Sunday, July 31, 2011

Four reasons to take a long lunch

No matter what company I've worked for, I witness the same phenomenon: the vast majority of people eat lunch at their desks. They take their microwaved packaged food (which all smells the same, have you noticed that?) back to their cubicles and resort to surfing the Internet in their free time, or even worse, working! How has this become the norm? Why have we become so willing to give up our sacred lunch hour, that we first of all can’t take an hour for ourselves to relax, let alone eat a proper nutritious lunch?

One article I recently read said it succinctly: “Dedicated as we are to efficiency and industry, we deny ourselves vacations, many evenings, the occasional weekend, and – on a daily basis – a proper lunch hour.”
A real lunch hour, involving sitting down somewhere other than at one’s desk and eating real food, for at least an hour, where the focus is entirely on eating and savoring that food. The French are real masters at this. They routinely shut down entire offices so that everyone can go to lunch, which consists of finding a quaint bistro somewhere where they chat it up with friends or co-workers all the while enjoying great food and some down time. Work will always be there for them when they get back, sometimes several hours later. Ok, a 2-hour lunch, unless you’re entertaining a client, is out of the question, but what’s wrong with an hour for ourselves?

I think there are several good reasons why we should reconsider this disagreeable practice of eating at our desks:
1.      Regain some perspective – a change of scenery is necessary to avoid burnout. Return to work energized and refreshed. Relax a bit. How many times have you wrestled with a problem, only to get up, stretch, chat with someone, and return to the problem with a solution?

2.      Explore the neighborhood – try out new places and cuisines by walking the area, find a park bench to sit down and enjoy nature.

3.      Bond with co-workers – spend some time getting to know your co-workers. Even if they don't seem particularly interesting, you might learn something new about them that puts them in a new light. Getting to know some of them could lead to a better understanding on shared projects, builds camaraderie, breaks down barriers, etc. All that over a sandwich.

4.      Take your life back – frankly, the only entity that benefits by you working through lunch is your employer. You will never get back the time you lose by working through lunch. We simply have to begin believing there is more to life than work. (Unless you're self-employed. I realize that's a whole OTHER story.)
On our deathbed, no one ever wishes they had spent more time working. Think about that, the next time you nuke your Lean Cuisine.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Why olive oil should be in every cupboard

I love olive oil. I've got about 4 different kinds in my pantry at any given time. One of my favorite "gourmet" ones is a lemon-infused olive oil from a company called Pasolivo (, from Paso Robles, a lovely 45-acre spot in the heart of central California’s wine region. One day I was driving along the hilly back roads of this beautiful area, looking for wineries. I accidentally came across Pasolivo that afternoon. It was late in the day and I was running out of time (most places close at 5pm) but when I saw the sign, I had to stop. I wasn't expecting to find an olive oil farm in the middle of wine country. As I drove up the gravel driveway a dog greeted me and then went back to laying under the shade of a big tree. In I walked to the tiny but sunny tasting room and enjoyed just about every oil I tasted. 

Olive oil, historically used in the United States mostly by immigrants from Mediterranean countries and adventurous gourmets, has fortunately gone mainstream. According to some reports, in 2007 alone Americans consumed over 70 million gallons; a nearly ten-fold increase since 1982. This is good news. Olive oil has the highest percentage of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat of any edible oil. Quality olive oil also contains abundant antioxidants, substances that have been shown to provide cardiovascular and anti-cancer effects. And, of course, quality olive tastes wonderful; the vibrant green liquid has probably helped many realize that there is no need to sacrifice sensory pleasure in pursuit of healthy eating.

Eating less fat was a long-held belief for many years. Fortunately this changed when it was learned that the Mediterranean people were some of the healthiest on the planet, and the “Mediterranean Diet” touted to be one of the best in the world. Olive oil plays a big part in that, along with of course eating lots of fresh produce, beans, legumes, fresh fish, less meat, and some red wine for good measure.

The primary countries that produce olive oil are Italy, Greece, Spain, and Morocco as well as California, which also enjoys a Mediterranean climate.  Variations exist among the regions:
    • Spanish olive oil is typically golden yellow with a fruity, nutty flavor. Spain produces about 45 percent of the world's olive supply.
    • Italian olive oil is often dark green and has an herbal aroma and a grassy flavor. Italy grows about 20 percent of the world's olives. 
    • Greek olive oil packs a strong flavor and aroma and tends to be green. Greece produces about 13 percent of the world's olive supply. 
    • French olive oil is typically pale in color and has a milder flavor than other varieties. 
    • Californian olive oil is light in color and flavor, with a bit of a fruity taste.

If you are new to this tasty elixir, you might want to experiment with a few different ones until you find the one you like. In fact you may even want to buy one type for one use and another for another use. For example, I don’t usually use a higher priced olive oil for vinaigrette because I feel the true flavor of the oil will be lost when combined with acids like vinegar or lemon juice, and even some herbs. I keep the more expensive ones for drizzling over veggies or pasta, when the individual nuances of the oil can be fully appreciated. This makes them last longer, too.

So many oils to choose from! What is the difference anyway? Actually, there are many factors that can impact the taste of olive oil:  
  • Variety of olive used 
  • Location and soil conditions where the olives were grown 
  • Environmental factors and weather during the growing season 
  • Olive ripeness 
  • Timing of the harvest 
  • Harvesting method 
  • Length of time between the harvest and pressing 
  • Pressing technique 
  • Packaging and storage methods

My discovery of the Pasolivo olive farm is what I love about driving without a destination in mind. It’s these unplanned and spontaneous stops that can sometimes be even more fun and rewarding than “planned” excursions.Next time you are presented with the opportunity to do some olive oil tasting, do it. You might find your favorite that way.

More to read, if you care to:
A great explanation of the different classifications of olive oil. 
For information on the California Olive Oil Council, as well as recipes using extra virgin olive oil.
If you’re a farmer’s market go-er, look for a booth with oils from Stonehouse. They are excellent.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Around the World...France

Happy Bastile Day! In honor of the Frenchies, today's post is about them.

For many, French food is the epitome of dining. The French were after all the creators of “grande cuisine”, the classic cuisine of France, which evolved from its beginnings in the 16th Century to its fullest flowering in the lavish banquets of the 19th Century. Prized was the richness, balance and elegant presentation of food.

While the grand cuisine of France must be amazing, I find I am usually more interested in a country’s peasant food than in the fancy creations of Five-Star Michelin chefs. Peasant food is the creation of average people, simply taking the ingredients available to them and making fantastically flavored dishes out them. It’s the epitome of taking what you have and making the most of it. That, to me, takes as much creativity and imagination as any highly trained chef.

Perhaps one of my favorite Country French dishes is Coq au Vin, a dish that is like all great peasant food around the world: earthy, full of flavor, hearty, and very satisfying. It "sticks to your bones", as my mother would say.

Although the French word “coq” refers to a rooster, and tough birds with a lot of connective tissue benefit from braising, most coq au vin recipes call for a capon or chicken and therefore require less cooking time, which makes Coq au Vin a totally “do-able” weekday meal. The “vin” part of course refers to wine and traditionally red Burgundy is suggested, but I imagine any good hearty red wine that you have will work. But don't use anything expensive.

Most coq au vin recipes I've come across call for chicken, wine, lardons, mushrooms and sometimes garlic. I like the recipe below because there are also pearl onions and tomatoes involved which makes the dish a little more stew-like. Seasonings are typically salt and pepper, herbs such as thyme, parsley and sometimes a bay leaf, and the sauce is usually thickened at the end. I love this recipe and have been making it for over 20 years. I hope you like it, too.

Coq au Vin

Coq au vin
1/3 lb. bacon, cut into bite-sized chunks
1 broiler-fryer chicken (3-4 lbs.), cut into pieces
a handful of pearl onions*
1/2 lb. small mushrooms (I like the crimini)
2 cups chicken or beef broth
1 cup red wine, preferable Burgundy or Beaujolais
2 Tbsp. each Dijon mustard and chopped parsley
Sprig of fresh thyme
1 (14 oz.) can of diced tomatoes
1 tsp. each corn starch and water

In a wide frying pan over medium high heat cook bacon in its own fat, stirring, until meat is crisp and well-browned; lift out meat and set aside. Add chicken and onions to pan.

Cook, uncovered, over medium high heat until well-browned on all sides (about 20 minutes). Lift out and set aside.

Add mushrooms to pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid has evaporated and mushrooms are lightly browned. Lift out and add to chicken and onions.

Pour broth into pan, scrape browned bits free, and boil over high heat until reduced to 1 cup. Return chicken, onions, and mushrooms to pan; stir in wine and mustard. Add sprig of thyme and tomatoes. Bring to a boil; cover, reduce heat, and simmer until meat near thigh bone is no longer pink when slashed (about 30 minutes). Stir in parsley and bacon, return to simmering. Add salt and pepper to taste.

With a slotted spoon, lift out meats and vegetables and arrange on a serving dish. Combine corn starch and water and add to cooking juices. Bring to a boil, stirring (sauce should be moderately thick); pour over chicken. Serve over egg noodles. Start with a nice salad of mesclun greens and a vinaigrette. End with some luscious fruit sorbet or some cheeses as the French do, and voila! You've got a nice French meal. Bon Appetit!

Makes 4 servings.

*I was delighted to find these at Trader Joe's in the frozen veggie section! You can use just what you need and toss the bag back into the freezer.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Reading Food Labels

Most of us are used to seeing food labels on the products we buy. You know, where it tells us the nutritional breakdown: the calorie content, the amount of fat, the sodium, the carbs, fiber, and amount of protein. They also give us the ingredients list. Because of the nutritional label, we know more now than we ever have about the foods we are eating, and yet research suggests that most of us aren’t reading them!

I do. I have to. There are certain foods I am allergic to and need to avoid if I want to feel good. Everyone I know who is allergic to something, or is vegetarian/vegan, is an avid label-reader. Even if you’re lucky enough not to have dietary issues, you’d be doing yourself a big favor by reading them to see what you’re actually eating. A lot of the foods you buy are not as straight-forward as you might think.

I once read that we should never buy anything that contains ingredients we can’t pronounce. Chemicals and preservatives are great for the manufacturer but not for your body. I often think about what kind of havoc those unnatural ingredients could be wrecking in there. What are they doing to my heart, my brain, my stomach, my liver? There are a lot of things to avoid, but here are some of the major ones.

High Fructose Corn Syrup

Despite the recent ads from the corn industry, this is a major “no no”. Studies have shown that this sugar substitute, found in so many processed foods and beverages, contributes to weight gain and may be a major cause of obesity. Many soft drinks, yogurts, industrial breads, cookies, salad dressings and tomato soups contain what critics call “a toxic chemical concoction.” I’ve listed some popular foods that contain HFCS. You’ll be shocked at what you thought was “healthy.” For those of you who still don’t believe this stuff is unsafe, here is some data on HFCS you should be aware of:

It's been clearly established that fructose is far more dangerous than other forms of sugar, mainly due to the fact that your body metabolizes fructose differently. When metabolizing fructose, the entire burden falls on your liver. This is why fructose is a hepatotoxin -- it can severely tax and overload your liver. This metabolic pathway leads to the creation of a number of waste products and toxins, including a large amount of uric acid, which drives up blood pressure and causes gout.

Most experts now believe fructose to be the primary reason for nonalcoholic fatty liver disease which can lead to liver failure. Elevated uric acid levels are also associated with heart- and kidney disease. Interestingly, the connection between fructose, uric acid, hypertension, insulin resistance and kidney disease is now so clear that your uric acid level can actually be used as a marker for fructose toxicity.

Some Items Containing HFCS:

• Yoplait Yogurt

• Special K

• Nabisco Wheat Thins

• Coca-Cola and Pepsi

• Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice

• Starbucks’ Frappuccino

• Thomas English Muffins

• Kellogg’s Raisin Bran and Corn Flakes

• Heinz Ketchup

• Miracle Whip

• Wishbone Ranch Dressing and Classic Caesar

Partially Hydrogenated Oil (Trans Fat)

There’s no controversy over whether partially hydrogenated oils, which are, in short, trans fats, are unhealthy for us. In fact, they are so unhealthy that certain states have completely banned the sale of them. Though they have been banned and many labels indicate there are “no Trans Fats” in their product, if anything on the label says “partially hydrogenated”, it’s a trans fat. Sorry, it’s true. The hydrogenation process imparts desirable features such as spreadability, texture, "mouth feel," and increased shelf life to naturally liquid vegetable oils. Adding hydrogen atoms to polyunsaturated fats converts a natural food (the vegetable oil) into many compounds, some of which have never seen before by man until partially hydrogenated fats were manufactured. The body just simply doesn’t know what to do with these compounds and therefore, trans fats have been shown to cause all sorts of health problems from heart disease to liver toxicity. Basically anything in a box is out!

Some Items Containing Trans Fat:

• Bisquick Cake Mixes

• Ramen Noodles

• Girl Scout Cookies

• Pop Secret Popcorn

• French Fries

• Quaker Oats Chewy Granola Bars

• Saltine Crackers

• Nabisco Fig Newtons

• Ritz Crackers

• Fortune Cookies

• Margarine

Sodium Nitrate

Many processed foods contain the preservative Sodium Nitrite, NaNO2, especially canned meats. This additive, which is also found naturally, helps prevent certain bacteria from forming. In other words, it helps keep our meats looking deliciously pink. However, this convenient ingredient is also linked to a higher risk of cancer.

Meats that Contain Sodium Nitrate:

• Hot Dogs

• Sausages

• Bologna

• Ham

• Bacon

• Most deli meat

Aspartame and Saccharine

For all you dieters, this one may be the hardest, but you should know that aspartame and saccharine are popular artificial sweeteners that have been directly linked to cancer! Aspartame has also been shown to be a neurotoxin, and Splenda is no better: it contains chlorine molecules. You would do far better to use natural sweeteners like honey, agave, molasses, or maple syrup than increase your risk of cancer, but consume them in small quantities.

Some Items Containing Aspartame and Saccharine:

• NutraSweet

• Sweet N Low

• Equal

There is so much debate about what to eat and what not to eat. Eat by nutritional type, eat according to your blood type, Atkins or its many derivatives, eat high-protein/low carb, or high carb/low fat, etc. But it seems to me that the best advice about what/what not to eat is to eat simply and in moderation.

Food should be simple, as Nature intended. The less processed it is, the more “whole”, the better it is for your health. And it usually tastes far better than its processed counterpart. Sometimes labels show a whole slew of ingredients for something that should be relatively straight-forward, but instead there are all these things listed that aren’t really food. Next time you shop, read the label on everything you pick up. Choose only those things that have short lists and items you can readily identify.

If you’re interested in reading more, I highly suggest any of the books written by Michael Pollan. In his book Food Rules, I particularly like rule #19:

“If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.”

Read the label!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Searching for Reader Entries!

Do you have a recipe you’d like to see online? I would like to extend the opportunity to each of you to submit your favorite recipe to be featured on my blog. Your name will appear in big lights (well, at least a byline anyway) and then you can brag to friends and family that your famous dish is on a food blog!

I thought this would be a great way to see what you’re cooking. Are you using seasonal produce? Locally-raised meat? Unusual spices or flavor combinations? A well-loved family recipe handed down from a grandparent, perhaps?

My only request: that the recipe is one you’ve actually prepared and that you love it. The recipe can be anything: an appetizer, a salad, a main entrĂ©e, a dessert, a side dish, whatever. Just make sure it’s something you really like.

Your recipe should :

1. List ingredients, quantities, and directions for preparation, including oven temperatures and/or cooking times

2. Contain minimally-processed, natural ingredients that are easy for most people to find.

3. Preferably be on the healthy side.

Please submit your recipe via email at by July 29th. Depending on how many I receive, I’ll try to post each and every one. Look for the initial one during the first week of August. You’ll see them under the post title: “Reader Entry”.

Thank you in advance. I look forward to seeing your entries!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Sangria - to beat the heat

The 4th of July is upon us and what better way to celebrate with friends or family than by relaxing in the shade with a glass of something cool and refreshing. I have just the thing! Beer, you ask? No, Sangria.

Sangria is a wine punch typical of Spain. Usually used is a light, dry, young, acidic inexpensive fruit-forward red wine such as Rioja, Tempranillo or Grenache. French varieties can work too including Gamay and Beaujolais. To give the punch its characteristic fruitiness, chopped or sliced fruit, often citrus in nature but even apples, peaches and berries or melons can be added. For some sweetness honey, sugar, simple syrup, orange juice of some kind of fruit nectar are added. Also added is a small amount of brandy or cognac and orange liqueur, ice and carbonated water for a little fizz.

Sangria is thirst-quenching and delicious on a hot day. If you can get past the idea that it's nothing but a glorified wine cooler from the 80's, try this.  You might be pleasantly surprised.

Several recipes can be found on the internet. They are all fairly identical. This is the one I usually make.

Classic Sangria

1 orange, sliced
1 lemon, sliced
1 lime, sliced
2 Tbsp. superfine granulated sugar, or better yet, simple syrup
1 bottle red wine, preferably Spanish
1/2 cup cognac or brandy
1/4 cup orange liqueur such as triple sec, Grand Marnier or Cointreau
2 Tbsp. orange juice
1 cup chilled carbonated mineral water or club soda

Wash and slice the fruit. Dissolve sugar in cognac and orange liqueur. Add this mix and the fruit to a pitcher or punch bowl. Pour in the wine, stir to mix. Chill overnight or for at least 8 hours before serving. When ready to serve, add in the mineral water to give it some fizz. Serve with ice cubes if you wish.

Ole! And Happy Fourth.

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