not recommended

I have pretty much grown up with a sweet tooth. I’ve always loved sweets, and frankly, I tolerate them really well. I was never one of those kids who ate too much Halloween candy and got a horrible stomachache or something. (Actually, I was never one of those kids who trick-or-treated, but that’s another story.) So it’s fair to say that I enjoy sugar. But I’ve been taking steps to avoid consuming so much of it.

I was reading a post by another blogger, Katie, in which she was semi-reviewing Michael Pollan’s newest book, Food Rules. In this book, he keeps it short and apparently gives simple rules of eating which are supposed to be practical guidelines for people who are trying to make better choices in their diet. One of these “rules” really bothered Katie, though, and it bothers me too:

#39 Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself. [Katie says:] When I read this, I had homemade pumpkin ice cream, coconut pie, homemade potato chips and leftover rock candy from Christmas tempting me to wander through the kitchen and “graze”. As an at-home mom who loves to cook, I could keep us too well-stocked with hazardous foods!
“Cooking yourself” needs the caveat of “from healthy recipes” or “without white flour or sugar”.  You know how bad white sugar is for people, right?  However, this rule would work well for most people and might encourage healthy cooking from scratch.

I think that just encouraging people to cook at home doesn’t mean they’re going to cook using great ingredients. I use recipe websites all the time, and frankly, it’s just as tough to find semi-healthy recipes in those places as it is finding them in restaurants.

I was reminded of all this because I was surfing the King Arthur Flour recipe website today (http://www.kingarthurflour.com/). I cannot deny that many, many of these recipes sound delicious. I was actually searching for a cinnamon-related recipe, because I have a Costco-sized container of yummy cinnamon that I really want to bake something with. One of the most popular recipes that came up was a Cinnamon Streusel Coffeecake recipe that sounded amazing. Except… once I started looking at the ingredient list, it started looking not-so-amazing. The cons: 1) Plenty of All-Purpose aka WHITE flour. I’m guessing that you can’t necessarily swap it out for a healthier flour, but you could probably at least add in some white whole wheat flour (which King Arthur sells) or a whole-grain flour. 2) This was the real kicker for me: there is a buttload of sugar. Wanna know how much? Combining the amounts in the streusel topping, filling, and cake: a little over 4 cups of brown and white sugar. Um, that’s a lot. The King Arthur sites lists the sugar amount in one piece as 36 grams. For comparison’s sake, that’s about 1/2 of a 20 oz. bottle of Mountain Dew. And really… how many people are going to stop at one piece? (There are 24 servings in one pan.)

I’m not saying you can’t ever eat things like this. What I am saying is that I hope people don’t take what Michael Pollan says at face value. You cannot eat “all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself” unless you want to suffer the chronic illnesses that everyone else in the country is experiencing: heart disease, diabetes, obesity, etc. Treats like this cake should be saved for a special time… a really, really special time, in fact… sheesh. Have you ever actually made a cake with that much sugar before?! I don’t THINK I have…

Anyway, I am trying to be a lot more conscious of what kind of desserts I make, because I’m starting to understand that yummy dessert does not have to mean sugar overload. It’s a really good idea – especially if you enjoy making/baking desserts fairly often – to try to use healthier ingredients in your cooking. For sugar, I have stopped using refined sugar and am not trying to use only cane sugar, maple syrup, agave nectar, or honey. Even some of these are not necessarily healthful… but they’re definitely better quality than refined sugar and flour.

I am slowly gathering healthy dessert recipes; if you have any that you love, shoot em my way! Maybe sometime soon I will share my recipe for peanut butter and honey cookies… mmm… oh, and if you have a moderately healthy cinnamon-y recipe, will you let me know? That jar is still so full!

on vices and human tendencies

Something that I’ve really thought on since graduating college is how much people use either food, alcohol or smoking as a vice. It seems to be a fairly intrinsic part of our nature – to consume or use something as an outlet for our emotions or as a way to cope with our circumstances. It’s pretty interesting, though, that the most common vices (debateably) are all negative when there are positive, beneficial options as well. I suppose that even considering something a “vice) infers that it is harmful in some way.

For myself, I’ve been realizing how much I use food as a vice, sugar and coffee being the main things I turn to. Coffee is my drug of choice when I’m tired or cranky or it’s a cold day and I want something warm. Sugar, I’ve realized, is what I really “use” – if something bad or sad happens, I usually want cookies or ice cream, pronto. Bread, another carbohydrate, can fall into that category sometimes as well.

I’m trying to make the point (mostly to myself) that by simply making better choices, we don’t have to have real vices; we can simply have a coping mechanism that is beneficial for us. This probably sounds like it’s straight out of a self-help book; but really, we are the ones who have the power to make better choices for ourselves.

One way that I’m trying to not eat as much sugar is by not making desserts/baked goods with white sugar anymore. I’m not 100% doing this yet, but I think making food with higher quality ingredients makes it easier to eat less and feel more fulfilled. (Sugar has been shown to have addictive qualities.) And now that I’m getting into eating less sugary things, I’m much less tempted by the convenience food options that are so easy to reach for, like candy bars, soda, packaged cookies, and ice cream. (Okay, I still really like ice cream… but I’m trying to eat higher quality stuff, at least.)

I’m also trying to incorporate drinking tea into my routine, vs. buying or making coffee. Tea is much cheaper and tends to be much healthier for our bodies. I also think that tea is really good at helping me warm up when I’m cold.

I also am trying to get into the habit of exercising. Going for a walk or bike ride vs. plopping down on the couch is definitely more stimulating. I am really looking forward to the weather getting warmer so that going outside will be a little easier. I’m also really looking forward to gardening this summer with friends! Time spend outside is so much better than sitting inside all day.

Final thought: do you have any “vices,” or even just habits that you could alter or give up? The Bible talks about us not being “mastered by anything,” and I think that includes our own desires. This obviously varies person to person; if you’ve got any feedback I’d love to hear it.

the irrepressible, quinessential "chicken breast"

So, I have been married for going on eleven months now. (Woo hoo!) This is about the same length of time over which my cooking ambitions have transpired. But there was one food item that I cooked with even before getting married and trying to learn my way around the kitchen: chicken breasts. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts. It’s funny now to think back on when I first started cooking them the year I moved out of the dorms… I was usually a bit daunted and afraid of messing them up, and I really didn’t know what to do to give them flavor. I usually added a bunch of garlic. (Actually, that’s something I would probably still do today.)

On the one hand, chicken breasts are a great thing to stock in your freezer. Chicken is both cheap and very versatile, workable in many different kinds of cuisine; it can be used in a variety of ethnic dishes and in anything from soups to stir-frying. You can shred it, dice it, fry it, saute it or bake it. You can buy a whole bag of it at the store, forget it’s there and it’ll come to your rescue to make up a quick weeknight meal.

On the other hand, good quality chicken breasts are not necessarily a cheap cut of meat. At our local food co-op, where I usually buy our meat, it can be around $7-9 for a two-pack of full-sized chicken breasts. That’s fairly expensive. But frankly, I don’t feel comfortable buying those $6 bags of chicken from the regular grocery store anymore. From the online research I’ve done, the brand that our store carries is the same one mass-distributed at Wal-Marts all over the country… which, to me, is pretty indicative of a company that does industrial large-scale farming, something I’m not interested in supporting.

The versatility of chicken breasts can be both a blessing and a curse, though. It seems like it’s the norm to find “quick weeknight” recipes that include chicken breasts, but not many other cuts of meat “make the cut” (wah wah wah) in the same way. My opinion, influenced by my nonstop food fanaticism, is that chicken breasts are becoming passe’ – fairly boring and overused when there are other options. I also don’t think God intended for them to be the main source of meat we consume. There are so many other cuts of meat out there – chicken or otherwise – that frankly, I would rather eat a meatless meal and save the money I pay for meat for something more interesting and flavorful. Even just buying a bone-in thigh or leg is cheaper and tastier. I’d try it out if you don’t believe me.

If you really want to make buying chicken worth your while, the best thing to do is buy a whole chicken, or buy a pack of cheaper cuts (such as a tray of whole thighs or legs). I gotta say, having (whole) roasted chicken or turkey is one of my favorite meals. It’s somehow elegant, yet very rustic, simple and naturally satisfying. Once you’ve eaten the meal, depending on the size of the bird, you can save the bones to make stock and shred the rest of the meat to use in chicken salad, soup, or whatever you feel like making. And in reality, the meat from a roasted bird is probably going to have better flavor than just a plain ol’ chicken breast.

To emphasize the point, I’m linking here to a roasted turkey recipe that’s also in my Gourmet cookbook that Willy got me for Christmas. I made this sometime this winter when Willy’s parents were in town visiting and honestly… it was amazing. I’ve always gotten the impression that fixing a whole turkey is hard, but I found it totally easy and totally worth it to make. In this recipe, the only real work you have to do after preparing the bird a little and sticking it in the oven is maintaining a little bit of water in the bottom of the roasting pan (which makes the heat in the oven more moist, yielding tender juicy meat)! And honestly, I didn’t maintain the water as well as I could have, left the bird in the oven longer than necessary, and it was some great turkey.

Here’s how good it was: the skin (which had nothing done to it except being seasoned with salt and pepper) tasted like it was from fried chicken. If that’s not a message from God that natural food is the best way to eat, I don’t know what is.

PS – I didn’t make the gravy in this recipe, but if you did, I’m sure it’d be good.

Simple Roast Turkey from Gourmet Magazine