Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Read Labels and Don't Be Duped

I can't say enough how important it is to read labels now that every supermarket chain has its own branded "healthy food" line. Twice now I've come home with a product I grabbed off a shelf because I assumed it was good for us because the label told me it was.

The first was a President's Choice Blue Menu cracker; the other a Safeway Eating Right fig newton. When I finally read the labels, each of these foods had sugar listed as the first ingredient, before flour. That means that there was more sugar in the product than flour. I've followed a lot of cookie recipes over the years, but not even the sweetest one contained more sugar than flour. And why a fig newton cookie needs that much sugar is a mystery: figs are incredibly sweet on their own.

Companies are taking advantage of our trust and our lack of time in the grocery store aisles to sell us food that will do more harm than good. If you avoid processed food altogether, you won't get taken in, because most of these foods are processed and packaged to look like homemade, wholesome foods. But instead they are made with cheap ingredients (sugar, white flour) with a few healthy ingredients thrown in (e.g. flax seed) to make us think that the foods are good for us.

I encourage everyone to stick to your instincts about what's good for you and your family and take the time to read food labels. Just because a package looks like it contains a healthy item, does not mean it actually will. Apparently the FDA is planning to put pressure on companies who use coercive marketing and packaging to dress up unhealthy choices as healthy ones. They are looking into enforcing national labelling standards that will make it easier for consumers to pick the right foods. Don't expect to see them steering consumers away from sugar anytime soon though. Sugar still manages to avoid any medical blacklists, but that is due to change in the future.

Knowledge is definitely power, and what's more powerful than being in control of every thing you put into your body for fuel? Do yourself a favour and spend time finding out what's in the food you buy and eat.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Dish of the Day: Spinach Artichoke Dip

In Vancouver, there are several restuarants that offer spinach and artichoke heart dip as an appetiser. They serve it with those fried nacho chips and I think they refry them before bringing the dish to the table because they always seem extra greasy.

One of these restaurants published their recipe years ago and I haven't ordered this dish ever since. Turns out that mayonnaise and butter are the main ingredients, as well as a lot of shredded cheese. Yummy....but a bit hard on the digestion, and who needs that much fat at one sitting?

I've asked my old friend ricotta cheese to stand in as the main ingredient in this delicious, cold weather appetiser. Ricotta is a relatively low fat cheese and it's still very light, high in protein and incredibly versatile. You can buy ricotta in low fat versions if you like, but I'm not keen on overly processed dairy foods.

Recipe for Spinach Artichoke Dip

- Take one block of frozen chopped spinach and prepare according to package instructions (usually, you boil it in a small amount of salted water for a few minutes)
- Dump the cooked spinach into a sieve, or colander and squeeze out all the water, or your dish will be watery
- Take 2 small jars of artichoke hearts (1 used one large can 398 ml) and also put them into the colander to remove all the water, or oil in which they were sitting
- Chop up artichoke hearts into smaller pieces if desired, and remove any woody pieces
- Generously butter a small oven-ready dish (I used an 8 x 8 square pan); go all the way up sides and edges
- Dump into your baking dish the contents of a 500 ml tub of ricotta cheese
- Now add the spinach and artichokes and mix well with a fork
- Stir in 2 Tbsp mayonnaise or sour cream and 1 Tbsp olive oil to make for a creamier consistency
- Add in a few shakes of salt and pepper and a pinch of cayenne pepper if you like a bit of spice
- Finally, add in 1/2 cup of shredded cheese (white cheddar, edam or gouda)
- Cover dish with aluminum foil and place in over at 375 for 20 minutes
- Remove the foil, crank oven up to 425 and cook for 5 more minutes
- Then turn oven to broil and watch your dish until cheese starts to brown
- Remove from oven and let sit for 5 minutes before serving. If you're eating with people who are related to you, or very good friends, eat right from the dish with tortilla chips, preferably a baked or multigrain kind. I served this with open-faced salmon sandwiches.

This dish can be reheated and really should serve 4 people at least 2 times. This is why you've buttered all edges of the pan to prevent ingredients from burning and sticking.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Dish of the Day: Turkey Roast

Happy Thanksgiving!! This year we were a wee group of 6 diners with small appetites, and we're not big fans of turkey. I find that the white meat especially can be quite dry. There was also no way we'd make a dent in a big turkey, so I decided to try and cook a turkey roast, which I believe is when you take a turkey breast and stuff it, twine it and roast it in the oven.

As you can see above, it looked beautiful en route to the oven, but more importantly it tasted delectable. I'm attributing that to the extra special step of brining the turkey beforehand. The recipe which I loosely followed is this one. I made my own stuffing with whatever we had around the house: raisins, apples, onion, whole wheat bread, butter and chicken stock. I bought fresh sage for the occasion.

What did we serve with this, you ask? Peas and French green beans. Sadly I don't have a photo of the turkey after it was cooked because we gobbled it all up. But from now on, I will always brine a turkey. It's fast and easy and makes the meat moist and delicious. Highly recommended!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Deadly Burger Deconstructed

I like a good burger. And one of the best that I know is at my parents' house in Central Ontario. My parents have a hobby farm with assorted animals including some grass-fed cows. Each year they take one cow to the tiny, nearby slaughterhouse to be killed and they eat it in a variety of ways: ribeye, sirloin, as well as some that gets ground for burgers. This meat is dark red and delicious. It needs no more seasoning than a shake of salt and pepper.

I could go on and on about this splendid meal, but in reality, I rarely get to enjoy this. My parents live thousands of kilometres away, and they are very lucky to be able to eat fresh local food. They can purchase eggs and chickens from Mennonite neighbours, and they have plenty of land for a vegetable garden in the summer. Whereas I must make do with my 3' x 10' urban garden and like most folks, I rely on what I can source at a restaurant or at my local supermarket. Since most North Americans get most of their food from a store, meat eaters in particular are eating food which has been processed and packaged by people whom they will never meet.

Which brings me to this article documenting the horrible illness a young woman endured several days after she ate a hamburger infected with E. Coli. She is now paralysed from the waist down. One of her low points was having the doctors put her into a coma for nine weeks to try and stop her violent and endless convulsions. The article uncovers the cause of her illness and traces back all the mishandled situations, oversights and red tape that lay behind the tainted meat. The story gathers up all the bits of meat and other ingredients scraped together to make her hamburger patty, for which the packaging listed only one thing: beef.

The cause of this woman's needless tragedy is simple economics. Cargill (the maker the frozen beef patties), like other large food producers, wants to be a very profitable company. The best way to achieve that is through mass-production and lowering the cost of raw materials and processing methods. The result is that many low-quality meat bits are added together to make a patty, some having been in contact with feces. With such high volume production runs and so many sources of raw ingredients, and other issues like insufficient time to clean equipment, staff do not take the time to properly inspect the patties for pathogens. But that doesn't stop this food from being shipped to grocery stores so they can be purchased by you or me.

Knowing what goes on in the processing factory means that each time you buy frozen patties from a large food corporation, you're taking a low risk gamble that you might eat infected meat. Many of us know that healthier foods are those which are as unprocessed as possible. These are the natural foods which we were designed to eat and they have been touched by few hands and machines, and so we assume they have a lower chance of being infected. These foods may be our safest bet. Because few of us are lucky enough to be able to eat our own beef, to buy the chickens from the lady down the street, or even to eat fruits and vegetables from our own garden.

Each time we go to the grocery store, we must make an informed choice. I know I'm not going to be choosing any ground beef or frozen patties anytime soon. And I will continue to ask lots of questions of my store's butcher and of the companies who try to sell me their products. It's our health at stake and we have the right to know before we hand over our money, or put our health on the line.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Dish of the Day: Pumpkin Cookies


Fall is definitely here and to our family that means: Bring on Da Pumpkins! We adore pumpkins and squashes in lots of foods, albeit dessert-y ones. Pumpkin pancakes, pumpkin muffins and scones. We can't get enough pumpkin!

The pumpkin cookie pictured above is a new recipe I've modified which contains a lot more pumpkin than you normally find in a cookie. Often pumpkin cookies contain lots of sugar, are sometimes iced, and contain twice as much flour as pumpkin. This recipe has almost the same amount of pumpkin as flour. Also, I've used some orange juice concentrate to reduce the amount of sugar used. And I use whole sugar such as Rapadura, jaggery or Sucanut, such as
this for example.

Very Pumpkin-y Cookies

1/4 cup butter or coconut oil

2 Tbsp juice concentrate at room temp (melted)

1/2 cup whole sugar

1 egg at room temp

1 tsp vanilla, or dark rum

2/3 cup pumpkin

1 cup sifted spelt flour

2 tsps baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

1 and 1/2 tsps cinnamon

1 tsp ground cardamom (if you like it)

1/2 tsp nutmeg

1/4 tsp ginger

1/2 cup raisins

In a large bowl, cream butter and then add sugar. Cream until light and fluffy.

Beat in egg and then vanilla and pumpkin; mix well.

Sift flour, baking powder, salt and spices together. Add dry ingredients to wet and mix until blended.

Add raisins. Place Tablespoon-sized balls onto greased cookie sheets. Bake at 350 F for 12-15 minutes.

Makes about 18 cookies.