Pay less to eat slow

Heritage beans are the kind of food Slow Food USA seeks to preserve.

Heritage beans are the kind of food Slow Food USA seeks to preserve.

I’ve always found that Slow Food USA, the American chapter of the international organization dedicated to preserving local foodways, had a whiff of elitism. Maybe it was the pricy chef supper events, declaring expensive dry Monterey Jack cheese an “endangered” food, and the hardcore foodie membership. It’s a little unfair, I know, to say that about an entity that just wants to get people together to cook and enjoy great meals based on local cuisine, made with local products.

Maybe that explains why I’m excited to see Slow Food showing a more populist side. They recently sponsored Eat-In events around the country for their Time for Lunch campaign to bring better food to America’s schoolkids as part of the Child Nutrition Act, which is up for reauthorization by Congress. And anyone can join Slow Food USA for any donation through the end of this month (rates return to a minimum membership of $60 as of Oct. 1). There are chapters all over the country, and if there isn’t one in your neck of the woods, they’ll help you start one.

Ice cream is crafty stuff

Warning: Ice cream contains a fat that will send you back for seconds.

Warning: Ice cream contains a fat that will send you back for seconds.

I’ve always believed that no food should be completely off-limits. But I’ve also been known to plow through a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food in one sitting (and, no, I’m not ashamed to admit it).

Now I know why. Apparently, when it comes to ice cream you can’t have “just a taste,” according to a new University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center study. Ice cream contains palmitic acid, a type of fat that causes the brain to suppress the body’s signals of fullness. “Normally, our body is primed to say when we’ve had enough, but that doesn’t always happen when we’re eating something good,” said Dr. Deborah Cleggassistant professor of internal medicine at UT Southwestern. “Since you’re not being told by the brain to stop eating, you overeat.” In particular, palmitic acid causes your body to ignore appetite-suppressing signals from leptin and insulin, two hormones involved in regulating weight.

Palmitic acid is a type of artery-clogging saturated fat commonly found in butter, milk, cheese, and beef. Researchers also examined the effect of heart-healthy oleic acid–a common type of unsaturated fat–and found it did not have the same effect. “The action was very specific to palmitic acid, which is very high in foods that are rich in saturated fat,” says Clegg.

She says the study’s findings are more reason to limit saturated fat in your diet. In other words, just say “no.”

I won’t, of course, but at least now I know why I should.

Thursday’s tapas

We covered Spain yesterday in our whirlwind world tour known as International Cuisine class, so I’m all about the little nibbles this week.

Quote of the week

The Roma “is truly the eunuch of the tomato world and doesn’t deserve your time.”–Lynn Rosetto Kasper, The Splendid Table

Picture 2Score one for the South

Last night’s episode of “Top Chef” restored my faith in the show, as the contestants cooked for some of the world’s top French chefs and demonstrated they have impressive culinary chops. I love Atlanta-based chef Kevin Gillespie, who wowed Daniel Boulud by serving escargot with Southern-style bacon jam and won the quickfire challenge. Gillespie’s red beard and wide-eyed enthusiasm remind me of a young Kris Kringle; he may look like a humble son of Dixie, but fellow contestants would do well not to underestimate him. The best quote of the night came from fellow Atlantan Eli Kirshtein, who affectionately likened Joel Robuchon to a “unicorn.”

Picture 3Cheap–and sharp

I love my Mac knives, but if I were in the market for a new one, I’d definitely check out the colorful, affordable Pure Komachi 2 knives from Shun. They’re made of Japanese carbon steel and cost less than 15 bucks.–Serious Eats

Picture 4The high price of health food

Peeps think healthy fare is too expensive in this economy, so they’re ordering junkier food at restaurants, according to Nation’s Restaurant News. In a previous story, NRN reported that $5 is the magic number of consumers, as eateries from fast-food outlets like Subway to high-end restaurants load menus with 5-buck fare to attract budget-conscious diners.

Picture 5Food safety clearinghouse

Have questions/concerns about food safety? Check out the new government site, FoodSafety.org. The site includes updates on food recalls as well as tips about food safety.

Picture 6Meat matters

Don’t know a ribeye from a T-bone? This handy chart can clear up the confusion.–The Food Paper (Gayot)

You fraiche thing

Creme fraiche: so easy to make, and so rewarding

Creme fraiche: so easy to make, and so rewarding

I recently bitched and moaned up a storm about about preparing a chicken galantine in culinary class, complaining that the thing was icky to make and, ultimately, nothing more than a deconstructed chicken. I also noted that a galantine is something no (sane) home cook would ever want to tackle.

Not so with creme fraiche, which we got around to making a few days later. Creme fraiche is a nothing more than thickened cream, but it’s wonderfully silky, rich, a tad sour, and just a little bit nutty. It’s amazing dolloped on fresh fruit, and you can stir it into soup as a thickener. If you want to elevate a humble baked potato to gourmet status, top it with creme fraiche instead of sour cream. My cat, Moe, likes the stuff straight up from a spoon. (Don’t judge me harshly–if I take it out of the fridge and don’t offer him some as a tribute, the little shit will. not. leave. me. be.)

So, creme fraiche is addictive and versatile (dress up a baked potato, feed the cat, whatever). It’s also a mucho premium ingredient to buy–about $5 for an 8-ounce container. “The expense seems frivolous when it’s so easy to make an equally delicious version at home,” the late Sharon Tyler Herbst wrote in the Food Lover’s Companion (if you don’t have a copy of this reference book, you need one). It’s so easy, in fact, that you do it in your sleep:

Combine 1 cup of heavy cream and 2 tablespoons buttermilk in a small bowl. Let it stand overnight at room temperature (yep, while you sleep). Then refrigerate the stuff and use it within a week.

That process yielded a cup of the luscious cream, which I took home and used to make a variation of Kerry Saretsky’s World’s Easiest Mac and (Four) Cheese with Zucchini and Thyme on Serious Eats. As she notes, using creme fraiche saves you the effort of making a stovetop bechamel sauce. I loved the tangy complexity the creme fraiche added to the mix of cheeses. A little diced prosciutto di Parma was a nice touch, too.

Will I make creme fraiche again? You bet. Heck, it’s so easy that if Moe had opposable thumbs, he’d make it.

Unhealthy disconnect

Most Americans think they're in great health, though they probably aren't eating their allotment of fruits and vegetables.

Most Americans think they're in great health, though they probably aren't eating their allotment of fruits and vegetables.

Ever optimistic–or crazy and schizophrenic, depending on your point of view–Americans believe they’re in better health than they actually are, according to a new survey from the market research firm Mintel.

“Excellent” or “good” is how 71% of respondents described their overall health, and more than 50% said living a healthy lifestyle is “very important.” Although 65% claimed they strive to eat healthier food, almost 60% admitted they eat whatever they want regardless of calories, and 45% conceded they often overeat.  No wonder two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The challenge clearly lies in getting Americans to accept and admit that their health isn’t optimal,” says Krista Faron, senior analyst at Mintel. “Many people need help and guidance to understand where their health is lacking and how they can improve it.”

She’s being polite, of course, since the study reveals mass delusion when it comes to the state of our health. And that, rather than health care options, may ultimately be the biggest hurdle to improving America’s well-being.

Do you read labels?

You can learn a lot about food just by reading the reams of information on the label. Most of us don't.

You can learn a lot about food just by reading the reams of information on the label, but many of us don't bother.

OK, confession time: I rarely scrutinize the labels on food packaging. Occasionally, I’ll glance at the Nutrition Facts label; I almost never look at the ingredient list.

That’s terrible, because given my background writing about food and nutrition, I know better. It turns out I’m not alone. According to Food & Drug Administration studies, in 2002 (the most recent numbers available) nearly 20% of all American consumers, and 30% of consumers under 35, “never” read food labels when purchasing products for the first time. That was up from 13% in 1994. Hmm, so as manufacturers were required to squeeze more information on labels, fewer customers were actually reading them.

The FDA wants to remedy that and is planning a voluntary consumer Internet survey to find out why people are so reluctant to use the information that’s available to them.

When it comes to items like bread, claims on the front of the package are often undermined by what’s revealed by the ingredient list.

So now I’m going to preach what I rarely practice. Your best bet to know what’s in your food is to examine Nutrition Facts label and the ingredient list. The Nutrition Facts label offers basic info, like serving size, caloric, fiber, sodium, and other content. Keep in mind that “serving size” may not be an accurate reflection of what you’re likely to eat. For example, last night my mate picked up a 5-ounce bag of Kettle New York Cheddar with Herbs potato chips, to which we are addicted. Of course, the two of us plowed through the whole thing. In a case of forensic nutrition, I’m looking at the Nutrition Facts label right now, only to learn that the bag contains 5 (1-ounce) servings at 150 calories a pop. We each gobbled roughly 2 1/2 servings, or about 375 calories. Looks like I could use a Nutrition Anonymous support group (“Hi, I’m Alison A., and I don’t read Nutrition Facts labels until it’s too late…”).

Of course, the Nutrition Facts label is only part of the story. As Nourish Network founder Lia Huber points out, you have to read the ingredient list if you want to know what’s inside. As she notes, using bread as an example, claims on the front of the package are often undermined by what’s revealed in the ingredient list.

Yep, and it also helps to read the labels before you rip open the package to dig in.

Culinary school’s grossest day

A chicken galantine may look pretty, but it's not so pretty to produce.

A chicken galantine may look pretty, but it ain't so pretty to produce.

When I began culinary school in the spring, I noted that whittling potatoes into seven-sided footballs called tornes was the culinary equivalent of hazing. Now I know the real hazing comes in the form of a chicken galantine.

In its simplest interpretation, the galantine is nothing more than a deconstructed chicken. In practice, it is haute French fine dining. “A galantine is an elaborate pate that, instead of being baked in a mold, is wrapped in the skin of whatever bird–usually a duck–is being featured,” Jim Peterson writes in his wonderful book, Glorious French Food. He does not, however, include a recipe for making galantine in his book, probably because it is aimed at home cooks and the home cook who tries to tackle a galantine might swear off the kitchen for good.

Even our cheerfully fearless instructor was rather grim as she prepped us for the day ahead, admonishing us to “work clean.” I think it’s the worst day of the term for her, as culinary students struggle to contain raw chicken, which is handled in many forms. The shit flies everywhere. Here’s how it’s done–keeping in mind that we produced a somewhat simplified version as our first foray into galantine-making.

You start with a whole chicken, removing the skin in one piece so you end up with what resembles a little chicken-skin jumpsuit. Or maybe a chicken-skin hospital gown, since it opens up the back. The instructor likened it to undressing a baby. I commented that it seemed more Silence of the Lambs to me, which prompted classmate to pipe up, “It rubs the lotion on its skin…” Chef was unimpressed by our originality. Okayyyy, set the skin aside, ’cause the fun has only begun!

You start by removing the chicken’s skin in one piece so you end up with what resembles a little chicken-skin jumpsuit. Or maybe a chicken-skin hospital gown, since it opens up the back.

Next, you break down the chicken, removing the meat from the carcass and tossing the bones into a pot with mirepoix to make a stock. Nothing unusual there. The meat goes into a Robot Coupe (a restaurant-grade food processor) to be ground up, along with a splash of cream and an egg (more chicken!) to form a mousseline. The stuff looks finely ground, but it still has bits of carcass and other muck you don’t want, so you have to rub it through a fine-mesh sieve. “It’s like pushing an entire chicken through a window screen,” Chef told us. “Just accept it.” This process took me about an hour and yielded, oh, maybe a 2 cups of fine, sticky chicken mousseline that did not look appetizing to me, though my cat, Moe, who enjoys many of my culinary school efforts, would dig it. The odour of raw chicken that pervaded the lab would have driven him insane.

“It’s like pushing an entire chicken through a window screen,” Chef warned us. “Just accept it.”

Now you take three small portions of the sieved mousseline, mixing them with blanched, pureed carrots, spinach, and mushroom duxelles to form one orange, one green, and one brown mousseline sausage. Wrap each tightly in plastic and poach ‘em in the stock made from the chicken’s bones that has been simmering while you’ve cussed your way through pushing the chicken meat through the sieve. (I quickly fell into cussing, which is my default mode whenever frustrated or bored, and this was both frustrating and dull. But that soon gave way to singing stupid ditties to pass the time.) Plunge the parcooked “sausages” into an ice bath.

Now you’re ready to assemble the galantine. Lay the chicken skin on a work surface, arranging it into a neat rectangle. Top this with a skinless, boneless chicken breast  (not from the chicken you’ve just dismembered and ground to hell, but an extra breast–yep, more chicken!) that has been pounded into a thin rectangle roughly the same size. Smear it with a thin layer of plain chicken mousseline. Arrange your tinted mousseline sausages; smear with the rest of the plain stuff. Roll it up like a burrito. Wrap it tightly in cheesecloth and poach it in the chicken stock. Peterson aptly describes it as “bobbing up like something out of Loch Ness.” Once Nessie is done cooking, dunk her into an ice bath.

Sound good yet? Wait, there’s more. You have to gussy it up with a coating of edible chaud froid, which I can best describe as opaque aspic. I don’t love aspic on a good day; it isn’t any more appealing when it’s opaque. You unwrap the cooled galantine, set it on a wire rack, and slather it with a few coats of chaud froid. Chill it until it sets.

When it’s time to serve, carve slices from the galantine–taking care that the slices are presented so they match up to the gross piece, as the heel of this damn thing is called. And, of course, don’t forget to decorate the grosse piece. I crafted a coy little flower out of blanched oregano leaves and eggplant skin, and set it off-center, like a blossom tucked behind a coquette’s ear.

Of course, the logical question is, “How did it taste?” I can’t tell you. Because of scheduling issues, a long weekend separated assembling the galantine and presenting it, and, well, you know, food safety and all… So, sadly, this little girl was just for show. But I’ll bet it would have tasted just like…chicken.