hearty texture from the white whole wheat balanced the crust perfectly.

I think we've finally found our groove, what with the basil and oregano from the garden, and some thyme stolen from friend Ingo's garden too. Mark insists on sun dried tomatoes and sausage, with heavy-handed amounts of Parmesan and mozzarella (insert comment here about similarities to my father, ahem.) Everyone likes their pie a little differently, and mine is usually heaped with spinach and very little or no meat. Homemade pizza on a Sunday night is a fantastic tradition, it disarms a bit the 'dread Monday' feeling, and you can turn it into a movie night as well when the days become shorter. You'll just have to find your own perfect combination, whether it be white, wheat, parmesan, pepperoni or zucchini. But for me, please hold the barbecue and cheddar.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Tangential Tuesday, um, I mean Wednesday

Obsessions can be a healthy thing. At least that's what I tell myself every time I get wrapped up into some new possibility, some new restaurant, some new wine... or some new food. I think it's fair to say that each summer I begin anew my obsessions with everything ripe and growing on trees, vines, bushes or compost. Thus my previous posts on cherries and berries (which you know I'm just obsessed with because free is the greatest price to pay for a job-seeking former intern).

Right now my obsession has been turned to the ripening August blackberries that fall heavily from every thorny vine on every sunlit side street around here. It's totally obscene, the amount of blackberries you can pick in half an hour. The bushes are full of them into September, but the best ones are found right now, the first berries to turn that deep shade of magenta-purple-almost-black. The first ones are the biggest, and to me they taste the best, if only because after 11 long months you've forgotten just how divinely, deeply sweet they are. I can go out and pick forever, my hands moving back and forth from vine to bowl, just grazing the sharpest thorns and leaving track marks on my right forearm, evidence of the addict that I truly am. My bowl mounds higher and higher, until I realize that I have a cramp in my left thumb holding the plastic bowl, and I snap out of my juicy berry reverie.

I realize, as I'm picking, that this is women's work. I'm gathering food as women have for thousands of years. The guys can have their spearsh and they can go chase their wooly mammoths for fun for all I care. But this? This comes naturally to me, and I get the impression that it certainly doesn't to Mark. I must have asked him ten times before if he'd like to go picking, but he always replies in the negative. Of course, when I arrive home, he can't keep his hands from the purple mass of sweetness in my big red plastic picking bowl.

Blackberries, ounce for ounce, must be one of the most medicinal and nutritionally-dense foods that are readily available to us. They get their deep purple color from phytochemicals called anthocyanidins. These are potent antioxidants - similar to those in red wine - that can calm inflammation in the body. They also contain ellagic acid, a compound which is believed to be cancer-fighting. They are also high in fiber due to their seeds, and we could all use a little more fiber... come on.

Blackberries and raspberries, as well as other wild berry varieties like salmonberries and thimbleberries, are all consider caneberries. They all have long, thorny stalks or canes. What is really interesting about caneberries is that each berry that we consider a single fruit is actually a composite of sometimes 100 or more tiny 'fruitlets' each with its own seed. So each tiny fruit is actually a hundred little stone fruits! So cool.

I had so many blackberries this past week from obsessively stalking new bushes in the neighborhood that I had to cook them all down. I don't know quite yet if I'll leave the fruit for jam, or turn the sweet stuff into a few pies... or maybe both. Right now there is about a gallon of black-purple goo sitting in the fridge, waiting for something exciting to happen to it. For now, my morning toast will be excitement enough. Or maybe I'll turn a spoonful into yogurt, over vanilla ice cream, or heaped into a banana smoothie.

Blackberry Jam, Sauce, or Pie Filling (a very loose recipe by Chrissy Weiss)

Get a bunch of blackberries, picked while meditating on how life can be compared to this fruitful exercise (the good ones are always out of reach, to get the sweet you have to deal with the thorns, you never know what's hiding under the next leaf, etc.)

Bring them home and wash them (or don't).

Stop your significant other (most likely male) from eating the whole bowl.

Put them in a big pot and very slowly bring to a boil.

Turn down the heat to simmer, and stir.

Reduce the berries by cooking off the excess liquid... maybe reduced by 1/4 in volume. This could take some time depending on the amount of berries you're cookin'.

Add honey. Really, use honey. I promise you'll wilt to the floor with the results. Blackberries and honey were made for each other. Sweeten it to taste. Start with 1/4 cup per 3-4 cups of sauce in the pan and go from there.

Once you're happy with the sweetness, use cornstarch, arrowroot powder, or pectin to thicken. Again, you'll have to play with the amount, depending on how viscous your sauce is to begin with. Just remember that it thickens up very well after cooling.

Now eat it with a spoon (or not) and feel good that you're eating your afternoon's work.

Monday, August 10, 2009

City Girl Has a Garden

I do consider myself a city girl. Despite the fact that I spent the first 20 years of my life in small-town Indiana, know what the phrase "Knee high by the Fourth of July" means, and remember when dining out meant either Chili's or Olive Garden... or maybe Steak 'n Shake (and getting there meant 30 minutes driving at 60 mph on country highways.) I have various valuable and marketable skills learned from country life - catching frogs in pails out by the pond, hauling wood, bike riding on country roads with no shoulder for miles (alone at age 10), and egg collecting from the hen house. Spiders don't scare me. I think the whole concept of 'germs' is a marketing ploy by the antibacterial soap industry. I camp.

But somehow, ever since I was a little kid, I have been inexplicably drawn to the bright lights, the energy, the people, and the excitement of the city. I dreamt of working downtown, amidst skyscrapers, lunching at cafes and meeting exotic people from all over the world. I dreamt of putting on sparkly clothes and going out to the clubs at all hours, rubbing elbows with the fashionable people, people with money and power and a certain attractive je ne se quoi that you just couldn't find amidst the corn fields, chain restaurants, and bible-beating churches of rural Indiana. Eventually, I found myself playing out these dreams in both Chicago and Seattle, proving some dreams and disproving others, until I understood what was real and more importantly who I was against this backdrop, so bright and fast and foreign compared to where I came from. I guess you could say I learned my happy medium. I learned that I was neither one nor the other, but something very in-between.

So here, in this city, I've finally planted a garden. Atop our hill overlooking the skyscrapers of downtown, next to those charming thimbleberries, is a small patch where I have heirloom tomatoes, dinosaur kale, Italian basil, and a mess of oregano and sage as an inheritance from a previous owner's efforts. But please don't assume - I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing. My mother has had a garden the size of a large tennis court for years. As an 8-year-old kid I would dig little holes in the ground for the seeds to drop into. When the asparagus popped out of the mulch in early spring, I'd pluck off their plump heads and collect them in a bunch. My favorite was picking strawberries. I liked to pick and collect, but I had really no idea how to grow. When do you plant? Do you start with seed or with seedlings? My mother was no expert, but she did alright, despite her constant reinvention of the wheel.

For the past few years I've wanted to grow my own food. All of my interest in sustainability, organics, and watching my former neighbor grow lush bunches of herbs and squashes in his backyard was all the convincing I needed. I just needed a bit of soil, and this year I finally got it. It doesn't hurt either that our upstairs neighbor is practically a master gardener, and has given me a big bag of compost, bamboo tomato stands, and tips on plant spacing and renewing the soil. This garden is more than just food - it's also a statement about where I am in my life. I've found my perfect home, my mate, and my balance between the two sides of myself. I'm ok with being a girl from Indiana. I'm proud that I know how to bait a hook, build a good campfire, and have respect for the land. I'm also proud that I know how to charm at a cocktail party, know all the hottest restaurants in town... and yes, I own quite a few pairs of clubbing heels. I'm ok with that.

I went out to my tiny garden on Thursday morning and began collecting basil leaves. My own basil! The little plants weren't the sprawling, giant-leafed ones I imagined when I planted them a few months ago. But they were mine, and they were what I needed to teach my Berries class that evening. I taught the students how to make a basil-strawberry pesto, and it tasted all the better because it came from my own effort. The recipe is unique, and it came from Clotilde's Chocolate and Zucchini blog. I paired the pesto with capellini pasta and prosciutto and it was superb.

The recipe is so simple, and a great way to use the basil and strawberries that are in season right now. The fresh and somewhat bitter basil contrasts nicely with the sweetness of the berries and the saltiness from the cheese and prosciutto. Being creative with recipes simply means being creative with opposing elements to create balance. A little like life, don't you think?

Capellini with Strawberry Pesto and Prosciutto

Serves 6

You can use any kind of pasta for this recipe, but I do like a thin spaghetti or capellini best. Gluten-free or whole grain pasta would work well too. I suggest in the directions to not rinse your cooked pasta. Rinsing cooked pasta washes the sticky starch from the outside of each noodle, and this starch helps the sauce or pesto to cling well to each piece. This makes a big difference, see for yourself! Also, be sure to roast the almonds fresh, as fresh-roasted flavor is a major flavor contributor to the pesto. Otherwise, PCC Natural Markets carries fantastic roasted almonds in their bulk section.

1 pound capellini or angel hair pasta

2/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan
(Grana Padano works well too)

2/3 cup whole toasted almonds

2 handfuls (about 1 cup) fresh basil leaves

10 small strawberries (or 5 large) [be sure to use fragrant and full-flavored strawberries: if they're a bit bland, I'm quite sure they'll get lost in the battle]

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

Few pinches freshly ground pepper

6 ounces antibiotic-free prosciutto

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

In a large saucepan, fill with water and bring to a boil. Add the capellini and stir for one minute to prevent the pasta from sticking. Bring back to boil and let cook until tender or ‘al dente’. Meanwhile, combine the Parmesan, almonds, and basil in a mixer or blender, and process in short pulses until the mixture forms a paste. Add the strawberries and olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and mix until smooth. Set aside. Slice the prosciutto into thin strips. When the pasta is done, drain, but do not rinse with water. Toss pasta with the pesto, adding the 2 additional tablespoons of olive oil if needed to help distribute the pesto. Serve in a mound on each plate, placing pieces of the prosciutto atop each mound of pasta. Garnish with basil.

Friday, July 31, 2009

No. More. Studying.

It's final... I'm an RD! Okay, that's Registered Dietitian for you all of you not into medspeak. This means that there will be no more of this:

And lots more of this:


Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Berries in August!

Due to my obsession these days with little juicy pickable things... I'm presenting Berries Berries Berries at South Seattle Community College. If you'd like to join us this next Thursday, sign up Here.

Berries Berries Berries...
Take those scrumptious berries this summer season brings and turn them into tempting meals! Using fresh, local ingredients, learn to spice up traditional recipes and create new dishes that will tantalize your taste buds. Class is taught by a West Seattle dietitian skilled in developing tasty meals with hidden healthy ingredients.

Please read: $15 Materials Fee paid directly to Instructor.
Thursday, 6:00 PM - 8:30 PM; 1 session on August 6, 2009
Cost: $49.00 Materials Cost: $15.00
Instructor: Weiss
Location: SSCC, Culinary Arts Building (CAB), CAB Main Kitchen

Monday, July 20, 2009

Summertime Bing Cherry Pie

Photos By Mark West

I have no idea how I'm typing this post at this moment. My brain and body should be lying in a slump on the shiny living room floor, leaking random food facts into small uninteresting puddles at my head and feet. That's what 5+ hours of studying for the RD (Registered Dietitian) exam will do to a girl. But somehow, I feel alive and fresh after going through hundreds of study flash cards with my nutrition partner-in-crime Nathanya. Over some prime Seattle java at Ballard's Caffe Fiore, we quizzed each other for hours, taking in the summer sunshine on the cafe's back porch.

The last few days have been both exhausting and energizing at the same time. It's that feeling that only comes in summer when you're out using your body in ways that would seem strange or uncomfortable in the winter months. The feeling of letting everything in, taking deep breaths of air and stretching out with bare legs on the grass, instead of contracting in tight postures, arms crossed, against the cold and the damp. Even studying takes on a different feeling, when you know that you can lay outside on a blanket, or end the study day with a bike ride from Ballard to West Seattle. On the way home at rush hour this evening, a bit caffeinated but elated with the day's progress, I caught the West Seattle bridge right when it was turning for a large tanker to pass into Elliott Bay. Nine times out of ten I'll get lucky and go over without delay, but today I was in a light enough mood to not bother with feeling annoyed. When I approached the gate, I could scarcely believe the crowd of cyclists that was waiting to cross, commuting back home from working downtown. In cold, wet, and heat, year-round I cross this bridge. In the wintertime or in the rainy fall I'll meet maybe 5 others when waiting for the bridge to turn, but today I counted 60. I guess I'm not the only one feeling the summer in her belly on a 70 and sunny Monday.

Mark and I have been walking more in the neighborhood, taking advantage of the long evenings and dry pavement. Last week we found ourselves meandering on the side streets, keeping an eye out for a few of the cherry trees that we've been seeing with ripening fruit. There was a street in particular that I had been stalking as of late, watching two trees with Rainiers and Bings ripen their fruit, and now letting them fall to the ground. Clearly, trees whose owners didn't have the time or inclination to see the delicious possibilities... but I'm a bit of a free-fruit opportunist, of course, and I wasn't about to let this chance pass me by. I knocked on the door of the home, and an older man with a big white beard (Fruit Santa?) answered. He gave us permission to pick as much as we'd like. Seven pounds heavier, (not including a few more pounds of Rainiers in our bellies) we returned home.

We had just enough Bings for a pie, and the Rainiers I made into a jar of conserve. The results were pure summertime. I used a crust recipe that David Lebovitz uses, an all-butter affair that I wholeheartedly believe in... because who wants anything but the Real Thing when it comes to dessert? Shortening is for...well... cheaters and liars. So there.

I used 1/2 cup whole wheat pastry in addition to the white flour to give the crust some texture and additional flavor. I made the filling very haphazardly, using instinct and a tad bit of experience to tell me what to throw in the bubbling mass of garnet-colored fruit cooking on the stove. The sweet smell expanded to fill the entire kitchen, and then the whole house. It was a deep, rich sweetness that nothing but dark cherries could achieve. I cooked down most of the fruit, but left some of the firmest and sweetest cherries fresh so I could combine them with the sweetened and thick filling. This was a trick I read and committed to memory a few years ago. What a pity to throw into a pot all of this perfect peak-season fruit and cook it to smithereens! It seems so unjust. Instead, you cook 2/3 and leave the remaining fresh. I would have left them all fresh, but there was clearly too much liquid in the fruit that would have made an imperfect pastry.

Here's Lebovitz's crust recipe, with my own pinch-of-this recipe for cherry filling following. If you're not in the Northwest or up in the U.P. (yoyoyo shout out to Michigan) and don't have a bumper crop of cherries in your backyard, I can't imagine this recipe not working just as well for strawberries.

Pie Dough
Makes enough for a 9 or 10-inch double crust pie

This is taken from Lebovitz's book Room for Dessert. The explanation is a bit lengthy, but truly necessary. I've found that if you want a truly flaky crust, it's all in the details. Keep it cold, kids! No joke! When he says cold butter and ice water, he means it. I would even go so far as to refrigerate the flour until cold as well. This cuts down on the time you have to chill the discs of dough. For my pie, I baked the bottom crust for about 10 minutes to make sure it would bake through, as I knew I wouldn't have to bake the pie for as long as I would a pie without a pre-cooked filling. It worked out well, even if the top crust edges got a little droopy as I was forming them, the butter in the dough melting from the heat of the hot pie tin. I have yet to master the perfect pie edge!

2 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 pound (2 sticks) butter, cut into cubes about 1 inch square and refrigerated
6 to 8 tablespoons of ice water

1. Mix together the flour, salt, and sugar. Use an electric mixer equipped with a paddle attachment, a food processor, or a hand-held wire pastry blender.

2. Add the chilled butter to the dry ingredients and continue mixing just long enough for the cubes of butter to become incorporated into the flour and broken up into roughly 1/4-inch-size pieces. Add 6 tablespoons of the ice water all at once and continue mixing until the dough just begins to hold itself together. If necessary , use the remaining 2 tablespoons water.

3. Form the dough into two balls. Wrap each one in plastic, and flatten them into disks about 1 inch thick. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour before rolling out.

4. To roll out, fill, and bake a double-crust pie, first have your filling ready. Position the oven rack in the center of the oven, preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

5. On a lightly floured, surface, roll out one of the disks of dough into a circle 14 inches in diameter. Fold it in half and drape it into a 9 or 10-inch pie dish. Unfold the dough, centering it, and gently press it snugly into the dish with your fingers. Cut away dough that is overhanging the edge of the pie plate with a sharp paring knife. Add the prepared filling, smoothing it evenly in the shell.

6. Roll out the other disk of dough into another 14-inch circle. Dip a pastry brush or your fingers in water and moisten the exposed edges of the dough in the pie tin. Center the other piece of dough over the filled pie tin. Working all the way around the pie, lift the lower crust and tuck the edges of the upper crust between the edge of the lower crust and the rim of the pie tin. Work your way around the pie again, crimping the edges decoratively by repeatedly pressing downward with one thumb, while from the side, the forefinger and thumb of the other hand pinch the dough around the thumb pressing down.

7. Bake the pie in the preheated oven for 50 to 60 minutes, until the top is browned and the filling juices are thick and bubbling. Cool before serving.

Bing Cherry Pie Filling
Makes one 9 or 10-inch pie

Approximately 6 cups fresh Bing cherries, pitted (tip: they taste better if they're free)
About 2/3 cup Sucanat (evaporated cane juice or white sugar)
Juice from 1/2 lemon
3-4 tablespoons pectin (such as Sure-Jell, may substitute arrowroot starch or cornstarch)
Reserved: 1 1/2 cups fresh bing cherries, pitted

Put the 6 cups cherries in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the Sucanat and bring to a boil. If you'd like to sweeten to taste, start with 1/2 cup sugar, and taste the product right before the end. You can always add more sugar according to your own preference, and the ripeness of the fruit will determine this as well. After the cherries and their liquid begins to boil, turn the heat down to a strong steady simmer, leaving the pan uncovered. At this point you're cooking off the excess liquid and concentrating the fruit. Once it thickens and condenses (maybe 30 minutes or so?) add the lemon juice and pectin, and stir until well-combined.

Place the fresh pitted cherries in the bottom pie crust (par-baked or not) and pour the filling over until it reaches about 1/2 inch below the top. Put the top crust over and pinch the edges (as stated above), make 4 large slits in the crust and bake until browned. Serve with vanilla ice cream.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Sand, Suds, and Sundaes

Without cheating and looking at the last post, by the photo above can you guess where we went last week? Was it Big Sur? Hawaii? Maybe Ireland? Nope, something humble-sounding, no big tourism pushes, nobody in big flowery shirts, with odd brogues or zinc-white noses or thong buns anywhere. Well, I guess we did see some surfers in Florence, but they were completely covered, even out of the water. No, not Florence, Italy but Florence, Oregon. The most spectacular place to be where spectacularity is still a little undercover.

We made our way down Highway 101, chomping sweet, dark sugar-bombs that turned our tongues mahogony red.

After making it over the wide Columbia River, we stopped in Astoria, Oregon and bogarted a table at an ice cream shop to eat our brown bag turkey sandwiches and homemade lemonade (incredibly sour, because I believe lemonade should be more sour and less sweet). Sitting at the shop, we looked out over the Columbia and felt the cool wind sweeping off of the water. We were practically sitting under the great big bridge that brought our little car from the Washington side to Astoria, Oregon. The ice cream parlor sign said 'Tillamook ice cream served here". We'd see those Tillamook signs all down the coast, well past the town of Tillamook with its big fancy dairy palace churning out cheeses and ice cream that show up on our store shelves back in Seattle.

Before we hit our first town to stop and camp for the night, we made a few little stops to look out at the beaches and the haystacks that rise from the water like rocky, cruel guardians of the coastline.

After a night camping in Pacific City, we decided to take our morning run on the giant sand dunes and beaches in the tiny downtown. Amidst the surfers and sandboarders (yes, I swear there is such a sport, think snowboarding, but with sand.) we dodged the towels and sunbrellas to take a long run. It was an experience, and if I would have had my camera with me on the run, to take snapshots of the sunbathing seals, the views of clifftop mansions peeking through the hazy sea mist, and mile after mile of the widest beaches I've ever seen, I'd have photos for you now... but alas, the photos came after.

Beer. The Pelican Pub and Brewery lives up to its hype. I usually avoid the big huge Bar & Grills that look like I'm about to enter a really bad chain restaurant with burgers as big as small dinner plates. I was proven wrong, however, after I relished their Pelican Microbrew beer sampler (I believe every food and beverage should be made into flights in restaurants, it would save my wandering fork from invading table territory). I had the Ono fish sandwich and a perfectly made green salad. I especially enjoyed the post-meal (and post a few ales) banter. Mark: What kind of fish did you have in your sandwich? Cod? Chrissy: Ono. Mark: Salmon? Chrissy: Ono Mark: Halibut? Chrissy (laughing hysterically) ONO! Mark: Well fine, you better just tell me because I have no idea.

Next on the agenda: More coastline, and camping in Florence. The views on Highway 101 were no less stellar down south.
Seals sunbathing

Haceta Head Lighthouse

Me taking advantage of the model-like wind conditions at the lookout

The little town of Florence made me want to stay another night, to experience all of the way-too-cute but chic restaurants lining the river. After setting up camp, Mark wanted to have dessert in town, so we made our way to the business on the riverfront that had the most traffic, with people spilling out onto the porch of what looked like a large old house. BJ's ice cream served him up quite the hot fudge marshmallow cappuccino ice cream sundae. I looked in puzzled amusement as he scooped up the gooey, sickly-sweet mess. But he seemed happy.

For our next stop we headed inland, spending a night in Salem as a time out from camping. The next day we were to drive out to wine country. Salem is quiet and seemingly a bit backwards, but it was mostly a cheap place to rest our bodies after camping. However, the town of McMinnville in the Willamette Valley was everything I thought it might be. A little bit Napa, but a whole lot more Oregon. The Hotel Oregon owned by McMenamin's pub is a fine place to stay, and you're within walking distance of just about everything in the historic district. We poked around in the few shops that were open on July 4th. In one of the more trendy clothing stores where Mark was trying on shirts, the chatty shop owner recommended we check out one of the tasting rooms in town that her daughter managed. "Just tell her I sent you!" and gave us a flier. A little bored and not feeling like driving out to the vineyards after one too many days of driving, we walked 10 blocks in the heat of a 93 degree afternoon to taste wine at Walnut City Wine Works. It was worth the walk. When we arrived, as soon as we breezed through the door, a pretty young lady behind the bar yelled "You two! my mom told me you were coming! I knew you by your cowboy hat!" gesturing toward Mark's head. Gotta love small towns. She quickly filled our glasses with some of the most amazing Pinot Noir. It was wonderful, and I barely walked out of there without a few bottles in hand.

That night we watched the fireworks while standing on the rooftop bar of the Hotel Oregon. No better way to end the night... except, well, with maybe more ice cream.

Summer is finally here.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Tangential Tuesday - Off to the Oregon Coast

Tomorrow, Mark and I are going off on a Tangent.  This trip is a little tangent to our 'get up and make the coffee and turn on the computer' lives right now.  Mark has been having an affair with his new job these past few months, staring intently at his computer screen for hours on end, whispering sweet nothings to his new trophy wife - the gleaming and angular Mac Book Pro with 14" screen.  Oh, I occasionally get a wink or a peck on the cheek now and then, but usually it takes the smell of frying sausage from the kitchen to pull him away from his mistress.  

He needs a little vacation, and though I feel a little guilty for saying it, I think I need one too.  Not as if I've been working the 9 to 5 racket very much these days... but I have been working.  The click-clack of my computer can be heard fairly loudly at 8am, when I'm dashing off cover letters to jobs.  When I haven't been calling and networking and job searching, I've found other ways to feel like I have some purpose on this earth, proving to myself that my life IS in order... really.  So I straighten and clean and reorganize the closet.  I wash linens that haven't been washed in ages, I water the tiny garden, and every 10 minutes between activities I check email. God forbid should a response come in from Dream Job when my back is turned, dusting the salt and pepper shakers!  

So maybe I need a vacation from my neuroses.  

When Mark suggested a getaway down the Oregon Coast, there's no way I could say no.  I tore through my books and binders and pulled out the travel article, ripped from the Seattle Times last summer, chronicling an adventure full of sand, suds, and surf.  We'll camp and do morning runs on the beach, hang at the local pubs and sample Oregon's famous microbrews... follow lunch with a beach hike and then eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches by the campfire.  I so need an adventure.  Getting away and getting some perspective wouldn't hurt either. 

We've decided, ahem.. okay so maybe I've decided to tack on some time with the grape juice at the end of the trip.  He gets his brews, I get my grapes.  The Willamette Valley just outside of Portland is home to some famous Pinot Noirs, so why not jog over and experience the wine life?  If you've ever been to this area and have some must-see suggestions, I'd love to know your thoughts.

We'll be back from our crazy Tangent on Sunday, and I'll be sure to post some photos and, of course, tell you all about the brews and the grapes.  Oh yeah, and maybe I'll mention the sand and wildlife too. 

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Berries and Life

Life is like picking thimbleberries.  Or maybe, my life has felt like a bowl of thimbleberries lately.  Until about a month ago, I had no idea what thimbleberries were, and now I think I can find in them some sort of metaphor for what life feels like right now. 

This spring, in the vast expanse (for urban living, we consider it vast) of our yard, out perched on the cliff-like edges of our little private hilltop, are seemingly hundreds of bushes that cling on for dear life.  With leaves that look like maple, and berries that could pass for raspberries to some girl who doesn’t know the difference, they reach up and up the hillside, climbing and growing, toeing their way onto the lawn.  Every few days I have to pull thimbleberry starts that spring up in random places, green, happy and defiant in the middle of patches of brown prickly grass.  Plants thrive where they’re meant to, they grow best where they’re supposed to.  The grass is obviously misplaced, but the thimbleberry, well, they know where they belong.  Somehow I’ve managed this past month to plant a tiny patch of vegetables right next to those monster knots of thimbleberry.  In the sandy soil, I put down a few heirloom tomato plants, a few basil and six dinosaur kale.  I couldn’t tell right away if they too, were going to feel misplaced… because the sagebushes next door are smiling, the oregano is a wild little beast, but what seems to grow best in my sandy little patch are thimbleberries.  I pull a few thimbleberry babies each day, reaching up from beneath the soil to take up residence in this benevolent place.   

I go out to pick the thimbleberry’s little red dome-shaped fruit.  Each one I pick yields easily to my fingers.  They are perfectly round, and hollow inside, like thimbles.  Their soft structure collapses as soon as you drop it into your picking bowl.  So small, a half hour’s work is about two cups.  Now I know how the saffron gatherers must feel.  Slow progress, and your fingertips stain fuschia red.  Leaning in to pick the biggest ones, they easily rub their redness into your shirt, your forearms, the color of fake Halloween blood.  Coming back into the house after picking, Mark takes one look at me with wide eyes and begins laughing hysterically.  “I know” I say with a sly smile, “I look as though I’ve come out of a thimbleberry horror movie.” 

The berries were a mound of mush in my bowl, and I had absolutely no idea what to do with them, so I plopped them into the blender with some vanilla ice cream and milk, and made a thimbleberry shake.  It was so sweet and a bit tart, with thousands of tiny seeds, crunching like poppy seeds, and the color was bright party pink (Mark said it looked like I was drinking Pepto-Bismol, but I ignored him.)

This past month, I have found myself fighting pretty hard.  I’m the kind of person who, when faced with certain circumstances, either thinks her way out of them with creative problem-solving, or else fights her way out with sheer pavement-pounding hard work.  So when I find myself these days with circumstances that require both creative problem-solving and sheer hard work, I put myself to the task – and it is all-consuming.  For weeks I was running on overdrive, juggling assignments and job hunting and working and with help from some divine force, keeping us both well fed.  I felt overwhelmed as I ended one part of my life as a dietetic intern and entered another as a job hunter.  I worried, and fretted, and worried some more, because I think sometimes that worrying is what I do best.  I began fighting against what was put on my plate, feeling pressure to find a job and pressure to find a job to hold me over until I find a real job.  I wasn’t doing much berry picking, and downtime never felt like anything other than time when ‘I should be doing something productive.’  But now, after my fight has fought itself into exhaustion, and I’m finally beginning to accept what life is giving me, I’m picking thimbleberries.

They grow best where the soil feels right to them.  Their presence on our hillside is neither good nor bad, it just is.  They are there because they grow best there.  Unlike my little patch of struggling vegetables, the thimbleberries aren’t fighting very hard against their circumstances.  I’ve been given what I’ve been given, and I can either smile and work it out, or make life hard, resisting and struggling against it.  Being upset about this part of my journey is like being upset with the berries as they stain my fingers with their juice.  To get what you want, you have to get your hands a little dirty. 

We all somehow feel as though it’s necessary to judge things and people and situations as either good or bad, but maybe it isn’t.  Maybe it’s all just berry juice.


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Upcoming Workshop at 5 Focus

Wanted to let you know about my upcoming workshop at 5 Focus integrative center on June 7th.  I'd love to see you!

From Chocolate to Kale

Spruce up your summer with new foods on your plate!

Sunday, June 7th

2 - 3:30p.m.

Cost: $30 –food samples included!


·    Are you tired of your food routine? 

·    Love shopping at organic markets but can’t pronounce or identify many of the foods on the shelves? 

·     Are you curious about quinoa, kale, or other ‘exotic’ grains, vegetables, and natural sweeteners?

Join Bastyr-educated nutritionist Christine Weiss for a lively and tasty class on demystifying the many healthful ingredients found in natural food stores.  Christine will discuss the health benefits of kefir, agave nectar, buckwheat and other foods that can liven up meals and snacks.  You’ll also have a chance to taste a variety of products new to your palate – traditional socca made with chickpea flour, homemade ginger root tea and an energy bar made with almond butter and maple syrup.  Go home with new flavors and new recipes for a new healthy start.

Christine received her MS in Nutrition from Bastyr University in 2008 and is currently a dietetic intern at Sea Mar Community Health Center.  She has a passion for food and wine, which she shares with her students as a culinary instructor for PCC Cooks.

For more information or to register, please call 206.631.2818 or visit

Monday, May 18, 2009

How to Roast a Chicken

I really never thought I'd be doing this but, lately I've been roasting chickens.  I've never considering myself the 'throw the hunk of meat in the oven and shut the door' kind of gal.  I mean, it wasn't that long ago that I considered myself a completely raw vegan.  Yeah, it's a bit of a leap, but lately I've been roasting chickens.  I suppose you learn a lot about food and even more about yourself when you go through 3+ years of nutrition education.  Juice it or eat it whole?  Got milk or got propaganda?  Honey or sucanat?  Eat meat or go veg? Along the way you confront those decisions, one by one.  Along the way you make those little decisions as they come to you, and before you know it you're eating entirely differently than you did before.  Stripped of your bias, your political proselytizing, your internet heresay, you have yourself a new outlook on food - and hopefully on cooking too.  

After years of taking a hard look at my food, and years of loving an omnivore (I say omni, because I finally got him to eat broccoli) I've made a bit of peace, and some subtle compromises, with my choices. 

Clarification: now I'm roasting organic chickens.

I still don't eat beef, and my meat intake continues to be much less than the average Jane, but I have a hungry guy to feed (and I'm usually pretty hungry too).  So I turn on the oven, slap that chicken onto the roasting pan, and call it dinner.  I feel... so... so... wifey.  Yes, I know how to make roast chicken for my man, and I can still be a confident feminist while saying it.

The first time I attempted this, I had to look up how to do it online.  I then looked into my good old reference cookbooks with all the classics.  Somehow, after doing it the fifth time, I finally got the hang of it.  It isn't complex, and even the first 5 times yielded something quite edible (and some would even say delicious).  It's actually so much more simple than making a big pot of chickpea stew.  You don't even need a meat thermometer, although I would advise picking up one for a few bucks simply for piece of mind.  

If you have an hour and a half to cook it, then the prep time is 15 minutes.  I mean, less prep time than some frozen dinners!  I don't understand why every graduate from every college across America isn't required to demonstrate how to properly roast a chicken before given his or her diploma.  I mean, we could seriously solve some pizza take-out issues in this country if all the 20-somethings could just throw a bird in the oven every couple of days.  I know I could have used the skill at age 21 when I was trying to save my food pennies for stiletto heels and short sparkly skirts to go out dancing in.  

A big hunk of animal can be terribly intimidating.  How do you cook it all the way through without it becoming something resembling jerky?  What if I don't cook it through and all my guests are keeling over onto my dining room table with food poisoning?  What if I touch it, it feels slimy and then I don't want to eat it for dinner anymore?  Okay, I can't help you with that one.  Just tell yourself it's a big slippery piece of tofu or something.

Step One:  What kind of chicken to buy?
I always recommend buying an organic chicken.  If you're lucky enough to have farmers at the local markets who sell their chickens, then I would recommend those.  The best chickens come from farmers who take care of their animals, give then space to roam and bugs to eat... happy chickens!  Otherwise, go to your natural foods store and ask about organically-raised animals.  At the very least you won't be eating the pesticides that they had been eating... and just maybe they were well-raised too.   However, I would always go with the happy chickens first, and you can't find those anywhere but roaming on small organic farms.  Find a chicken that's around 3-4 pounds.

Step Two: What do I cook it in?
I really like those roasting pans that happen to come with many ovens.  For most people who don't cook very much, those are the largest pans in the house.  Just take the bottom pan (not the top slotted part) and put the chicken, wings-down, in the center of the pan.  

Step Three: Prepping the chicken
This part is easy - just use the veggies and herbs you have in your kitchen!  With the chicken in the center of the pan, surround the bird with chopped potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, celery, kale, sliced lemons... whatever you have lying around.  If you have fresh herbs, load in tons of thyme, rosemary and sage on the veggies.  Stuff the bird with some herbs too, and some lemon slices as well.  Dried herbs are also nice, just don't skimp.  Dump 1/4 cup of the dried stuff around the bird.  Take some peeled garlic cloves and tuck them under the chicken's skin.  You may need to loosen it up with your fingers first (poke them under and explore around, separating the skin from the flesh underneath).  Put sea salt and cracked pepper on the skin and veggies.  Now take some flavorful liquid - water or white wine will do... or vegetable stock... and pour it around the chicken until you can't pour more, fearing you'll dump it everywhere when you lift the pan. 

Step Four:  Roasting It
Heat the oven to 425 degrees.  Put your chicken in the oven, and just let it cook for the first 20 minutes or so.  Open the door after that and pour the liquid over the chicken and the vegetables, moistening the skin.  You don't want the chicken to dry out.  Do this every 20 - 30 minutes.  The chicken should take no more than one and a half hours to roast.  You can make yourself feel more assured that you're not making chicken jerky by inserting the thermometer into the thigh meat - what does it read?  You know your chicken is just about done when it registers 160 degrees.  I like mine to be at 180 degrees, because then it is fall-off-the bone tender. You'll need the full hour and a half to reach this point.  However, if your chicken is larger you'll need more time.

You're done, now isn't that easy?  There may be a few finer points here and there to make it rock star awesome, but you can literally throw it in the oven and be a slacker, and it would still be delicious.

Okay everybody, your homework assignment is to roast a chicken.  Now get to it.  


Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Tangential Tuesday - Rosemary

There used to be a renowned restaurant here in Seattle (now closed) that served a famous Douglas Fir Martini.  Yes, you heard that right.  A pine tree snowball dropped right into your vodka 'tini.  Though 'pine tree' isn't exactly a flavoring that sounds appetizing to me at first glance, I nonetheless was intrigued.  Pity that I didn't have a chance to try it, as the place closed not long after I moved here.  But isn't it telling, the fact that you could actually find an evergreen cocktail here in Seattle.  Here in the Emerald City, I think we're a little obsessed with our evergreen surroundings.  I really can't blame the Seattle foodies for breaking out the tree-flavored cocktails (and not just because we're known to be the tree-hugging type).  

We actually use evergreens all the time to season and add flavor to foods and spirits. You taste that juniper in your gin?  Yup, it's the berry from an evergreen in the cypress family.  And the most common herb with a pine-like flavor and aroma? Rosemary.  The evergreen rosemary bush has long been used in cuisine but also for religious and spiritual purposes in Roman times.  Although it's an evergreen, it actually belongs in the mint family.  That piney smell comes from an aromatic compound called pinene found in the needle-like leaves. 

There are many other herbs whose flavor is enhanced by pinene.  Sage, thyme, marjoram, nutmeg, fennel and many others possess this pungent chemical that awakens our tastebuds.  Rosemary, however, is one of my favorites.  When I first moved to Seattle from the Midwest, my neighbors' choices for hedging were shocking: rosemary bushes.  You mean that people just grow this stuff outside as decorative landscaping?  My thoughts turned to my desperate attempts at keeping a tiny, woody, scrappy-looking rosemary plant alive in a small terra-cotta pot in the dead of a Chicago winter.  But here, in the land of plenty, even the decorative shrubs spelled dinner.  Soon, every pasta sauce, omelet, and chickpea stew had at least a few branches of rosemary thrown in.  Mark was even more addicted to the stuff, taking my cue and pilfering the neighbors' yards when shades were drawn so we could have a few leaves to add to the roast chicken and Sunday night's pizza.  I can't even imagine buying the stuff now... would be kind of like buying dandelions.

Rosemary can be used  in so many interesting concoctions.  I've had a rosemary lemonade at Cafe Flora, rosemary cookies, the thicker branches may be threaded through meats for outdoor grilling, and Martha Stewart even suggests getting a little pleasantly tipsy with a rosemary pear vodka cocktail.    

So tell me, what's your rosemary inspiration? 

Friday, April 24, 2009

Portland's the pretty one

***Sorry I've been gone so long, but traveling for play and for work took over last week... look for my regular posts and tangents coming soon!

I hate to admit this, but I think Seattle's little stepsister may just have her beat.  I don't think I've ever seen so many smart, stylish, local and seasonally-focused restaurants packed into a few square miles in my life.  And the Portland Saturday farmer's market? Don't get me started.  There are some smart people in Portland, and it seems as though they all love food.

It didn't help, of course, that I was there for a few days to visit my foodie friend Kim who I met while waiting tables years ago in downtown Chicago.  She is one of those rare friends who finds as much infinite enjoyment as I do in walking for hours all over the city, pointing out every new dining hot spot and sneaking into hotel lounges to check out the cocktails and the atmosphere... who will insist on rounding the giant farmer's market at least fully twice before making any final decisions on the ingredients for dinner.  She's one of the few others in my life who considers grocery shopping a recreational sport.  

I hadn't seen Ms. Kim in over two years - and we had so much to catch up on.  We knew this kind of conversation was going to take large amounts of wine imbibed in an atmosphere full of intrigue (like our love stories) and warmth (like our friendship).  "I know!" Kim blurted out, "let's go to Ned Ludd!"  It was her new little Portland dining secret.  Now, I warn you, if you go to Ned Ludd, you must like meat and especially pork products (but I cheated and had the trout - genius!)  The guy who owns the place butchers and cures all his own meats, and uses a wood-fired oven to cook absolutely everything.  Nothing modern and fancy here, folks.... thus the name Ned Ludd.  I had no idea who this Ned fellow was before Kim filled me in, but after dinner I wanted to stand up and proclaim to the world that I too was a proud Luddite.

 bitter greens salad with radishes

So the next time you're in Portland, I would highly recommend dropping into this modern - yet - old school place, a museum of old world style set inside a sleek steel box of a building on Portland's MLK Boulevard. 

No good foodie would leave Portland without experiencing good beer and good coffee.  I had both.  The beer came to me within hours of crossing the Washington-Oregon border.  My traveling friends convinced me into stopping at the Portland Laurelwood Brewery before heading into the Pearl district to meet up with Kim.  So glad I did.  The Hoppy Monkey IPA is worth the 3.5 hour drive from Seattle.  Fantastic.

beer + sunshine = pure hoppiness

The destination for coffee came the next day, when Kim and I did our urban hike around the city.  One of the first stops was the famous Stumptown Coffee.  Even in Seattle this coffee has made a name for itself, but I wanted to experience the real thing, complete with shots pulled in the original location by guys with flannel and beards and girls with black locks and cool jeans.  The space was far from alt-grunge.  It was open, airy and minimal with an espresso machine sleek as a Ferrari (and probably just as expensive.)  My cappuccino was just as a cappuccino should be.  You don't need the plane ticket to Italy, trust me.

I left Portland feeling as though my stay was at least cut two days short.  That's how long it would have taken to get in at least two more Stumptown cappuccinos, a lunch at Blossoming Lotus, cocktails and dinner at Urban Farmer and an afternoon bike ride around the city to work off a Voodoo doughnut.  

I have some plans for Portland.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Tangential Tuesday - HFCS

Welcome to my very first official Tangential Tuesday.  Ahem, we will begin this session with a single question that, after answered in tangential detail, will lead us down a path of political and nutritional enlightenment. We will pose "Why do I see the ingredient High Fructose Corn Syrup listed on every freaking package of food that I buy from Earl's General Market?"  Deceptively simple, this query - but great question! (patting my readers on the back.)  

There has been so much hype in the media about this one ingredient, and it's implication for our health and our waistlines.  HFCS is ubiquitous these days, found in everything from soda to 'healthy' yogurt products.  It's being blamed for rising rates of obesity by researchers and nutritionists, with the industry fighting back with some fairly lame commercials.

We will divide this answer into three segments.  The first segment will an explanation of what HFCS is.  The second segment will be political.  The third we will explore societal and commercial reasons.  I will then conclude with my little Nutritionist rant that will hopefully prove to be more than a little entertaining.  Enjoy, and keep the topic suggestions coming.

What is High Fructose Corn Syrup?
HFCS is sugar.  Well, maybe not exactly what we think of as sugar - that white grainy stuff that (hopefully) comes from cane (and not GMO beets... but I won't go off on a tangent) and that we put into our favorite batches of cookies.  HFCS is corn sugar that is extracted from kernals of corn in which sugar and starches naturally occur.  You surely remember biting into an ear of buttery, sweet goodness in the summertime. Banish all thoughts of sweet delicious goodness.  The majority of this sugar comes from GMO corn of a type that you wouldn't think of buttering up and sinking your teeth into.  This corn comes from depleted soils, is covered in pesticides and is not sweet at all in flavor.  If you think I'm being dramatic, you can yourself sneak into a Midwest field late at night and steal an ear or two.  Yuck.  Not like I've done this before or anything...

The starchy corn they (Cargill to be exact, but not to name names) turn into HFCS by exposing the corn's starches to specific enzymes which change them into a fructose product.  The fructose is then mixed with glucose to produce HFCS with differing percentages of these two sugars: glucose and fructose.  In nature, glucose and fructose exist together in varying amounts, but glucose almost always outnumbers fructose molecules in things like apples or oranges.  Fructose is so named because it is the sugar that is found in many fruits.  So if it is found in fruits, then why is it so bad?  And why do companies want fructose and not glucose? Why don't they produce High Glucose Corn Syrup?

First of all, fructose itself never killed anyone.  However, we must consider that fructose is never found in such high ratios with glucose in naturally sweet fruits.  Secondly, fructose tastes much sweeter to our tongues than glucose does, so fructose is a more potent sugar to our senses.  Thirdly, fructose does not go directly into our bloodstream as sugar, it must first pass through the liver and then be converted to glucose.  Some fructose is converted directly to fat.  This my friends, is the big sticking point for many health researchers.  Obesity is pandemic in the USA... is it due to the amount we eat, the sugar we're consuming which gives us extra calories, or the type of sugar we choose to consume?  The answer may lie in all of the above. 

In the USA, our government decided long ago that in order to secure our nation's food supply (which was subject to all kinds of price variability from weather and other factors) they would offer something to farmers called subsidies.  These subsidies are payments from the government which assure that farmers have a reason to get out on the plows every year.  Subsidies make sure that farmers make enough money to stay in business - no matter what.  The higher your yield from a crop of wheat, corn, etc. the more money you make  In this way subsidies also act as incentives to produce more (thus securing a steady and abundant food supply).  These subsidies mean that farmers who choose to produce the cereal grains, wheat, corn and soybeans among others, that these subsidies cover will be rewarded with job security, a steady income, and an incentive to intensively farm the land to squeeze out as high a yield as possible from the tired and depleted soil.  With the help of pesticides, herbicides, genetically modified seeds, huge machinery and acres upon acres of land, farmers in the US produce more wheat and corn than you can shake a stick at.  A large portion of these crops are fed directly to cattle and other livestock to fatten them up properly (even though cows aren't suppose to eat corn and get sick when they do.)  Even after the corn is thrown at the animals, there is so much left over that we actually have to invent uses for it.  Even if we don't eat the corn directly in products - which we do anyway in large amounts, we end up eating it in some form in corn starch or a hundred other strange and non-corn-like sounding compounds which invade our processed foods.  

This is how you make gold from garbage.  You take a product, process it, and then sell it for more than you could have sold it in its original form.  This is what has happened with High Fructose Corn Syrup.  We've made something desirable (sugar) from something unexciting and absolutely worthless because we have so much of it.  

Why do we put it in everything?
Well, why do we put sugar in everything to begin with?  Sugar makes things sweeter, more desirable (from an evolutionary standpoint, humans with access to more carbohydrates for energy have stamina for the big hunt) and makes us want to eat more of it.  This is great for companies who want you to like their product and, naturally, eat more of it.  These days it seems that everything we eat is sweet.  Our tastebuds have gotten used to all kinds of extreme firework displays of salt and sugar on our palate - so that when we taste something naturally sweet such as plain rice, we don't taste the sweetness at all.  The more we deafen our tastebuds, the more sugar is required to tell us "this is sweet".

We have gotten used to processed foods where sugar is added in large quantities to give the food flavor. Because the actual food itself is of low quality and not fresh, it doesn't have much flavor.  To solve this, we add salt and sugar.  Sugar also acts as a preservative in foods so that it has a longer shelf life.  Sugar is a substance which is 'hydrophilic' or 'water-loving' meaning that it steals the water that bacteria and molds would use to grow and proliferate.  So why do food industries use HFCS instead of sugar?  Simple answer:  it's cheaper.  And as mentioned in the first part, it's also more bang for their buck because it's sweeter.  

A dear friend of mine from Russia was telling me how much she missed her beloved Russian rye bread and how she couldn't find anything comparable to it here in the states in regular stores.  She asked me, perplexed, "why is all the bread here sweet?  Bread isn't supposed to be sweet!"  Sure enough, when you look at every single loaf of bread in the supermarkets you'll see HFCS listed on the label.   

Nutritionist Rant
The question comes down to "Would you eat this?  Why or why not?"  In my personal and professional opinion, HFCS is in theory unappealing and in reality very much so.  Have you ever seen HFCS sold in bottles in stores?  There is a reason for that... because it's disgusting.  It is a sloppy grey mess which I've heard doesn't smell very good.  I have an obvious bias against it because it's what I call 'industrial food' and it won't enter into my diet because I don't eat processed foods very often.  When I make cookies, I use minimally processed cane sugar.  When I want to sweeten my plain yogurt, I use honey or agave nectar.  You don't see me dumping mono and di-glycerides into my bread when I make a loaf - why would I use industrial additives in my foods?  Where the heck would I get them if I wanted them?  If it doesn't naturally occur in nature... if I can't make it myself in my kitchen, then no thank you.  

Us human beings are always thinking we can somehow improve upon mother nature.  We think we can make food in ways that mother nature can't, and then sell them to each other to make money and in the meantime keep us fed and healthy.  Well, we can't.  There is a reason that human beings have evolved as they have over time, in genetic harmony with nature.  We eat nature's foods, our genes and our bodies respond the way we should because we're part of that nature we're consuming.  Our bodies don't like industrial food... just like cows eat grass, not GMO corn... and we get sick and obese and cows get sick and fat.  We just give the cows antibiotics and then enjoy their well-marbled meat.  We also get antibiotics and then have to shop in the Plus Size section in Wal-Mart.  You can't fool nature.