As perhaps the biggest, most obnoxious finger-wagger in the world when it comes to procrastination, I just swallowed a heaping portion of irony for breakfast.
If you made it through my post the other day, you may recall that I noted it was time for me to apply more cayenne pepper to the three accidental cantaloupes growing over my retaining wall. My first application was in response to a previous critter taste-test. A new set of teeth-marks had just appeared on another.
I failed to heed my own suggestion, however, getting sidetracked by some other task. I’ve thought about it at least once each day since then, each time choosing to attend to something else.
About an hour ago, James insisted that it was time to pick the cantaloupes. He said the one on the ground had a hole in it, and wasps were flying in and out of it. James can occasionally be given to mild bouts of hyperbole, so I questioned his observation. (I was also in the middle of crimping a pie crust with flour and dough-clotted fingers, so the timing wasn’t particularly convenient). He pressed more forcefully, so I reasoned that they were probably close enough, and gave him the go-ahead.
He returned a couple of minutes later with two of the three, and I have now drawn a clear line between my procrastination and the fate of my poor third melon, which I am dubbing the “can’taloupe.”
Even if I haven’t had time over the past few weeks to come up with any posts about food sustainability or the diet-health connection, I have been nursing a couple of creative endeavors in the kitchen. Or, partially in the kitchen anyway. Partially in the bar. The best part, I think, is that what I came up with can be tweaked into mocktails if you don’t drink alcohol.
First up: A Tribute Drink
I created this one in honor of our neighbors who are moving away – there’s an annual, early-summer Lobster Fest event we’ve all been going to for I-don’t-even-know-how-many years, and this year’s was to be the last of the tradition, so, of course, I reasoned that it was only fitting that there be a send-off cocktail. I named it for them, but since that name wouldn’t mean anything to a broader audience, I’m up for a name-game for whoever wants to play along – share your ideas in the comments!
This can be done with either pineapple or mango juice – I’ve tried it with both and it’s yummy both ways.
Here’s what you need:
Two parts ginger-infused vodka – for one drink, I use 1 1/2 oz (I made my own – not hard, but you need to plan for the time it takes to get enough flavor into the vodka – at least 3 – 4 days. It also helps to have a mandoline to make slicing the ginger easier. See * below for recipe.)
One part fresh pineapple juice (or mango nectar) – so 3/4 oz for my one-drink volume. This can be really good-quality store-bought pineapple juice, because who the heck wants to juice a pineapple? I use Lakewood Organic. It’s expensive but worth it.
One part lemon-basil simple syrup (Again, I made my own – takes about 5 minutes of actual effort, and 30 minutes from start to finish. See ** below for recipe.)
Club soda, seltzer, or sparkling water to taste
Fresh basil leaves (rinsed & dried) for muddling, and small top basil sections for garnish
Other things to skewer for garnish: fresh pineapple (or mango) chunks, candied ginger. . . you could even do candied lemon peel or candied basil leaf if you wanted to get fancy
Fill the cocktail shaker halfway with ice. Pour in the vodka, juice, and simple syrup. Add a basil leaf.
Muddle another basil leaf in the bottom of a 10 -12oz glass and top with ice (basically just bruise it a little).
Shake the cocktail thoroughly in the shaker & strain into glass, leaving plenty of room to top with soda (start with one part – the rough equivalent of the amount of juice you used; more to taste)
Stir a little & top with basil segment and any skewered goodies you like, then serve.
Feel free to adjust the proportions in the recipe to suit your taste- I started with 1/2 part simple syrup, but found that upping it to one part added a little more oomph.
The “Mocktail” Version:
(for a 12oz glass) Crush about 1 tsp fresh, peeled ginger & place in the bottom of a glass with a basil leaf; muddle together enough to bruise the basil
Add ice to the glass
Pour in 1 part each pineapple juice and lemon-basil simple syrup
Top with 2 parts club soda, seltzer or sparkling water; stir lightly (enough to bring up some of the ginger/basil flavor from the bottom) and garnish as desired.
Next: A “Caprese-tini”
Once I made the drink above, I started daydreaming about another, totally different one. During a radio show several years ago, I heard about a bartender who made a Bloody Mary using tomato water instead of tomato juice. The idea of tomato water had been stuck in my head as the basis for a drink ever since. If you LOVE the incredible taste of fresh tomatoes and have never tried tomato water, you’re in for a treat. Making it takes a day – again about 5 minutes of effort, but you need the rest of the time for the magic to happen. Riffing on what I could do with the tomato water, since I’d just made ginger-infused vodka, I started playing in my head with another infusion that would “go.” Poof – the idea of a Caprese salad in (mostly) liquid form struck me. Here’s what I did:
One part basil-infused vodka (*** see recipe below- allow 2 + days for the infusion to “take”)
2 – 3 parts fresh tomato water (**** see recipe below – allow a full day)
Kosher or sea salt & freshly ground pepper, combined (for rimming the glass)
Fresh cherry or grape tomatoes for garnish
Fresh ciliegine-size mozzarella balls (about 1″) for garnish
Fresh basil leaves and/or tops for garnish
Balsamic reduction (or, if you don’t have it, you can use good balsamic vinegar, but the stickiness of the reduction helps in this case)
Good quality extra-virgin olive oil
Small wooden skewers for the garnish
(Basically nearly the same ingredients list as for a caprese salad. Plus the vodka and tomato water. . .)
Put together the garnish(es) – alternately threading folded basil leaves, mozzarella balls, and tomato onto skewers (I do 2 mozz to one tomato)
Pour a circle of olive oil about the size of the top of your (12oz-ish) glass onto a plate. Top with a circle of balsamic reduction.
Pour the salt/pepper mixture onto a separate plate (or into a bowl)
Rim glass(es) by dipping into the olive oil/balsamic mixture, then into the salt & pepper mixture
Carefully fill glasses with ice (I go about halfway)
Pour in 1 – 2 oz basil-infused vodka & top with 2 – 3 times as much tomato water; stir gently
Drizzle a tiny bit of olive oil on top (maybe 1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon)
Garnish with a basil top or skewers
This drink tastes, as my husband said, “like a garden in a glass.”
The “Mocktail” Version:
Rim an 8 oz glass, as above
Muddle a few pieces of fresh basil in the bottom the glass (3 – 4 leaves)
Top with ice
Pour over 6 oz tomato water
Drizzle with olive oil & maybe even a little of the balsamic reduction, but just a little
1 large fresh ginger root, scrubbed and trimmed of any yucky parts – no need to peel in my book.
Slice the ginger lengthwise on the thinnest-possible setting of a mandoline, or, if you don’t have a mandoline, slice it as thinly as possible crosswise, until you have about 1 1/2 cups of ginger.
Submerge the ginger in the vodka in a large glass measuring cup or other container with a wide-enough top to make tasting, and later, removing the ginger, easy.
Cover the container with plastic wrap and set it out of the way for at least 3 days. I took little tastes starting at the two-day mark. It will probably have a slightly pinkish hue.
When it gets to the flavor you like, remove the ginger and strain the vodka into a large Bell jar or other container.
I store it in the fridge – pretty sure it’ll keep for as long as it takes me to use it.
**Lemon-Basil Simple Syrup
1 cup fresh lemon juice
1 cup sugar
About 6 – 8 good-size sprigs of fresh basil, plus another 4 or so, to be used separately.
Trim the zest off the lemon(s): really important that none of the white “pith” is on it. I use a vegetable peeler – this is a case where you want large pieces because you have to fish them out later. Any pith, or leaving the peel in the syrup, will make it bitter.
Then, roll the peeled lemon around on a hard surface, pressing down with your hand – this makes extracting more juice easier. Juice the lemon(s).
Combine the lemon juice and sugar in a pot that’s large enough to accommodate at least twice the volume of the amount of syrup you’re making – once it starts to boil, it tends to froth up, and you don’t want it spilling over. Horrible mess.
Stir to combine and bring to a boil, watching carefully that it doesn’t boil over – turn the heat down slightly if it threatens, but keep it boiling for 1 minute. While you’re boiling it, add the basil.
After a minute, take it off the heat and add the lemon zest.
Let it cool for about 15 minutes, then remove the basil. Now add the other few sprigs you kept aside earlier. Push them down to let the syrup cover them, then let the whole thing sit another 10 – 15 minutes.
Remove the lemon zest and the basil and pour the syrup into a jar with a tight-fitting lid (I use good old Bell jars). This will keep in the fridge for at least a month, if it doesn’t get used up before that. It would be amazing in homemade lemonade or on waffles or pancakes topped with blackberries. OMG. . .
750 ml vodka
Small bunch fresh basil (appx 1 1/2 – 2 c – including leaves and stems) rinsed and thoroughly dried; stem ends trimmed
Put basil in a wide-mouthed glass container
Pour vodka over basil, taking care to keep basil fully submerged
Cover with plastic wrap and a towel to keep light out
Set aside for at least 2 days, but probably no more than 3 – taste along the way for a flavor strength you like
Once you’ve reached your desired flavor depth, pour vodka through a fine-mesh strainer & funnel into a glass container.
Cap tightly & store in the refrigerator. The color and flavor will start to oxidize and turn darker after a week or so, but initially, it should be a beautiful, emerald green.
4 lbs fresh, juicy tomatoes – I would NOT use plum tomatoes for this one – you want these to be more liquid-y than fleshy to yield more juice
1 teaspoon (give or take) sea salt
A blender or food processor
A strainer large enough to hold all the puree from that many tomatoes
A bowl large enough to sit under said strainer
Coffee filters cut to line the strainer in a single(ish) layer
Enough room in the fridge for the strainer set over the bowl
Put tomatoes & salt in a blender or food processor and puree until smooth
Pour puree into strainer lined with cut-up coffee filters, set over a large bowl
Put in fridge for a day or so – start with overnight, then, in the morning, and a few times throughout the next day, give the mixture a stir, pushing the liquid down
Resulting tomato water will be clear, likely with a slightly golden tint, and will taste exactly like amazingly fresh, beautiful tomatoes. Pour into a jar or bottle with a tight-fitting lid and store in the fridge. Enjoy!!!
One of the earlier elements that drew me to “the magical microbiome” was that both of my sons have food allergies, which I never had to endure, but which puts them squarely in the mainstream for the past 15 years or so (one has an all-too-common peanut and tree-nut allergy; both are allergic to mollusks). Both, by the way, were born by c-section, so they “missed out” on the transfer of natural microbiota that occurs with natural birth (I shared a link about that in last week’s post.) I also have inflammatory arthritis – an autoimmune disorder – so that threw a little lighter fluid on the charcoal, too.
As for our own ability to control, or at least influence, our microbiomes, diet is a key factor (see Sections 4 – 10 in the linked article). To be fair, so are other facets of lifestyle, such as smoking and exercise, but since I post about food’s impact on health, I’m going to stay focused there. While there is still a need for much further study, so far it is clear that diet has a significant effect, and specific nutrients and compounds have greater and lesser impacts, promoting or suppressing either the levels or functions of certain organisms. There are also suggestions (same article linked above) that a greater variety of beneficial microbiota is linked with improved immune function and overall health.
I promised last week that I’d
share some more practical information about things that can promote a healthier
microbiome. First, it’s important, in order to get everyone on the same page,
that I define a couple of key terms.
Probiotics vs. Prebiotics
I think it’s a fairly safe bet that you’ve heard the term “probiotic;” and I’d wager 50/50 odds that, with the increase in awareness of the importance of “gut health” as many call it, you may have heard the term “prebiotic” as well. But do you really know what they are, what the difference is, and why each one is important?
A “prebiotic” is a
substrate that is selectively utilized by host microorganisms conferring a
health benefit; and,
A “probiotic” is live
microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health
benefit on the host.
So, prebiotics are, essentially, foods that our bodies can’t
necessarily fully break down on their own, but which feed beneficial
microorganisms (I’ll share some examples of these in a minute) and thus promote
their presence and function, while probiotics are the beneficial organisms
themselves. Each is important, and neither stands effectively on its own.
Prebiotics. . . Yummm . . .
You probably think I’m kidding with that heading, but I’m not. Many foods containing key prebiotic compounds fall on my list of “things I love to eat,” and maybe they’re on yours, too. This, by the way, is not an exhaustive list by any means, but it will get you started!
Chicory root is the runaway winnerfor food with the highest concentration of prebiotic compounds content by weight (in this case, the compound is called inulin), at 64.6%. It gets processed into prebiotic supplements and fiber supplements all over the place, but given how I feel about supplements, I’m not inclined to go there. It’s barely a food, but I’m including it anyway. The most common way to consume it is roasted, ground, and made into a beverage. It can be a coffee substitute, or added in equal parts to coffee when brewing (New Orleans-style); however, the volume consumed in that manner is relatively low, so realistically, though its prebiotic concentration is high, the amounts one would be likely to consume on a daily basis probably bring it about level with the rest of the foods on this list. Acacia powder has a higher concentration of prebiotic compounds, but it’s not an actual food, so it’s off my list.
Other prebiotic-containing foods include Jerusalem artichoke, a.k.a. sunchoke; dandelion greens; garlic; leek; onion (I can barely cook anything that doesn’t have at least one, if not all 3 of these members of the allium family at its base); asparagus; wheat bran; wheat flour; banana; cocoa (unsweetened!!); cruciferous veggies (broccoli; cauliflower; kale; brussels sprouts); legumes; unrefined barley; oats; apples; flax seed; jicama root; seaweed. If you have no idea what some of these things are or how to eat them, don’t worry – I was in the same boat with a few of them too, and below I’ll tell you where you can learn more about them, including sources for a whole bunch of recipes.
Beware the Probiotic Craze
No matter what, it just seems that we’re doomed in this culture (sorry – no pun intended, but now that it’s on the page, I’m going with it) to seeking a magic bullet for everything, and we are obsessed with breaking everything down into components to try to figure out that one mystical thing that’s creating a benefit; for example, the compound resveratrol in red wine. Remember when everyone went nuts over that for a while? God knows how many $ millions were, and still may be, being made off resveratrol supplements, and just about every other discovery of the latest “miracle compound.” Unfortunately, it has never been, and never will be that simple, and it will always be the case that our bodies are much better at synthesizing all the beneficial elements (vitamins, minerals, fats, proteins, etc.) of *real food* rather than processed supplements.
Therefore, we shouldn’t all go crazy running to the
supplements aisle for the latest probiotic concoction, expecting some kind of
health miracle, most especially if we aren’t making other lifestyle & diet
changes to support it. Nor should we fall into the marketing trap of spending a
ton on specially engineered probiotic foods. Humans have been making things
like sauerkraut, kimchi, and yogurt for thousands of years. Over-engineering
and over-marketing them doesn’t make them any better. It just makes them more
When taken to offset the side effects of antibiotic treatment;
In preterm infants, to prevent the development of necrotizing
enterocolitis, which is otherwise not well-understood, but is often fatal;
To help relieve the symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
In addition, there’s enough anecdotal evidence for benefits
from regular consumption of probiotic foods (mostly fermented foods) that
further studies continue, and in the meantime, consuming them isn’t harmful,
provided the benefits aren’t offset through the addition of sweeteners and
other unnecessary additives.
Some Probiotic Goodies
Some examples of fermented foods & beverages (I’ve already mentioned a few above): yogurt (be sure it has live, active cultures and best to go with plain. Add your own fruit, and, if you must, sweetener, but really, try to wean yourself off that stuff. Cut it out for a couple of weeks and before you know it, you’ll wonder how it ever owned you like it did); sauerkraut; miso; kimchi; kombucha; fresh, sour pickles and other pickled vegetables; tempeh (as long as you don’t cook it too long/at temps that are too high and kill the active cultures); natto (made from fermented soybeans – I’ve never tried it); kefir; traditional buttermilk (not cultured).
It’s easy to add these things into your diet. For things like kimchi and sauerkraut, go easy at first if you aren’t used to them – maybe just a tablespoon or 2 along with a meal to add a little zing. My experience is that it can take a couple of weeks for your body to acclimate to what, in some cases, may be new strains of beneficial microbes. . .
One of the first books I read on this subject was The Microbiome Diet by Raphael Kellman, M.D. As I mentioned last week, weight loss was not my quest. Self-education, and just maybe, a practical solution for some of the health challenges I and my family were experiencing, was the goal. I’ve included the link to the book on Amazon here because I still think it’s a great primer on the microbiome: what it is, why it’s important, and how to keep it “healthy.” That was where I first learned about prebiotic foods, and as the title of the book promises, a guided approach to incorporating them, and a microbiome-supporting diet, into your life, including recipes galore.
You can choose to follow the stepped diet in his book if you really want to go hardcore, but you can, I believe, still derive a lot of benefit even if you don’t pull out all the stops. He also markets a line of probiotic supplements; he tells you himself in the book that you don’t need them, but claims that you get a bigger bang for your dietary buck if you do. I’m skeptical of anything that requires me to spend exorbitant amounts of money on supplements, but since he doesn’t require it, he gets a pass.
Anything you do to incorporate more of the foods that support the microbiome is likely to be helpful, as long as you aren’t drowning out the benefits with processed garbage and too much sweet stuff. It works for me. Just ask my arthritic elbow.
If you haven’t noticed yet, I read a lot about food and
nutrition. 20 years ago it was cookbooks and cooking magazines, but about 10
years ago it shifted to books focused on the nutritional aspects of food and
various diets. I wasn’t drawn to any of them on a quest to lose weight; it was
more out of curiosity, and a desire to understand whether there were links
between the things I (and my family) were consuming and a couple of chronic
health issues we were experiencing.
Along the way, I started paying attention – really close
attention – to how my body reacted after I ate certain things. Sometimes a
reaction was immediate (I’ll spare you the details of what happens to me when I
attempt a milkshake); sometimes it was considerably more delayed (big flare-ups
of the nagging inflammatory arthritis in my left elbow a day or two after too
much sugar – often in the form of . . . ahem, and boohoo . . . wine).
At one point in the early 2000s I was diagnosed with
Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis when my PCP was feeling around my neck and throat after
a 5th or 6th bout with strep in the course of just over a
year. (I had gotten to the point where I could count on the sandpapery-throat
feeling that accompanied its onset at least once a quarter. I called them
“strepisodes.”) He discovered that my thyroid was enlarged, sent me off for
bloodwork and bang – the Hashimoto’s diagnosis. I’d never heard of it, and had
no outward symptoms, but we (some me, a lot my husband, who gets like a bulldog
with research) started reading more about it. In his more in-depth exploration,
my husband discovered a link between excess fluoride consumption and thyroid
problems, which would otherwise have been a finding that would have elicited a
shoulder shrug. BUT, we had discovered not long before that time that our well
water was naturally, and exceedingly, high in fluoride. Like, thousands of
times higher than recommended levels. So I stopped drinking it. We installed a
reverse-osmosis filter under our kitchen sink and a 2.5 gallon bottle of water
took up permanent residence on the top shelf of the refrigerator.
Additionally, with each of the “strepisodes” I’d experienced up to the time of my Hashimoto’s diagnosis, I was given “Z-Packs” of azithromycin antibiotics. This PCP was new to the practice, so he hadn’t been a party to those earlier treatment decisions, but he concluded that the strep I had was systemic, and opted for a scorched earth course of treatment to knock it out once and for all, before it did real damage. He put me on a much stronger, and much higher-dose course of antibiotic (wish I could remember which one), which consisted of 3 “horse-pills,” 3 times a day, for 2 full weeks. I haven’t had a “strepisode” since, and I think I’ve been on antibiotics 3 times in total in the intervening 16 – 18 years.
I also started practicing yoga shortly after that diagnosis, not because of it, but for reasons I can’t quite articulate (a whole other story, which I shared in a non-Food Friday post several weeks ago). My lifestyle began shifting rather dramatically as a result, and when I went back to the doctor for my physical the next year (to another new PCP in the practice), having dutifully done my bloodwork the week before, she was surprised that all evidence of Hashimoto’s was absent. She said she’d never seen a case of Hashimoto’s being reversed. She asked me what I’d done. I told her I stopped drinking my super-heavily fluoridated water, and started doing yoga. It wasn’t until many years later, when I became intrigued with, and began learning more about the microbiome, that I recalled that third variable: the cessation of routine rounds of antibiotics.
Enter the Microbiome
The microbiome fascinates me. If you aren’t familiar with the term, it refers to the natural bacteria that live, by necessity, inside of us (sorry germaphobes – that’s just how it is). In most healthy people, the “good” or beneficial bacteria outnumber the bad/harmful ones. We aren’t born with a microbiome – we acquire it, first through natural birth (or not, if natural birth doesn’t occur, e.g., birth by caesarean section); second, and continuing throughout our lives, through exposure – what we consume – consciously or unconsciously. That’s the boring part (though it’s far from static and can, and does, absolutely change as we change what we consume).
The fascination begins for me here: about 70% of the immune system lies in the gut. If you have an autoimmune disease and you aren’t actively aware of the potential impact of your microbiome on your condition, it could be worthwhile to learn more about it. Equally important (and utterly absorbing to me, if you’ll forgive the pun) is the interaction of the brain and the microbiome, one of the major components of which is the vagus nerve. Lots of things fell together for me once I learned about all of this: 1) how it’s possible for my body to react as quickly as it does when I attempt to enjoy that milkshake; 2) why I often experience a similar bodily response when I’m extra-anxious or nervous; 3) why it’s so important to eat slowly and chew your food thoroughly – something I’ve heard for years and kind of accepted, and now understand why: it’s the chewing that kicks off and sends the signals to your gut about what enzymes to release to properly deal with what’s in your mouth, and if you don’t chew enough, there isn’t enough time for the body to recognize what you’re eating; 4) maybe the reason my Hashimoto’s appeared was that the recurring use of the Z-packs was killing my microbiome! As I mentioned above, I absolutely experience flare-ups of the inflammatory arthritis (an autoimmune condition) in my left elbow when I eat too much sugar (or drink too much alcohol). It all made sense.
That’s a no-go(gurt); and Flunkin-Dunkin
What you eat and drink serves to promote certain types of gut flora, both “good” and “bad.” Sugars of all kinds appear to hinder the balance of beneficial organisms. Though it’s unclear how direct that link is in humans (not enough studies yet), there’s enough evidence in studies of mice that, if you ask me, we should be aware and paying close attention to our sugar intake. Similarly, artificial sweeteners may not be a good alternative, either. And when I’m talking about sugar intake, I mean not just what you get from cake or candy or other, obviously sweet things, but also the byproducts of refined carbohydrates (white bread, etc.). So, if you’re thinking that “Gogurt” spiked with processed fruit and loaded with sweetener is going to help your kid’s microbiome, it’s pretty much guaranteed to not be as good as a cup of plain yogurt with fresh fruit.
It took me some time to “retrain” my tastebuds away from sweet things, but now that I have, it’s amazing how crazy-sweet I find the contents of most boxes, bottles, and containers of things on the shelves at the supermarket. I even gave up my previously favorite guilty-pleasure: a Starbucks mocha. Yikes. Just the thought of one of those now makes my teeth hurt, and I absolutely *cringe* at the idea of what might be in garbage like those Dunkin COOLATTAS® or “signature lattes.” I genuinely believe this kind of junk is slowly killing us.
There’s a mountain of information out there about the microbiome now, and sure to be more as attention and interest increase in the public and in scientific research, but a word of caution: often the information you’ll find is part of the sites of people trying to sell you supplements, and there’s pretty much zero evidence that probiotic supplements are beneficial, other than for people with veryspecific conditions, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome. As is the case with supplements in general, the body is much better at synthesizing what it needs from real food than from extracted or manufactured vitamins, minerals, etc. Even one of my favorite books on the subject is authored by a doctor who has studied and experimented with diets to alter/improve the microbiome, and while he says supplements are not necessary, he claims that *his* supplements can improve the effects of a microbiome-supporting diet. What a load of crap.
In an upcoming post, I’ll talk about what I’ve learned *can*
help develop a healthier microbiome and point you to more sources you might
find useful if you’re interested. The good news: none of this is difficult to
achieve once you understand more about the types of foods that benefit the
microbiome, and most of them are not exotic or hard to find.
Apologies that this week’s Food Friday isn’t going up until Saturday, but Owen asked for us to drive straight through Thursday on the way home from picking him up from his freshman year at school, and what should have been about a 13 – 14 hour trip turned into a 17-hour odyssey (I drove all of it) and us not pulling into the driveway until nearly 1 a.m. on Friday. As a result, what I was hoping to write when I got home Thursday night had to wait through a Friday consumed by unpacking, returning the rental mini-van, catching up with mom & dad, and the long-awaited family viewing of Avengers End Game.
Now, at 10 p.m. on Friday, I can finally gather my thoughts
and start waxing poetic about my week in food. I love cooking at home, but when
I’m on a vacation like this, I like to lay down my chef’s knife to explore local
restaurants. So when we were down in the mountains of western North Carolina (with
a stop-over in Winchester, VA) this past week, I took every opportunity I could
to check out some new spots, from coffee to breakfast to lunch to dinner and there
was a treat at every turn, even if I was left wishing for 6 stomachs and
another week’s worth of time – there’s just never enough.
It seems that in just about every place I’ve been, good
coffee isn’t hard to come by anymore; and, with apologies to all the Dunkin
fans out there, I don’t mean Dunkin. I’m not bashing them. I just prefer foods and
beverages that aren’t mass-produced and homogenized into repeatable, predictable
submission, but I recognize that some people like to know exactly what they’re
getting. Every time.
For coffee lovers on the road – actually for all food and beverage lovers – Yelp, in my opinion, is the best invention ever. It’s like word of mouth times a thousand, and it has never steered me wrong. On this trip, it was 3 at-bats, and a 1.000 average: Steamy’s in Winchester, Dynamite Coffee Roasters in Black Mountain, NC and The Beehive in Arden, NC. I should probably be more scientific about my coffee excursions than I am, but I’m not on a quest for the best coffee in the country, just a place that gives me some meaningful choices as far as origin, type of processing, roast, sourcing standards, etc. When I say “scientific,” I mean maybe only ordering a pour-over every place I go, or the same type of bean, but that second one is way too variable and would come down to a meaningless comparison of apples (Macoun) to apples (Delicious), and would definitely alienate way too many baristas and patrons waiting in line behind me, which I’m just not that into. So I’m perfectly happy to roll with a nice, simple, unadorned black cup of the brew of the day, and enjoying the amazing variety in fruitiness, earthiness, acidity, etc, of a wonderful range of options. Steamy’s also makes a great bagel (in-house); Dynamite has a can’t-go-wrong featured brew of the day and yummy scones, and The Beehive makes a mean cold-brew.
When you only have a few days someplace with a lot of other attractions (such as, um, some of the most beautiful mountains in the country, and one of the most scenic roads ever built to get you to them), unfortunately, carving out the time to check out different breakfast spots each day may not be realistic. As much of a morning person as I am, alas, a sit-down breakfast every day just wasn’t in the cards. I’m thrilled to report, though, that the one place we did indulge ourselves with was so wonderful that I might not be able to venture anywhere else the next time I’m in Black Mountain. That spot was Louise’s Kitchen. I’m usually more of a savory-breakfast person than sweet, but this time I went for broke with the blueberry waffle and it was excellent – perfectly crispy on the outside and light and fluffy on the inside, and the locally made sausage patty that was one of the side options was unique and delicious. Washed it all down with a “mega-mosa” (because what’s better preparation for a 90-minute drive and sometimes chest-clutching hike to a waterfall?)
Barbecue & Smokehouse
No shortage of either one of these things in and around Asheville, that’s for damn sure. The two we got to experience on this visit were Luella’s BBQ in North Asheville (melt-in-your-mouth brisket, baby; plus hush puppies and collard greens – braised southern-style with that nice, vinegary bite – I was one happy camper!!) and, on our last night in Black Mountain, Foothills Butcher Bar, where I had one of the best pork chops of my life (it was the blue plate special). These guys source everything locally – they know the farmers who raise their meats, and they run their own butcher shop and smokehouse, where they also produce their own cold cuts. My dad is a huge bologna fan, so I snagged a pound and can’t wait to give it a try when I bring it to him tomorrow (because I forgot it in the fridge when I went over to see them this morning). They also made a version of poutine that was incredible – fries done in beef tallow with the obligatory cheese curds melted on top (from locally made cheese, of course!), topped with their own not-to-be-sneezed at “pulled beef” with a beef demi-glace in place of the usual gravy, some sriracha aioli, and, to break through all that richness, pickled red onions and a nice sprinkle of fresh cilantro.
We kicked off our trip on, of all days, Cinco de Mayo, so I think we were all kinda leaning toward margaritas and Mexican food (if we could find a good spot at our stop-over in Winchester, VA). Turns out that we’d just missed the fracas that is the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival in town this past weekend, and many of the locally-owned establishments were plumb tuckered-out from the Shenandoah-shenanigans of the thousands of visitors that had overwhelmed them from Friday night through Sunday morning. Thankfully, there was a good Mexican option that picked itself up, dusted itself off, and carried on gallantly, in the rain. And, as it turned out, El Centro in Old Town Winchester makes some pretty mean carnitas, and a decent top-shelf margarita. I’m as picky as they come when it comes to carnitas, to which I was introduced on a visit to southern CA many years ago, by friends who ventured over the border into Mexico fairly regularly, and were capable of finding a truly authentic Mexican restaurant inside of hours of arriving in any unfamiliar city. Those first carnitas were memorable – soft, juicy, just a little fatty, and crispy all at the same time, perfectly seasoned, though I had no idea at the time with what – I just knew that dish would more or less haunt me for years – I never could find anything that came close to it anywhere (even on many visits to Mexico!!). Then, a few years ago, I came across a recipe for it in the New York Times and decided to give it a go. The result was so close to that first taste that it was nearly a religious experience. That doesn’t stop me from trying them at restaurants that offer them though, because, well, you just never know. And this time, while they weren’t quite the originals (or the NY Times version), they were pretty great – they didn’t go all the way to crispy, but they were tasty and clearly the result of the long cooking process and absorption of spices that makes the best carnitas.
Also, as if the Universe were actually paying attention to stuff I write about, I finally got to try a spot on Tuesday night in Asheville that’s been on my list for a while – The Blackbird Restaurant, and what did they have on their menu that night? Roasted marrow. It. Was. Heavenly.
Our post-waterfall hike lunch was at HomeGrown in Asheville (we went to the one on Merrimon Ave.), which bills itself as “Slow Food Right Quick.” That’s exactly what they do, and they do it spectacularly. They balance a lot of challenging variables: practically everything locally sourced; soul/southern food; simultaneously vegan- and omnivore-friendly. The result could be disastrous, but it’s far from it, and I pretty much inhaled a scrumptious buttermilk fried chicken sandwich with incredibly fresh lettuce, pickled onions, sprouts, and horseradish honey-mustard, set off with a side of sautéed ginger-spiked, sesame greens (kale) unlike any I’ve ever had, and I’m a greens-lover. Tim had their cheesy grits as a side to his “Redneck Cuban.” I could have married those grits, or at least slept with them. O.M.G.
Finally, helping to make the 17-hour trip home at least not THE worst travel experience of my life, we found our way to Metro Diner in Middletown, DE sometime around 7:30 Thursday night, after close to 12 hours on the road, and one speeding ticket. One of their specials was a homemade turkey pot pie, which was almost perfect (including the crust, my only criticism for which was that I wished there were more of it). It helped me keep it together for the 4 ½ hours of driving (and crawling through construction within the last hour of the trip) that still faced me. This was the one “chain” I succumbed to (besides the quick in/out fast food stops for breakfast on the way down and lunch on the way back), and it was really OK. Or at least my pot pie was.
Through all of it, we didn’t have even one bad server. Here’s
to all of them, and the chefs, and roasters, and everyone else who makes and
serves, and cleans up after the food and drinks that speak the deeper language and
culture of a place, and make the travel experience that much richer.
I am a meat lover. To be even more specific, I am a fat-loving
meat lover. Fat has always made me happy. And so far, it seems to also be keeping
me healthy, which isn’t something I’m sure would work for everyone. (I have a
theory about diets in general and why there is no single “best” or healthiest
diet that is the right one for every person – I’ll post about that sometime in
the not-too-distant future).
Full disclosure though, I am also a vegetable-lover, so
perhaps that’s my nutritional saving grace – who knows? The only vegetable I’ve
ever tried that I didn’t like was okra. Bitter greens, like mustard, dandelion,
broccoli rabe? Bring ‘em on. Brussels sprouts? I can hardly get enough. I’m crazy
about kale; cuckoo for kimchee (technically a fermented vegetable, I know – I’ll
do a post about fermented foods sometime in the future, too). But nothing makes
me drool more than a well-seasoned ribeye, freshly sizzling off the grill, and
the near-swoon of anticipation I feel slicing into that first, beautiful, melty
piece of salt & peppered fat.
True story, just to put a needle-sharp point on my
borderline obsession: we, like millions of others, had a ham for Easter this
year. Because we were a small crowd, I got a quarter ham, bone-in. Until the
end of the day, when I was cleaning up and putting away the leftovers, I had
not considered a truly wondrous thing: in order to have a “bone-in” quarter ham,
the bone would have to be cut, too. And, there, as I lifted the ham by its partial
shank bone to nestle it into a storage container, I spied it. Shimmering unctuously
at me from the cocoon of that split shank was that grail of fat-lovers
everywhere: the *marrow.* I stopped dead in my cleanup tracks, gasped at my
fortune, then proceeded to scoop and slurp up every last molecule of it. Yes. I
LOVE fat. (If that just grossed you out, my apologies. On the other hand, if you
have a leaning toward fat and you’ve never experienced the sublime joy that is
marrow, go forth and find yourself a great restaurant that serves osso bucco. Your
life may never be quite the same again).
But I’m not mindless about it.
With all of that said, I have to share something else that
has grown to be a part of my life and routine, though I must admit that I’m not
always able to follow this perfectly: when I buy any kind of animal protein
(meat, poultry, eggs, fish, even dairy products), I spend the time to find, and
the extra money to buy (though often to buy reduced quantities of) products
which are grass-fed, pasture-raised, free-range, wild-caught, hormone- and
antibiotic-free, etc. I don’t do this because I’m a food snob or an animal
rights activist. I do this because I believe that animals raised eating the
foods *they* were meant to eat (cattle eating grasses & hay, as opposed to
grains, soy meal, and God-knows what else; chickens tapping around and eating
insects, seeds, and worms; etc.), and in surroundings they were meant to inhabit
(cattle in fields, rather than crammed into muddy, manure-filled pens; ditto
for chickens or pigs, or even fish) are inherently healthier themselves, and by
logical progression, their meat is also healthier when we consume it.
Grass-fed, free-range: really healthier?
This is borne out by studies of cattle fed grass diets versus grain diets. The concentrations of, for example, healthier omega 3 fatty acids are consistently higher in grass-fed than in grain-fed beef. While omega 6 fatty acid concentrations don’t seem to change significantly with the different diets, as I noted a couple of weeks ago in my Step Away From the Canola post, we should be after ratios of omega 6: omega 3 more in the range of 4:1 or lower (ideally, 1:1), whereas now, our typical ratios are sky-high (15:1 or higher). Grass-fed beef provides a better ratio. It also has higher concentrations of antioxidant enzymes, among other benefits. While grass-fed and free-range animals do tend to have lower overall fat content and slightly different flavor profiles, I’ve been perfectly happy with the fat they do have, and have grown accustomed to the flavor profile.
I also think there’s something to be said for “happier” animals in terms of the eventual healthfulness of their meat: in the same way that elevated stress hormones are known to have deleterious effects on humans and our propensity for all sorts of disease, animals under chronic stress respond similarly. Keep subjecting them to stressful situations; drive up their stress hormones and, not surprisingly, you will decrease the quality of their meat.
But what about the environment?
Finally, I return to one of the areas I said I’d focus on at
the outset of writing this blog a few months ago, and a huge reason I buy
carefully: environmental impact. The production of animal protein, no matter
what, has a larger carbon footprint than the production of most plant products
(though that does start getting more iffy with some monoculture crops, many of
which are produced for what? Animal feed. But I digress). However, the negative
environmental impact of grass-fed/pasture-raised/free-range meat production is
significantly lower than high-intensity “factory farming” techniques. There’s a
great book about this called Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat, by Philip
Lymber with Isabel Oakeshott, which, despite the alarmist title, does a very
balanced job of laying out the horrific environmental impacts of factory
farming, along with a very solid argument for how, despite broad belief to the
contrary, expanding global populations do *not* demand more such intensive
farming techniques. You can find a good overview and review of the book here
on The Guardian.
Our choices, our future.
It’s critical that we all understand the absolute power we wield to shape our own futures, whether carnivore or vegan, not only by how we eat, but by how we spend our money. We’re seeing more food retailers adding organic options to their shelves, and many manufacturers shifting to non-GMO ingredients. They aren’t doing that just for yuks or out of a sense of environmental stewardship or social justice. They’re doing it because of consumer demand. That demand, my friends, begins and ends with you and me.
If you only read and absorb two sentences here, make it these two: PLEASE STOP THINKING REFINED SEED AND VEGETABLE OILS ARE HEALTHY. THEY’RE REALLY *NOT*; AS A MATTER OF FACT, THEY’RE HARMFUL AT THE RATES WE’RE CONSUMING THEM. Let me call them out right up front: soybean, canola (a.k.a. rapeseed), corn, cottonseed, sunflower, safflower, grapeseed, peanut; anything calling itself “vegetable oil,” margarine or other butter-like spreads. This may not be news to you. If it is, though, or you keep finding yourself hypnotized by the “healthy” marketing BS that accompanies these products, keep reading.
A well-cited editorial in the British Medical Journal (“BMJ”) from March of 2014 spells out a lot of the evidence. I don’t want to go too science-geek on you with this, so I’m going to attempt to share a few of the reasons in a way that will hopefully keep your eyes from glazing over (but I’ll include citations so you can explore more deeply if you’d like).
Fact # 1: “Vegetable” and Seed Oils are High in Omega-6 Fatty Acids
Our bodies *need* omega-6 fatty acids, and cannot produce them on their own. Why, then, would consuming omega-6 be a problem? In short, it’s the old “too much of a good thing” conundrum. The presence of omega-6 competes in the cells with omega-3, also an essential fatty acid that our bodies can’t produce on their own. We should be after a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 of less than 4:1. Estimates of the ratio in the western diet are now at least 15:1; by some estimates, in the U.S., it may be as high at 25:1 for some people. Processed foods are *full* of it, which is a big part of the problem. You can get omega 6’s naturally from seeds (e.g. sunflower or pumpkin); certain nuts (pistachios – yay! – and pine nuts, a.k.a. pignolis); acai berries. You should probably stop there.
This out-of-whack ratio is bad news. According to a 2002 abstract on the website for the National Center for Biotechnology Information, too-high omega-6 to omega-3 ratios “promote the pathogenesis of many diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.” To get more specific, various studies have linked high ratios to (thanks to this article on paleoleap.com for this list and citations):
As far as I’m concerned (maybe you, too, at this point), just the above info is enough to put me completely off these oils. If you want to come with me as I pile on, though, keep reading.
Fact # 2: Most Vegetable and Seed Oils Marketed as “Healthy” are Heavily Industrially Processed
Did you know: “Crisco” was the catchy name they came up with for “crystallized cottonseed oil” when it was first created? (Because in the late 1800’s Procter & Gamble, who’d been using cottonseed oil in the manufacture of candles and soap, discovered they could partially hydrogenate the oil and it resembled lard. *Resembled* lard. Let that sink in for just a second. An oil from the seeds of a plant that we would never consider to be a food source – cotton – was something that resembled lard. What the heck? Why not try it out in cooking?!?) So P&G tested this product, which resembled lard, and found that it worked in the kitchen, and decided to market it as a lard replacement. Good. Lord.
Now that it’s pretty common knowledge that hydrogenated oils should be avoided, we’ve shifted to liquid oils. But while oils like olive, coconut, and avocado can be fairly easily produced by cold-pressing the seeds of the fruits/nuts they come from, the process to extract the oils from, for example, rapeseeds (i.e. refining), borders on the nearly mind-numbing (with attribution and thanks to this piece on thankyourbody.com for this edgy if admittedly over-simplified description):
“Step 1: Find some “canola seeds.” Oh wait, they don’t exist. Canola oil is actually made from a hybrid version of the rapeseed… most likely genetically modified and heavily treated with pesticides.
Step 2: Heat the rapeseeds at unnaturally high temperatures so that they oxidize and are rancid before you ever buy them.
Step 3: Process with a petroleum solvent to extract the oils.
Step 4: Heat some more and add some acid to remove any nasty wax solids that formed during the first processing.
Step 5: Treat the oil with more chemicals to improve the color.
Step 6: Deodorize the oil to mask the horrific smell from the chemical processing.”
I could stop there, but, one more, to help to hopefully drive the nail into the vegetable and seed oil coffin for you.
Fact # 3: Industrially Processed (“Refined”) Vegetable and Seed Oils are Chemically Unstable and Easily Oxidized
To me, this might actually be the scariest one.
Not only are these oils likely compromised during production (as noted above in “Step 2”), exposing them to air, light, and heat adds insult to injury. This happens because of the molecular structure of these “polyunsaturated” oils. Why does oxidation matter? Oxidation, like omega-6 fatty acids, is essential in the body. Oxidation creates free radicals, which, when limited to what is needed by the body to turn food into energy, is fine. Too many free radicals roaming around in the body, though, is not a good thing. This article does an amazing job of describing why, so I’m going to steal some of it for you here (emphasis added by me): “once free radicals are formed, a chain reaction can occur. The first free radical pulls an electron from a molecule, which destabilizes the molecule and turns *it* into a free radical. That molecule then takes an electron from another molecule, destabilizing *it* and turning *it* into a free radical. This domino effect can eventually disrupt and damage the whole cell.
“The free radical chain reaction may lead to broken cell membranes, which can alter what enters and exits the cell, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. The chain reaction may change the structure of a lipid, making it more likely to become trapped in an artery. The damaged molecules may mutate and grow tumors. Or, the cascading damage may change DNA code.”
Still gonna hang onto that bottle of Wesson or canola oil? If yes, I hope you move it out to the garage with the WD-40.
So, I finished the book. If you missed last week’s post, “the book” is The Big Fat Surprise, by Nina Teicholz. Another week of messed-up sleep patterns has transpired, with me staying up too late reading something I couldn’t put down, despite the fact that what I was reading was, at nearly every turn of the page, leaving me with that “train wreck, can’t-look-away” sensation. Every few minutes, I found myself groaning with irritation; sometimes, genuinely seething with anger, and, on several occasions, really craving a sizzling, well-seasoned ribeye, though that’s not all that unusual for me anyway.
If you read this book, which, if you’re interested in food, nutrition, and health, I recommend you do, you may ultimately find it difficult to ever think anything BUT critically about advice coming out of organizations like the American Heart Association, and, quite frankly, the USDA, among many others. It’s a story of good intentions run amok, triggered when heart disease began cranking up at an alarming rate back in the post-WWII days and the medical and scientific communities were scrambling to try to figure out why.
The book is about 500 pages long. Of that 500 pages, 20 pages are dedicated to post-chapter citations; fully 80 pages to the author’s extensive notes when she quotes people or makes otherwise un-cited statements; 58 pages are bibliography. I’m telling you all of that because when you understand what she’s done with this book, given our collective “knowledge” of what constitutes a “healthy” diet, drummed into us for our entire lives, it’s otherwise going to be impossible for you to not be skeptical. The science-geek in me truly appreciates that 158-or-so pages. This isn’t the interpretation of someone who started writing with an axe to grind or an agenda to support.
It may not surprise some of you to read that we (meaning Americans – hundreds of millions of us, and then, eventually, much of the rest of the world) have been subjected, for well-over 50 years, to something like a giant, macro-version of helicopter parenting. A hypothesis was formed in the pressure and heat of that post-war heart disease ramp-up; tiny sample sizes and highly flawed data sets then became the bedrock of the idea that saturated fats were the cause of obesity and heart disease; myths about serum cholesterol levels and how they were supposedly impacted by foods containing cholesterol became fact; the fallacy of a low-fat diet as the way to health insinuated itself in our brains (with the help of the above-mentioned entities, to name just a couple of the offenders). Because we’ve been told by so many authorities (our collective surrogate helicopter parents: the government, the American Heart Association, our own doctors!) for so long that we should be following the tenets of a low fat (or, more recently, Mediterranean-style) diet, it never occurred to most of us that perhaps the whole substrate of that advice might be sitting on a huge fault line.
The punch line of the book is essentially in 4 parts:
1) Saturated fats are not the unhealthy villains they’ve been painted to be for over 5 decades; further, saturated fats are the only foods known to raise “good” HDL-cholesterol levels (there’s a lot more in the book about cholesterol and how it functions, which was highly enlightening);
2) A low-fat diet, in most cases, reduces the HDL cholesterol levels in the blood, which is not a good thing to do. While it may also reduce the “bad” LDL cholesterol, that isn’t necessarily a high-impact effect when it comes to heart disease, and LDL cholesterol is actually more complicated than a single number, with “subfractions” consisting of denser and lighter particles. The dense particles are more strongly correlated with risk of heart disease, so even if you have a low LDL number, if your LDL is made up mostly of the denser particles, you can still be at risk of heart disease (and oh, by the way, saturated fats tend to cause the lighter LDL particles to increase);
3) In our quest to replace saturated fats with supposedly “healthy” fats (i.e. polyunsaturated vegetable and seed oils: canola, corn, soybean, etc., etc.), we’ve created a silent, and growing monster, and not just when those oils are hydrogenated. As a matter of fact, what we’re doing now that hydrogenation has become mostly taboo, is using these vegetable and seed oils in their liquid form for cooking and frying. Unfortunately, these oils, because of their chemical makeup, oxidize easily, and this oxidization accelerates when the oils are heated. I’ll get more into why that matters in a future post (bringing me full-circle to where I was 2 weeks ago), but I’ll give you a teaser, in the form of a quote from the book (page 279, if you decide to read it), by Gerald McNeill, a vice president at “Loders Croklaan, which is one of the country’s largest suppliers of edible oil:” “As those oils are heated, you’re creating toxic oxidative breakdown products. One of those products is a compound called an aldehyde, which interferes with DNA. Another is formaldehyde, which is extremely toxic.”
4) If we want to zero in on more likely sources of chronic disease, consistent evidence has been out there since the 1920s that sugar and carbohydrates are the more probable culprits. Chapter 10 of the book goes into the evidence and the science behind this in convincing depth.
Several questions I want to get into in the coming weeks: how big food and edible oil companies and industry groups contribute to the problem; why our doctors don’t seem to know any of this and continue to espouse low fat diets; how and why huge, influential entities like the American Heart Association became, and remain, shills for low fat eating (and, alarmingly, vegetable and seed oils); why you should strongly consider the impact of vegetable oils on your health; why the USDA still hasn’t changed dietary guidelines; the list goes on.