Sunday, September 24, 2006

Fuzzy Logic in the Fast Food Fight

Today's New York Times has an article about an initiative to use zoning laws to decrease the number of fast food restaurants in New York City. The article summarizes various efforts in California and elsewhere that have already done so. Pros and Cons of a Zoning Diet: Fighting Obesity by Limiting Fast-Food Restaurants (September 24). Here is a summary of reasons that some zoners give for their prohibition or limitation: "fast food ... establishments create traffic and pollution problems, contribute to truancy, tarnish the aesthetics of the area or drive mom-and-pop restaurants out of business."

WAIT A MINUTE, I SAY -- Mom and pop restaurants aren't an automatic improvement over fast food! Small diners may be trendy but what's the evidence that they are less likely to be frequented by truant children, to have better quality or lower calorie food, or that they are aesthetically pleasing?

I don't like fast food restaurants for the same reasons: quality, lack of low-calorie choices, unattractive surroundings. But I know of LOTS of mom-and-pop restaurants that are worse on all counts -- even potential to create traffic and pollution. When I'm on the road, I pick a fast food chain over an unknown mom-and-pop because I know what I will get.

Why don't the city planners put the real goals directly into the law and judge each place for its quality and so on, fast food or not?

By the way, the article cited a model town that outlawed fast food: Calistoga, a tourist town in the Napa Valley in California where discerning tourists seek the height of food and wine experience. The goal is to improve low-income neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Whatever.

UPDATE: When fattening food is outlawed, will only outlaws be fat?

First, another ban proposed: "The New York City Board of Health voted unanimously yesterday to move forward with plans to prohibit the city’s 20,000 restaurants from serving food that contains more than a minute amount of artificial trans fats." New York City Plans Limits on Restaurants’ Use of Trans Fats, September 27.

AND from the LA Times, a whole article on banning food in classrooms. The article begins: "The days of the birthday cupcake — smothered in a slurry of sticky frosting and with a dash of rainbow sprinkles — may be numbered in schoolhouses across the nation. Fears of childhood obesity have led schools to discourage and sometimes even ban what were once de rigueur grammar-school treats." Some schools have children bring a favorite book to read instead. Some just limit the number of parties with food. Some have specific prohibitions, so kids have to eat carrots. See Sorry, Cupcake, No Class For You by Seema Mehta, September 27.

October 21 -- more bizarre food ban: "THE US has banned Vegemite, even to the point of searching Australians for jars of the spread when they enter the country." See this story from an Australian news website. The reason for the ban: FDA allows folic acid only to enrich bread, not spreads. (Huh?)

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Cauliflower Soup

At Erin's request, here is some information on how I make cauliflower soup.

1/2 head cauliflower, chopped
1 to 2 cut up onions
Salt, pepper
Oil or butter for frying the onions and other vegs
Flour to thicken the soup. (Starchy potatoes might do it for you.)

Your choice of other vegetables -- some or all:
  • 5 medium potatoes (add at beginning)
  • 1 cup cut up carrots and or celery (add at beginning)
  • 1/2 cup diced red pepper or smaller amt. of hot pepper (add towards the end)
  • creative other choices that you like with cauliflower
Your choice of spice:
  • Indian: mustard seeds, black sesame (kala jeera), fennel, bay leaf, hot peppers.
  • No Indian spices? Use curry powder.
  • European: dill, parsley, cumin or caraway seeds, bay leaf, paprika, or fines herbs (chives, marjoram...)
  • Strange: a teaspoon of Chinese chili-garlic sauce
Your choice of liquid, about 1 quart to start with:
  • milk, stock, or water to cover vegetables
Your choice of garnishes:
  • parsley, fresh dill, diced red onion, fresh cilantro, chopped tomato, sweet or hot peppers, carrot rounds...
  • shredded cheese, sour cream, or yogurt
Stir fry the spices and onions in oil or butter. Add potatoes/carrots/celery and brown slightly. Add cauliflower and stir to coat with flavored oil and other vegetables. Add the liquid (around 4 cups), salt, pepper, and any spices that would not survive frying. Bring to a boil then simmer till vegetables are soft -- add peppers towards the end. Mash some of the vegetables with a potato masher or blend some in blender or food processor, choosing the consistency and amount of whole vegetables that you like. I don't recommend blending everything, but if you want a smooth soup, go ahead.

If the result is not thick enough, dissolve some flour in butter or liquid, stir some hot liquid into the flour mixture (to avoid lumps), then slowly add to soup. Too thick? Add more liquid. Bring soup back to simmer until it is thickened as you like it. Soup can rest at this point for several hours or even overnight. If you are keeping it more than a few hours, it should be refrigerated.

To serve, reheat and garnish hot soup with any or all of the garnishes. Or let diners garnish their own soup. You can also serve this soup cold with sour cream and green herbs.

  • If you used broccoli instead of cauliflower, it would be broccoli soup. I don't think I'd cook broccoli soup with potatoes, but otherwise it would be similar.
  • If you used only potatoes and more onions, you obviously would end up with potato soup.
  • You could use leeks and potatoes -- that would be very carefully washed leeks, chopped in small slices. This is a classic cold soup when blended very smooth.
I believe it was Erdos who said that a mathematican was a device for turning coffee into theorems. This recipe is a method for turning arbitrary vegetables into soup.

Friday, September 15, 2006

They can't do this TO US

E. Coli Outbreak Traced to Spinach -- just when I was considering what was the good side of grocery stores. Will the culprit turn out to be organic bagged spinach? Why not -- e.coli are organic. And what will it be next?

I suppose the argument that all food should be slow, local, hand-produced, and small-scale is relevant: then a food poisoning outbreak would not occur in 8 states at a time. It would be small-scale and local. People could die and we would never know that anything was wrong.

Addendum September 19
Of course I was amazed that indeed, the problem seems to be industrial-organic agriculture, the exact problems outlined in The Omnivore's Dilemma. Particluarly, an AP story today pointed out that safety practices among very large-scale California vegetable grower-packers has been under scrutiny:
"Leafy vegetables are the second leading source of E. coli infections in the United States, behind ground beef, but the government relies primarily on voluntary safety steps by farmers and packagers to prevent outbreaks.

"The cleanliness of fresh produce is drawing new attention amid reports that tainted spinach has been found recently in 21 states, killing at least one person and sickening more than 100 others. A second death was under investigation.

"Some consumer groups believe the government should do more to regulate farming and packaging, including the quality of water used for irrigation, the application of manure and sanitary facilities used by workers." -- AP story: "Tainted spinach sparks calls for more food safety oversight." Posted on CNN: 12:10 p.m. EDT, September 19, 2006

Also, yesterday I read an important explanation of how this could happen, reported in the New York Times. I have been wondering how spinach bags could be contaminated. Here is the crucial statement attributed to an expert in the field:

"The cause of the outbreak is still not clear. It could be irrigation water ... or it could be a processing problem in a factory. In the humid environment of a sealed bag of spinach or salad mix, E. coli can multiply rapidly if the bag is allowed to get too warm... . Some processors expose spinach to chlorine to kill E. coli, which can kill the bacteria on the leaf surface. But if the bacteria are in irrigation water they can enter the plant, and the chlorine will not reach them... ." from Agency Says It Can't Order Spinach Recall by MATTHEW L. WALD and MARIA NEWMAN

One more Addendum, Sept. 20
Here is one more word from the same expert, Dr. David Acheson, in today's New York Times. Evidently, slow and local is getting some recognition:

"Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the F.D.A., said the agency “wants to maintain a simple consumer message’’ and not confuse people by saying which circumstances are appropriate for eating uncooked spinach. But in a telephone conversation he acknowledged that it is less risky to eat locally grown spinach.

"'Clearly the risk is significantly reduced if you know the farmer and know his farm,' he said, 'particularly if you are on the East Coast,’ far from the suspected source of the contamination." -- From the brief article "A Stopgap for the Spinach Lover"

WOW, here in the midwest we aren't far enough from California to be safe from the scourge. Those E.coli must really be powerful.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

A World of Food

Most of the food writing I look at is one of two things. It's analysis of the overall situation of nutrition, economic issues, and policies about food (see yesterday's post). Or it's cooking and food history. I like Mark Kurlansky's Salt and Cod, Pollan's books and all-too-brief NY Times blog, Marion Nestle, or mid-20th century classics like Waverly Root and Joseph Wechsberg. About a few of my favorite books: I once created an list of food-book favorites: Wine and Food...

I enjoy reading about cooking, and have many favorite cook books and authors from Claudia Roden to Julia Child. Most recent acquisition: a used copy of:
The Czechoslovak Cookbook: Czechoslovakia's best-selling cookbook adapted for American kitchens.  Includes recipes for authentic dishes like Goulash, Apple ... Torte. (Crown Classic Cookbook Series) The Czechoslovak Cookbook: Czechoslovakia's best-selling cookbook adapted for American kitchens. Includes recipes for authentic dishes like Goulash, Apple Strudel, and Pischinger Torte by Joza Brizova. It's been in print almost as long as the first Julia Child books, and reflects the pre-Child philosophy of cookbooks. Namely, it's nothing but recipes. The subtitle is the most descriptive text in the book -- and it appears only on the current dust jacket, not on the 1965 title page. After a 1-page table of contents, we go directly to "Soups and Soup Accompaniments" on page 1, beginning immediately with Beef Soup (White or Brown). I've only been browsing the recipes, but I hope to try some when my current kitchen remodel is done.

There's a third side of the public face of food: celebrities. Interestingly this side of the food picture don't seem to figure in the analysis of the situation of the slow-food writers like Pollan, Marion Nestle, etc.

To see an example: Superchefblog is a blog about famous, nearly famous, and obscenely famous people in the world of popular, extreme, or just top-of-the-line cuisine. Mainly celebrity gossip and news, it really has few ideas about food. As for me, OK, I do like to watch Batali's older cooking show "Multo Mario" on the Food Network at noon when I am eating lunch. But add much more ego, and it makes me uneasy, and this blog is the most groupie-conscious of them all.

PS: A New York Times article dated Sept. 13, 2006, updates the great mystery of Ferran AdriĆ , the head chef of El Bulli, "the trendsetting restaurant on the Costa Brava." He "who is celebrated for his astonishing and often baffling technical accomplishments, now has disciples and imitators worldwide." In sum, he's the leader and most famous of the chefs whose food no writer has ever made me wish to eat.

The article's author Mark Bittman says: "I was blown away ... — but more often by the technical wizardry than by the flavors." Examples of the high-tech food: "a thin, brittle basket of solidified passion fruit juice, filled with the essence of tangerine, ... Parmesan snow, served in a stylishly wrapped plastic-foam box — the better to keep it cold — and topped with, of all things, muesli with dried fruits; a frozen sugar eggshell filled with crunchy coconut and ice cream flavored with the wood from barrels used to make bourbon..."

The article: AdriĆ  May Be Relaxing, but His Obsessions Are Still Abuzz

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Bad Side Good Side

  1. Bad side of globalized fast food: everyone knows the burgers and fries are high in all fat, especially in bad fat; low in fiber and vitamins; and made in a way that's bad for the global environment. Everyone knows the bad side of soft drinks. Good side of American hamburger chains: clean public rest rooms. Don't forget the original good side: when you go to a chain fast-food place anywhere in the world, you know exactly what you will get.

  2. Bad side of grocery stores: over-processed foods are so much cheaper than the good choices. Good side: cheap food means fewer people are starving. In fact, starvation is such a distant memory it's no longer relevant in discussions of most of US culture. Bad side of this: hard to empathize with African famines or to keep a focus on whether we can help. Yet another side of cheap groceries: unions for a while ensured a decent wage for grocery store workers, but this is in jeopardy.

  3. Bad side of supermarket shopping: we hear so much about the over-processed that we often forget the good choices one can make: fresh fruit, vegetables, dairy products, and meat -- some even "natural" or organic. Also reasonably healthy bread and whole oats; even some packaged cereal and so on. Perfectly reasonable consumers get swamped, discouraged and don't see this good side.
    For much more from the other side of the grocery store, here's an unexpected blog: that of the owner of my favorite supermarket, Hiller's in Ann Arbor: Jim Hiller's blog

  4. Bad side of Italian food: pizza has A LOT of calories, too much carbo, fat, too few vegetables even with that good tomato sauce. Similar problems with pasta, ante-pasto... Olive Garden: all you can eat of greasy bread and oily salad? Did you think you were getting the advantages of the old-line Mediterranean diet? If you want them, you have to cook yourself, and if you do, that's the good side.

  5. Bad side of Dairy Queen, Ben & Jerry's, Baskin-Robbins, etc.: no nutritional value.
    Good side: on a summer night, you can sit at a picnic table at our local DQ facing the firehouse and slowly spoon up your Blizzard or lick the softly melting surface of your ice cream cone and you might feel better about world politics or your job or the housing bubble. And the people at the next table, and the people pulling their cars into the lot, and the ones at the table in front might all feel better too.

  6. Bad side of Chinese food: lots of fried things. Think of sweet-and-sour pork -- salt, sugar, MSG. And sometimes even the potentially healthy stir fried foods are really fat-laden. Dim sum: nice high calorie snack. Good side of Chinese food: if you make it yourself, and eat the high-nutritional parts with rice and lots of vegetables, it can be healthy.

  7. Bad side of TV chefs: many set unrealistic expectations or they make food seem like a game. Celebrity for its own sake: what could be good about that? Just make viewers feel bad. But maybe they influence some people to be more interested in the basics of cooking.Who knows?

  8. Bad side of Japanese food: tempura is deep fried; high salt content in many other dishes. Good side: sushi teaches us to eat fish. Bad side of fish: the environmental challenge of overfishing everywhere.

  9. Fine dining fortunately doesn't affect most people, except when they occasionally read an article about it or hear something on TV. I expect the silly fad for making flavors into some kind of industrial-edible foam will trickle down to neighborhood restaurants soon. I've lost my heros like Julia Child (perfectly captured in her posthumously published My Life in France) and like the old time chefs who spent their lives in the kitchen of one restaurant creating excellent dinners, never got rich or very famous.

  10. Bad side of organic food: small-scale demonstrations show that it's good for consumers, for the environment, for farmers. Attempts to produce organic food on a larger scale have gone badly for consumers (labling standards corrupted), for the environment (the organic cows on a large-scale farm don't get a better life), for farm workers (large scale agriculture can exploit them whatever). This is well-documented. For example: The Omnivore's Dilemma and recent food issue in The Nation.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Slow Food

In my story blog, I just wrote about farmers' markets: Farmers' Markets. In an earlier post on this blog: Very Interesting Articles on Food, I referred to The Omnivore's Dilemma, in which Michael Pollan discusses the issues of slow and fast food in our society.

Since I wrote that post, I've been thinking about the problems it embodies. For example, so few people have the time to take advantage of an enterprize like the Ann Arbor Farmers' Market. Our trip there (written up in the story blog) was part of a week off of work for Evelyn, who normally just doesn't have time for more than one place to buy food. Her local supermarket has lots of produce, but not organic produce, and not much that's locally grown. And her daily life just doesn't admit the time to make the rounds of every special produce source. I admit that I also rarely take the time to go to the Farmers' Market, preferring the easier acccess of Whole Foods and the local independent source of fruit and veg, the Produce Station.

Evelyn doesn't even have the time to read Pollan's book. So I'm going to explain how I interpret the slow food movement. There are two challenges about local, organic produce. One is that it takes too much time. The other is that for most of the year, here in Michigan and in most of the country, nothing is growing. We could put some cabbages, carrots, potatoes, and less perishable varieties of apples in our root cellars the way that people used to do, but then our winter and early spring diet would be pretty boring. Making jam, fruit preserves, pickles, and so on is an even more drastic time challenge, and leaves open the question of whether you are really retaining/improving quality.

Pollan acknowledges these challenges, but he isn't writing about what it's like to actually feed a family. He's theoretical! Also he's dealing with the commercial issues such as the deterioration of the meaning of the word organic as the government regulates its use and permits the industrial food cartel to misuse it. The word "slow food" is the best I can do right now to refer to the opponents of all industrial, all highly processed food all the time.

Some of the slow food writers are true fanatics. They judge harshly anyone who puts a higher value on other activities than procuring a perfect diet for themselves and their children. I dismiss them immediately, because I want to talk about the reasonable ones.

What issues do I see as important? First, is habit. Evelyn may not have time to buy only organic local fruit and vegetables, but she makes sure that her children are learning to eat produce, to like less-processed foods, and to regard sweets as only an occasional part of their diet. This approach seems to me to be in the spirit of the writers I like.

The second issue that's important is indeed one for activists only. Evelyn is a victim of the fact that grocery stores make the most money in the "center aisles" as Pollan and the others document in detail. The highly processed packaged foods and speedy transportation from farm to local markets throughout the coutry were once a triumph. New packaging and preserving technology and fast transport solved many problems. Among these problems: food that was so far from fresh that it was unsafe, improperly labled foods, intentionally adulterated foods, and challenges of bringing produce to markets in emerging big cities. Originally the food industry was doing people a favor by solving these problems, such as the emergence of trustworthy national brands, but it's now gone too far. As a result, if we want less processed foods we are faced with the same old problems in new form. Organic food may travel less well than produce that's picked unripe and kept too cold or whatever (for more details, it's Pollan all the way).

But lots of the old changes towards standards and speedy delivery to market remain a good thing. Here's an example. Oranges were once rare and special. The groves of Florida and California were developed symbiotically with railroads, and suddenly, in cities in around 1900, one could eat ripe seasonal citrus fruit at reasonable prices. This is still wonderful, if you ask me. Yes, things then got out of hand. The citrus industry around 1950 invented a really industrial process for making frozen orange juice from a combination of old frozen stuff saved up from a number of years' crops to control sugar content without adding sugar. People drank frozen OJ instead of eating fruit. It went all the way to High-C which has what? 15% fruit juice? We now have the choice of the "fresh pack" juice, which at least tastes better. But above all, we can still get oranges, clementines, grapefruits, all in their wonderful thick protective skins. Do I wish they weren't sprayed with insecticide? Sure, but I say what's wrong with eating them anyway if we wash and peel them?

I think there are lots of tales like the citrus fruit one. I think that looking for good fruits and vegetables in the market is possible. And I think that the proponents of slow food are right when they see the problem as collective. It's not our individual choices but what the food industry is doing to many regulatory activities that's really dangerous. Falsifying the word "organic," looking the other way about antibiotics causing drug-resistant strains of germs, subsidising inappropriate foods for school lunches, and other forms of subsidies. This is where I really agree with Pollan, Alice Waters, and the other writers.