Archive for July, 2009

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Go Ahead and Eat the Bacon

Friday, July 31st, 2009

I was reading a New York Times article this morning, Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch by Michael Pollan.  Ostensibly, he is promoting the new Julie & Julia film but he also finds the space to consider his pet subject, the lamentable state of America’s eating habits and trends.   He mentions the usual scapegoat suspects as causes of the increase in obesity: fast-food culture, high-cal-high-fat pre-packaged foods, lack of time to cook, the ubiquitous soft drink, etc.  But there were a few things in this article that I found especially compelling.

Writing about the shows on the Food Network, he makes mention of the competition-based shows like Iron Chef America, Top Chef, and makes an observation that I’ve many times proclaimed myself:  “If you ask me, the key to victory on any of these shows comes down to one factor: bacon. Whichever contestant puts bacon in the dish invariably seems to win.”    No question about it: bacon is always the right answer.  If one of the competitors adds both bacon and cheese, it’s practically cheating.

Offering some facts about the cooking and eating habits of Americans, he writes,

“…as the “time cost” of food preparation has fallen, calorie consumption has gone up, particularly consumption of the sort of snack and convenience foods that are typically cooked outside the home. They found that when we don’t have to cook meals, we eat more of them: as the amount of time Americans spend cooking has dropped by about half, the number of meals Americans eat in a day has climbed; since 1977, we’ve added approximately half a meal to our daily intake.”

Interesting.  Convenience = more calorie intake?   That might be one of the reasons that we, living on a steep hill and not owning a car, now consume far, far less “food of convenience” than I think either of us ever has before.  It’s like we’ve created obstacles to convenience which means that unless one of us is willing to down and up at least two blocks of a steeply graded hill, we’re cooking at home.

Which segues to the third thing I found particularly interesting in the article,  a quote from the food market reseacher Harry Balzer, whom he interviewed.

“So I asked him how, in an ideal world, Americans might begin to undo the damage that the modern diet of industrially prepared food has done to our health. ‘Easy. You want Americans to eat less? I have the diet for you. It’s short, and it’s simple. Here’s my diet plan: Cook it yourself. That’s it. Eat anything you want — just as long as you’re willing to cook it yourself.’ ”

Remarkably succinct advice, if a little trite.  A few times, people have asked Marc and I how, as two people who take so much pleasure from eating and cooking, we both maintain a reasonable weight.   Doesn’t eating all that butter and bacon and cheese and duck confit add up?   Well sure; our long-winded and circuitous answer generally dilutes down to the statement that we mostly cook for ourselves.  Now, I think I’m just going to shorten that answer to what buddy said:  “Eat anything you want, just cook it yourself.”

Top 10 Signs of SF Assimilation

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

10. While out walking, I consider it normal that more people say hello to the dog than to me.

9.  I can parallel park on a 20% grade hill.

8.  There is nothing that cannot be recycled.  Even if it means paying to arrange for the old mattress to be picked up, torn apart and made into vertical tomato vine skeletons.

7.  “The iPhone says to turn left two blocks ahead and the Whole Foods should be on the right.”

6.  When there are no parking spots,  one of us continually drives around the block until the other has finished the grocery shopping.

5.  We eat 150% more avocado than in Canada.

4.  “The Prius has a quarter tank of gas left, we don’t need to fill up.”

3.  Cocktails are organic.

2.  I can mentally calculate how long it will take to arrive a destination if the distance is displayed in miles instead of kilometers.

1.  Our largest and most exciting purchase last month was a KitchenAid® stand mixer, with which we can now make even more homemade whole grain bread and artisanal pizza crust.



Fruits + Vodka + Lard

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

p1030755There is some magic in making a good pie crust.  Even Nigella admits to being trepidatious about anything pastry.  Indeed, I’m always at least a little anxious when making pie crust because there are so many details that could result in flabby, or glutinous, or hard, or flaky crust:  the ratio of shortening to butter must be correct, the fats must be cold, the water must be icy, the dough mustn’t be massaged too thoroughly, the dough must be rested and chilled- but not too much, or it will crack when rolled out…   No wonder nobody makes pies anymore when just the crust has so many potential pitfalls and one can buy a pie so much more easily.

But there’s something to be said for homemade pie.  One earns extra points when serving pie for dessert if it’s homemade, and even more points if even the filling is from scratch.   If keeping score, Marc recently earned extra bonus points for a pie that not only had amazing crust and a scrumptious, sweet-tart filling, but which could be extracted from the pie plate cleanly and without any spill-over.   Of course, there is no human alive that would turn down a slice if, during serving, it comes apart and spills over becoming somewhat unrecognizable as actual pie, but it portends a certain suave genius to serve a piece of  pie that looks like it could be on display.   His creation was of the strawberry-rhubarb variety, my second all-time favourite;  apart from it’s perfect execution, I’m sure part of its deliciousness was owing to the absolutely perfect – truly perfect –  strawberries contained within.  Wow, those strawberries were blue-ribbon quality.   What a difference buying local and vine ripened makes; they were deep red and just the purest essence of strawberry.  The grocery store was selling them right next to a shiny basket of new rhubarb, thus making the mental leap from strawberry to rhubarb to pie that much more obvious.  We happily walked right into that one.


Before this, there was pecan pie, made only because of the surplus of pecans in the freezer.   Those nuts only last so long and Trader Joe’s only sells them in enormous bags, so having bought the enormous bag, we were committed.  Only 475 calories per slice.

The pecan pie was a revelation as it was the first pie crust we made with vodka.  Yes, it turns out, that in addition to cocktails and sauce for penne, vodka can be used in pie dough.   The recipe came from an episode of America’s Test Kitchen and explained the science behind the addition of vodka:

While gluten (the protein that makes crust tough) forms readily in water, it doesn’t form in ethanol, and vodka is 60 percent water and 40 percent ethanol. So adding 8 tablespoons of vodka produces a moist, easy-to-roll dough that stays tender (because it contains only 6 1/2 tablespoons of water). The alcohol vaporizes in the oven.

And now, forever more, I will add vodka to pie crust: partly as a practical step towards good pie, and partly as a superstitious sacrifice to the forces that grant a flaky crust.