Friday, February 12, 2010

Part 4, Lesson 2: Rounding It Out

Part 4: "I Can't Afford Fresh Food"
Lesson 2: Rounding It Out

Incorporating Exercise
Eating real, fresh food will give you more energy.  That's just how it is.  So as long as you're making major lifestyle changes you might as well get in some exercise to burn some energy off.  There are a million and one websites, articles, and magazines with ideas on how to incorporate exercise into your busy day.  Some of the ideas are impractical (join a gym!  Sure, I'll get right on that after I work my full time job, then pick up the kid and make dinner and clean the house and take the kid to soccer practice and put the kid to bed and maybe say a couple of words to my spouse before passing out and go back to work in the morning so I can continue to live paycheck-to-paycheck) or just plain stupid (jumping jacks in your cubicle!).  If we're being completely honest with ourselves here there are many good excuses not to exercise.  But here's the thing: most of your excuses are crap.  Take the stairs.  Park farther away.  Get up 20 minutes earlier.  Play with your kids.  Go for a walk.

Feeding the entire family
It's possible to feed your kids something other than french fries, Happy Meals, and frozen chicken nuggets.  If your kid has never tasted jicama or kohlrabi, why not?  If they've tried them once and decided they hated them, did you try to prepare them a different way?  Have a few years passed since you last tried?  Kids are pliable.  I encourage you to get kids excited about trying new things.  I know that some kids are steadfastly stubborn little bastards, but I don't think you should ever stop trying. 

Do you have a baby?  Have you ever considered making homemade baby food?  It's easier and faster than you think.

Do you have school-age kids?  Do they eat school lunch?  Do you know what they're eating?  Please find out and consider sending healthy, fresh food with them.  With a little pre-planning mixed with freezer and food storage skills it's easier and faster than you think.  Better yet, start a conversation with your child's school about the quality of the food they're serving.

The Big Box Of Crap
Remember that box of crap food you've been adding to this whole time?  It's time to go and look at it.  How have your feelings toward this stuff changed?

Your Homework:
Donate your box of crap to a food shelf.  I'm sure there's a box at your local supermarket.  There are a lot of hungry people out there and even if this food isn't the best, it's better than nothing.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Part 4, Lesson 1: Budget Foods

Part 4: "I Can't Afford Fresh Food"
Lesson 1: Budget Foods

Finally she's writing about money, right?

It is possible to eat real food on a budget.  I promise.  You may just need to adjust your shopping style.

Be A Coupon Ninja
This is the most time-consuming thing you can do, but the deals you can score are amazing.  The jist of super couponing is this: store has something on sale, say, 2 widgets for $1.  You have two coupons for $0.25 off 1 widget because you bought 2 Sunday papers or printed 2 off the Internet.  The store doubles coupons.  Thus you end up with 2 widgets for free.  I'll wait while you work out the math.

This is how you can get a lot of things for free or extremely cheap.  And you don't have to work out all the sales and coupons yourself.  Through the magic of the intarwebtubes people have done all the work for you: see A Full Cup, Pocket Your Dollars, and a number of other sites like these.  I've got a bunch in my RSS reader for ease of reading.

This all being said, don't be sucked into the trap of free or cheap convenience foods just for the sake of getting them free or cheap.  Bad free food is still bad food.  Get them and put them in a donation bin if you must.  Look for deals on produce (they exist!), pantry staples, and household goods.

Buy In Bulk
I'm sure you've heard this before, but have you ever actually taken a stroll through your store's bulk section?  Some stores are better than others and it can be worth it to drive a little farther to the store with the better selection.  If you're in Minneapolis, the Rainbow at Lake and Minnehaha has a stunning bulk area.

But the bulk section is scary!  There's all these bags and weighing and labels and scoops and oh god nobody is here to hold my hand fffuuuuuuu....

Get over it and stop being such a lazy asshole.  Grab a bag, a twist tie or label, and a golf pencil or one of the attached pens.  Scoop your stuff into the bag.  Write down the PLU, the number code on the bin of whatever you're buying, on the twist tie/label.  You don't even need to weigh it because the cashier will do that at checkout.

Better yet: bring your own container so you don't need plastic bags.  If you do this, weigh your container first and write the weight down on your label.  This is called the tare weight and you may need to remind your cashier about it.  Don't forget to write down the PLU too.  There's no need to make your cashier's life harder; they get enough shit from bad customers as it is.  Seriously, if you talk down to your cashier I will punch you in the face.

Another bulk tip: near the bulk bins you will usually find bulk or bagged spices.  Go ahead and compare the price of bagged peppercorns or cayenne with the jars in the spice section.  Mmm hmm.  Yup.

Farmer's Markets and Farmstands
If you have access to a farmer's market or a farmstand, GO.  The food is more often than not local, very often organic, as fresh as it gets, and cheap.  I mean, really, really, really cheap.  It's sickening to have to pay $1.49 or more for a single avocado at the supermarket when I know I can go to the farmer's market and get a bagful of 5-8 for $2 or less.

In addition to actually meeting and speaking to the actual farmers, you have the benefit of finding produce you never even knew existed.  When it's so cheap, why not try something new every week?

Ethnic Markets - Field Trip Time!
I went to United Noodles this weekend and picked up a pound of frozen shelled edamame for $1.49.  I usually get 12 oz for $2.59.  Lemons and limes can be had at Latino markets for a couple of bucks a bag, as opposed to $1 each at the supermarket.  Spices that run $8-10 for a few ounces can be found at Asian and Indian markets for pennies on the dollar.  I saw a huge bag of whole cardamom pods at United Noodles for less than $3.

So get on over that xenophobia and go.  You won't get any funny looks even if you're not brown or yellow.  The clerks are usually more than happy to answer questions and help you find stuff.

Don't pass by the ethnic aisles at the supermarket, either.  The Latino section, in particular, can score you cheap cinnamon, whole dried peppers, cayenne, beans, and rice.

Co-ops (really!)
Co-op and budget aren't usually two things that go together.  You picture co-ops as places where yuppies driving Priuses and Minis buy expensive organic soap and carrot juice.  While this is mostly true (Wedge, what up?), it is possible to find reasonable prices there too.  Membership truly has its advantages in the forms of coupons and member-only specials.  Co-ops usually have fabulous bulk sections too.

The only problem with CSAs is that you have to come up with the money up front.  It's a bit painful having to drop like $500 all at once, but if you think about it it actually works out.  You're getting local, organic (usually) produce, and a LOT of it.  If you freeze what you don't eat right away rather than giving it away or letting it go bad, you can stretch out your CSA goods well into the winter and maybe even beyond.

You can garden almost everywhere, even in an apartment.  If you get involved in seed swaps or seed giveaways, it's nearly free.  If you're in the "I hate tomatoes" crowd and have never eaten one straight off the vine, you may just change your mind.  Those mealy bastards at the supermarket have absolutely nothing on a homegrown heirloom tomato still warm from the sun.

Your Homework:
Find and visit an ethnic store or a farmer's market.  Buy at least one thing you've never heard of.  Research it online when you get home.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Part 3, Lesson 2: No Sweat Big Batch Cooking

Part 3: "I Don't Have Time To Cook"
Lesson 2: No Sweat Big Batch Cooking

Soup: cheap, filling, usually healthy, usually fast.  Soup can be made in large amounts to feed a lot of people or to be stretched out over time.

Canned soup: salty, mushy, tasteless.

Homemade soup can be seasoned just to your own taste.  It can be made with leftovers and the stuff in your fridge that's about to go bad.  It can be frozen.  You can add more stuff to it throughout the week so you're never eating the same soup twice from a big batch.

Soup is easy.  Saute some aromatics (the mirepoix or trinity in your freezer is perfect for this), add liquid, add your filler ingredients, and season.  Simmer for a few minutes.  Done.  See?  Easy.  Add a salad and some bread and you have a filling, nourishing meal.

This is by no means complete, but here's a simple place to start if you want to come up with your own quick soup.  Choose something from each column, heat, and serve.

Liquid Protein Carb Veggies
Chicken broth cooked chicken cooked rice frozen mixed vegetables
Turkey broth cooked turkey cooked pasta diced tomato
Beef broth cooked pork tortellini cubed potato
Fish stock cooked steak quinoa diced squash
Tomato juice/V8 fish barley green beans
Vegetable stock shrimp


cooked ground beef
shredded cabbage

diced onion


Your homework:
If you have a can of soup in your pantry, turn it around and read the ingredients list and nutrition facts.  Now put it in that bag of crap in your basement.  Plan one night this week where you will make soup.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Part 3, Lesson 1: Menu Planning

Part 1: "I Don't Have Time to Cook"
Lesson 1: Menu Planning

You know it and I know it: menu planning prevents convenience food.  It's hard not to order pizza when you don't have any fresh food in the house.  If you take some time once a week/fortnight/month to plan your meals and have a shopping list ready to go, you'll really have no excuse besides laziness to open that can of Chef Boyardee.

As you have probably gathered from the weekly master files, my particular approach to meal planning is pretty nerdy.  I use a spreadsheet so I can easily sort my shopping list by day, type, ingredient, or whatever.  Back before we got our groceries delivered I would sort by type so it would make it easier and faster to find everything in the store.  I hate grocery stores, so if I could shave a few minutes off here and there by not bouncing from aisle to aisle, I did.  You sure don't have to use my spreadsheet, or any sort of prefabricated meal planning tool at all.  A pen and a piece of paper work just fine for some people.  If you do want to try out some other meal planners, there are a ton of them if you know where to look.

For the sake of example, let me tell you how I do it.  I use Google Docs to store all my recipes.  As I come across new and interesting recipes throughout the day, they get added immediately.  I try to keep everything labeled according to cuisine and some meal types like soups, salads, sandwiches, and sides.  I'm not so good at keeping up with that, but I've got about 85% of my recipes categorized that way.  Here's an example recipe.  You'll notice at the bottom of the recipe there is a spreadsheet that corresponds with my meal plan's shopping list tab.  So all I have to do is copy and paste that part.  I add these inline spreadsheets as I use recipes so the next time I use them it saves me a ton of work.

Your "Usuals"
Here's an example of a meal plan we used in May.  It was the week of the Kentucky Derby, hence the terribly unhealthy meal on Saturday.  It was delicious.  Anyway, if you scroll over you'll see that the last tab is called "usuals."  We eat homemade pizza and spaghetti a lot in our house.  They're our go-to lazy meals.  They're prepped and ready to be copied and pasted into the shopping list tab.  I encourage you to come up with your own "usuals."  If you've got a few of these in your back pocket and implement a weekly "usuals" night, that's one less meal you have to plan.  It's a huge load off my mind knowing that Thursday or Friday is usually spaghetti night.  We used to have enchilada night too, but that made us fat.

If you look at the "Month" tab (whoops, I guess I didn't update this one for May) you can see how I can take the sting out of a month's worth of meals.  If I have an outline of what I'm going to plan, I can look in Google Docs for a salad recipe one night, something Korean the next, and then a soup, all I have to do is fill in a couple blanks.

This all makes sense to my mind and I'm sure it's on the top end of control-freakiness.  So take whatever parts of this that are useful to you and come up with your own solution.

Planning Snacks
If you're trying to watch your weight, take the time to plan your snacks too. 

If All Else Fails
Copy someone else.

Your homework:
Choose a meal plan template that works for you.  Plan a week's worth of dinners and make a shopping list to go with it. 

Extra Credit:
Plan out all your breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks for a week.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Part 2, Lesson 8: Where the Flavor At

Part 2: "I Don't Know Anything About Food"
Lesson 8: Where the Flavor At

So you may be staring down a pile of beautiful fresh produce and wondering what to do with it besides eat it plain.  If you're just coming down off of a diet of high-sodium, high-fat, high-industrial-chemical-flavor food, real food can taste a little bland at first.  Not to worry, for it's just your taste buds adjusting.  Before I got pregnant I almost completely eliminated extra salt from my diet.  Everything tasted like cardboard for a couple of weeks, then gradually came back to life in my mouth.  A few weeks later I ate some kind of frozen horror show food (eggrolls or something like that) from my parents' freezer and couldn't believe how ridiculously salty it was.

There are ways to flavor food with real ingredients.  There is always the spice cabinet, but don't overlook things like fresh citrus juice (NOT from a bottle, and certainly NOT from concentrate), buttermilk, "fancy" cheeses, fresh herbs, dark leafy greens, dried fruits, nuts, flavored oils and vinegars, olives and pickles, stocks and broths, yogurt, butter, and simple classic sauces.

Here are some ideas to get you going (and here's a great article on the subject):

  • Broccoli: saute in olive oil and butter with sliced garlic.  Squeeze fresh lemon juice over it before serving.
  • Couscous: add chopped olives, walnuts, chopped red bell pepper, and chopped dates.
  • Green beans: blanch and toss in a vinaigrette made with red wine vinegar, olive oil, fresh parsley, minced garlic, and crushed red pepper.
  • Carrots: steam and toss in butter, honey, and tarragon.
  • Corn on the cob: go Mexican style and smear it with a small amount mayonnaise.  Roll it in crumbled queso fresco, farmer cheese, feta, or grated Parmesan, then sprinkle on chili powder.
  • Portobella mushrooms: marinate in balsamic vinegar, olive oil, Worcestershire sauce, salt, and pepper.  Roast or grill.
Your cooking method can impart flavor too.  There is a whole world of grilling and barbecuing out there.  Try tossing a few handfuls of wet smoking wood chips on your coals sometime.  Oven roasting vegetables brings out an incredible amount of flavor.  If in doubt, roast your vegetables.  Toss them in oil, add salt and pepper, and put them on a sheet pan in a 375 F oven until they're as toasty as you want them to be, stirring occasionally.  Cook vegetables and grains in broth. 

How to pair flavors

Where to begin?  Here's your homework.  Get a paper and pen.  Take out all of your dry herbs and spices.  Take the caps off.  Grab one at random.  Grab another one.  Put them both together under your nose and inhale.  Inhale carefully.  It's not my fault if you're sneezing up cayenne for the next day and a half.  How does it smell?  Do the two things go together?  Do they remind you of anything?  Does it smell like rotting bison ass?  Write your thoughts down.

For example:

You'll start finding patterns.  You'll quickly discover what you like and what you don't.  You may notice that some things smell "warm" and others "cool."

Extra credit: try pairing spices with cheese and giving it a whiff.  Herbs and fruit.  Fruit and vinegar and herbs.

It may take time, but eventually you'll build a mental (or written) list of what goes with what.  And eventually your taste buds will wake up and you'll appreciate the sweet crunch of a fresh peapod, the natural umami of an artichoke, the different flavors and textures of greens, and so on.

A word of caution: not everything you cook needs to have the ingredient list length of your average Indian food recipe.  Less can be more.  Experiment with two or three flavors at a time.  Unless you're actually cooking Indian food.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Part 2, Lesson 7: Stepping Outside of Your Culinary Comfort Zone

Part 2: "I Don't Know Anything About Food"
Lesson 7: Stepping Outside of Your Culinary Comfort Zone

"I cook this way because this is what I grew up eating."
I have heard this excuse over and over and over when people try an explain away the box of Hamburger Helper and tub of margarine they just devoured.  But guess what: your parents gave you that crap because they were poor and you were a picky asshole kid.  Don't worry, all kids are picky assholes.  Their taste buds are still developing and are, most of the time, super sensitive to certain flavors (this can actually change in a child from week to week).

Now that you're all growed up it's time to expand your culinary horizons.  I grew up eating generic mac and cheese, white rice, and ramen.  These days I prefer food with actual flavor.  You can too.  Note: chow mein is not what I'm talking about here.

Discovering New Cuisines and Flavors
Have you ever tried Somali food?  Peruvian?  Do you know the difference between Thai and Vietnamese food?  If you're lucky enough to live in an area with a wide variety of cultures, don't be afraid to try out your local ethnic restaurants.  If you don't have this opportunity, you're going to have to do a little bit of research.  Remember the Cajun holy trinity of onions, green peppers, and celery?  It turns out that almost every cuisine in the world has its own version.  Check out this fascinating Wikipedia article on the subject.

Vegetables You Thought You Didn't Like
Think back to your childhood.  Are there vegetables that you absolutely refused to eat?  Do you still refuse to eat them?  It's time to give them another try.  If you've never tried Brussels sprouts sauteed in butter and garlic, you're really missing out.  How about mashed turnips or parsnips?  Roasted artichoke hearts?  I bet the reason you didn't like these vegetables is because your mom boiled the hell out of them.  Now that you know how to roast, saute, pan-fry, and stir-fry I bet you'll find a recipe you like involving a vegetable you thought you didn't like.

Your Homework
In your RFBC Journal, write down three "holy trinities" that sound intriguing to you.  Read up on a cuisine you know nothing about.  Find and make one recipe.  Remember to go outside of your comfort zone, even if it's just a little bit.  Here are some links and suggestions to get you started:
Thai - Pad See Ew
Vietnamese - Black Bean with Eggplant
Korean - Dubu Buchim Yangnyumjang
Indian - Chole
Somali - Zucchini and Cilantro Sabayah
Russian - Baklazhanovaya Ikra
Jamaican - Citrus Curry Rice Salad
Native American - Fry Bread
Peruvian - Papa a la Huancaina
Lebanese - Fattoush

What sounds good to you?  Personally I'm itching to try the papa a la Huancaina.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Part 2, Lesson 6: Eating the Rainbow

Part 2: "I Don't Know Anything About Food"
Lesson 6: Eating the Rainbow

This might be a little scary for people who are used to eating prepackaged convenience food, but you all need to hear it: you need to eat colorfully.

Are the things on your plate usually a shade of brown or beige?  Maybe a little orange processed cheese in there too?  Yeah, I thought so.

I bet you're tired all the time.  Overweight.  It's hard to get out of bed in the morning.  Hard to think clearly.

Your Homework
Go to the grocery store.  Stand in the produce section.  Look around you.  Look at all the colors.  Now pick one of the center aisles of the store.  Look at the packaging.  Bright colors!  Words in starbursts!  Friendly, eye-catching fonts!  Look at the food itself: beige.

You want to eat foods that are ingredients, not foods that contain ingredients.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Part 2, Lesson 5: Reading Labels

Part 2: "I Don't Know Anything About Food"
Lesson 5: Reading Labels

 My husband has declared me a genius on more than one occasion where I went into the kitchen without a plan, raided the cupboards, and came up with a full meal.  It isn't rocket science and everyone can do it.  Even you.  It does require a decently stocked pantry.  A meal requires four layers:

  • A base (grains, starches)
  • A protein
  • Flavor (as simple or as complicated as you'd like)
  • Fill in with veggies
Thus, you should stock your pantry, fridge, and freezer accordingly.

The Base Layer
This doesn't have to be the literal, physical base layer, but I have to tell you that when I'm pressed for time and ideas it's really easy to start with rice or couscous and put something on top of that.  Good things to have on hand are rice (short grain, long grain, and brown), couscous, barley, quinoa, bulger, wild rice, and potatoes.  And let's not forget about pasta.  It's nice to have a variety of short and long types on hand.

Pantry Proteins
Beans, lentils, and quinoa are full of protein.  TVP or TSP granules or nuggets are good vegetarian proteins if you want to go that route, but they're fairly processed.  Shelf-stable silken tofu lasts a while and is extremely versatile.  Canned meats and seafood are always an option.  Dried mushrooms (hit up an Asian grocery for the motherlode) and sea veggies (nori/laver, konbu, agar) are nice to have.  Oh, you didn't know that nori was high in protein?  Now you do.  And don't underestimate the role nuts and seeds can play in savory main dishes.

The pantry is where your flavor lives!  There is a galaxy's worth of oils, vinegars, and condiments out there.  And of course, there's your spice rack.  You can keep dried chiles, fruit, and vegetables on hand nearly indefinitely.  Garlic and onion are on this layer too.  Stocks and broths are lifesavers and pack in a ton of flavor when you pair them with grains.

Once you've got these three layers covered, it's easy to fill in the blanks with fresh or frozen fruits and veggies.  So, say you're craving Mexican.  Takeout is just a phone call away, but... you decide to check your kitchen first.  You grab some long grain rice, a can of black beans, garlic, onion, and chicken broth.  Scanning your spices you remember the cumin and chili powder have that "Mexican-ish" flavor you're craving.  Moving to the fridge you get some frozen corn and cheese.  And what's that in the back of the freezer?  Some leftover shredded rotisserie chicken?  In about 20 minutes you've got a simple meal of beans, corn, and chicken over rice.  You can fill in the rest with simple frozen veggies or a salad.  No takeout required.  It may not be haute cuisine, but at least it's real.

Canned Vegetables
Let's talk about canned veggies for a moment.  They're cheap.  Available.  They keep for years on the shelf.  But I don't recommend them.  In college I had a couple of roommates who worked at a vegetable canning facility... and let's just say that if I ever use a canned vegetable (a couple of times a year, maybe) I pay quite a lot of money to buy the best brands on the shelf.  Um, yikes.  That's not even going into the sodium levels, the viscous mystery fluid they're swimming in, and the BPA plastic that lines the cans.

But Tomatoes Are A Vegetable Too, Right?
Well, no, technically they're a fruit.  But canned tomatoes are great to have around.  If you buy a decent brand, there is very little chance of... foreign material... getting into the cans.  I personally try to only buy whole peeled canned tomatoes because they use the best fruit for that.  That's not to say that I never use canned chopped tomatoes.  It all depends on how pressed for time I am.  You might consider canning your own tomatoes too.  It takes a little time and effort, but anyone with some jars and a big pot and accomplish this.

Pull out one more convenience food from your pantry and put it in that box in your basement.  Yes, even that box of Rice-A-Roni you're keeping for your late-night beer munchies.  Now take a look at your spice collection.  How old is that ground nutmeg, really?  Did you know that most spices herbs start to break down and lose their flavor after 6 months?  So that jar of crushed basil you've had since the first Bush administration?  You might want to toss that.  But don't toss everything you own yet.  Make a list of spices herbs you want to replace and slowly, over time, replace them one or two at a time.  If you want to be extra nerdy you can write the date you bought your herbs and spices on the container with a sharpie or a piece of tape.

I don't know anyone who can afford to replace their spices every six months, but there does come a time when you should probably say enough is enough.  I'm going to throw away a jar of rosemary I've had since my first apartment in 2000.  Your turn!

Once you start cooking with fresh (read: recent) spices herbs you will really notice a difference.

(Thanks to Missy for pointing out that there is a difference between herbs and spices.)

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Part 2, Lesson 4: Freezer Staples

Part 2: "I Don't Know Anything About Food"
Lesson 4: Freezer Staples

Have you ever heard the word "mirepoix" (pronounced "meer-pwah")?  It's the flavor basis of a ton of food.  It's 2 parts onion, 1 part celery, and 1 part carrot.  You can do endless things with mirepoix.  Chop it up in large pieces and put it in with a roast.  Add it to stocks and broths for soups.  Saute it and add to rice with some herbs for a quick side dish.  Deglaze a pan with wine after panfrying meat and add mirepoix to make a sauce.  Mirepoix is the foundation upon which to build flavor.  And it's freezable.  It's nice to have a bag of prepared medium-diced mirepoix handy to throw in a quick dinner.  It's homemade convenience food.

Similar to mirepoix is the Cajun trinity in which the carrot is replaced with green bell pepper.  This is so good when put into scrambled eggs in the morning and wrapped in a tortilla with cheese. 

We already talked about beans last week.  You can buy a pound of dried beans for around one (US) dollar or less and get the equivalent of four cans of cooked beans out of it.  Considering some canned beans can be upwards of $3 a pop it's a pretty good return on investment.  Beans are easy, but most of them need to be soaked overnight or boiled and soaked for an hour before you can get to the real cooking.  If you can remember to soak your beans before you go to bed you can simply drain the soak water and throw them in the crock pot with fresh water in the morning.  Or soak several pots of beans overnight, then drain, refill, and cook them all at the same time on the stove the next day.  If you portion them out 2 cups at a time into quart-sized freezer bags and freeze them flat you'll be in bean heaven for weeks or months.  It's so easy to pull out a bag, defrost it quickly under running water or in the microwave, and toss it on a salad.  Or in a burrito.  Or a stir-fry.  Or bean dip.

Ice cube trays are one of the most versatile pantry tools you can have in your arsenal.  Freeze cubes of leftover stock, broth, wine (leftover wine, LOL), chopped fresh herbs (barely covered in water), egg whites, and tomato paste.  When they're frozen, pop them into bags.  If you measure chopped herbs into two tablespoons per cube and tomato paste into 1 tablespoon per cube you're ready for nearly any recipe that calls for these ingredients.  And isn't that better than using a couple of sprigs of parsley or a couple of tablespoons of tomato paste and letting the rest go to waste?

Speaking of broth, you can make your own easily by keeping a broth scrap bag in the freezer.  Veggie ends and peels that you would normally discard go into the bag.  This includes onion and garlic skins, zucchini peels, carrot ends, tomato seeds, vegetables about to turn bad that you're not going to use, and fresh herbs that aren't going to get used.  This all makes a great veggie broth.  If you use chicken broth a lot, put chicken bones and scrap meat and fat into the bag.  Or use beef bones, pork bones, turkey carcasses from Thanksgiving, or seafood bones and shells.  Once the bag is full, put it all into a big pot of water and simmer 1-4 hours (or longer!), skimming off the foam periodically.  Or put it in a crockpot on low for about 10 hours.  Cool, then transfer to bags or containers (I like 2-cup portions) and freeze.

Master File 4.  The meal plan is below.  I included a meat recipe for you omnivores because it would be almost criminal to mention mirepoix and not pair it with meat.

  • Vegetarian Black Bean Chili           
  • Cajun Macaroni           
  • Roast Chicken           

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Part 2, Lesson 3: Reading Labels

Part 2: "I Don't Know Anything About Food"
Lesson 3: Reading Labels

I mentioned in the last post that you need to read labels to find things that won't kill you quite as fast.  There's one easy rule of thumb you can stick with: only buy things with recognizable ingredients.

But if you're worried about your weight and health in general you can take it a few steps further.

Sugar's natural, right?  Sure, kinda, in a really industrial, refined way.  Sugar on a label can mean cane or beet sugar, corn syrup, fruit juice concentrates, honey, and about 20 other different things.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends the average person (eating 2,000 calories a day) shouldn't get more than 40 grams of refined sugar a day.  That's about 10 teaspoons.  To put it in perspective, your average can of pop has 40 grams of sugar in it.

Corn Everywhere
Corn is all over convenience foods like a rash.  Considering corn is little more than sugar wrapped in fiber with a few vitamins and minerals mixed in, no wonder we're all so fat.  Here's a list of some of the things corn can be made into. 

When the FDA is considering actually regulating the amount of salt in American food, you know there's a problem.  The recommended daily allowance is less than 2,400 milligrams of sodium a day.  That's ONE teaspoon of table salt.  Per day.  Take a look at some of the labels on food in your pantry.  You will be horrified.

Fat is confusing.  Some fat is good and essential for health.  But only unsaturated fat (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated).  The RDA is around 65-70 grams a day, or no more than 35% of your daily calorie intake.  There are 13.5 grams of fat per tablespoon of olive oil.  2 ounces (2 servings, or a little less than half the can) of Pringles has 20 grams of fat.

Ah, calories.  The big, bad, scary number. You can do any number of Internet searches for various calorie-counting diets and such, but if all that's overwhelming I'll break things down for you.  The average person who's not on a diet should get around 2,000 calories a day.  If you eat three meals a day, that's around 667 calories that you can divide between each meal.  Now throw in two snacks a day of around 200 calories each and each meal goes down to 533 calories each.  It's really easy to eat 533 calories in a meal.  This is, of course, a rough guide.  I personally tend to eat a big breakfast, a lighter lunch, and a big dinner.  I aim for between 1200 and 1500 calories a day but I don't count each calorie obsessively anymore.  I know that if each meal is around 500 calories then I'm doing OK.

The Takeaway 
I just threw a ton of numbers at you, and for that I apologize.  Don't ignore them completely, but remember that the most important thing to look for when reading labels is finding recognizable ingredients.

Your Homework
Hey, remember back in week 1 when I told you to take a meal's worth of the convenience food you had in your pantry and put them in a box in your basement?  Have you gone down there and used any of it?  It's time to do the same thing again.  Go back through your pantry and take out another meal's worth of convenience food.  Put it in that box.  Now get out your RFBC Journal and start reading the labels on the stuff in your Big Box O' Crap.  Write down the products with the highest numbers for the following nutrition facts: calories, fat, and sodium.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Part 2, Lesson 2: Convenience Foods That Won't Kill You Quite As Fast

Part 2: "I Don't Know Anything About Food"
Lesson 2: Convenience Foods That Won't Kill You Quite As Fast

We've used frozen veggie burgers and bagged salad in Part 1, not to mention barbecue sauce and salad dressing.  Convenience foods.  It's not always a bad thing.  Most of the time, but not always.  (I'm putting the veggie burgers into the "eat these rarely" category.)

It's all about balancing time and reading labels.  You could make a large batch of homemade marinara sauce and freeze or can it.  This would be ideal.  But when you're running late to pick up the kids from daycare and they're screaming the whole way home and your partner is sick and all you want is to put some spaghetti on the table before you have to run to Jane and Johnny's piano recital, you just need to go to the store, turn some jars around, and find the least offensive spaghetti sauce you can.

If you know what goes into a food to begin with because you've read recipes or actually made them yourself, you know what to look for on a retail version of the food.  For example, spaghetti sauce.  You know that marinara is tomatoes, oil, a little sugar, maybe some onions and garlic and perhaps some spices.  You know it doesn't have high fructose corn syrup, hydrolyzed vegetable proteins, soy lecithin, citric acid, or autolyzed yeast extract. 

So you get a jar of spaghetti sauce with recognizable ingredients.  It costs a little more than the brand you used to buy.  That's fine -- you're paying for convenience.  But the next time rolls around and you get another jar.  Maybe two.  Month after month you keep buying these jars at the store.  They're almost $4 each.

But then look at the alternative.  You buy a bushel of tomatoes, fresh basil, onions, and garlic at the farmer's market.  Take an afternoon, maybe involve the kids, and make your own spaghetti sauce.  Season it just the way your family likes it.  Portion it out into freezer bags.  It works out that for the same amount of sauce you'd get in a jar for $4, you put into your own bag for around $1 or less.  And if you get the tomatoes out of your own garden?  It's pennies per serving.  Is it worth more to you to save time or money?

Psst... you can also make spaghetti sauce in the crock pot.

The Takeaway
Start reading labels.

Your Homework
Find recipes for the following staples and copy them down in your RFBC Journal: spaghetti sauce, alfredo sauce (can you freeze this?), freezer jam, and pesto.  Extra credit: ketchup.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Part 2, Lesson 1: Real vs. Fake Foods (The Truth About Butter)

Part 2: "I Don't Know Anything About Food"
Lesson 1: Real vs. Fake Foods (The Truth About Butter)
The butter vs. margarine debate has been raging since margarine's debut in 1869.  The dairy lobby has had a heavy hand in the villainization of oleo (as my grandma calls it) and there's a lot of truth mixed with a lot of fiction floating around.  It isn't one molecule away from being plastic and it wasn't originally developed to fatten turkeys.  It was developed as a low cost butter substitute to feed the French military and the lower class.  You can read all about it hereAnd hereAlso here.  Speaking of lobbying, margarine manufacturers couldn't add coloring to their products to make it look more palatable until the end of the Second World War.  Imagine spreading your morning toast with something that looked like shortening.  Does that make you change your mind about margarine?

Margarine is lower in saturated fat and cholesterol than butter.  Stick margarine usually contains trans fats, which we all know to be evil and wrong.  If you're going to use margarine, get the kind in the tub.

However, you need to decide if you really want to eat something that involves bleaching, deodorizing, fortification, colorization, and (sometimes) hydrogenation

Assuming you're not vegan, consider giving butter a second chance.  Butter contains one, maybe two ingredients: cream and (sometimes) salt.  It contains the same amount of calories as margarine.  Personally I think it tastes better.

But the key here is moderation.  Moderation in all things in good.  Moderation in fats is better.

The butter vs. margarine debate is a good example of real vs. fake foods and how politics and lobbying have shaped our perception about acceptable foods.  Somehow along the way we decided that fluorescent powder in a packet (or fluorescent ooze) is an acceptable substitute for real cheese.  That vitamins sprayed onto empty calories and chemically manufactured sugar substitutes were more acceptable to feed our children in the morning than buttered toast and fruit.  Colorful advertisements, cartoon mascots, and special interest lobbying have led us down a terrible path.

I don't mean to sound preachy here, but this is the bread and butter (ha!) of the Real Food Boot Camp: to get you to think critically about the things you put into your body.

Your homework
If you have any stick margarine, throw it away.  There really is no excuse to subject yourself to trans fats.