Articles by Author
The once-in-a-lifetime mashup of the all-American holiday of Thanksgiving with the second night of the eight-night Jewish holiday of Hanukkah brings us to Thanksgivukkah.
So, what’s to eat? Sweet potato latkes? Too obvious. Pumpkin-spiced sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts)? Too weird.
More from Zester Daily:
With Thanksgiving leftovers lasting well into the remaining days of Hanukkah, what could better combine the two holidays than Turkey and Gravy Kugel?
What’s kugel? According to “Yiddish Cuisine” by Robert Steinberg, kugel is an Eastern European dish of privation for people unable to afford meat. Steinberg says kugel is a rich dish that American Jews typically serve as a side dish but that can be equally good as a main course. The best part of a noodle kugel is that the top gets very browned and crunchy.
Turkey meets kugel
As to Turkey and Gravy Kugel, I admit I’ve never had such a dish in my life. It never occurred to my mother or grandmothers to merge Thanksgiving turkey with wide egg noodles in a baked casserole, possibly because in their lifetimes — and mine — the two holidays had never intersected.
Calculations by Jewish genealogist Stephen P. Morse show that the last time Thanksgiving and Hanukkah overlapped was more than 100 years ago. Based on the lunar Hebrew calendar, it won’t happen again in our lifetimes.
This year, the convergence has given me a new family tradition. To test the recipe, I stuck a turkey in the oven to harvest pan juices and meat for shredding into the gravy.
To make sure I had enough gravy, I took a cue from the second edition of “The Texas Holiday Cookbook” by Dotty Griffith. Her mother’s gravy was legendary. Best of all, it was always made a few days before the holiday to avoid the last-minute rush when all the dishes are set on the Thanksgiving table.
To keep the kugel a meat dish — meat combined with dairy is not kosher — I avoided butter in Griffith’s roux and instead used the congealed fat that rose to the top of the liquid the giblets boiled in. Kugel is like most dishes of Eastern European origin. The secret ingredient is onion, lots of it.
Turkey and Gravy Kugel
1 pound turkey and chicken necks
½ pound chicken and turkey gizzards and hearts
4½ cups water
about 1 cup of shredded turkey
3 tablespoons risen fat, vegetable oil or schmaltz
1 large onion, minced
½ cup flour
Reserved pan drippings from roasted turkey, if available
Salt and black or white pepper, to taste
12 ounce package wide egg noodles, boiled in salted water according to package directions
3 large eggs, beaten
1. To make the stock, start by rinsing the necks, gizzards and hearts. Place these in a large saucepan. Cover with the water. Bring to a boil; reduce heat to simmer. Using a large spoon, skim off foam until liquid is clear. Cook 2 to 3 hours, uncovered, until gizzards and hearts are soft and tender.
2. This should yield about 3 cups chopped, cooked gizzards and hearts, plus shredded meat from the cooked necks. Add some shredded meat from your Thanksgiving turkey until you have 4 cups.
3. Strain stock into a storage container, reserving cooked gizzards, necks and hearts in another container. Refrigerate both several hours or up to 2 days.
4. To make gravy, begin by carefully lifting the layer of congealed fat off chilled stock. You should have about 3 tablespoons. (If there is not enough, add vegetable oil.)
5. In a large saucepan, heat the 3 tablespoons fat over high heat. Add onion, reducing heat to medium. Cook until very soft, but do not allow onion to color, about 10 minutes.
6. Add the chopped gizzards and shredded meats, stirring with a wooden spatula to coat with fat. Add flour, stirring over medium high heat until meat becomes thick, pasty and tan, about 3 to 5 minutes.
7. Add the stock, stirring well to prevent lumps. At this point, add pan juices from your Thanksgiving turkey. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat so sauce simmers and becomes thick, about 8 minutes. Remove from heat; leave in pan.
8. To complete the kugel, first cook the noodles. Drain but do not rinse them.
9. Heat the oven to 375 F. Generously oil a 9-by-12-inch baking dish, or an attractive oven-to-table serving dish of similar size.
10. Take about a cup of the hot gravy and stir it quickly into the beaten eggs. Pour this egg mixture back into the gravy, stirring.
11. In a large bowl, combine the cooked noodles with all the gravy. Pour the noodles into the prepared baking dish.
12. Bake 1 hour, or until the noodles form a dark brown crunchy top. Serve with cranberry sauce.
Top photo: Turkey and Gravy Kugel for Thanksgiving and Hanukkah. Credit: Elaine Corn
When brisket is served on a special occasion, it had better be special.
I’m not talking everyday barbecued brisket, but an entire brisket made as the centerpiece for a traditional Jewish New Year meal when a family is of Eastern European extraction and most likely entered America on the East Coast.
More from Zester Daily:
A brisket of such proportions might show up at other celebrations, too. In the case of the best Jewish-styled brisket I’ve ever tasted (sorry, Mom), it turned up in Tulsa, Okla., in a rehearsal dinner buffet at the home of the bride’s parents, my cousins David and Michele Schwartz.
It’s a long story of how David Schwartz of New York City and the former Michele Steinberg of Pittsburgh got to Tulsa, where I experienced this magical meat. It was presented in a deep serving vessel swathed in a lush dark red sauce. The slices were easily retrieved by tongs. Getting at the sweet-sourish sauce was helpfully aided by a big spoon. The meat melted in my mouth.
This was kosher meat. The Schwartzes keep a kosher home. Michele’s father once owned a kosher slaughterhouse in Pittsburgh, so my cousin grew up familiar with meat cuts. Michele, 67, orders kosher beef, lamb, chicken and turkey from St. Louis.
Michele’s mother made whole briskets the same way Michele makes them to this day. This recipe is more than 80 years old.
Original Heinz from Pittsburgh
Suspend your impulses for purity. The main ingredient is also from Pittsburgh and one of the city’s most famous products — Heinz ketchup, begun in 1869. Before Heinz turned to making ketchup with high fructose corn syrup, the product used by Michele’s mother during the World War II years most likely resembled the recently introduced retro ketchup Heinz is now making with regular sugar, called Simply Heinz.
A typical entire brisket can weigh up to 15 pounds. Considering a brisket takes up the volume of an average turkey, Michele bakes it in two aluminum turkey-roasting pans nested together for doubled strength. “When you’re finished, the oven’s clean and I just throw them away,” she said.
Instead of an enormous whole brisket, I used what is called a brisket top flat or a single brisket, depending on the part of the country in which you’re buying meat. This smaller piece comes right off the top of the whole brisket, as if the whole brisket were a sandwich with nothing between the two slabs, and the butcher gives you the top piece of bread. My brisket flat weighed 6.22 pounds and fit nicely in a lasagna pan. Count on 20% shrinkage during cooking.
Preserving a family recipe
Obtaining the recipe took about an hour on the phone with Michele.
“I never measure,” she said. “My mother just showed me, and I’ve shown my kids. I look at it and think it could use a little more seasoning or ketchup, like Julia Child.”
This recipe is nearly foolproof. My first trial came out great. And like Michele, I’ve already stashed the leftovers in heavy-duty plastic zip bags in the freezer.
I’ve named this recipe Cousin Michele’s Best Brisket in Lush Sauce. I plan to serve it for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, which begins at sundown Wednesday, Sept. 4. Luckily, I already have plenty in the freezer.
Cousin Michele’s Best Brisket in Lush Sauce
From my cousin Michele Schwartz of Tulsa, Okla., whose father once owned a kosher slaughterhouse in Pittsburgh, comes this recipe from her mother for brisket in a lush gravy.
Michele uses only kosher meat in her home. For that reason, she begins with a small amount of seasoned salt, as kosher meat goes through salting during processing. If you use regular brisket, you’ll have to salt your way through this, starting small and adjusting along the way. Not to worry, there are plenty of opportunities to taste and fix. The sauce should be gravy-like with lots of body and hints of perceivable garlic.
1½ pounds onions
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon granulated garlic (not garlic powder)
1 teaspoon Lawry’s Seasoned Salt
Ground black pepper, to taste
1 (5- to 6-pound) single brisket, sometimes called top flat, fat trimmed as desired
2 cups Heinz ketchup, such as Simply Heinz made without high fructose corn syrup
Splash sweet red wine, such as Manischewitz Concord Grape
1. Heat oven to 400 F. Slice onions in rings.
2. Spread two-thirds of the onions on the bottom of a disposable aluminum roasting pan or a large baking dish, such as a lasagna pan. Sprinkle with half the granulated garlic, seasoned salt and black pepper.
3. Lay the meat on top of the onions, fat side up. Scatter remaining one-third of the onions on top of the meat. Sprinkle with remaining seasonings.
4. Pour the ketchup into a 2-cup measuring cup and then pour it over the meat. Fill the ketchup’s measuring cup with about 1 cup water, swish around to pick up any ketchup still in the measure, and pour this water over the meat. Add a splash of the sweet red wine.
5. Using your hands or a big spoon, combine the elements together, making sure some slides off the meat and down the sides. You should have the beginnings of a sauce.
6. Cover the roasting pan with heavy duty foil, crimping sides to seal. Bake for 45 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350 F and bake 30 to 40 minutes more.
7. Open cover and prick the meat with a fork. If the brisket resists the puncture and still feels tough, return to the oven for 30 minutes more. The idea is to stop the cooking when the meat is about three-fourths of the way cooked; more cooking will ensue after slicing.
8. When satisfied with the cooking progress, remove the pan from the oven. Uncover and cool on counter, saving the foil cover. When cool, recover the roasting pan and refrigerate the meat in the sauce overnight. The next day, skim solidified fat that has risen to the top (Michele leaves a tiny bit of fat, for flavor.)
9. Lift the brisket out of the sauce and place on a cutting board, leaving sauce in the baking pan.
10. Starting at the pointed end, use a long sharp slicing knife to cut slices about a quarter-inch thick, cutting across the grain. When this portion is sliced, turn the brisket to finish slicing across the grain for the rest of the cut.
11. Taste the gravy. Correct seasonings, adding more ketchup if you prefer it to be thicker. Return sliced meat to the sauce, turning meat to coat it. You may do this in advance and return it to the refrigerator, or proceed to the next step.
12. Closer to serving, reheat the meat in the sauce, covered, at 350 F for 1 hour. Bring it to the table hot with a serving fork to pick up the meat and a big spoon for the gravy.
Top photo: Cousin Michele’s Best Brisket in Lush Sauce for Rosh Hashana. Credit: Elaine Corn
Have you ever wondered what exactly you’re getting when you purchase a bottle of olive oil? Extra virgin? Pure?
“Pure,” explains Dan Flynn of the University of California Davis Olive Center, “which is such a great word from a marketing standpoint, indicates to a lot of consumers that they’re buying the very best olive oil. But in fact, it’s a lower grade.”
Extra virgin is the highest grade for olive oil.
Flynn, the olive center’s executive director, and his associate Selina Wang, its research director, recently released a study called “Consumer Attitudes on Olive Oil.” It revealed problems with consumers’ notions of this product that would make lovers of great olive oil, or those knowledgeable about it, cringe.
More on Zester Daily:
Only one in four of us understands olive oil grades, the report found. Eighty percent cited flavor as an important factor in buying olive oil, yet earlier studies have shown that a majority of imported oils have off flavors or are already rancid. Rancidity negatively affects the human body by forming free radicals and depleting certain B vitamins. If you’re using olive oil for your health, ingesting a rancid one will not bear the valuable antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids and viable polyphenols.
Consumers also did not think that the terminology olive oil professionals used to convey positive attributes, such as “grassy,” “peppery” and “fruity,” made the product sound tasty. They were also confused by the term “refined.”
“It doesn’t mean elegant or high class,” Flynn said. Typical of labeling that intends to mislead, refined means just the opposite. Refined olive oil has been processed with solvents to mask off odors and flavors. This do-over is done because the oil might have started out with olives of questionable quality, or it’s a blend of low-grade oils gushing around the Mediterranean from Turkey, Greece or Spain, or it’s been cut with other oils, such as hazelnut or safflower. In these cases, that’s all got to be covered up.
Wang designed the consumer study. She is originally from Taiwan, where olive oil is not so familiar. “It probably took me several months to figure out all the terminology and nomenclature,” she said. “It’s very confusing.”
The conclusion is there is much work to be done to better communicate what’s in the bottle instead of focusing on devising language that masks unscrupulous practices.
So how do you read an olive oil label to make sure it’s the best extra virgin you can afford?
There are six things to do. With advice from Orietta Gianjorio, a UC Davis Olive Oil Taste Panel member who grew up in Rome and is familiar with these terms we’ve inherited from Europe, here are some clues about how to read a label. In general, look for the term extra virgin. But don’t take it for granted.
Turn the bottle over. Where is the oil from? Just because it was packed or produced in Italy doesn’t mean the oil’s Italian. Oils come from all over the Mediterranean — Tunisia, Spain, Greece and Turkey — to Italy just to be packaged. That’s a lot of traveling. To impress you, the label may even brag that the oil has come from many countries. But now that you’re becoming an expert, you’ll know that the longer the time between harvest and processing, the better the chance the oil has of degrading.
Look for the harvest date. Remember that olive oil is the opposite of wine. It is not meant to age. Think of it as fresh fruit juice. Olive oil is good for about two years if stored in optimum conditions, which means in a dark, room-temperature cupboard. “If the back of the label doesn’t have the harvest date, you may consider putting that bottle back on the shelf,” Gianjorio advised.
Look for seals of approval. Many California olive oils are sent, for a fee, to the California Olive Oil Council’s panel of trained tasters. If the oil passes, the producer is given permission to place the COOC seal on the label. Most often, this is placed on the back of the bottle. However, many fine California oils from small producers are never sent to the COOC because of costs. Usually, these bottles show a harvest date.
Smell it and taste it. Because you can’t very well take a swig at the store, Gianjorio said that as soon as you get the olive oil home, smell it and taste it. Ideally you won’t encounter the off odors, which Gianjorio described as wax, bad salami, old peanut butter, baby diaper, manure or sweaty socks.
Take it back. “This is America. You take everything back,” Gianjorio said. Tell the store manager that the oil is rancid and return it. If the manager is unable to lead you to a better product, find a shop that specializes in fine olive oil, or look for good olive oil online.
Favor domestic oil. First, this is not an us vs. them: There are high-quality producers all over the world. Olive oils made in the U.S. consistently score higher in quality than imports. California furnishes 97% of the olive oil produced in the U.S. If there’s a shorthand way of looking for quality, reach for olive oil from the Golden State.
Top photo: Olive oils line shelves at Corti Brothers in Sacramento, Calif. Credit: Elaine Corn
As something of a general-assignment reporter on the food beat, I cover everything from elite top chefs in the farm-to-fork realm, to Napa winemakers, to boutique growers, to farmers market advocates and culinary academics.
But I also see food banks — a world of hurt no one in the food industry should ignore.
"That hunger and malnutrition should persist in a land such as ours is embarrassing and intolerable." -- Richard Nixon
More from Zester Daily:
One of the movie’s shattering facts is that in the 1970s, hunger in America was all but eradicated. By the 1980s, hunger returned with a vengeance and now afflicts more people than any other time in the country’s history. A record 47.8 million Americans are on food stamps. Seventeen million are children. More than 33,000 food stamp users hold doctoral degrees. Enrollment in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has increased 70% since the economic collapse of 2008.
It would appear to be a good time to enrich the food stamp system. But that’s not what’s happening in Congress.
Just when people rely on food stamps more than ever, the Senate voted June 10 for a farm bill that cuts SNAP by about $4 billion over the next 10 years.
And that’s the good news.
The Senate cut is peanuts compared to the $20-billion slash the House of Representatives is proposing. To protest, several of members of Congress tried a budget of $4.50 a day for 3 days this week to see what living on food stamps was like — not easy. The House version of the bill will knock nearly 2 million households off the rolls during a weak economy, with unemployment stalled at 7.6% and 15% of Americans living below the poverty line, the highest in poverty in half a century.
Most people on food stamps work. But if those jobs pay only minimum wage, such as Alabama’s $2.13 an hour for tipped employees, all minimum wage workers easily qualify for benefits.
Hard times can happen to anyone
I was on food stamps in California in 2005. My husband and I had lost a business and became instantly unemployed. As staunchly middle class, closer to upper-middle class growing up, I’d never heard of most of the programs that aid distressed Americans. Only one came to mind — food stamps.
Even though I owned a home and car, it looked as if I would be eligible. Only recently had ownership of a car been stricken as a disqualifying asset. I was shocked that people obviously in poverty were once punished if they owned a car to use to get to work or to look for a job. Then I got fingerprinted. (California no longer fingerprints food stamp applicants.)
I was issued a debit-like credit card loaded with funds every month. It’s called Electronic Benefits Transfer, or EBT.
I shopped for what would keep us healthy and un-hungry, such as vegetables, fruits, juice, meat, eggs, and OK, chocolate. I’m a good cook, so my shopping habits didn’t change much. I never got into the living-on-beans thing. I didn’t squander precious food-stamp dollars on soda, chips, frozen TV dinners, disgusting canned peas, lunchmeat or cookies, all of which are permitted. Participants who buy Ding Dongs and Hungry-Mans, and can’t cook, burn through their balance sooner.
Once I got the hang of it, I was going to EBT stores like Whole Foods and buying leg of lamb and brie. The program even allowed me to buy seeds and plants to grow a garden.
I thought that being on food stamps was like manna from heaven. But it’s not perfect. Aside from fraud traced mostly to the grocers’ end, the most imperfect thing about SNAP is its recent message about health.
In 2008, it changed its name to SNAP so it would be thought of as a nutrition program. The only problem here is that SNAP’s N-word, nutrition, doesn’t mean much when enrollees can buy liters of Pepsi and bags of Cheetos, and attract the scorn of politicians and the uninformed. My style of food stamp usage is equally criticized as food stamp elitism. How dare I buy high-quality ingredients while on the government dole?
But food is food, and any change to this definition in the Food and Nutrition Act would require an act of Congress. The people on the Hill gave up when they became tangled in the unruly theories of what makes a food too luxurious or too junky. Why not offer food stamp users nutrition classes? Oh, silly me. SNAP’s education funding had already been cut.
Food stamps benefits multiply
Every time an EBT card is swiped at a store, a nearly instantaneous transfer of funds from Washington starts a cash ripple effect locally. For example, the federal reimbursement of an 89-cent head of broccoli benefits the grower, the distributor, the store and the person who consumes the broccoli’s nutrition — for the full 89 cents.
Slashing billions of dollars from SNAP may starve the government beast, but it’s going to starve actual human beings, too.
If the minimum wage is not a living wage, and until the economy becomes unstuck, expect even more people to need that plastic EBT card like the one I keep in my wallet to this day.
Top photo: Clients collecting food at the River City Food Bank in Sacramento, Calif. Credit: Elaine Corn
Winter citrus is as natural as can be, even though it seems like the fruit ought to be showing up in summer. Mingled among the honey tangerines, Satsuma mandarins and bags of trademarked Cuties is an unusual cross, the minneola. It’s a combination of the mandarin tangerine and a grapefruit.
The skin of the minneola is dark orange and nubby. Not perfectly round, its stem end tapers into a shape resembling a nipple. Minneola juice is darker than orange or tangerine juice. Its taste is rich but not very acidic.
More from Zester Daily:
I love using minneola juice in lots of things, such as for deglazing liquid for braised pork chops or chicken. My favorite recipe is an old-fashioned frozen soufflé. The recipe calls for several specialized cooking techniques, including making custard, using gelatin, and folding egg snows and whipped cream together.
For perfect custard bases, use a double boiler, preferably one that is enamel-coated and heavy enough to provide some protection to yolk-based mixtures. To avoid curdling, do not overheat custards. Curdling is an irreversible condition in which yolks are heated beyond their coagulation point.
Be sure to keep a strainer on hand. If by chance lumps form, strain them immediately. Do not return the custard to the heat.
Overbeaten egg whites are the downfall of many a soufflé. In cold soufflés, properly beaten whites act as a binder, while hot soufflés would not rise without them. Eggs separate more easily when they’re cold, but for the most volume, beat whites after they’ve come to room temperature. Wait until some foaming has set in before beginning to add sugar in a trickle.
Cold soufflés like this one usually contain whipped cream. This, too, should not be overbeaten. Nor, for that matter, should whipped cream be over-folded into a soufflé base. If, after folding for some time, tiny lumps of white still remain, let them show. And instead of using a rubber spatula for folding, try a wooden spatula. It’s got drag that pulls the mixture along, making it likely you’ll need fewer strokes.
Best of all, a cold soufflé is a make-ahead dish. Store in the freezer, then withdraw at the end of a dinner party, ready to go. Decorate with optional whipped cream flowers and candied pieces of minneola peel, remove the collar and dessert is served.
Frozen Minneola Soufflé
2 tablespoons gelatin
¼ cup water
About 7 minneolas
1 tablespoon finely minced minneola zest
1½ cups strained, fresh-squeezed minneola (or tangerine) juice
6 eggs, separated (you will need 6 yolks and 4 egg whites)
¾ cup sugar
⅔ cup additional sugar, divided
1¼ cups heavy cream
Whipped cream for garnish (optional)
Candied minneola peel for garnish (recipe below)
1. In a small bowl, stir the gelatin in the water. Set aside.
2. Take zest off about three minneolas using a 5-hole zester, or by scraping minneolas on the finest side of a box grater, or use a planer, until you have 1 tablespoon. Juice enough minneolas, straining the juice, until you have 1½ cups juice. Set zest and juice aside.
3. To make the minneola base, separate the yolks, reserving 4 egg whites. Beat the yolks and the ¾ cup sugar on high speed until pale yellow and thick, about 2 minutes. Transfer the yolks to the top of a double-boiler. Add softened gelatin, stirring until combined. Cook over simmering water until hot and thick, about 20 minutes.
4. With a rubber spatula, scrape this custard into a large bowl. Whisk in the zest and minneola juice, combining thoroughly. Chill, uncovered, stirring two or three times, until base begins to gel, about 1 hour.
5. Meanwhile, butter a 6-cup soufflé dish. Make a collar of a folded length of wax paper or parchment paper. Butter the collar. Wrap this collar around the soufflé dish, secure with tape, then tie tightly with string. Sprinkle inside the dish and up the collar with granulated sugar.
6. Beat egg whites until foamy. Trickle in half the remaining sugar (⅓ cup) while continuing to beat whites to stiff peaks. Fold whites into gelled minneola base. Return to refrigerator.
7. Beat the cream, gradually adding the remaining ⅓ cup sugar until cream forms stiff peaks. Fold cream into soufflé base.
8. Scrape soufflé mixture into prepared soufflé dish. Freeze 4 hours or overnight. Snip string and peel off collar. Decorate with whipped cream piped from a star tip. Sprinkle with candied minneola peel.
Candied Minneola Peel
¼ cup water
½ cup sugar, plus more for dusting
1. With a sharp knife, gently scrape away white pith from peels of minneolas. Cut peels lengthwise into thin strips, then into small squares.
2. In a small pot, bring water and sugar to a boil. Stir until sugar dissolves.
3. Add peel. Simmer over medium heat for 5 minutes, stirring frequently.
4. Scoop pieces of sugared peel out of the pot with a small strainer to a sheet of wax paper. Roll warm peel in additional sugar for a light dusting.
You can make these a day ahead and store cooled candied peel in a small bowl covered with wax paper.
Minneola frozen soufflé. Credit: Elaine Corn
I don’t know anyone who wakes up on Jan. 1 cheering, “Woo-hoo, I can’t wait to go on a diet.” Most of us hate to diet. But as a rite of passing into a new year with well-intentioned resolution, The Diet is an annual dilemma that needs to be looked at a bit differently. In this first month of 2013, let’s resolve not to diet. Let’s anti-diet.
More on healthy eating at Zester Daily:
You can already see the ads on TV. Lose weight with this system, here’s an impossible-to-believe before-and-after shot of [insert you] after some charlatan’s weight-loss scam. We know most of these don’t work and don’t last. You’ve got the low-carb diet, the calorie-restriction diet, the açai berry diet — all cruel and unusual over a prolonged period. And not sustainable either.
This discussion is mostly for post-holiday bellies and diminishing a gut that’s bigger now than it was before Thanksgiving. It is not for anyone diagnosed as morbidly obese. For that you need medical advice. But anyone looking for a resolution you can live with should be thinking about wellness. And that means a new way of eating and of shopping, getting into a heartfelt ritual of improving the quality of the food you eat.
Here are five candid points that have helped me and could possibly help you.
1. Eat clean
This means getting habituated to eating better, shopping for, and simply cooking, fresh fruits and vegetables and a piece of meat or fish for dinner. Stay away from what I view as unclean food, usually posing as low-calorie frozen dinners. They’re not lean on unnatural ingredients and certainly not anything resembling cuisine. Another example is a commercial spinach dip available at a big box member store. It’s got an ingredient label of biblical proportions. Sure, the dip’s got spinach and dairy, but it also includes hydrolized soy protein, high fructose corn syrup. What’s this stuff? Why not wilt some fresh spinach (or defrost frozen spinach) and mix it with some garlic, Worcestershire and real sour cream or thick yogurt? Dinner is perhaps a serving of fresh chicken with two vegetables. Those vegetables might be steamed peas and mashed sweet potato. That’s clean.
2. Stop eating crap
Yes, I said crap. The commercial spinach dip, mentioned above, is unnatural. Potato chips as a side dish with a sandwich are nutritionally ridiculous. Cheetos, as yummy as they are for salt addicts, are not food. Twizzlers aren’t food. Pizza has trick nutrition, because with it calories and fats can pile up fast. I recommend avoiding it while you’re getting started this year. Ignore nutritionists who encourage daylong snacking. I say stop snacking, and this should help a few pounds here and there melt away.
Don’t forget the stop-eating-crap rule when you’re eating out too. Over the next couple of weeks, don’t get trapped in the salad-is-diet-food myth. There’s low nutrition in lettuce and lots of calories in dressing. When you find yourself out for lunch or dinner, make your own meal. Look over a menu to see what ingredients are on it, then ask the waiter to tell the chef you want the chicken breast out of the chicken sandwich and bring it with the side of chard that comes with the steak entrée. Sometimes the chef can be very obliging.
3. Get used to being a little hungry
This rule goes well with the stop-snacking rule. Some experts say hunger pangs send the body into starvation mode. Snacking your way to satiety is self-defeating.
A few hunger pangs are a sign your stomach is getting accustomed to less. Also, eat dinner early so you’re up more hours to burn calories. You may go to bed a bit hungry, but there’s always breakfast eight hours away.
4. Go to a farmers market
You’ll eat seasonally and you’ll be able to practice one of the best pieces of nutrition advice ever to come along: Eat your colors. Buy orange produce such as winter squash, yams, carrots and oranges. Go green with chard, spinach, kale, broccoli, even frozen peas. Get your red from beets, red cabbage and pomegranates. If you hate beets, don’t eat them. The variety from eating colors keeps boredom at bay. A farmers market will awaken your interest in fresh food, which obviously requires some skill to cook, and that brings me to the next rule.
5. Learn to cook
Zester readers may know more than the average reluctant cook about getting a meal on the table, but many people indulge their interest in food by eating out and making excuses for not cooking.
You won’t think that time spent cooking robs you of time spent doing other things if you decide that cooking is one of those other things. Taking charge of what goes into your body benefits you on many fronts: your budget, your nutrition and your control of all ingredients that enter your body. If you regard the knobs on a stove like they’re controls on a nuclear reactor, then cook in your microwave. About 99% of homes have microwaves. I’ve used the microwave to cook an entire meal that’s clean, nutritious and not too expensive.
Ultimately if you can make yourself a reasonable promise, you’ll feel better, you’ll lose that holiday gut, and you may well be on your way to some new good habits.
“Baked” Chicken From the Microwave
1 whole cut-up fryer, bones in, pieces rinsed and dried with paper towel
Salt and ground black pepper
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon oregano (leafy type, not powdered)
Few sprinkles paprika, for color and a bit of kick
1. To make the breasts of relative size to the rest of the pieces, cut the breasts in half crosswise. Arrange chicken pieces on a microwavable large dinner plate like spokes, with the plump ends along the rim of the plate and narrower ends toward the center.
2. Season with salt and pepper, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with oregano and paprika. Do not cover.
3. In a microwave equipped with a turntable, microwave on high, in 5-minute intervals, for up to a total of 10 to 15 minutes*, until meat is browned and no longer pink inside.
4. Serve with fresh microwaved green beans and half a sweet potato.
* Depending on microwave’s wattage power, your chicken may cook very quickly or slowly. At home, mine is done in about 12 minutes. At a friend’s house with an older model, the chicken was done in 14 minutes. You can stop the microwave at any time to check progress.
This is the easiest type of produce to microwave.
1 medium-sized yam
Dab of butter
1. Halve yam lengthwise. Lay both pieces on a large dinner plate, flat side down. Puncture several air slits in the skin for steam to escape. Do not cover.
2. Microwave on high for 5 minutes. Test doneness by piercing with sharp knife. If it glides easily into the yam, the yam is done. If not, microwave 1 minute more.
3. Turn yam halves over, cut slits and top each with a small dab of butter. Serve hot.
Microwaved Fresh Green Beans With Butter
Serves 2 or 3
⅓ pound green beans (pick tender ones instead of big fat ones)
Sprinkling of salt
1 pat of butter
1. Trim stems off beans. Set beans in a shallow bowl with a tablespoon of water. Sprinkle with salt. Set dab of butter in center.
2. Cover the bowl with a plate. Steam-microwave for 90 seconds. If the beans are still too crunchy for your taste, microwave for another 15 seconds. Scoop the beans out of bowl with a slotted spoon and set on the serving plate with the chicken and yam.
Healthy “baked” chicken, green beans and yams from the microwave. Credit: Elaine Corn