Friday, March 22, 2013

Packed Up With Protein

A recent article in Eating Well magazine it is suggested that you eat thirty grams of protein per meal. My opinion: THAT IS INSANE!

Shaun Dreisbach blithely writes in his article “Feed Your Strength” that thirty grams of protein per meal is “equal to a three-egg omelet with ½ cup hard cheese”. Per meal? Twenty-one meals per week? That is 5.25 DOZEN eggs per weeks with another 5.25 POUNDS of cheese per week. I doubt if you would survive the first week.

He cites a study by Susan Kundrat from the University of Wisconsin for this recommendation. A quick search shows that the recommendation was for athletes in a structured program to increase lean muscle strength. The recommendation is for 20 to 30 grams, in supplement form, three to four hours during the day. Even at that level, you would have to be very careful of how much additional protein would stress your kidneys.

Dreisbach, Shaun; “Feed Your Strength” Eating Well, Volume XII, Number 2, April 2013; pp. 25

Kundrat, Susan; “Packing Protein”, Training and Conditioning;; September 2012

Friday, March 15, 2013

Pasta Rant

I was going to save my pasta rant for a few weeks down the line, but the February [2014] "Pasta" edition of Bon Appetite forced my hand. Don’t get me wrong, there are wonderful recipes, but I hoping you keep the pasta component to less than a third of the plate. Among the recipes was the sidebar "Four Steps to Pasta Paradiso".

    Here is what they suggest:
  • The more water, the better.
  • Don’t skimp on the salt.
  • Cook "to the tooth".
  • Put the Pasta water to work

To which I reply: Hogwash! Hogwash! Hogwash! Good idea.

The four steps were from an interview with restaurant chef in New York. Now, I’m not going to name the chef because I hold no grudge against the chef. These rules are common culinary school wisdom, but sometimes there is no wisdom in common. It does illustrate the difference between restaurant / food service and home cooking; what you learn in culinary school is not always applicable in the kitchen. What you watch on testosterone laden chefs on food programing is to your mind what T.V. dinners are to your body.

First - Use enough water to keep the pasta moving

The article recommends six quarts per pound of pasta. You can get by on half that. You only need enough water to keep the water boiling and the pasta moving. Use less energy by heating less water.

Six quarts of water is twelve pounds – because a pint’s a pound the world around. Twelve pounds of boiling water, plus the pound of pasta, plus the weight of the pot, makes an awkward and dangerous trip across the kitchen from the stove to the sink.It takes a lot of energy and time to boil six quarts of water.

Six quarts makes sense in a restaurant where the pot is always on the boil and the pasta water is reused. Restaurants also use those quarter pot strainers, so they are not picking up a pot of boiling water to walk it across a crowded kitchen. They may add more water as the night wears on, but if they didn’t begin with a lot of water the pasta water would end up like wall paper paste at the end of service.

    For the home cook, filling a 3-quart pot three-quarters full should be enough to cook a pound of pasta.
  • Heat the water on high until you have a rolling boil, a lid on the pot while the water is heating will save energy and time.
  • When the water is boiling, put the pasta in.
  • Stir the pot to separate the pasta. Make sure you stir along the bottom to be sure no pasta sticks to the pot.
  • When the pasta returns to a boil, reduce the heat enough to keep the pasta moving but does not boil over.

It is important that the water is brought up to boil as soon as possible and remains at a boil. If pasta is cooked at a simmer it will become gummy. It is the boiling temperature that firms up the pasta.

Some claim that the extra water keeps the pot from boiling over; I don’t find it to be true. That little ceramic disk you place in the pot, doesn't work, it will boil over. A tablespoon of olive oil in the water only makes a mess, it will still boil over. You just have to pay attention. You can do that for ten minutes.

Some pasta, like sobo noodles, are going to boil over as soon as you look away, no matter what you do. You have to watch them.

Some would have you put the lid on the pot – or partially covered - while the pasta is cooking. Don't do it. That is a sure way to have the pot boil over. You have to fiddle with the heat so much that the pasta will be cooked before you find the heat to cook it. Once the pasta goes in, leave the lid off so that you can give it the occasional stir and check its progress.

Second - Watch your salt

The article suggests one quarter cup of salt per six quarts of water per pound of pasta. That is too much, far too much. I will go even further, I am a renegade on salt – sometimes I don’t even salt the pasta water! Dum-dum-dah!

    Here are my quick and easy guidelines:
  • Lightly dressed pasta (such as olive oil, garlic & broccoli), or pasta that you put the sauce on top (such as spaghetti sauce) or large pastas (such as mostaccioli, which you should never make because it never cooks right and should be dammed to bad banquets) should be cooked in salted water. One or two tablespoons of salt should be more than enough.
  • Pastas that are going to be cooked further (such as noodles in casseroles or mac & cheese) can be cooked without salt. Pastas that are going into a pan sauce should never be salted, it throws off the taste of the sauce.

Now before I get all the Italian nonna’s coming after me with their upraised wooden spoons, there is good reasoning behind this. Pasta, like potatoes, are a salt sink; it sucks up all the salt around it. It makes whatever you put it in taste less salty. It cannot do this if it is loaded with salt. If you make a beautiful pan sauce, you don’t want ruin it with over salted pasta. I find it remarkable that the same cooks that lecture on using unsalted butter allow over-salted pasta.

Another reason is that plants LOVE pasta water. Do not salt the pasta water you use on plants - you kill your plants. If your houseplant soil is dry and hard, add cooled pasta water. There is a certain circle-of-life thingy to feeding your basil plant pasta water.

    Three caveats, for using pasta water on plants:
  1. Again, salted water will kill your plants.
  2. Hot pasta water will also kill your plants. Let it cool.
  3. If you leave it in the too long in the watering can – say about three days – it begins to smell like old socks. The plants will love it but you will wonder where you left your gym bag.

Third - Al dente is overrated

Someday I am going to catch this Al and pull his dentes out. Frankly, I am tired of crunching through the pasta special.

"Waiter, this pasta is undercooked."

"It is served 'al dente'."

"This is served 'undercooked'. I just chipped a tooth."

Let me explain al dente. Fresh, homemade pasta cooks in the blink of an eye. If you let it go even a few seconds too long and it is mush. You have to cook fresh pasta al dente, otherwise it is not pasta, it is paste.

The hard, durum wheat pasta you get out of a box is more forgiving. You have a few minutes between a crunchy center and mush. The time it takes pasta to cook depends upon the size of the pasta, the hardness of the wheat, the hardness of the water, if the water maintains a boil, and how long the box stayed on the shelf.

Let’s say that the recommended cooking time for the pasta is ten minutes. It may actually be less or it may be more. The first six minutes or so the pasta is sticky with a crunchy center. Then then pasta gets gummy, but the center is still hard. The pasta then firms up. A minute or two later the pasta softens. Keep cooking and the pasta turns to mush.

There is only one way to check pasta, bite into it. Do not toss it against the wall to see if it sticks. Do not take it into your hand to twist it. Do not run it under cold water. None of these work and they only make a mess. Remove one piece and bite into it. It should be firm all the way through. If the outside is gummy or the center is crunchy, spit it out and check again in a minute or two. If the outside is firm but the center is chewy (not hard), this is 'al dente'; drain the pasta to be cooked further in a casserole or pan sauce because at this point, the pasta will still absorb sauce. If the outside is softening, but the center is still firm, drain and lightly dress; at this point the sauce will not be absorbed much, so top the pasta with sauce at the table. If let the pasta goes too long and is mush, throw it out; you can't save it..

Fourth - Put the pasta water to work

Let’s talk about draining the pasta. If the pasta is going into a casserole, use a heat-proof measuring cup to remove some pasta water and set it aside before you drain the pasta. Use a colander. If you have more prep to do on the casserole before you can add the pasta, rinse with cold water to stop the cooking. If it sits for a minutes it will be fine. For anything thee minutes, use butter or olive oil to keep the pasta from sticking together.

If the pasta is going from the pasta water to a cooking pan sauce in the skillet next to it, use a spider, slotted spoon or mesh strainer to lift the pasta out of the pasta water to the skillet. Use the pasta water as need to loosen the sauce as needed.

If the pasta is lightly dressed, place the pasta bowl in the sink. (What, you don’t have a pasta bowl? Get one.) Place the colander in the bowl. Drain the pasta, using the water to heat the bowl. Save some of the pasta water in a heat-proof measuring cup to loosen the sauce, as needed.

And finally - We have already talked about using the cooled pasta water for your plants. If you have been following along, the big, lovely pot of pasta water sitting on the stove should be unsalted. All the salted pasta water went down the drain. Taste it before you feed it to your plants, just to be sure, and that whole circle-of-life thingy will work for you.

Let's put it all together

  1. Use enough water to keep the pasta moving.
  2. Use salt sparingly, or not at all, according to what you cook.
  3. Cook the pasta according to how it is going to be served. Cook al dente if it is going to be cooked further.
  4. Pasta water is a wonderous thing. Set some aside to loosen up dry sauces. Save the unsalted water to cool and use on your houseplants.

Pasta is easy. Comedy is hard.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Greens & Beans

Would you rather eat a fresh spring roll or a rice cake? By now your new year’s resolutions to eat healthier may have hit the wall. Lose weight? Lower blood pressure? Hoping to get back on the tennis court this summer? But here it is March and you can’t face another rice cake.

I have a simple proposal: if it doesn’t taste good, don’t eat it. Eating healthy does not mean eating bland or gritty. It doesn’t mean spending big bucks on supplements because the food you eat is empty calories; even if they are few calories. You do don’t have to perform diet accountancy where you replace this thing here for that thing there. You don’t have to fill yourself with chemicals. You don’t have to live in perpetual food penance.

How about we eat healthy and well? Begin by eating your vegetables.

    Here are the guidelines, in order of volume:
  • Green leafy vegetables – Turnip greens, collards, kale, spinach, broccoli.
  • Vibrantly colored vegetables – Green peppers, red peppers, carrots, tomatoes.
  • Vegetables that make life worth living – Onions, garlic, mushrooms, celery.
  • Beans & legumes – lentils chickpeas, black beans, pinto beans.
  • Fruits
  • Starchy vegetables (whole grain when possible) – rice, oatmeal, pastas, potatoes, sobo noodles, corn tortillas.
  • Dairy (but not much)
  • Meats & poultry
  • Sweets (when fruits are not enough)

Now, let’s put it all together in a recipe.

Taco Loco

(Because it is crazy good)

1 lb. Ground turkey
1 clove Garlic, minced (or 1 tablespoon of garlic powder, not garlic salt)
2 Tbl Ground cumin
2 Tbl Chili powder, more if needed
1   Onion, chopped
1   Green pepper, cored & chopped
1   Red pepper, cored & chopped
OR if you can find a package of red, orange and yellow peppers, then one half of each, cored & chopped
1 can (7oz.) Chipotle salsa
1 can (10oz.) Black beans, rinsed
1 can (10oz.) Diced tomato
1lb. pkg Frozen mustard greens, turnip greens and/or collard greens
OR ½lb bag of fresh kale
1 pkg (12) corn tortillas.


  • Cutting board
  • Knife
  • Wooden spoon
  • Dutch oven
  • Oven-proof dish
  • Can opener
  • Strainer
  • Tea towel


  1. In a dutch oven, over medium high heat, brown the ground turkey. With the spoon, chop it up into chunks the size of your thumbnail.
  2. While the turkey is browning, chop the onion and the peppers into dices the size of your thumbnail.
  3. When the turkey is no longer pink, reduce the heat to medium. Add garlic. Stir. Allow to cook for thirty seconds or until you can smell the garlic.
  4. Add the cumin and the chili powder. If you are using garlic powder, add it also. Stir.
  5. Place corn tortillas in an oven-proof dish, cover and heat in the oven. Heat for 10 to 15 minutes. Or cover and microwave for three minutes. Turn off the oven. (If heating less than a dozen, separate and place three on a plate, one tortilla thick. Microwave for one minute. Flip over and they are ready to use.)
  6. Add the chipotle salsa, black beans and the tomatoes.
  7. Heat through.
  8. Add the greens.
  9. If you are using frozen greens, cook until well heated. You may have to bring the heat up to medium high again.
  10. If you are using fresh kale, a half-pound will fill the dutch oven. Don’t worry, it will reduce. Cook until kale is wilted and reduces in volume, but do not overcook to the point where the kale becomes mushy. If it is dark green and you can still see the curl, it is good.
  11. Add more chili powder to taste. Be careful, the chipotle salsa will make it hot.
  12. Remove tortillas from the oven, cover with a clean tea towel.
  13. Place one spoonful of taco mixture in the lower half of the tortilla. Fold. Eat.

Makes four generous servings. Have extra tortillas.

Freezes well. I keep one serving containers for when I just don’t want to cook.

These tacos are good enough that you don’t need cheese or lettuce or sour cream or anything else that isn’t as healthy. Of course if you want them, go for it.

Note on turkey: This can be made with ground beef, but I think that the turkey tastes better as well as being healthier. Look for one pound frozen ground turkey roll in the freezer section. Make sure that it is thawed before you begin.

Note on tomatoes:You can use fresh tomatoes, but why? If you have home grown tomatoes, safe them for eating, not a meal where they are second playing second banana (Fried plantains may be good with this). Tomatoes are one of the few vegetables that I recommend using the canned version. Diced canned tomatoes have calcium citrate, which means the tomatoes won’t go mushy.

Note on black beans (also known as turtle beans): You can use one cup of dried beans that have soaked overnight then cooked for an hour until soft. It will certainly taste better, but not substantially better enough to add all that work.

Note on the chipotle salsa: It is in the Mexican food aisle. It is a small can, but it packs a wallop. When you open the can, it looks like tomato sauce. It is worth looking for, I have tried other hot sauces and none of them work as well. This is something you will want to stock up on. If you absolutely cannot find it, take a can of chipotle peppers and run them through a blender until smooth. It is good but it will burn your insides. Pick out the chipotle pepper seeds to make it a little less hot.

Note on greens: Non-traditional, but oh, so good. I first made this with mustard greens – loved it! Again, you can use the fresh greens, but why? Rinse, rinse again, cut? Don’t bother if you can find them in the frozen food section. They are probably fresher there anyway. I found bagged, fresh kale that is already cleaned and cut, much easier.

Note on corn tortillas: I shouldn’t have to tell you not to use wheat tortillas. I have been warning against them every chance that I get. They are made with lard. They can be as much as three hundred calories each. All those people who think that eating a wrap is healthier than a sandwich would be much better off with fluffy bread than a wheat tortilla. Also, the combination of black beans and corn tortilla give you complete amino acids, so you don’t even need the turkey.

Vegetarian variation: Substitute a large can of chickpeas, rinsed, for the turkey. You don’t have to brown them, just heat them through with two tablespoons of olive oil. Mash them with the back of a spoon or a potato masher. Don’t mash them too much, you don’t want a puree, you want chunks – yes – the size of your thumbnail.