Does it matter where my garlic came from?

photo | gourmet metrics

 

That is one beautiful, robust clove of garlic pictured above. It came from a small local market where I do a lot of my shopping. It stored well down to the last piece, no shriveling or mold spots, and cooked up beautifully with all the rich umami flavor I expect from an honest clove.

The garlic was imported. The sign above said “IMPORTED GARLIC” but no information on the country of origin was included.

So I started looking around for someone to ask. The store is run by a bunch of guys who love the business I give them but do not always have time or inclination for all my questions.

Now I am not easy. I want to know everything about everything. That’s me. A real pain in the ass. So when I shop for food I am always attentive to managing a constant tension between my desire to know and someone else’s desire not to be bothered.

And my observation over the years is that guys who work in the food business usually do not appreciate curious ladies with questions, unless they work at Whole Foods. But I was not shopping Whole Foods that day.

My first try was the young man attending to scallions. His English was at best somewhat broken but he understood my question, just smiled when I asked if he knew where the garlic came from and he just said ” Nooooo … ”

One of the managers would probably would have know was elbow deep in piles of delivery papers so I decided not to interrupt.

Then I saw one of the principles, usually tolerant of my insatiable curiosity. As I approached he took a quick turn from my path into the refrigerator storage room. So I gave up, paid for my purchases, and left the store garlic in hand.

In the parking lot behind the store is a holding shed for produce to wait before it goes into the store for sale. I was parked near the holding shed so I put my bags in the car, went back to door to the shed, and looked in.

No one there. But I could see lots of boxes. I know the country of origin always appears on shipping crates or boxes. So I went in and started poking around and I found it!

Printed clearly on one of the boxes were these two words: GARLIC Argentina. No other indicators like organic or fair trade or nonGMO, but I had my country of origin.

But I got to thinking on the drive home, is it my right to know? Where do you draw the line between frivolous curiosity and legitimate need. Sometimes it is critically important. If there is a recall for example, where that cantaloupe or peach came from becomes critically important. Clearly a legitimate need.

And then there is that very long list of other nice to know things like fair trade or nonGMO or organic or heirloom. These labels are good marketing tools, but do they fall into the category of legitimate need?

Thinking through the issue on the drive home, I conceded that it’s not really my right to know unless it is a safety issue.

Developing a good relationship with your customers has encourage many vendors to make it their business to answer questions. That is why I have such good relations with many of the Whole Foods staff. But this particular store I shop at does not have that kind of business. It’s a family affair and run by people who have been in the produce for two generations. Twice a week they go to the Hunts Point distribution center and refresh the stock. I shop there because they are expert at buying produce. And for perks, they bring in blood oranges from Sicily in the winter and green figs from California in the late summer.

Besides there is more than one way to discover a country of origin. I had my answer and came home with a great garlic. So I have decided to cut them slack on this country of origin issue.

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Okay three cheers for butter! But now what are we suppose to do?

My mother and I disagreed about a lot of things, but butter was right up there near the top of the list. She thought margarine was healthier and I thought butter tasted better. Kids never win these debates, but you know exactly what I did as soon as I grew up. That’s right, I used butter. OMG did I use butter!

Nothing like living and cooking in France to encourage a lavish use of butter and we were going through a pound a week easy. As all good things come to an end, so did my butter indulgence. My cooking horizons expanded. Olive oil moved into my pantry replacing butter as my fat of choice. And along the way, before I actually went back to study nutrition, I picked up one of those pivotal books in my culinary nutrition education.

The original Laurel’s Kitchen came out of the Berkeley counter culture vegetarian movement and was published 1976. My version, The New Lauren’s Kitchen was published about 10 years later and is still in print today, a testament to the book’s enduring value and our collective hunger for healthy eating.  Reduced fat was the nutritional byword at that time, but even back then we loved out butter and Laurel offered an ingenious solution.

As she put it in the preface for the Better-Butter recipe: “This is surely one of the most popular of all our recipes. It offers an easy spreading alternative to margarine, which can otherwise be the most highly processed — and salted — food in a natural foods kitchen. Better-Butter combines butter (for flavor) with the unsaturated fats of good-quality oil. The result is a spread that’s as low in saturated fat as margarine, but without hydrogenation, processing, and additives.”

Note that the comparison with margarine was made prior to the arrival of soft spreads.

The battle between butter versus margarine rages to this day.  Industrial production versus the real thing. Fresh, natural, organic butter churned from grass fed, pastured raised cows versus phytosterol enhanced, expeller expressed soft spread from nonGMO grown, mono-unsaturated canola oil.

Being older now and hopefully wiser, this dietitian still finds herself sitting right in the middle in the line of fire from both sides. There is evidence to support the argument that saturated fats should be minimized and replaced with polyunsaturated fats. And there is evidence to support the argument that saturated fats are actually not the most toxic natural substance know to mankind and their potential for harm has been overstated.

If butter is your thing, this dietitian says enjoy it but exercise moderation just in case. If soft spread is your thing, this dietitian says enjoy it and feel confident that the product has been engineered to eliminate those truly unhealthy hydrogenated fatty acids.

And for those of you looking for a third option, give better-butter a try. Half butter and half olive oil is credible, good tasting alternative. The original recipe used volume measure, but being the nutrition nerd I am, my preference is to use the scale and do weight measurement. Both ways work.

Better-butter is a great tasting home made do it yourself alternative.

And Laurel was right about one more thing. Even just out of the refrigerator, better-butter really is easy spreading. And that is the really cool part.

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Healthy can be seen, touched, and tasted … sometimes.

photo | gourmet metrics

photo | gourmet metrics

 

These are red, fragile, stem ripened local, end of season strawberries. The picture of healthy. Ephemeral, perfect, delicious.

So how do I know they are healthy? The farmer I bought them from told me they were picked the day before I bought them. They looked good, felt good, and tasted good. But I will be honest, there was no label or organic certification or other guideline for confirmation. And even if there had been, these picture perfect strawberries might have carried some pesky microorganism so you better believe that I washed them before eating.

Strawberry season has come and gone here into Northeast, but looking at those berries in all their pristine beauty helped me put the final piece in place on an observation that has been troubling me since last summer about the same time of the year.

I was picking out vegetables from a farmer I like when an attractive, articulate, well educated young woman came up from behind and starting asking all kinds of questions about the vegetables and the strawberries

Now I am the last one to say don’t ask questions. I ask so many questions that some people don’t want to be bothered with me. A royal pain in the ass some would say.

No, her questions didn’t bother me.

What troubled me was her unwillingness to accept answers.

Now I liked this particular farmer for a couple of reasons. Besides strawberries, she always had excellent local peaches, seasonal tomatoes, and a consistently good spread of local greens. It was also a family affair. The lady in charge looked and talked like she had spend her whole life growing vegetables. She came across to me as credible, authentic, and wise. She knew how to store onions and could tell me that the reason some onions rotted from the inside out while other onions were really good keepers. “You have to pull them out and let them really dry out before moving to storage …” The onions I bought from her never rotted out before I used them either.

She sat in the back of her stand and left most of the customer dealings to her niece. So the articulate woman began her questioning with the niece.

The articulate woman wanted to know if the produce was certified organic. Her questions were pointed and intense and anxious. She knew just how to drill down. The niece answered as best she could but since the farm has not bothered to get certified the answers were not what the articulate woman was looking for.

Now I already knew this farm was not certified organic because I had asked the same questions myself. “We just don’t want to bother with the extra paperwork. Too much hassle. You’re going to have to trust us …”

That was good enough for me.

It was not however what the articulate woman wanted to hear. I could tell she might have been tempted by the way she looked at my selections laid out and waiting to be packed into my bags. “I am just really afraid of all that poison … ”

So she left to look elsewhere.

I looked at the niece and the niece looked back at me and that was that.

This exchange has been haunting me ever since. And what it really comes down to is trust. People can lie. Our senses can deceive. Labels can mislead. Certifications can be fictitious. But we still have to eat and we still have to make decisions.

So the exchange has played over and over again in my head for a year. I keep wanting to reassure that articulate young woman that yes it’s a food jungle out here and yes being skeptical is important, but sometimes it’s okay to go with your gut.

But she went away as quickly and she appeared and I never saw her again.

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Eating more fish is healthy. Finding good fish is hard work.

photo | gourmet metrics

photo | gourmet metrics

 

Wouldn’t you call that a pretty good selection? Those shrimp on the left are wild caught as opposed to farmed and I think they come from North Carolina. Those little shellfish on the right are Little Neck Clams dug up from the Great South Bay of Long Island. I forgot to ask where the sea scallops came from, but they are “dry” and that means no one has dipped them in a solution of sodium tripolyphosphate to extend shelf life and increase weight.

What you are looking at in my photo is the protein I served for supper last Wednesday. I put together a seafood medley of steamed clams plus scallops and shrimp poached in garlic, white vermouth, and olive oil served over linguine. Absolutely delicious. Putting everything together is a challenge, but with practice I have gotten much faster at it. The really hard work is finding good fresh fish.

My first experience shopping for fish from the local market was in Garches, a suburb outside of Paris. That was the first time I realized that scallops live in shells at the bottom of the sea or bay where they grow. Each one of those scallops you see up there actually comes attached to a set of larger shells. The scallop is the muscle that holds the two shells together. I acquired quite a lot of shells that year. The men did the fishing, wives and daughters did the selling, and my French was good enough to establish myself as a serious customer. I learned how fresh fish smells and tastes. And what it looks like. And I experienced firsthand the value of relationship building.

It’s been a couple of years now that I have been cultivating my relationship with a fishmonger at the Long Beach Greenmarket and that is where I picked up my shrimp, scallops, and clams. He does a lot of his own fishing and reassured me he dug the clams himself. He makes fun of my curiosity but I know he appreciates my business and when all is said and done he answers my questions. More important, over the last couple of years that I have been cultivating the relationship, he has never sold me a bad piece of fish.

Trust is not something you can build with just any old person or any old supplier. Building a good relationship usually happens on a personal level, though a store like Whole Foods has built their business model cultivating trust on the corporate level.

Building trust is important with any person you buy from, but to my way of looking at the world it is especially important to establish trust with the person who sells you fish because there are so many issues out there. Mislabeling. Adulteration. Sustainability. Toxicity. And exactly how long ago was that fish was caught and exactly how has it been handled. I can count on one hand the places I have enough faith in to feel comfortable buying or eating fish.

So when I cook at home during the summer market season, Wednesday is fish day, Casey is my man, and the greenmarket in Long Beach is where I go for fish.

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Look what I found in the farmer’s market!

photo | gourmet metrics

photo | gourmet metrics

Just in the Catskills for the weekend so not much time to cook. We usually go out for dinner before going back to the city, but there is always lunch. And I was in the mood for a surprise.

It’s early summer in the Hudson Valley and the growing season has begun. We picked up some cheddar cheese, crusty bread, and these radishes, carrots, and snap peas so small and tender you can eat them in the shell.

The little carrots needed a good scrubbing, but the radishes and peas were much easier to wash. I arranged them on a little plate with the red on the top, the orange on the bottom and the green in the middle. Really nice presentation.

Living in France introduced me to eating little radishes with butter and salt as an appetizer. My radishes from market were not that small and delicate, but tasted pretty good all the same. The carrots are actually mature despite their small size. The softest and most delicate of the lot were the little green snap peas.

You just never know what you are going to find at the farmers market.

A lot of folks would rather shop familiar settings. You know the predictable kind of layout where the choices are available all year round. Shopping these stores actually permits list making. People can decide what mood they are in, decide what they want to eat, write out the list, and now with technology punch it and have it all delivered to their door. As for me I love to be surprised.

The modern supermarket is truly a miraculous phenomenon. But surprises are something you will not find at a super market. What I really love about shopping these farmer’s markets is I can almost always find something I have never seen before. Like those dwarf carrots.

My idea of fun is arriving at the market with an open mind, wandering around and picking up what looks interesting, bringing it home, and then deciding how to put it all together.

Just like I did with my early summer medley of radish, carrot, and green snap pea. I love surprises.

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Why don’t more people use fruit ripeners?

photo | gourmet metrics

photo | gourmet metrics

This is my fruit ripener. See that band of plastic there on the right side of the picture? That is the edge of the plastic bowl. After taking out what I need, I put the plastic cover back on.

Plenty of strategically placed ventilation holes for good circulation on both bowl and cover. My fruits are protected from outside contamination like dust. The cover also holds in beneficial gases for enhanced ripening. And I always put a paper towel in the bottom to absorb any excess moisture and to keep fruits from directly touching the plastic.

What you see in the bowl is a random selection for late June. Avocado and hydroponic tomatoes are available all year. But those nectarines are one of the first of the summer fruits. The ones in the bowl are from California.

After nectarines, I start buying local New York State for summer fruit. Apricots, peaches, all kinds of plums, and seasonal tomatoes. Moving into fall, there are numerous varieties of pears and kiwis. Winter is citrus, but those fruits are best kept in the refrigerator. Moving into spring of course the first tree fruits are cherries, but they too are keep better in the frig. Then we start again with nectarines. The fruit ripener gets year round use in my kitchen thought for non seasonal tomatoes and avocados.

The fruit ripener sits in a corner of my crowded workspace because of the important service it provides. I don’t forget about my fruits because I look at them everyday. Fruit ripens at its speed. The avocado is not ripe because I want to make a guacamole. It’s ripe when it is ready. But I can check things out every day. If one of my fruits starts to go bad, I pull it out, salvage what I can, and keep contamination from spreading.

So I say to myself, why don’t more people use fruit ripeners?

Maybe limited counter space?

Most kitchens nowadays are gigantic and full of all kinds of gadgets and tools. No something else must be going on. It’s my cramped New York City kitchen that has no counter space, but I can still find room.

Maybe folks don’t know how to prepare fruit? Or maybe they just don’t know fruit is a no work eating experience. That is a possibility.

But my gut says the real reason is that people don’t eat a lot of fruit.

And people who don’t eat a lot of fruit do not need a fruit ripener.

Fruit can be expensive. Actually very expensive. And if you don’t eat the fruit when it’s ready, one more chemistry experiment goes in the garbage can.

Habit may also be a contributing factor. I’m in the habit of having a piece after dinner every night. Not because I’m a dietitian, but because I like fruit. Most people I know given a choice of ice cream or a fresh ripe nectarine will opt for the ice cream. Not me, but I’m just weird that way.

Now being a dietitian, I wish more people would eat more fruit.

But also being an incorrigible optimist who likes to keep my focus on the positive side of the spectrum, I do see the bright side. The more good fruit out there, the more there is for me.

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Do more words on the label make it healthy?

image

Don’t get me wrong. This veggie patty is a is fine product and with the addition of some avocado, tomato, a healthy amount of BBQ sauce, and two slices of robust whole grain bread, my lunch yesterday was very good.

But take a look at the package. Being the prototypical nutrition nerd, I read the whole package as I ate my lunch.

Gluten Free. Dairy Free. Soy Free. Made with organic vegetables, quinoa & walnuts. No GMOs.

Turning the box on its side, I found more. 0g Trans Fat. No added MSG. No Preservatives. Vegan. All this plus the now familiar Nutrition Facts and allergy disclaimers.

I finished up my lunch, was enjoying a slim can of Perrier, and I got to thinking. There is a lot of data on that package. I counted up 11 food related terms / product verifications and 12 ingredients.

There is no doubt in my mind that every statement on that package is honest and accurate. And since I had a little extra time yesterday, I went back and checked what I could find on the items I added to shall we say enhance my lunch. Here is what I found.

The avocado comes from Mexico. Period. I always choose California when I have the option, but that’s only because I’m a native and believe in supporting your own. Mexican avocados taste just as good. The BBQ sauce is USDA organic. The tomatoes are hydroponic and imported from Canada. Fresh greenhouse vegetables / légumes de serre frais in environmentally friendly packing. No comparison with a heirloom seasonal summer tomato ripened on the vine but with the advantage of year round availability. My whole grain bread is doubly certified both USDA and Northeastern Organic Farming Association organic. And it’s local.

Note to self. Checking out labels takes a lot more time than preparing the sandwich. Add second note. It’s better for your health to cook than to check labels.

The last thing I checked was sodium. Remember, I really am a nerd. My rough estimate for the patty plus BBQ sauce plus bread is about 900mg. To my palate, it all tasted pretty good, but it might be on the high side for sodium sensitive people.

So is it all healthy? Of course it’s healthy for most people, but I could have told you that before checking all those labels. How can you go wrong with avocado and whole grains?

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My First CSA Box

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Tuesday was the night I picked up my first box. Never been a member before so I did not know what to expect. But I arrived on time with about 10 other people and we walked into a room with about 50 boxes stacked on two tables.

“Pick a box, empty it into your bags, fold the box, and put it over there with the other boxes. It’s really easy.” And it was so I got home within 15 minutes with over 4 pounds of greens. Now that is what I call healthy. It’s also what I call work. Spinach, Baby Bok Choi, Lettuce Mix, Arugula and Red Kale to wash, trim, and eat before the next pick up.

That night I washed and trimmed enough lettuce and arugula to put together a large salad. Added tuna, some small cannelloni, some tomato, scallions, my own vinaigrette and served supper within 30 minutes. Last night was more time consuming. Sorting through the lettuce mix and arugula took some time but we have enough salad mix ready to go through Monday. For supper that night I steamed spinach to serve with a locally caught filet of summer flounder picked up on the way home from work.

Today I am going to think about the rest of the load. Kale chips are trendy, so I think I will give them a try. I mean how hard can it be? Kale, olive oil, salt, bake in slow oven till done. What else do I need to know?

The kale is much prettier than the chips. Paper-thin, darkened, crumpled so no before and after pictures posted. My technique needs some refinement, but the chips are edible and now I know for my next batch to use a little less oil. When I try something new I go for edible. Refinement can come later.

Now all that’s left is my baby bok. How does this sound: small piece of fish, ancient grains, shiitake, scallion, and the baby bok. Sounds like a plan to me.

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It’s illegal to label my green salad healthy!

mesclum mix | gourmet-metrics

mesclum mix | gourmet-metrics

 

Like pornography, healthy food might be tough to define but you know it when you see it. Now a simple green salad should be the picture of healthy. Right? But since healthy means different things in different contexts, defining healthy gets confusing at times.

Take the green salad I am serving tonight. The choice of greens always depends on availability so some mesclun from my local greenmarket will serve as the base. A handful on each plate, a few tomato pieces (still not seasonal I admit), some thinly sliced scallion, and for the final touch, a tablespoon or two home crafted vinaigrette made with a fine California Arbequina, some sherry vinegar, and salt. Delicious? Yes. Healthy? Of course. Who would say no?

Those rich dark greens and shades of almost purple are the colors of healthy.

Not boring or austere thanks to good oil, salt, and pristine greens. Not too much sodium. Nutrition points for dark green vegetables. Expensive, local, fresh, and natural. Organic? Now that one I am not completely sure about. The mesclun is probably organic. But tomatoes and scallions? Just not sure.

And the vinaigrette is not unprocessed. Grinding olives to olive oil is complex, but the oil is unfiltered with shades of green in the sunlight and was pressed within the last 6 months so I am am going to say “good” processed. As far as the salt and the vinegar, those two products are complex too.

Looking at the nutrition numbers, the fatty acid ratio is excellent. Well above the ratio recommended by the Healthy Eating Index. This ration is a calculation used by nutritionist nerds like me to evaluate the quality of the fat for clients who want to reduce dietary saturated fat.

My plate of salad counts for about 180 calories out of my usual dinner of 700 to 800 calories.

So far so good. Eating salads before the meal makes good nutrition sense for two reasons. First it is nutrient dense. And second, salads fill you up so you are less likely to devour the main course.

But think about this scenario. And until the FDA finalizes nutrition guidelines for restaurant menu labeling, we won’t know for sure. As an off the shelf product, my salad could not be labeled healthy. Sodium is okay, but there is too much fat and too much saturated fat. What that means is that if the restrictive labeling criteria remain intact when the restaurant regulations are finalized, it would be technically illegal for a restaurant or deli take out to label my salad healthy. That’s what I mean about healthy meaning different things in different contexts.

I am still going to give it a healthy thumbs up.

How about you?

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Looking For the Shortest Line

The Oxford Universal Dictionary, Third Edition, with corrections and revised corrections 1955

The Oxford Universal Dictionary, Third Edition, with corrections and revised corrections 1955

Why eat? An even more fundamental question than the more common question of what to eat ..

The picture on the left is from my beloved hardcopy of the Oxford Dictionary. The text is hard to read, but it is an etymological definition of nutrition:   The action or process of supplying, or receiving, nourishment.

I tell my clients we need to eat to meet the legitimate needs of our body for energy and substrate. More elegantly expressed in the Oxford text, but essentially the same message. We have good reasons for eating. Pleasure. Taste. We love to cook. Because Mom says to. We have bad reasons for eating. Habit. Anger. Boredom. Fatigue. Loneliness. But the real reason we eat is we need fuel. We eat because we are hungry.

HAMBURGER STAND OFFERS CUSTOMERS A QUICK BITE WHILE WAITING FOR THEIR SUBWAY TRAIN ON THE 42ND STREET STATION, NARA.  Wikimedia Commons

HAMBURGER STAND OFFERS CUSTOMERS A QUICK BITE WHILE WAITING FOR THEIR SUBWAY TRAIN ON THE 42ND STREET STATION, NARA.  Wikimedia Commons

It has never been easy to eat. Having spent enough time living on a farm to appreciate the sizable challenges of subsistence agriculture, I understand how much hard work is involved. Today, we may not have to put our 6 hours in the field, but eating is no less challenging. We have to find time. Time is the problem today for me and for many of my clients.

Grabbing a hamburger mid route provides the fuel to get you where you need to go as this vintage picture of the New York transit station illustrates. When this photo was snapped, the choices were easier. Today’s food courts presents us with so many options. “I look for the shortest line …” seems to be the preferred fueling strategy for the busy, stressed, profession today.

Nutrition, the process of supplying or receiving nourishment, requires work today just like it always has, but the nature of the work is different. Time and knowledge are the problems today. We have tools like calories and nutrients, MyPlates and dietary guidelines. We can learn to cook. And we have what we have always had, our common sense.

Checking the entry in my Oxford refers me to Nourishment which refers me to NOURISH and a Latin root nurtire to feed, foster, cherish,etc. Some things never change. It is just as important to feed, foster, and cherish the people we care most about today as was in the past.

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