Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Children's Nutrition Series

And now a message from my Inner Voice.

IV: "Moron! I can't believe you have not gotten that post up yet. You've known about this for what, a year or so?! Can you say procrastinate? Get with it ..."

Me: "Yeah, I know. I've been busy."

IV: "Busy? Not too busy for wine and duck fat ..."

Me: "Yeah, yeah ... i know."

IV: "While we're talking, what happened to that Pulitzer you were supposed to win by age 30? Hmmm?"

Me: "Oh ... uh ... can I go to sleep now? It's late."

Unfortunately, my Inner Voice has a point. A year ago, I became aware of what I was up against as a parent trying to raise a healthy eater. It's a bigger obstacle than you think. I started doing a lot of reseach on the topic including tackling the Institute of Medicine's 500-page volume Food Marketing to Children and Youth. Finally, I will get the series of posts done that will cover this topic in depth for all concerned parents.

The resounding statistic that seems to be appearing everywhere is a frightening one: The rate of obesity among youth has more than tripled in the last forty years. More than 9 million children are clinically obese with another 15 percent at risk for obesity. Type II obesity, once referred to as "adult-onset diabetes," has more than doubled among our nation's children.

The following series of blog posts will include these topics:

The State of Our Union's Children
A detailed overview of what trends are occurring in our children's diets, and the factors that contribute to the issues

Our Children Are What They Eat
A look at what our children are eating and the nutritional issues parents face.

Why Kids Eat What They Do (or Don't)
A look at all the sources of dietary influence on our children's food choices. This includes schools, parents, social activity, marketing, culture. The post will examine each contributing factor and how it affects our kids.

Food Marketing and Your Child
A Parent's Action List: We Shall Overcome
This topic belongs under the sources post, but it has become such a huge issue that it needs to be reviewed in depth. An estimated $10 billion is spent anually to market foods to children and youth. Often these marketing messages are targeted to pre-schoolers who are too young to be able to differentiate commercial messages from educational messages.

If you, or a parent you know, is concerned about these issues, please be sure to visit this site and send the link to anyone who may be interested. While the topic of childhood nutrition is appearing in the media regularly, I have yet to see anyone provide the whole background and the "why" and "what we can do about it." I hope to be able to provide this.

The reason my Inner Voice was kicking me so hard is because I just got an email about a fast food marketing approach called "Bookit" that is placed in 900,000 schools each year, reaching 22 million children. This year, the sponsor, Pizza Hut, will extend the program to pre-schools. You can find more information about this program and why the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood is opposed to the program.

Another Blight on American Culture

This just in from the BBC, thanks to various restaurant chains, Americans now apparently indulge in "X-treme Eating." The Center for Science in the Public Interest has identified various creations on chain restaurant menus as "Hybrid horribles," each item often containing more than a day's worth of calories even for an appetizer and combining individually unhealthy items into one nutritionally obscene dish.

"Now we see lasagne with meatballs on top; ice cream with cookies, brownies, and candy mixed in; bacon cheeseburger pizzas, buffalo-chicken-stuffed quesadillas, and other hybrid horribles that are seemingly designed to promote obesity, heart disease, and stroke." says CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson.

The CSPI's main assertion is that first, restaurants should not be "competing with each other to make their appetizers, main courses, and desserts bigger, badder, and cheesier than ever before;" and second, that the chains should offer nutrition labeling on the menus.

The article features a lovely photo of an overweight American wearing a stocking cap, flannel shirt and looking like he just fell off the back of a muddy pickup in the middle of downtown New York. It's a lousy stereotype. It's not pretty. But, neither is the image of American conspicous consumption (re: gluttony) in the eyes of the world at large.

I am all for nutrition labeling on menus, or at least having the information available on request. If you are going to indulge, or over-indulge, you should do so consciously. And, for those not faint of heart (for more reasons than one), maybe those ingredient lists should have a bit of background on just how those industrial foods are produced. That would be truly conscious eating. Except, of course, for all of us multitudes of Americans who just fell off the back of a pickup and cannot read ...

But, I have to admit, once or twice a year, bacon cheeseburger pizza is SOOO good. Those little dill pickles and mustard with pizza sauce and cheese. The operative phrase is, once or twice a year, though. Knowingly, willingly, guiltlessly, and rarely. And not the whole damn pizza in a single sitting.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Adult Night: Gnocchi with Duck and Porcini Mushroom Ragout

Once in a while, in a great, great while we go out. What I like to do best when I finally get out of the house is go over to a friends' house and cook with them. Yes, I know, I need help. But isn¹t a blog like cheap therapy? I¹m just going to kick back on the couch now, and settle in. Where was I?

So, yes, we cook for fun, but we also drink good wine while we cook good food. Something that is impossible to do at home navigating a busy kitchen, hot stove and helpful toddler. In fact, it might even get you arrested. Food and wine like this is also something you can't afford to do at a restaurant, not if you want anything left in the college fund.

There are sacrifices, of course. Since you are on the babysitter meter, the recipes can't be all-nighters like the old days. I've had to quicken-up some of my favorite adult fare like the following Gnocchi with Duck and Porcini Mushroom Ragout.

The first short cut was to buy the gnocchi. Last time we attempted to make the gnocchi for this dish and a round of ravioli in the same evening, I think we ate around midnight. Granted, in our pre-child days there was wine aplenty and we did not care.

These days, we need less wine and more short cuts. The other short cuts have to do with not doing the sloooooow braise on the duck. Slow is best, and if you have time, go slow and go with Lidia Bastianich's recipe for Duck Guazetto. Hers is perfection. I can only aspire to be an Italian grandmother in the greatest sense of the word.

Yet, this one is pretty darn good for Adult Night. It's not light, or low fat, or skim anything. Because now that I am a responsible parent-type my last hold out of rebellion, out there "gettin' crazy" is an occasional binge with butterfat. And duck fat. And bacon. And it's good. It's good like Sunday-morning-sleep-in, coffee-sex-and-newspaper-in-bed good. Afterall, it is Adult Night.

Gnocchi with Duck and Porcini Mushroom Ragout
4 duck breasts skin-on
1 strip of bacon
3 shallots, chopped
3 oz. tomato paste
8 sprigs of fresh thyme
1/2 cup red wine
1/2 oz. dried porcini, steeped for 1/2 hour in 1 cup of boiling water
2 oz glace de canard (duck demi-glaze)
3 tbs. butter
black pepper to taste
shavings of parmesean for garnish
2 packages good prepared gnocchi

Heat a heavy skillet and lay in the bacon slice to render the fat. Fry until crisp, and remove bacon. Lay in duck breasts, skin side down. Do not move around, just let them lay there until the skin is golden brown and crisp. Then turn them over and sear the other side until golden brown. Remove duck and let rest on plate. This is where you could, could, pour off some of the fat in the pan. Resist this temptation. Yield to the duck fat. Add chopped shallots and saute until golden brown.

Deglaze pan with wine (fancy word for pour in the wine and stir the brown bits up off the bottom). Add the tomato paste, glace de canard, thyme and stir. Add the mushrooms (not the liquid at this point). Strain the remaining liquid from the mushrooms to remove any grit, reserving the liquid. Add the strained liquid to the pan. Slice the duck breasts and cut into bite-sized pieces, add to pan. Crumble the bacon slice in as well. Cook for about 15 more minutes until duck is cooked through, you can serve duck medium rare, but let it cook in the braising liquid to get flavor. Add pepper to taste. Swirl in the butter to finish the sauce.

Now, you might be thinking, with all that duck fat, why do I need butter, too? Yield to the butterfat. The richness rounds out the sauce and gives it shine and extra flavor. The French call this "monter au beurre." Literally, "finish with butter." I call it another 50 grams of saturated fat well worth the worry.

Boil water and prepare gnocchi per package directions. Spoon cooked gnocchi into the duck sauce pan and toss to coat. Garnish with parmesean shavings. Serve with a nice red, something with a bit of body to stand up to the duck sauce.

Glace de canard (duck demi-glaze) is not easy to find unless you have a great grocery store. Try finding it online. Or, you can substitute beef base, but just 1 tbs. and it will not need salt as the base usually has a fair bit of salt in it. It will not be as good, but it won't be too darn shabby either. Nothing comprised of wine, porcini, duck fat and butter could taste too bad.

Now, the hard part. Enjoy guilt-free. It is your night. Then get home before the sitter finds your stash of the good chocolate.

Recipe Index

When it's gotten to the point where I have to guess when I posted a recipe and hunt for it, it's time for an index ... look for a link to this in the blog side bar in the future.

Cooked and Raw Salad ala Lidia
Arugula Salad with Bleu Cheese Crostini, Roasted Pears and Grapes and Honey-Wine Syrup
Balsamic-Honey Roasted Fig Salad with Goat Cheese and Arugula
Red, Gold and Orange Festive Salad
Tarragon, Red Grape and Ricotta Salata Salad
Sauteed Red Chard with Clementine Sections, Feta, and Balsamic Reduction
Broccoli and Cauliflower Salad
Red Cabbage Slaw with Dried Fruit and Savory Praline
Cantaloupe, Pecan and Honey Viniagrette Salad

Side Dishes
Basil-Orange Sweet Potatoes
Sweet Potato and Aged Gouda Gratin with Sage and Thyme
Honey-Chipotle Mashed Sweet Potatoes
Sweet Potato Parmesan "Fries"
Roasted Green Beans
Braised Red Cabbage with Blueberries and Goat Cheese
Roasted Beets with Mixed Herbs and Shallot
Apple Cider-Sauce
Healthy Broccoli-Mushroom and Wild Rice Casserole
Crispy Kale
Garlicky White Beans and Kale
Swiss Chard Tart with Grana Padano and Goat Cheese
Green Beans Sauteéd with Roasted Tomatoes and Shallot
Roasted Tomatoes
Roasted Purple Asparagus
Honey-Lemon Spring Vegetable Saute
Spinach Artichoke Tart in Puff Pastry
Honey-Spice Roasted Cauliflower
Summer Squash and Vegetable Fritter
Lemon Chive Pasta with Chard and Asparagus in Herb Parmesan Sauce
Honey-Glazed Turnips with Shallots
Honey-Lemon Spring Vegetable Saute 2
Fiddlehead Fern, Fava and Asparagus Saute
Baked Corn and Basil
Fresh Salsa
Cinnamon-Vanilla Applesauce
Honey-Sage Roasted Sweet Potatoes and Shallots
Delicata Squash with Red Rice, Cranberries and Pecans
Maple-Orange Sweet Potato Souffle
Balsamic Glazed Carrots

Main Dishes
Lemon-Herb Roasted Chicken
Chicken Chili

Acorn Squash and Chicken Sausage Cassoulet
Creamy Tomato Tortellini
Meatloaf Florentine
Vegetable Parmigiano
Indian-spiced Meat Pies
Gnocchi with Duck and Porcini Mushroom Ragout
Tuscan Tuna Salad
Red Grape, Blueberry and Almond Chicken Salad
Chicken Scallopini with Lemon, Artichokes and Capers
Hashbrown, Chard, Tomato and Ham Frittata
Ham, Asparagus, Onion and Goat Cheese Tart
Asparagus, Ham, Peas and Tortellini with Parmesan Herb Sauce
Chicken with Roasted Tomatoes, Goat Cheese and Pesto
Ginger-Pork with Bok Choy and Napa Cabbage
Mac and Cheese (and Broccoli)
Pesto Presto "Squaghetti"
Roasted Ratatouille
Roasted Vegetable Quesadillas
Purple Hull Peas and Ham
Summer Tomato Tart
Stuffed Peppers with Eggplant and Zucchini
Apple-Sage Roasted Chicken
Stuffed Squash (Sausage, Cranberries, Wild Rice, Sage and Apple)
Beef Braised in Red Wine
Holubki (Stuffed Cabbage Rolls)
Not "Too Spicy" Lamb Stew
White and Wheat Pizza
Real Turkey and Noodles

Italian Wedding Soup
Papa al Pomodoro (Bread and Tomato Soup)
Perfect Tomato Cream Soup
Curried Pumpkin-Coconut Soup
Squash, Carrot and Lentil Soup
Fall Minestrone Soup
Vegetable Soup
Cauliflower-Cheese Soup with Carrots and Greens

Vanilla-Sweet Potato Pie with Pecan-Brown Sugar Crust
Rhubarb Crumble with Rosemary and Thyme

Blackberry-Wine Sauce
Ginger-Vanilla Cherry-Berry Cobbler
Red-wine Caramel Apple Tart with Gorgonzola on a Walnut Crust
Roasted Fig and Pear Crumble

Parmesean, Rosemary and Sea Salt Crackers
Aged Gouda, Sage and Thyme Crackers
Honey Cornbread
Chocolate-Zucchini Bread

Basic Viniagrette Dressing
Basil Pesto
Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto with Rosemary and Grana Padano Cheese
Broccoli-Herb Pesto
Pumpkin Puree
Maple-Sage Reduction Sauce

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Crispy Kale, anyone?

I have no recipe of my own to post today, instead, the title links to The Cleaner Plate Club site where you can learn how to make kale chips. Kale what? Chips. Very tasty, what few I could wrest away from my toddler and greedily munch. She was pretty possessive of the entire bowl. Imagine that, vegetables as snacks.

I struggled with the snack meal. Little toddler bellies need to eat more often, I've noticed, but I had to wrestle with the concept of snack and what could be snack. Perhaps it is conditioning, but the very word "snack" conjures up chips, crackers, cookies, all those processed, packaged items in the center aisles of the store.

I've had to redefine snack in our world. And, thanks to recipes like kale chips, (Thanks Allison!) I can keep the variety going even as I try to put out healthy items. Here are the things I love to make for snack most; fresh fruit, cheese, milk, wholegrain (no trans fat) crackers low salt, edamame (soy beans either shelled or in the pods for extra fun), dried fruits, nuts (if your kiddo does not have allergies), yogurt with fresh fruit, cottage cheese.

These are the things I am okay with serving once in a while; wholegrain pretzels, a small bit of dark chocolate (hey, I am not completely mean!), soy crisps, wholegrain bread with fruit spread, 100-percent juice cut with water.

And, now, kale chips! I'll keep looking for new recipes like this, and I will try hard to create some. Many thanks to The Cleaner Plate Club's Allison for posting this!

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Myth of the Super Kitchen Goddess

One Friday not too long ago, one of my coworkers came up to my tiny cubicle with a stack of recipes in hand.

“I found these on the printer, I figured they were yours. You’re the only one who cooks,” she said. “How do you have time to make dinner every night?”

I laughed. “I don’t.” I decided to spare her the myth of me as a super kitchen goddess, slaving away nightly after a long day’s work. She’s a single mom, she deserves better than that.

So now you know, too. I don’t cook every night. In fact, I reheat most nights and cook mainly over the weekend. For those of you thinking, “Ew, leftovers!” Think again. Do you honestly think a restaurant cooks for hundreds of people daily without ANY of those items made in advance, even partially? Leftovers are a beautiful thing, Even better when you aren’t paying top dollar and a tip for them.

The system goes like this; every Friday I plan the week’s menu and do the shopping list. I do this over a lunch hour. I plan for two main courses, three to four vegetable dishes, fresh fruits, and a couple nights of quick meals. All of the weekend’s cooking must be able to be prepared in the time length of two toddler nap sessions, an hour and a half each maybe.

The main courses and the vegetable dishes are made and served over the weekend, and then the leftovers are rotated for the first three days of the workweek. These require just minutes and a microwave for a home cooked meal.

The fourth day, I prepare a quick pasta meal, and the following day can use the pasta dish as a side with a sandwich or soup and vegetable. Next day is shopping day and the whole cycle repeats. On any given work night, I am cooking less than 15 minutes and we don’t have to eat out.

There are a few extra tricks I put in the mix. Since most of the cooking effort is gathering ingredients and prep, it’s nearly as efficient to make two lasagnas, for example, and freeze one to use again in a couple weeks. You just add about 15 minutes to the baking time for the frozen one. Or, you can bake both lasagnas, serve one, then cut the other one into serving size portions, bag individually, and freeze. For the quick pasta night meal, you just pull out the servings you need and microwave.

Frozen, organic veggies that I either blanch and freeze myself or buy are a good supplement to the side dishes. Try edamame for something different. It has a nutty, sweet flavor that toddlers seem to enjoy. Try serving the kind in the shells for an interactive experience with the meal.

Other things that freeze well include; soups (not cream-based), chili, and spaghetti sauce. It’s not a whole lot different than those Super Supper places where you take home prepared meals to freeze and bake later.

There is also the bonus meal. This is one where you can make the first entrée on Saturday and turn it into the next night’s meal, literally, two birds with one stone in my case. Saturday I cooked (my husband helps prep the birds, he often likes to do the meat dishes) two chickens with a simple lemon and herb flavor. We only eat about half a chicken in a dinner, so that leaves plenty of leftover cooked chicken.

Sunday, I took the meat off the bones and skin, and made an easy chicken chili. Both entrees together required about 20 minutes hands-on, so there is plenty of time to make the side dishes. And take an hour of nap time for me. Some days, we moms just need a nap, too.

Day One, Lemon-Herb Roast Chicken
Chicken Chili
Looking for these recipes? They will be part of a book co-authored with Ali at Cleaner Plate Club.

Note to use the Ancho chili powder. You can get this online through It has a smoky flavor without a lot of heat. I realized chili might be a good dish for the kiddo when we were smelling the spices. She took the Ancho chili powder bottle, opened it and started licking the inside. Does not take a rocket scientist to think, "Hey, she might like chili!" She does. Of course she also eats plain fennel seeds, allspice berries and candied ginger. And, she drinks her own bathwater. Go figure.

If Chili is not your favorite, you can also use the leftover chicken to make Red Grape, Blueberry and Almond Chicken Salad. It's a great kid-friendly recipe.

I hope I have not ruined the kitchen goddess myth for you. I'm just another busy mom that likes good food. And a nice nap every now and then!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Reasons to Buy Local: USDA's Crazy Chicken Dance

Under the heading of things that make you go "What the hell?!" is this latest headline from the wisdom of the USDA. New rulings will allow us to import chicken from China. Yes, China where there are outbreaks of Bird Flu that have cost human lives, 29 outbreaks already this year.

To make matters more confusing, the USDA is proposing sending the chickens to China for processing, then importing them back from after processing and this is CHEAPER than processing the chickens here. How is a round trip to China for poultry that is grown here cheaper than processing the birds here? Especially when the poultry industry already produces chicken under questionable conditions in order to keep prices down.

You have to wonder if the USDA has our health and safety in mind when you read things like this. This is an organization the is supposed to protect the quality and safety of our food supply.

It just makes no sense. I'll be looking for my chickens at a local farm, where I can watch the processing if I choose to. It won't require a passport for me or the chickens.

Read more on the story here.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Taute Cuisine 8: Vegetable Feast

Just before Halloween, I was on the phone with my sister, planning a dinner and an evening to carve no less than seven pumpkins. Knowing that she and her family are difficult eaters, I figured I better just ask her what they wanted.

“You know,” she said. ”Something healthy. Oh, and you know, I just eat chicken.”

Poultry fetish aside, I also knew that “healthy” has a very different
meaning for my sister than it does for me. For her, healthy means “it won’t make me fat.” I define healthy more by mundane things like, say, nutrition content.

Thus, I cannot serve a meal without at least one vegetable. I tried to choose some of the veggie dishes that would appeal to the masses. I figured, if they try it great, if they don’t, we’ll eat it. Sort of like my approach to toddler food. However, my toddler likes more vegetables than they do.

The menu was simple; Chicken Sausage Cassoulet, Carrot Souffle, Fresh Green Beans sautéed with shallot and roasted tomatoes. For dessert, Vanilla Bean Sweet Potato Pie with Brown-Sugar Pecan crust.

Dinner was not so simple. For starters, both my sister’s kids drank soda with dinner. When I put dinner on the table, there was silence and frightened stares. I tried to explain what was in each dish.

“It’s just beans, chicken sausage and tomato. You know, really basic. The green beans are fresh, not canned, they taste good.”

No go. The rest of the meal including dessert looked like a competition to see who could eat the least and still look halfway polite. Meanwhile, at the end of the table, my toddler was eating green beans one after another.

None of them took any vegetables. My niece was the most polite.

“If I LIKED green beans, I would like these,” she offered.

My sister was more blunt. “I don’t like cooked vegetables.”

When they inquired about the dessert, I tried to mutter “sweet potato” so it would come out sounding like “chocolate cream.” No go. However they ate it, and were surprised they liked it.

I didn’t tell them about the pecans in the crust. They don’t like nuts.

My husband and our other dinner guest were both shocked. I think the exact comment was “I’ve never before seen people get served fantastic, healthy food, and act like you were trying to poison them.”

I barely heard that. I was still trying to figure out just how many and which vegetables my sister would eat if she only liked them raw. It’s a short list. Rule out any exotics like marinated asparagus and snow pea pods. Basically, for her it’s just iceberg lettuce and, very rarely, the usual suspects on the ready-made veggie and dip tray at the local supermarket: broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, celery … uh, I said carrots, right?

A few of these represent some of the healthiest of vegetables. But the idea of facing down five to nine servings a day of the same, plain, raw vegetables is less than appetizing. And often, less healthy.

Take carrots, for example. These orange beauties are widely known for their high beta-carotene content. What few people know, however, is that not only is the nutritional value of the carrot not diminished by cooking, the heat helps break down the fiber of the vegetable, making the key nutrient and the carrot’s natural sugars more available. As a result, cooked carrots taste sweeter and provide more beta-carotene.

Tomatoes are perhaps the most extreme example of the benefits of cooked vegetables. Cooked tomatoes offer up to eight times more lycopene than raw tomatoes. While yellow and orange tomatoes are tasty varieties, the red ones are the best source of lycopene.

Light steaming is also recommended for many of the cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale and other dark greens. The cooking process makes the phytonutrients in these plants more available.

Broccoli actually changes in nutritional content based on whether it is consumed raw or cooked. Raw broccoli is higher in vitamin C and folate. Cooked broccoli is higher in cancer-fighting phytonutrients and beta-carotene. Cooked or raw, cruciferous vegetables represent some of the nutritional all-stars of the produce aisle. Red cabbage even contains the same compounds, anthocyanins, which make foods like purple cauliflower, blueberries and red wine beneficial.

While all this sounds complicated, there’s really only one key to getting the most nutritional value from vegetables, either cooked or raw. You have to eat them.

Sauteed Red Chard with Clementine Sections, Feta, and Balsamic Reduction
Roasted Green Beans

Braised Red Cabbage with Blueberries, Raisins and Goat Cheese

Looking for these recipes? They will be included in my upcoming book co-authored with Ali of Cleaner Plate Club!