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Reaching the Promised Land: Home-Style or Restaurant-Style?

September 28, 2009 9 comments

 This post was featured in Food Renegade’s Fight Back Friday on Dec. 18, 2009.
 
 
 

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“This is as good as a restaurant!” a young guest at my table once complimented me on a dinner I made for her.

I took the comment in the spirit it was intended, but what struck me behind the compliment is the acceptance of restaurant fare as the gold standard for good eating.  

It’s a study of contrast in mindsets. It reminds me of the extremes in the unspoken reactions to my French husband:  some seem to think he’s inferior (a lowlife immigrant, a stupid foreigner, speaks with an accent, limited in professional prospects); others, that he’s superior (a sophisticated European, multilingual, cultured, educated, suave and debonair). It all depends on your viewpoint and prejudices.

While some home cooks take pride and confidence in their ability to feed their children top-notch, tasty and nutritious meals, too many others seem to assume that creating the most desirable food is beyond their abilities.

Stuck cooking at home

In today’s economy many families can no longer afford frequent eating out, so they’re turning to more home cooking. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re taking the opportunity to embrace fresh whole foods and exciting new gourmet recipes, especially if that’s something they have never experienced.

Some of these reluctantly liberated home cooks may be like the children of Israel, who having escaped slavery in Egypt—a comfort zone in its own way—are faced with getting themselves through the wilderness and to the far-off Promised Land.  Many are still casting a longing eye behind them upon the empty starches, deep fried breading, free soda refills, and melted processed cheeses of Egypt.   

According to an analysis of American food buying patterns over the past year in this month’s Advertising Age, one of the main challenges cash-strapped moms report facing in the current economy is the “necessity of creating restaurant-style meals at home” —as if that were truly necessary and something worth aspiring to.

How to make home cooked that’s more like restaurant food?

 The processed food industry has been quick to see a golden opportunity in the thinking of these apprehensive home cooks in the biggest decline in food spending in 60 years. Their research has revealed a strategy to keep home cooks wandering in the wilderness of poor eating and poor self-image while diverting what’s left of our restaurant budgets into their own coffers. 

Campbell’s, for example, banking on the common belief that the food professionals do it best, is proposing packaged foodstuffs for make-at-home meals that answer our cravings for the Alfredo pasta and juicy burgers of Applebee’s and TGI Friday’s.

I suspect these manufactured concoctions that play on our feelings of inadequacy as cooks as well as food addictions may be as loaded with sugar, salt, fat and starch as the restaurant meals themselves.

A study earlier this year shows that 86 of 102 chain restaurant meals tested included over a day’s worth of sodium, some up to four times the daily allowance.   

“Who knows how many Americans have been pushed prematurely into their graves thanks to sodium levels like those found in Olive Garden, Chili’s, and Red Lobster?” said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which conducted the study. “These chains are sabotaging the food supply.”

The chain gang 

It’s easier to let the factories and chains feed us than to be in charge of our own eating. It’s more convenient and safer to open packets than to cook from scratch. No question it’s enjoyable to choose from a menu, sit back and be served without effort, and to walk off and leave the dirty dishes on the table. But the food itself? If we look at it from another point of view, it leaves much to be desired.

Many dishes on the menus of our favorite chain restaurants are certainly addictive, with their greasy crunchiness, creamy dressings, over-the-top sugary sauces, the warm white rolls, the indulgent desserts, the massive quantities that aim to compensate for quality.

But unless we are talking about a fine restaurant where you’ll pay at least $30 per person, where the chef is highly skilled and famous for creative, sophisticated, extraordinarily fresh, high quality dishes that the untrained cook really wouldn’t be capable of making at home, it’s just not that hard to beat.

Our family eats in chains only when we have a gift certificate, or are on the road. It’s generally disappointing. We usually feel crummy after eating in these places. Those who once get a taste of doing better themselves lose interest in making that same stuff at home.

The average restaurant meal is a step down, even a big step down, from what an average home cook who sets her or his mind to it can achieve at home, in flavor, quality and nutrition for the same price or less, if we can only step out in faith and believe it.

Better than a restaurant

Why compete with restaurants?  You can do better than that. We normal adults are capable of making really good, really nourishing real foods in our own kitchens, with speed and ease. The health benefits alone are reason enough. The savings alone are worth it.  The better quality alone is worth it.

A good cook book with uncomplicated, flavorful recipes is all anybody needs. Bon Appétit magazine and cookbooks are some of the most consistently good sources I’ve found. No special skills are needed, but you might find yourself not only picking up a few but enjoying it.

Since we’re forced to give up the restaurant meals, we might as well eat better while we’re at it, rather than returning like the proverbial dog to our own vomit.

It’s at home we can use carefully chosen fresh ingredients, personally select our recipes, lovingly prepare human-size quantities, experiment with endless variety and novelty, and bring our young eaters into the process of growing, selecting, preparing. Going to a restaurant is comfortable, familiar and easy. But cooking a great home meal is a Promised Land within your grasp to be experienced with pride and without apology.  

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For recipes for some quick, easy, nutritious and delicious meals for kids, see the category on this blog called “Recipes and other shortcuts to becoming the cook you want to be.”

© Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 27 September 2009 / All rights reserved

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Two simple ways to make foods you’re already feeding your kids more nutritious

September 22, 2009 6 comments

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Do you ever wonder how recipes and food processes were first developed? Take pickling, for example. Did one prehistoric day someone discover a stray cucumber that had fallen unperceived months before into some casual vat of brine or vinegar and say, “Say, this thing has been in here since the last harvest was brought in! It actually smells good! It seems crispy! Say, this tastes good!” Or what?

How did people first discover how to make dough rise? Or how to make cheese and some of the more surprising variations thereof? And how about those real-life dramas we’ll never hear about how early peoples figured out what was poisonous or not?

Fictionalized accounts of these accidental or ingenious food discoveries would fascinate me. Maybe that’s where my buried fictional talent lies: the untold imagined stories of food-related inventions and discoveries!

Healthy Processed Food

I’m equally intrigued with little facts about nutrition that can be mined from these long lost tales—better understood today—that I can use to make my family’s diet healthier. Especially if it requires basically no additional effort or expense on my part.

Industrial processing to death of foods is what’s gotten us into the nutritional mess we find ourselves in today. But traditional home processes, many forgotten today, developed who knows how, are now known to have rendered not-so-optimal food options, including grains and dairy, vastly more digestible and nutritious.

Sally Fallon, author of Nourishing Traditions, looks at a multitude of traditional food cultures and their beneficial food processing methods, such as soaking grains.

Unlike me, Fallon declines to “speculate on the mysterious instructive spirit that taught our ancestors to soak and ferment their grains before eating them; the important thing to realize is that these practices accord very well with what modern science has discovered about grains.”

Eating a lot of unfermented whole grains, which contain substances that actually block the absorption of minerals, can directly cause bone loss and mineral deficiencies, Fallon warns.

Because unlike animals that naturally eat a lot of grains, we don’t have the several stomachs to digest them, soaking and fermenting does some of the work of those missing stomachs for us, Fallon notes.

Following are Fallon’s couldn’t-be-easier recipes for cooking rice and oatmeal that maximize their nutritional potential.

Brown Rice:

While wheat has gluten, which means it shouldn’t be eaten without soaking or fermenting, rice just needs to be cooked gently for two hours, intead of the usual 35 minutes.

Fallon prescribes cooking it in gelatinous broth (homemade broth, with a tablespoon of unflavored gelatin), which helps knock out some of the harmful elements and make it easier to digest while adding minerals. I tried cooking it in water for two hours, and it was fine. I added extra water, and didn’t bring it to a full boil, but turned it down low and kept my eye on it a little. Softer than we’re used to, but just as good. I plan to try the broth and gelatin method next.

Oatmeal:

A simple overnight soak with a little fermented milk greatly increases the nutrition of oatmeal.

Mix in a bowl:

2 C oats (rolled or cracked)

2 C warm water

4 T whey, yogurt, kefir or buttermilk

Leave covered in a warm place overnight or as long as 24 hours.

In the morning, bring 2 C water to boil with 1 t sea salt. Add soaked oats and reduce the heat. Cover and simmer for a few minutes.

Good additions are a little ground flax seed, soaked raisins, honey, maple syrup. The fat in cream or butter will also enhance absorption of minerals.

My daughter, who isn’t usually a big fan of oatmeal, said it was the yummiest oatmeal she’s ever had.

Serves four adults.

© Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 22 September 2009 / All rights reserved

This post was featured on Food Renegade’s Fight Back Friday on Feb. 19, 2010:ttp://www.foodrenegade.com/fight-back-friday-february-19th/#more-1690

Fat Phobia: Why are we so fat if we don’t eat fat?

September 11, 2009 2 comments

Free hamburger tape measure

Did you know that human breast milk provides one of the highest proportions of cholesterol of any food?

Yet we prescribe nonfat yogurt and milk for young and old.

Did you know that the body is actually unable to absorb certain nutrients in vegetables unless they’re combined with some fat: olive oil, an avocado, some cheese, or some good animal fat with the meal?

Yet we prescribe fat-free salad dressing with our little pumpkins’ celery sticks. And we get fatter and fatter.

In the 1930s, Dr. Weston Price, a dentist, noticed a big increase in children’s teeth getting crowded, crooked and decayed. Price went on to study 14 varied groups of people around the world untouched by the modern diet.  Sturdy, strong and lean, these people were basically free of the diseases we dread in our society, including dental problems and mental illness. Generally, all these groups of people ate what was available locally: plenty of animal fat as well as lean, fruits and vegetables, eggs, nuts, seeds, whole grains and full-fat dairy products, like butter.

What these groups didn’t eat was white sugar, white flour and unnatural oils like hydrogenated fat. They used no modern technology for refining foods, but did use natural, traditional processes of fermentation and soaking, little known today, that actually render grains and dairy products more naturally digestible and nutritious.

Price was also able compare people from these same groups who had abandoned their traditional diets for our modern, industrialized foods.  Just like most of us today, they had developed not only decayed and crowded teeth but diseases of every sort.

Fat has long been the villain in the modern battle against obesity. But a look at the big picture of human history gives a pretty clear hint of what elements of our diet are making us fat and what aren’t.

Meat with fat, especially if it’s produced by animals free of hormones or antibiotics, nourished on feed free of pesticides and herbicides, is clearly a standard staple of a healthy diet. The fossil record backs up Price’s findings, showing the earliest humans to be as healthy as the modern groups he studied.  Our first ancestors also ate a high-fat diet of mainly critters of all kinds, fruits and vegetables, eggs and nuts.

Yet the same people who think nothing of giving kids a fat-free Big Red cola or fat-free cookies to keep them happy during a trip to the grocery store will think they’re really getting somewhere by giving up red meat. The results are evident.

As for cholesterol, high levels in the blood often show up when the body is poorly nourished with unnatural fats, in the body’s attempt to protect itself, according to Sally Fallon, author of Nourishing Traditions:  The Cookbook that challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats. Like a concentration of police in high crime areas, as she explains, a high cholesterol level is actually a friend, not the enemy.

The nation with the longest life span today, Japan has a moderately fatty diet with about twice as much cholesterol as Americans, though little vegetable oil and other processed foods, according to Fallon. In number two, the Swiss eat more fat than just about anybody.  Austria and Greece, tied for third, both have high fat diets. And the French, of course, eat loads of buttery, creamy, rich, fatty foods. Yet they are thinner and have less than half the rate of heart disease of Americans.

Fat Goes Down While Obesity Goes Up

During the time heart disease skyrocketed from insignificant numbers in the 1920s to being the cause of 40 percent of all deaths in the U.S. today:

What went down:

Consumption of animal protein declined from 83 to 62 percent between 1910 and 1970

Consumption of butter went down from 18 pounds per person per year to four pounds.

What went up in these past 80 years:

Vegetable oils (margarine, shortening and refined oils) increased by 400 percent

Sugar and processed foods consumption took over our food supply

Cholesterol intake increased by only one percent

(statistics from Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon)

Related post:

Good Egg, Bad Egg

This post was featured in Food Renegade’s Fight Back Friday on July 16, 2010.

Categories: The Caveman Diet

How to get your kids to eat liver

September 9, 2009 2 comments

KID-FRIENDLY LIVER: homemade chicken liver pâté.

The French are quite oblivious to the American understanding of liver as the stereotypical despicable food, the quintessential really good-for-you, totally gross food.

The French like liver as much as they like anything, but if Americans eat liver, it’s usually not for enjoyment. It’s out of duty. There’s work and there’s play, and this is work. No smiling allowed. Our prejudice against liver is rooted, I believe, in our tendency to overcook it into a hard, dry slab. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Making liver enjoyable may seem almost cowardly or unethical, like making church interesting or accepting pain killers during childbirth. It puts our hardcore sincerity in doing things the hard way to question.  But let’s just consider this oxymoronical, radical idea: yummy liver.  If you don’t tell your kids it’s not supposed to be good, they may not figure it out.

On our visit to France this summer, we ate several delicious pâtés: traditional and creative French culinary inventions generally involving liver.

One of France’s finest delicacies is the famous foie gras, a pâté made from the livers of force-fed geese. It’s an objectionable practice, certainly.  Even if I could afford it, I like to think I wouldn’t ever buy any, but for that reason alone.  An American friend I once introduced to foie gras failed to appreciate it, declaring, “It tastes like liver.”  For good reason, of course.  But that statement, for many Americans, is similar to calling something “socialist.” It’s enough to end all debate.

The pâtés we had in France were so inspiringly delicious that I decided to try making my own. I knew I had a recipe at home. It was just one of those things I had always figured was a bit beyond my abilities.

As it turned out, there was really nothing to it. I passed an enjoyable hour or so in the kitchen making it one evening after dinner with my daughter, who was doing her homework at the kitchen table.  She likes to have moral support while studying, and I like a little company while I’m cooking. The time was spent so much more productively and recreationally than sitting in front of the TV that evening.

We started eating our pâté the next day.  We mostly ate it spread thick on slices of Ezekiel toast for dinner or before dinner.  It’s especially good accompanied by nibbles of little pickles, the French way, or pickled capers. My daughter took sandwiches of it in her lunch box.  We even took a little to the beach on the weekend, where it was declared delicious by the only one of our American friends who dared try it.  At home, we kept working on it, with pleasure, every day.

“Was that hard to make?” my daughter wanted to know. “Because it’s really good.”  She said that one day at school when she had it for lunch a bunch of her friends wanted to try it. She told them they wouldn’t like it, that it was liver, but they insisted. They liked it. Just proof that kids not wanting to eat things probably  has more to do with the food dynamic with parents than the food itself.

We debated how long such a pâté would keep.  We figured that the half pound of butter in it would help it keep for awhile. All we know is that it was still absolutely delicious on day five, when we ate the last of it.  We were very sorry to see the end of it.

This recipe is a great one to get even young kids involved in, with opportunities for not only simple stirring and a little basic cutting and chopping, but blending in a food processor, smashing in a mortar and pestle, and best of all: setting it on fire briefly (flambé). It’s exciting and dramatic and extinguishes itself in no time. No part is actually difficult and you will all feel like serious chefs. And once the children have been that implicated in the process, eating it isn’t likely to present a hurdle, even if it is liver.

Besides being good for you, as we all know, and delicious as a pâté, as you will discover, liver is relatively cheap meat.  I recommend buying the best liver you can get, from grass-fed, free-range chickens.  If you can, use organic butter, or even better, raw,  organic butter from the milk of pasture-fed cows.

Pâté au fines herbes

1.5 lb fresh chicken livers

Salt and white pepper (or black pepper)

2 T unsalted butter

1 T oil

4 large shallots (small pink onions), chopped

3 T warm brandy (or cognac or rum)

½ C broth (preferably homemade and gelatinous)

2-3 T finely ground fresh herbs (chervil, parsley, rosemary, thyme)

1 large garlic clove

½ lb (2 sticks) unsalted butter, well softened

1.Rinse and dry off livers, and cut each in half. Season them with salt and pepper.

2.Melt the butter and oil in a large skillet (don’t use a non-stick skillet), and when hot, add the livers along with the shallots and sauté over medium heat until browned or cooked to your satisfaction. It’s ok to leave them a bit pink inside.  Stir regularly, insuring even cooking of the livers and careful not to let the shallots burn.

3.Pour the warm brandy on the livers and immediately ignite it with a match. The flame will only last a few seconds while it burns off the brandy.

4.Put the livers and shallots in a blender or food processor.  You may want to do it in two batches, depending on the size of your blender.

5.Pour the stock in the skillet, scraping the pan well, then cook over high heat until the liquid is reduced to about 2 T. Add it to the livers.

6.Puree the mixture at high speed until it is very smooth.  Add more salt and pepper if you like. Allow to cool about 30 minutes.

7.Meanwhile, combine the herbs (I used rosemary, which was all I had on hand, and some dried thyme) and the garlic in a mortar and pound them (or use a blender) into a smooth paste.

8.Blend the two sticks of softened butter in a bowl with the herb mix until it is smooth and well blended.

9.Mix the herb butter in to the completely cooled chicken liver puree. It should be well mixed, without butter lumps.

10.Spoon the mixture into an earthenware crock or small baking pan. Refrigerate for at least two hours or overnight.

Adapted from Perla Meyers’ excellent collection of delicious and unusual European-style recipes arranged according to what’s in season: The Seasonal Kitchen: A Return to Fresh Foods.

© Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon  / 9 September 2009 / All rights reserved

Related post:  “The Secret Life of Kids: Are Picky Eaters Still Picky when No Grown-up’s Around to See?”

This post was featured on Food Renegade’s Fight Back Friday on Feb. 26, 2009.

Dinner Table Affirmation: How to be more while doing less

September 4, 2009 6 comments

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My now-teenage son in the early 90’s–photo by Anna Migeon

In every relationship with another human being one either affirms or denies. There is no in-between!” states Conrad W. Baars, M.D. Born Only Once: The Miracle of Affirmation.

According to Baars, it is essential to a child’s emotional health to feel affirmed from a young age, to be accepted and appreciated unconditionally.

From the first day of life, eating is a place of either affirmation or denial, of personal acceptance or rejection for a child. Eating is the daily opportunity to nurture the parent-child relationship and to demonstrate affirmation or to fail to do so.

Examples of denial Baars gives include propping up a baby’s bottle on a pillow while the parents do their own thing, and a cartoon of a child all alone looking at a birthday cake with electric candles and a tape recording of “Happy Birthday” playing. Eating, like so many things in life, is a vehicle for relating to our children and others, for better or for worse.

Recent books like The Sneaky Chef and Deceptively Delicious assume an adversarial relationship between children and parents at the table. The false dilemma these authors operate in is that either we hound, beg, bribe our children to eat the right things, or we outwit them into doing so.  Either way, we disrespect our child, and deny, among other things, the child’s inborn ability to love good things and to be reasonable and self-sufficient.

Affirmation, Baars writes, is “not primarily a matter of doing something to another, but a state of being.” His advice: “You need only to do less and to be more, for your own sake as well as that of others.”

So in what ways are we sources of affirmation or denial with our children at the table?

Evidence of affirming relationships at the family table:

· Encouragement to tune into their own appetites:  “Are you hungry?” “You must not be hungry today.” “How much would you like?”

· Calm, understanding conversation, like: “I can see you feel like playing right now, but now is time to eat. Later there won’t be anything to eat. You don’t have to eat but you do have to come to the table.”

· Allowing them to feed themselves as much as they are able and to choose from what’s offered.

· Offering the healthiest, tastiest foods possible and trusting children to be in charge of their own food intake.

· Listening, acknowledging and accepting their feelings about hunger or tastes, or other subjects.

· Taking away food calmly when they begin to throw it around or obviously lose interest.

· Letting them ask for what they would like to eat.

· Reassurance that they will get enough to eat, if that’s a fear.

· Giving small servings to small eaters.

· Pleasant and calm conversation at the table, parents showing interest in spending time with children.

· Gentle insistence on age-appropriate good manners at the table.

· Family meals as a priority and planning ahead for healthy meals.

· Parents enjoying healthy foods themselves.

· Taking time and effort to let children help in the kitchen, garden and grocery store.

Evidence of denial through feeding:

· Micromanaging children’s eating.

· Letting children misbehave while pressuring them to eat.

· Being too busy to cook and sit down for meals with them.

· Leaving kids to regularly forage alone in the kitchen for themselves.

· Parents buying easy junk they know children will eat without effort from them.

· Letting them eat whatever they want in the name of “learning to make choices” or so that they will be “happy” or even so they will “like us.”

· Not caring enough to say no to harmful foods.

· Giving children soda and candy to keep them out of the parent’s hair at the grocery store.

· Not being informed about good nutritional choices.

· Not providing experience and knowledge to guide children in their eating.

· Denial of their ability to regulate their own eating: urging or insisting that a child eat something he doesn’t want, or eat more than or less than he wants.

· The “clean plate” rule.

· Bribing them to eat something they don’t want or making something they do want contingent on eating something they don’t.

· Concealing foods you want them to eat inside unhealthy foods.

© Sacred Appetite /Anna Migeon / 4 September 2009 / All rights reserved

Related post:

“Relating to and through food

The Golden Rule and Helicopter Parents at the Dinner Table

September 2, 2009 4 comments

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I’ve just started hearing about “helicopter parents.”  A new term, maybe, but certainly not a new phenomenon. The tendency of modern parents to hover is especially manifested at feeding time.

Driven by fear, overbearing, over involved, fussy, these anxious parents worry out loud and take on responsibilities that don’t belong to them in attempting to make things perfect in their children’s lives, from eating to education.

“Feeding is a metaphor for the parent-child relationship overall,” writes Ellyn Satter, author of How to Get Your Kid to Eat… But Not Too Much.  “Parents will probably treat a child in other areas the way they learn to treat her in feeding.”

So how would you feel if someone were hovering over you and trying to control you when it was time to eat?

Probably a bit like I did when my husband used to insist that I get in whenever we were at a swimming pool.  He was sure I would enjoy it, but I didn’t want to go in, and it became a matter of honor to keep my choice not to go in.  I had to grow up a little to finally go swimming.

1008997_stock asparaus In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, author Barbara Kingsolver’s daughter Camille writes in one of her several essays included in the book: “I decided that even if I grew up to love asparagus, I would always tell my Mom I hated it. I didn’t want her to be right about my personal preferences.”

Some years later that resolve was broken down by the relaxed attitude of her parents—“OK, good,” her mom told her.” More for us then!” – and the winsome flavors of the fresh, seasonal vegetables they were so evidently enjoying without her.

“The themes of growth and responsibility and love and limits play themselves out with eating, the same as with every other aspect” of your child’s life, Ellyn Satter writes.  It’s so often a question of knowing when to  back off and when to hold firm, but always with calm and confidence.

Just like the rest of us humans, kids tend to resist being micromanaged. If you make an issue out of something and get pushy, whether it’s eating, doing homework or chores, they are most likely going to dig in their heels, especially if you get excited about it. Backing off sometimes gives them a chance to notice they’re actually interested after all.

“Keep your mouth shut and fingers crossed and the look of incredulity off your face,” Satter advises. “They will show you what healthy and normal eating is all about.”

© Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 2 September 2009 / All rights reserved