Tuesday, September 30, 2008

City Kitchen Chronicles: An Omelette

City Kitchen Chronicles is a bi-weekly column about living frugally in Manhattan. It's penned by the lovely Jaime.

Today I bring you a recipe – which didn’t start out as a recipe or an attempt at anything other than a quick, healthy breakfast – that was so good that when I got up to take my plate to the sink I said, out loud, in my empty apartment, “Holy crap that was good!”

But to backtrack a bit... I think I’ve written before of my love and appreciation for beet greens. Love because they’re tasty. Appreciation because they’re healthy and, if you’re lucky, free.

Beet greens are my very own urban foraging. No, I’m not picking them wild in the park and growing from cracks in the sidewalk. I’m foraging them, discarded, from the refuse crates under the tables at the farmers market. When people buy beets at the market, nine times out of ten they take them without the tops, which are chucked along with radish and carrot greens into crates that eventually go to be composted. If you ask nicely (I mean, if you ask at all, but why not ask nicely), the folks working at the farm stand will happily give you a bagful of the discarded greens, or let you take your own.

It’s like freegan-lite – it’s not a garbage pile, only freshly cut off plant tops. But it’s still excitingly free.

You can cook beet greens like spinach or any similar green. Because beets aren’t cultivated for their tops, the leaves are sometimes spotty or a bit bug-bitten, but as long as they’re not wilted or slimy, they’re still totally good, and they can keep in the fridge for almost a week.

I usually sautee them with garlic and oil, to be added to other veggies and protein. But getting a little bored with that, I started thinking of other ways I use spinach that would work for these greens. They’re a little more bitter than spinach, and I don’t love them raw, but this morning I stumbled into this “Holy crap that was good” preparation that takes advantage of the extra punch they pack, and is super healthy and, yay! – dirt cheap.

It was, after all, breakfast time, so I chopped up some already-sauteed greens to use as omelette filling. The accidental magic, though, was in the spices I added to the greens. I was reheating them with some nutritional yeast, and started reaching for spices. There's something about the combination I ended up with (cinnamon??) that feels Moroccan to me. I'm not sure why. It’s a flavor combination I don’t usually end up with, but daaaaaaaamn. Enjoy.

(A note on the price of this recipe: I buy local, free-range, happy-chicken eggs from the farmers market. Local, free-range, happy-chicken eggs are also expensive eggs. Supermarket eggs, obviously, will make this a much cheaper recipe.)

Vaguely Moroccan (or something) Beet Green Omelette
(serves 1)

2 eggs
½ cup cooked beet greens (about 3 cups raw)
½ t oil
2 T nutritional yeast (nooch)
½ t cumin
1/4 t cinnamon
½ t dried minced garlic (or fresh)
¼ t dried minced onion (or fresh)
generous pinch salt & pepper

(A note on spice quantities - I didn't measure anything when I made this... unless you count the eggs. The nooch was a few generous shakes, the cumin was a generous dash, the cinnamon was a small dash. Do what feels right, taste, change as needed.)

1) Chop the cooked (cooled) beet greens. Sautee with a smidge of oil. Add nooch, cumin, cinnamon, garlic, onion, salt, and pepper. Sautee until hot, set aside.

2) Separate eggs.

3) Beat egg whites until bubbly. Reincorporate yolks. (An extra bit of time to spend on weekend mornings for an extra fluffy omelette. Regular unseparated egg-beating also works fine.)

4) Make an omelette,* with the beet green mixture as filling.

*Omelette technique is really a trial-by-error sort of thing, and lots of people have different methods. Mine is pretty hands off: Pour the beaten eggs into a medium-hot pan; when the edges are set-ish, pour the filling into the middle; when the whole thing is close to set but not dry, fold the omelette into thirds over the filling; cover, and keep cooking until you think it's done; learn over time how long it takes; enjoy.

Approximate Calories, Fat, and Price Per Serving
168 calories, 11 g fat, $1.03

Calculations
2 eggs - 125 calories, 8g fat, $.58
½ cup cooked beet greens (about 3 cups raw) - 35 calories, 2g fat, free!
1/2 t oil - 20 calories, 2g fat, $.05
2 T (nooch) - 31 calories, 0 fat, $.70
½ t cumin - negligible calories and fat, $.02
1/4 t cinnamon - negligible calories and fat, $.02
½ t dried minced garlic (or fresh) - negligible calories and fat, $.01
¼ t dried minced onion (or fresh) - negligible calories and fat, $.01
generous pinch salt & pepper - negligible calories and fat, $.02
TOTAL PER SERVING: 211 calories, 12 g fat, $1.41

Tuesday Megalinks: The Day After Edition

Ask Metafilter: How can I update my menu without breaking the bank?
FireStyle is really, really good at staying within a tightly-defined monthly food budget, but he (or she) is bored to tears with the dinner lineups. Here, he (or she) asks for menu help and gets it in spades. Tons of good suggestions from AskMeta readers.

Ask Metafilter: What’s Your Secret Tip for Saving Money at the Grocery Store?
Call me crazy, but this thread seemed especially relevant today. It’s a compendium of all the tricks floating around the web, plus a few you might not have heard of. (Thanks to Get Rich Slowly for the link.)

Baltimore Sun: 'Ace of Cakes' fans have a thing for bakery artist Geof Manthorne
Duff’s 2nd banana has become Charm City’s First Stud. What I love best about this article, besides that it’s about my favorite Gen X bakery, is this quote from Geof, which so totally sums his personality on the show, I can’t even explain: “I'm flattered that people are, I dunno, interested.” (Thanks to Slashfood for the link.)

Chow: Cooking with Fall Ingredients
Quince and pomegranates and Cardoon, oh m…wait a second. What the hell is a cardoon?

Culinate: The Vegetable Challenge
Neat series about … well, this: “Kim Carlson, Culinate’s editorial director, is monitoring her diet over the next four weeks to be sure she’s eating five servings of vegetables each day, every day.” Turns out, it’s pretty tough, but there are a ton of wonderful links to be viewed.

Delish.com: Grocery Shopping on a Budget
Ladies and gentlemen, it was inevitable: Oprah has entered the food blogging building. I think it might be awhile before everything’s up to speed, but the site seems like its gotten off to a good start. Recipes, shopping strategies, prep tips: it’s all here, and if I know Miss W., it’ll only get more gigantic, eventually consuming every other food blog in its path.

Epi-Log: A Traitor to Trader Joe's
Brooklynites – take heed! The Cobble Hill Trader Joe’s is open! Proceed as you will.

Value for Your Life: Festival of Frugality #145
This week’s festival includes Coupon of the 31st Century at The Q Family Adventure, Save Money by Cooking Even When You’re Not at Home by MoneyNing, and Leigh’s excellent Tofu post from CHG last week. Sweet.

FitBuff: Total Mind and Body Fitness Blog Carnival #69
Hee. 69.

Get Fit Slowly: A 12-Year-Old Burger
That sound you hear? Is my non-stop shuddering. You need to click on this, especially if there’s a McDonald’s dollar meal in your future.

Lifehacker: Top 10 Ways to Stay Energized
Everyday, right around 3pm, my office computer lulls me into a coma-like state that can only be broken by A) actual work, B) copious amounts of coffee, or C) a whack in the head. Hopefully, this excellent post will alleviate those mental lapses.

The Kitchn: Cooking Beyond the Recipe - Change the Size of the Dice!
Man, I never thought of this, and it’s such a great idea: by simply altering the way you chop, you can transform a dish into something else entirely. Stellar way to save money and throw your dinner for a loop.

The Kitchn: Could You Eat on $25 a Week?
Yes. For others, no. Read, find out why, and add your own input.

Nursing Degree Guide: 100 Awesome Web Tools and Resources for Nutritionists
While this monster list of nutrition and cooking resources is geared toward a certain profession, it’s useful for anyone concerned about food. Seriously, check it out.

Personal Finance Advice: 28 Gift Ideas That Save Money for The Recipient
I’ve seen these kinds of lists before, but this is by far the most thorough and well thought-out. My sister will be receiving at least 27 of Jennifer’s suggestions. (Okay, 26.)

Serious Eats: Ed Levine's Serious Diet Week 35: Eating Meat Sparingly Is Alright
In which SE head honcho Levine finds that pork, beef, and other animal products are healthier – and occasionally, incredibly satisfying – in small doses.

Serious Eats: Alice Waters on Honest Family Food Values: Is It Up to All of Us?
Slow food champion Waters advocates making meals a family affair again, after decades – no, GENERATIONS – of togetherness sacrificed for convenience. Key pull quote: “Children are hungry for food, but they are also hungry for care. This food comes with care. That’s the magic of it.”

Toronto Star: Waste not, want not
CSA guilt! Turns out, some folks can’t quite make it through all their fruits and veggies, and they don’t feel good about it. This is one woman’s story. Neat-looking recipe for Spinach and Chickpea Stew included within. (Thanks to Slashfood for the link.)

(Photos courtesy of My Recipes, Tivo Faces, Get Fit Slowly, and Journalist on the Runway.)

Monday, September 29, 2008

Parmesan Crisps: Good Things

As I write this, the economy is collapsing, our presidential hopefuls are becoming increasingly venomous, the 2008 New York Mets are embarking on a not-entirely unexpected early vacation, and Earth is getting used to the absence of one Mr. Paul Newman, who will henceforth be lighting up the Great Beyond with those beautiful baby blues.

How was everyone else’s weekend?

In all seriousness, mine was good, but it’s getting a little tougher to remain optimistic in the face of bigger, badder issues. Between 24-hour news channels and the internet’s constant flow of depressing information, catastrophes are being hurtled at us more frequently, and the accompanying commentary is louder and nastier than ever before. Good times.

Howevah, sweet readers, to quote Martha, there’re bunches of good things out there, too. Like:
  • Fall!
  • Apples!
  • Sweet Potatoes!
  • The Office is back, with no writers’ strike looming.
  • Between Brady/Vicky’s thoroughly unlikeable brown team and Jerry/Coleen’s there-are-lives-at-stake-here yellow team, The Biggest Loser has suddenly become strangely compelling.
  • Football has returned, and in a stunning turn of events, the Bills are 4-0.
  • For the first time in a century, the Cubs have an honest-to-god shot at winning the World Series.
  • You’re pretty!
  • Americans have united over money: we don’t want Wall Street to get any more.
  • The Comics Curmudgeon!
  • Money origami animals!
  • The Pope likes the environment!
  • Hilariously, 27-year-old Christina Aguilera is releasing a “Greatest Hits” CD.
  • Ludicrously, 15-year-old Miley Cyrus is publishing an autobiography.
  • Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist actually looks pretty good.
  • Tina Fey is sparking SNL to their best-rated season in years.
  • Facebook’s new layout is growing on me.
  • Everyone I know is pregnant. (You should check, just to make sure.)
  • Polar bears remain awesome.
  • Parmesan Crisps!
About that last one: if you’re making soup (particularly a tomato-based one), you’re gonna wanna eat these. The recipe is ridiculously simple, and the results are akin to a giant, all-natural parmesan cracker. Plus, for a measly 22 calories a shot, they’ll sate your cheese craving without you having to resort to gobs of cheddar.

One note: for this particular recipe, I used mid-range pre-grated cheese. Freshly-grated will probably cook differently, because of its density and thickness. If you go that route, I might start at a lower temperature and check the crisps’ progress every few minutes.

In the meantime – enjoy. In times like these, you gotta somehow.

Parmesan Crisps
Makes 1 parmesan crisp

1 tablespoon parmesan cheese

1) Preheat oven to 350°F.

2) Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Empty the parmesan on the paper in a small mound. Then, flatten the cheese until it forms a disc about ¼” thick. Place in oven and cook for 10-12 minutes, checking once at 8 minutes (just in case).

3) Remove from oven and let cool. Serve with soup, or eat on its own.

Approximate Calories, Fat, and Price Per Serving
22 calories, 1.4 g fat, $0.17

Calculations
1 tablespoon parmesan cheese: 22 calories, 1.4 g fat, $0.17

Friday, September 26, 2008

Grape and Feta Salad with Rosemary: Salad for Salad Haters

I am not a salad girl.

Sure, I’ll order a side salad on occasion. And in days gone by, I frequented a local deli for their thoroughly filling version of Caesar’s greenery. Yet, I never, ever seek out salads at restaurants, and will only rarely throw one together as part of dinner. In general, I believe for a salad to be really good, it has to be drenched with pecans, cranberries, cheese, and dressing, OR located on top of a burger.

Don’t ask, then, why Serious Eats/Cook Illustrated’s Grape and Feta Salad with Rosemary salad appealed to me. I have no idea. As a beleaguered Mets fan (who was at last night’s game and almost froze to death but does not regret it ONE SINGLE BIT), I’ve been making a lot of strange, emotional decisions lately. Like this morning? At work? I almost cried watching highlights of Oregon State beating USC in college football. I’ve never watched a full Pac-10 game in my life, and the sight of happy Beavers dancing (which sounds lewder than it is) almost launched me into apoplexy.

But back to the salad. It looked pretty dang appetizing, and there were grapes and feta close to expiration in the fridge, so there you go. Assembly took about 10 seconds, and the result was truly impressive – the perfect halfway point between the Boring Naked Garden salad and the Overloaded Cholesterol Bomb salad.

What’s more, The Boyfriend was overjoyed. Because, despite his glorious manliness and profusion of muscles – man loves him some salad. (Don’t ask why we’re together. I think it’s because he lets me borrow his t-shirts.)

If you decide to go forth, some things to know:

1) I used reduced-fat feta instead of full-fat, and reduced it from 1/3rd of a pound to 1/4th. Most mass-market block feta seems to come in four-ounce blocks, and the dressing was still delicious, so it didn’t do any harm.

2) Raspberry vinegar is just about the only vinegar I don’t have on-hand, so I substituted white wine vinegar. It worked perfectly.

3) Field greens are often costly, and iceberg lettuce bores the everloving crud out of me, so I compromised and used Boston lettuce. Wicked good, I say.

As I’m a drooling knucklehead, there was no picture taken for this meal. So I’m subbing in Serious Eats’ photo, with the hope that they’ll forgive me and/or I can bribe them with chocolate, pizza, or a serving of their own salad. Enjoy!

Grape and Feta Salad with Rosemary
Serves 4
Adapted from Serious Eats/Cook's Illustrated.
NOTE: This is Nick Kindelsperger's picture. You can tell by the good lighting and appealing appearance of the food. I apologize for using it, but my pic was ... traumatic.

¼ pound feta cheese, crumbled
1/2 pound grapes, halved, and seeded if necessary
2 teaspoons fresh rosemary, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salad greens (about 1 1/2 quarts)
1 tablespoon raspberry vinegar (I used white wine vinegar. – Kris)
Salt and pepper

1) In a small bowl, combine cheese, grapes, rosemary, and olive oil. Grind a little on pepper on top.

2) In a large bowl, combine greens and vinegar, tossing gently. Salt to taste.

3) Serve greens topped with cheese mixture. Enjoy!

Approximate Calories, Fat, and Price Per Serving
168 calories, 11 g fat, $1.03

Calculations
¼ pound feta cheese, crumbled: 234 calories, 15 g fat, $1.60
1/2 pound grapes, halved, and seeded if necessary: 157 calories, 0.4 g fat, $0.48
2 teaspoons fresh rosemary, minced: 2 calories, 0.1 g fat, $0.20
2 tablespoons olive oil: 237 calories, 26.8 g fat, $0.24
Salad greens (about 1 1/2 quarts): 43 calories, 0.7 g fat, $1.49
1 tablespoon raspberry (or white wine) vinegar: negligible calories and fat, $0.08
Salt and pepper: negligible calories and fat, $0.02
TOTAL: 673 calories, 43 g fat, $4.11
PER SERVING (TOTAL/4): 168 calories, 11 g fat, $1.03

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Veggie Might: Don’t Fear the Bean Curd (Tofu!)

Penned by the effervescent Leigh, Veggie Might is a weekly Thursday column about the wide world of Vegetarianism.

With the popularity of shock-cuisine shows like No Reservations and Bizarre Foods, eating insects, entrails, and genitalia is all the rage. Not that it’s anything new. My family has been eating livermush for years, but no one is signing my dad up for sixteen episodes on TLC. My mom just regaled me with a delightful story of her first haggis experience, and well, I doubt Bourdain is interested in a sidekick who also enjoys canned olives.

But I don’t get it. Why is feasting on guts and bugs considered adventurous, but no one on Top Chef would dare cook a vegetarian entrée even when given an all vegetable menu? Is tofu really that disgusting? I mean, come on. Zimmern will eat tuna sperm.

I realize our nation is historically dependent on a meat-based diet, and there is no end to the pleasure in discovering what crazy stuff other people eat, but there has also been a trend in the last couple of years to scale back and eat more healthily.

Well, I’m going to do my part to encourage the move to more plant-based deliciosity for the veg and omni alike. My first, shocking look into what vegetarians eat is a breakdown of that mystery block of supreme ridicule: tofu.

Tofu is soybean curd, [cue mild groaning sounds] the gunk that comes from coagulating soymilk [cue louder groans], a process that originates in China. Similar to cheese in process and consistency, tofu is pretty bland. But what makes it so great is its versatility.

Tofu comes in three varieties: soft, silken, and firm. Soft and silken (the Japanese variety) are great for blending into soups, sauces, or if you just like soft food. Firm is better for sautéing, baking, frying, grilling, broiling, and so forth.

I’ve found that just tossing tofu into your favorite meat-based recipes and expecting it to adapt is like trying to emulsify oil and vinegar with a spoon. Harharsnorksplarzz! Can’t be done!

Most people have a tofu horror story. They were served a dish with bland, soft, slimy tofu that squished through their teeth and slithered down their throats (if it made it that far), and they vowed to never eat the stuff again. But, Dear Reader, this is not the fault of tofu but an unfortunate case of mismanaged expectations.

In our culture, we think of tofu as a meat substitute, a protein proxy to replace all that divine flesh we were brought up on. In others, tofu is its own thing, just tofu: a super-healthy, soy-derived delicacy.

In Chinese and Japanese cuisine, the smooth, creamy texture Westerners blanch at is commonplace. Most people either like it or don’t. Bean curd skins, however, are chewy and have a nice bite. Try that if you like your nonmeat protein a little more meat-like.

I do like mine chewy and savory, with what Mark Bittman calls The Umami Factor. “Just as people have sweet teeth, or people adore salty food, there are those of us who can’t get enough of umami, a word used to describe the flavor one might otherwise call ‘savory-ness’ [sic].” (Confidential to MB and his editors, “savoriness” is a real word, despite what MS Word spell check says. See Merriam-Webster and American Heritage, 4th Ed.)

Here are a few tricks and tips for working with tofu that will rock your socks off the way testicles and fried bugs do it for the “bad boys” of food TV.

Buying Tofu and Storage
1. Water Pack
It’s the most common packaging that everyone recognizes. Brands like Nasoya and House are the most popular, at least here in the Big City. Check the expiration date before buying, so you know how long you have to use it. Tofu will spoil, generally speaking, within a few days.

2. Aseptic (Vacuum) Pack
This is the most practical packaging if you’re not sure when you’re concerned about shelf life. The most common brand is Mori-Nu. The vacuum pack will last seemingly forever. Or at least a few months if the package remains sealed. Check the expiration date.

3. Fresh
Just like finding a good butcher, vegetarians know where to get good fresh tofu. The Korean grocery in my neighborhood sells excellent, firm, fresh tofu that is much cheaper than the supermarket packaged varieties. Two blocks, which is about 14 oz., go for a dollar. The same amount at the supermarket can cost between $2.59 and $3.99 depending on the store.

4. Storage
  • Keep tofu in water; it’ll last longer
  • Change water daily to extend fridge life
  • Once package is open, you’ve got three–four days before it goes bad.
  • You’ll know it’s bad when it smells sour or starts turning orange.
Prep Methods
1. Freeze & Squeeze
  • Start with firm tofu. Drain water from package.
  • Wrap tofu in plastic wrap or freezer paper.
  • Freeze for 8 hours or overnight
  • Thaw completely
  • Squeeze out water from thawed tofu cake
This method results in a super chewy, meaty texture that lends itself to crumbling. It’s great for chili, pasta sauce, and eggless salad—anything in which you would use ground meat.

2. Press & Go
  • Start with firm tofu. Drain water from package.
  • Place tofu cake between two dinner plates
  • On the top plate, place a couple of canned goods, cast iron skillet, or heavy cookbook.
  • Leave for 20–45 minutes.
  • Occasionally drain water from bottom plate.
This method squeezes out the excess water from the tofu, but preserves the consistency, allowing it to be sliced or cubed neatly. The texture is firmer and chewier than the straight out of the container, but not as much as the freeze & squeeze method. Pressed tofu is great for stir-fry, sautéing, and baking.

3. Flavor Save(u)r
Tofu is a flavor sponge. It will soak up any spice, marinade, or sauce that comes near it. Plus, its porous texture makes marinating a snap. Soak your tofu in your jus du jour for just a few minutes and you’re good to go.

Cooking Methods
1. Pan Frying
Who doesn’t love fried food? Fried tofu is no different. Slice some pressed tofu, dredge in a little seasoned cornmeal, and dunk into a smidge of olive oil. Just like Dad’s fried catfish but without the bones. I make this all the time when I’m craving something umami.

2. Stir Fry
This is what most people think of when they think tofu: Asian-style stir fry with bland, slimy tofu chunks. No more! Toss your tofu cubes in a baggie with a little bit of cornstarch—just enough to lightly coat all the pieces. That will hold your tofu together, keep it from sticking to the pan, and keep your marinade from peeling off. Hey, it happens.

3. Sauté
In a similar category as stir fry, sautéing tofu with veggies and combing with a grain or pasta makes a terrific, tasty meal. But you don’t have to limit yourself to the Asian flavor palette. A favorite of mine is a basic olive oil, garlic, tofu, and kale sautéed and combined with quinoa. Mmm…mmm…Now I’m hungry.

4. Scramble
Tofu scramble is THE staple of a vegan breakfast. It uses silken or soft tofu, great spices, onions, and makes the house smell fantastic. And you can’t go wrong Post Punk Kitchen’s recipe.

5. Baking
Baking is a great way to keep fat and calories low and imbed delicious marinades and rubs. You can pretty much prepare tofu for baking the way you would meat: season, put it on a baking sheet, pop it in the oven, and voila! Here’s a great recipe from one of my favorite veg food blogs, VeganYumYum, for Smokey Miso Tofu. It makes a yummy sandwich or salad topper.

Now you’re read to face the tofu without hesitation. Get out there and whip up some killer soy-based meals that you and your friends will actually eat. And remember, just because some chefs are afraid of the curd, you don’t have to be.

SOURCES
  • Vegetarian Times Cookbook, The Editors of Vegetarian Times, Collier Books, New York, 1984
  • How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, Mark Bittman, Wiley Publishing, Inc., New Jersey, 2007
  • “What the Heck Is Tofu Anyway?” Veg-World.com/articles/tofu.htm
  • “Tofu” Wikipedia.org
  • Vegetarian Resource Group, vrg.org
  • Post Punk Kitchen, theppk.com
(Photos courtesy of Flickr members Wm Jas and galoshes.)

CHG Favorites of the Week

Food Blog of the Week
In the Kitchen and On the Road With Dorie
While she only updates it a few times a month, this lovely blog from cookbook author/baking expert Greenspan is a relaxing, worthwhile escape from the frenzy of the usual web browsing. Also, there’s Bacon-Cheddar Quickbread with Dried Pears. To quote the bard, “NOM NOM NOM.”

Food Comedy of the Week
Creative Food Sculptures
The things people can do with a head of lettuce will amaze you and wow your surrounding office workers. My favorite – the pic on the right. Oh, the humanity!

Food Quote of the Week
"Too few people understand a really good sandwich." –James Beard

Food Quote of the Week #2
"I am not a glutton. I am an explorer of food." – Erma Bombeck

Food Quote of the Week #3
"Could we have some more virgin olive oil? This one's kind of trampy." – Ellen DeGeneres

Food Video of the Week
“C is for Cookie” by Cookie Monster
And that’s good enough for me.



Unrelated Extra Special Bonus of the Week
Japanese Flash Mob
Best. Prank. Ever. (Good stuff starts at :30)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

15 Reasons I Gain(ed) Weight (And Two Reasons I Didn’t)

Get Fit Slowly posted a great piece last week called "A Dinner Conversation," wherein blogger Macdaddy described exactly how and why he put on the pounds. Essentially, he recalled a pattern of poor eating habits and sedentary lifestyle choices established at an early age. Today, it’s taking all his resources and know-how to correct those learned behaviors, but he’s doing it. (Viva la him!)

Macdaddy’s story inspired me to think of my own reasons for gaining weight. Because, make no mistake – eating is a physical action, but the motivations behind overeating are largely emotional. (Or at least, that’s what Oprah says.) Those mental hangups made this a difficult post to write, because it forced me to confront some of my shortcomings, like carelessness, laziness, and a big one: using food for comfort.

As I created my list, I noticed something, though. With one monster exception (eating out), my reasons for gaining weight during and directly after college were vastly different than my reasons today. Whether that’s maturity or a result of lifestyle changes is up in the air, but at least I feel like I’m learning. So, without further ado…

I GAINED weight (past-tense) …

…because I didn’t know about portion control. My idea of a normal meal was 50% starch, 30% meat, and 20% more starch. Fruits and vegetables figured into the equation only when I ran out of rice.

…because I wasn’t educated about food. Nutrition labels meant nothing to me back in the day, and I lacked the motivation to research. The internet makes it much easier now, though I didn’t catch on until a few years ago.

…because I didn’t think about what I was eating. I wasn’t THAT much of a moron: I knew fried foods were bad, and an excess of cheese would clog my heart valves with its delicious, brie-infested buildup. Uh, here’s the thing: I didn’t care. More fries? Bring ‘em on! Another piece of pie? Why, thank you! The WHOLE box of mac and cheese? Why didn’t you say so in the first place?

…because I trusted in my metabolism over my brain. When you’re 17, you can eat an entire herd of cattle (horns included) without blinking. The fury and pace of your day-to-day movements will make up for it. When you’re 23, those same slabs of beef adhere directly to your ass, making it tough to sit down in normal-sized chairs.

…because my parents didn’t teach me how to cook. It wasn’t one of Ma’s priorities, and Pa didn’t really know himself until later in my childhood. I don’t fault them at all, because instead, I could solve an equation, write a paper, and clean a dang bathroom like nobody’s business.

…because I never showed any interest in learning to cook. Growing up, food preparation took a backseat to schoolwork, sports, extracurricular activities, friends, sleeping, drooling, listening to Britpop, staring dreamily into the distance, and a billion other things. I figured as long I could boil water, I’d be fine.

…because I assumed it was my genetic destiny. With notable exceptions, much of my extended family is not thin or athletically inclined. They’re mostly a pretty wonderful bunch, though, and I accepted this as my fate.

…because I was in love. I feel doofy enough writing that, but it’s true. Because, seriously – I can match my biggest weight gains almost exactly to the beginning of my happiest relationships. I don’t recall us just sitting around, feeding each other egg rolls with contented looks in our eyes, but maybe we did. Barf.

…because I’m an occasional emotional eater. On the flip side, there are these things called “breakups.” And when they happen, it becomes very, very easy to drown your sorrows in tubs of Ben and Jerry’s Oatmeal Cookie Ice Cream. Those pints absorb pain, and redeposit it as cellulite in your thighs (but you don’t notice until later).

…because I ate out too much. The big one. The HUGE one. It still dogs me. (See below.)

I GAIN weight (present tense) …

…because I eat out too much. I really, really like food, and New York has a lot of it. And it’s (almost) all really, really good. Restaurants and takeout make it soul-shatteringly simple to abandon all principles of portion control and good sense. It is my weakness.

…because I have easy access to bad food. My cubicle is located directly across from the office pantry. I live across the street from a KFC, a Papa John’s, and the most unsanitary (but sweet) bodega in Brooklyn. Food surrounds me all the time, and it’s difficult to deny it’s power.

…because I don’t care about portion control. When I’m feeling good, I’ll go for months at a time without considering the size of my dinner. Inevitably, this leads to problems down the road, when I haven’t paid any attention to serving size for a year. (See: 2006, beginning of.)

…because I think it will be easy to drop later. I’ve dropped significant amounts of weight twice now, and it gets into my head that it’s easy to do. (It’s not.) The problem is, I infrequently get around to the actual process, and often abandon it prematurely.

…because I’m getting older. Stupid passage of time. Tryin’ to make me all wrinkly and saggy and stuff.

…because I’m relatively sedate. Er … yeah. I walk 30 minutes a day, and am well aware that it’s not enough. Yet, attending the gym is not my choice of an exciting pastime, running blows, and organizes sports leagues are … I have no excuse there. I need to get on this.

I DON'T/DIDN’T gain weight …

…because I can’t stop myself. Self-control hasn’t been a problem so far, with a one-day-per-month exception. I think any overeating can be attributed to a lack of attention, rather than an aching need for food.

…because my family has a rich culture of cooking. I’m Irish. We boil beef. ‘Nuff said.

And that’s it. Readers, how about you? Why do you put on weight?

~~~

If you liked this article, you might also dig:

(Photos courtesy of University of Maryland Medical Center and MySpace member Seventh Heart.)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Tuesday Megalinks

Aprovechar: 6 Unconventional Elements of My Weight Loss
Really neat observations on the unexpected side effects of Sally’s lifestyle changes. Number one? She doesn’t watch TV anymore, and she’s much happier for it. Nice read. (Thanks to Get Fit Slowly for the link.)

Blunt Money: 45 Jars of Spaghetti Sauce Later
In which bulk shopping is taken to its natural extreme, with excellent results. Hey, if you’re gonna use it, there’s no harm in stocking up, right?

Casual Kitchen: Ten Tips to Save Money on Spices and Seasonings - The Spice Series, Part 2
More excellent tips from Dan about avoiding spice-related rip-off. Trick #5, “…and Don’t Worry About ‘Spice Fade’” is controversial, but well-argued.

Culinate: Learning to Cook - Everybody has to start somewhere
Writer Jamie Passaro has to take on household meal prep duties once her daughter is born. Detailed, wonderful story about discovering cooking as an adult includes this key sentence: “We Gen-X women are perhaps one of the first generations whose mothers didn’t teach us to cook.” In a nutshell, I think that describes why a lot of us 20- and 30-year-olds have issues with food.

Eater: Don’t F With the Chang
Renowned ramen chef stares down drunken idiots … and wins.

FitBuff: Total Mind and Body Fitness Carnival 68
Jaime’s Starbucks Post is included in this health and lifestyle festival, along with a solid pancake post from How To Tips and Tricks.

Get Fit Slowly: Dinner Conversation
MacDaddy and JD head out to a restaurant with their respective ladies, and the discussion turns to weight. More specifically, how and when the men’s gain started. Chock full o’insight.

Girls Just Wanna Have Funds: Grocery Bill Doubled In 9 Months - We Have a Problem
Have your food costs increased? Do you want to know how to reduce them? Ginger knows the score, and her plan is a good example of reversing a bad situation.

Globe and Mail: Crisco's too costly - pass me the Fluffo
Almost every standard baking ingredient has risen significantly in price over the last year, causing monster stress to pie makers, cupcake frosters, and brownie servers the world over. This is what they’re doing to cope. (Thanks to Slashfood for the link.)

Jezebel: Hey Ladies – Know Your Money, Know Your Limits
Jezzie political expert Megan ruminates on her recent mortgage refinancing, and comes to understand just how much lenders, bankers, and salesmen condescend to women. Ladies, this is a must read.

The Kitchn: Have You Ever Priced a Home Cooked Meal?
How much per day does it take to feed yourself? I think I’m probably somewhere around $5 or $6 if there’s no beer involved, but the many, many commenters differ.

MSNBC/Men’s Health: 8 Breakfast Foods to Avoid
And I thought Moons Over My Hammy was dangerous: Bob Evans Stacked and Stuffed Caramel Banana Pecan Hotcakes has a staggering 1543 calories and 77 grams of fat. And to drink, a glass of syrup! (...kidding.) (Maybe.)

New York Times: 6 Food Mistakes Parents Make
In order: sending children out of the kitchen, pressuring them to take a bite, keeping the “good stuff” out of reach, dieting in front of your children, serving boring vegetables, and giving up too soon. These may sound rigid or unrealistic out of context, but the piece goes into valuable detail. ‘rents! Check it out, and maybe take a look at this cookbook, which seems to take the right approach to feeding kids.

New York Times: Instead of Eating to Diet, They’re Eating to Enjoy
News flash: people who eat healthier lose weight. Serious Eats’ Ed Levine comments on the article here.

New York Times: Superfood or Monster From the Deep?
Hey! They’re putting fish in orange juice. For the vitamins, you see. Yum.

Wise Bread: 4 Sort-of Small Kitchen Gadgets that Equal Big Savings!
The slow-cooker, crockpot, bread machine, and food processor get their due from WB blogger Linsey Knerl, as well as 34 eager commenters.

Wise Bread: Sure Savings at the Supermarket
Everyone says “buy generic!” But only Wise Bread has the actual savings breakdown.

(Photos courtesy of Blunt Money, Flickr member Last name: Libby, and Harper Collins.)

Monday, September 22, 2008

Black Bean Brownies: Bride of Frankenfood

I rejoined Weight Watchers for the 45,000th time recently, to knock off those final 10 pounds that continue to be the bane of my existence. As a repeated on-and-off member, I’m intimately familiar with their online message boards, no doubt one of the best tools for meeting-shy dieters (sorry … lifestyle changers) like myself. Thread frequenters are a supportive crew, and you’ll find no better cheerleaders than those who know exactly what you’re going through.

Occasionally, though, some of their recipe suggestions kind of freak me out. Don’t get me wrong – there’s a cornucopia of excellent-looking meals, made from fresh ingredients and ingeniously altered to take less of a toll on one’s waistline. Yet, ultra-processed creations abound as well, and those frankenfoods permeate the boards like so much, well …

Look, I’m of the mind that “Frito” and “pie” should never appear in the same sentence together, much less on a kitchen table. If that makes me an arugula-chomping, Chardonnay-swilling elitist, I’ll … ooo! There’s wine?

But um, here’s the thing. I NEEDED chocolate last night. Needed. It. I’ve been On Plan the last four weeks, Aunt Dot (bite your tongue) is on her way, and the Mets are in the midst of their annual September chokeathon, meaning it was brownies or death.

In my desperation, I searched the WW boards. Nothing looked quick or appealing enough, until I laid eyes up on IT - the very frankenfood I desired. I was so intrigued by the notion that IT could possibly work, that I had to try IT. I figure, there’ve been 130+ recipes on this blog so far, and only one (Bruschetta Chicken Bake) has used any kind of pre-made, Sandra Lee-esque mix, so I’m allowed.

What was IT? Black Bean Brownies.

“Black bean … brownies?” you might ask. “What, did you just choose two random foods and smush them together? Like some kind of crazy culinary portmanteau?”

And I’d answer, “Stop the hate! Seriously, this works. I ate two and served the rest to four friends. They thought it was just a really fudgy brownie. They couldn’t tell the difference.”

Essentially, you puree a can of black beans, stir it up with some brownie mix and *poof* it’s a 9x13 pan of decidedly un-sinful fudginess. Admittedly, they’ll never be confused with Barefoot Contessa’s chocolatey piles of goodness, but they’re 136 CALORIES A SERVING. FOR FREAKIN' BROWNIES. And that my friends, can not be beaten.

I promise we’ll get back to real meals on Friday, but the in the meantime, if you’re craving a cocoa fix … this ain’t so bad. Frankenfood or no.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to make a Frito Pie.

Black Bean Brownies
Makes 20 brownies
Adapted from the Weight Watchers message boards.

1 box brownie mix (I used Duncan Hines)
1 14- to 15-ounce can black beans

1) Drain and rinse beans. Pour them back into the can. Add water to can until it's filled to the brim. Pour contents of can into a blender. PUREE THE CRAP OUT OF IT. There should be no graininess, or too-visible brown specks.

2) In a medium bowl, combine bean mixture with brownie mix. Follow the rest of the cooking directions as you read them on the package.

Approximate Calories, Fat, and Price Per Serving
136 calories, 2.6 g fat, 1 g fiber, $0.14

Calculations
Duncan Hines Brownie Mix: 2400 calories, 50 g fat, $2.39
1 can black beans: 315 calories, 1.75 g fat, $0.50
TOTAL: 2715 calories, 52 g fat, $2.80
PER SERVING (TOTAL/20): 136 calories, 2.6 g fat, $0.14

Friday, September 19, 2008

Tzatziki Poetry Corner (Plus a Tzatziki Recipe)

Today, I will be expressing my feelings for Kalyn’s Kitchen’s tzatziki entirely in haiku.

Tzatziki, so cold.
With cucumber and lemon.
Good on all food, yo.

Goes with souvlaki,
pita, gyros, cereal.
'kay, not that last one.

Sweet tzatziki,
exceedingly hard to spell.
Must look up online.

Versatility
is thy name, low-fat yogurt.
My stomach, it smiles.

Dill weed, finally,
I have found a use for you.
You spoil so quickly.

Ate it all this week.
Boyfriend asks for other dip.
I say “tough cookies.”

Please, dearest readers.
Excuse my photography.
I suck at pictures.

And that’s it for this week’s edition of Poetry Corner. Yet, before we adjourn to our recipe, a few notes:

1) Here’s something I learned: 3 cups of regular low-fat yogurt, when drained, will turn into 2 cups of regular low-fat yogurt, making it probably not as low-fat as originally intended. That said, this dip is still ridiculously healthy and really, really good. See directions below for straining.

2) Kalyn asks for (unstrained) Greek yogurt in the recipe, which I fully endorse. If you can swing it, go crazy.

3) Kalyn’s original recipe asks you to puree the cucumbers with the dill mixture. I prefer a chunkier dip, so I only pulsed it. However, this is totally open to interpretation.

4) I like Kalyn’s site bunches, and will be returning for more food in the future.

And so we conclude
another Friday recipe.
Have good weekends, folks.

Tzatziki (Greek Yogurt and Cucumber Sauce)
Makes 8 servings of about 1/3 cup each
Adapted from Kalyn’s Kitchen.

3 cups low-fat plain yogurt, strained
Juice of one lemon (about 3 T)
1 garlic clove, chopped
2 medium cucumbers, peeled
About 1 T kosher salt for salting cucumbers
1 T finely chopped fresh dill (can substitute mint leaves for a slightly different version)
Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

1) To strain the yogurt, stack two paper towels in a colander and place it in the sink. Place yogurt in paper towels. Leave for at least 2 hours. (I did it for 3 hours.) When finished, pour yogurt into a medium bowl.

2) Slice cucumbers in half lengthwise. Scoop out seeds with a teaspoon or melon baller. Dice cucumbers. Add them to a colander. Sprinkle chunks with 1 tablespoon salt. Walk away for 30 minutes while water seeps out of cucumbers. When time is up, drain and "wipe dry with paper towel."

3) Add cucumbers, garlic, lemon juice, dill, and black pepper to a food processor. Pulse a few times, until blended but still chunky. Pour cucumber mixture into yogurt. Stir thoroughly to combine. Salt and pepper to taste. (Try it first.)

4) Refrigerate for minimum 2 hours "so flavors can blend." DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP.

According to Kalyn: "This will keep for a few days or more in the refrigerator, but you will need to drain off any water and stir each time you use it."

Approximate Calories, Fat, and Price Per Serving
57 calories, 8 g fat, $0.45

Calculations
3 cups low-fat plain yogurt: 390 calories, 7.5 g fat, $1.79
Juice of one lemon: 12 calories, 0 g fat, $0.33
1 garlic clove: 4 calories, 0 g fat, $0.05
2 medium cucumbers: 48 calories, 0.6 g fat $1.00
About 1 T kosher salt: negligible calories and fat, $0.03
1 T fresh dill: negligible calories and fat, $0.36
Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste: negligible calories and fat, $0.02
TOTAL: 454 calories, 8.1 g fat, $3.58
PER SERVING (TOTAL/8): 57 calories, 8 g fat, $0.45

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Veggie Might: Camp Stove Veggie Chili

Penned by the effervescent Leigh, Veggie Might is a weekly Thursday column about the wide world of Vegetarianism.

Greetings from Stunning Jackson Hole, Wyoming™.

I’ve used that phrase so many times in the past few days I’ve decided to trademark it. Or at least the Jackson tourism board should start giving me commission. Either way, I’m writing this post after four days the shadow of the Grand Tetons, and I still can’t believe my eyes.

As you may have guessed, I’m on vacation. One of my good friends from college, AD, lives here in Jackson. An East Coast transplant with an outdoorsy streak, she’s done a great job of acclimating to the western life and extreme weather of high mountain country. Of course, she’s also hiked Mt. Kilimanjaro, so there’s that.

A quick Jackson primer:
  • Jackson Hole is the valley between the Grand Teton and the Gros Ventre mountain range, named for 19th century fur trapper David E. Jackson.
  • Jackson, WY is the town, and the town is in Jackson’s Hole.
  • Jackson residents elected the first all-woman city government in the U.S. in 1920.
  • It is home to the National Elk Refuge, a swath of flatland where elk migrate and feed in the harsh 8-month winter.
  • Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone’s oft-forgotten, but magnificent stepsister is here.
  • They tell me there is skiing.
We will not ski. For one thing, I don’t ski. For another, I chose to visit in one of the 3 months of not-winter they have in Jackson. Though, to me, it’s pretty chilly. The day I left NYC, it was 90º and humid; that evening in Jackson Hole, it was in the low 30s and dry, dry, dry. And we went to a barbecue. Outside.

We did kayak and camp in Grand Teton National Park over the weekend. AD was excited to kayak-camp, because she normally backpacks, which means bringing as little stuff as possible. Her eyes lit up as she realized all the stuff we could cram in the kayak hulls among the tents and sleeping bags: wine, non-dehydrated fruit, yogurt, wine.

I asked if it was too cliché to make s’mores. “No!” she exclaimed. “I usually don’t because it’s just more stuff to weigh down your pack. That’ll be fun.” I got what she was saying, but how heavy are marshmallows and graham crackers?

Since in her mind we had no weight restrictions (She did mention, but glossed over, the fact that we’d be carrying these stuffed kayaks over a 200 yard portage between lakes.), we decided to make veggie chili for supper at the campsite. Oh, my arms.

Before heading out, we prepped all the ingredients for the chili and put them into zipper bags or plastic containers. Even the spices got measured and mixed into a baggie. Oil was poured into a little travel bottle for just such a purpose. AD has done this before.

Once we arrived at String Lake, packed the kayaks, and embarked, New York City was a million miles away. The portage was worth it, because on the other side lay Leigh (!) Lake. The journey was dreamlike.

I paddled gleefully, though at first with a bit of beginner’s apprehension. It had been several years since I’d been in a kayak, the last time on the Hudson River. The lake was calm, and the sun was beginning to set. Rising up from the water, Mt. Moran begged us across.

At campsite 16 in the Leigh (!) Canyon, we secured our food in the bear box while we set up our tents. But it didn’t stay there long. We were starving. As the sun set over the lake, we sipped wine and seltzer with lime (I’m like that) while preparing our well deserved camp-side meal.

Beaver Dick Leigh, that was good chili! AD says her lips are still burning, so I may have over done it on the cayenne. I get a little heavy-handed with that stuff. JK raved that he didn’t miss the meat either, this from a farm-raised Nebraskan. I take that as high praise.

Paired with backpack-ready camp-stove corn bread, this might have been one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten. Chili is so easy, and so fulfilling. It’s hearty, tasty, and when you cook it in the middle of the Wyoming wilderness, pretty dang satisfying. I may never come home.

Camp Stove Veggie Chili
Serves 6 regular people or 3 really hungry campers

1 15 oz can black beans
1 15 oz can kidney beans
2 tsp extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, diced
1 medium yellow bell pepper, diced
1/2 orange bell pepper, diced
3 cloves garlic
1 15 oz can diced tomatoes
1/2 cup textured vegetable protein + 1/2 cup water to rehydrate
2 tbsp brown sugar
1 tbsp cumin
1 tbsp chili powder
1 tsp salt
1 scant tsp cayenne pepper (I used a bit more than scant.)

1) In the oil, sauté onions, peppers, and garlic in large saucepan until onions are soft and translucent.

2) Add sugar and spices to veggies and brown for 2 to 3 minutes.

3) Add tomatoes and beans to veggies and stir.

4) Mix TVP (textured vegetable protein) in water and let rehydrate for a minute or so, and then add to chili.

5) Simmer for as long as you can stand it (at least 20 minutes is recommended, but we didn’t have that much fuel in the camp stove thingy and we were really hungry).

6) Stuff it in your face. Follow with s’mores.

Approximate Calories, Fat, and Price per Serving
193.7 calories, 2.6g fat, $1.12

Calculations
1 15 oz can black beans: 330 calories, 3g fat, $0.79
1 15 oz can kidney beans: 330 calories, 3g fat, $0.79
2 tsp extra virgin olive oil: 80 calories, 9.3g fat, $0.06
1 large onion: 40 calories, .2g fat, $.50
1 medium yellow bell pepper: 51 calories, 0g fat, $1.67
1/2 orange bell pepper: 25 calories, 0g fat, $.83
3 large cloves garlic: 12.6 calories, 0g fat, $0.04
1 15 oz can diced tomatoes: 32 calories, 0g fat, $1.19
1/2 cup textured vegetable protein: 160 calories, 0g fat, $0.55
2 tbsp brown sugar: 102 calories, 0g fat, $0.16
1 tbsp ground cumin: negligible calories and fat, $0.03
1 tbsp chili powder: negligible calories and fat, $0.03
1 tsp salt: negligible calories and fat, $0.02
1 scant tsp cayenne pepper: negligible calories and fat, $0.02
Totals: 1162.6 calories, 15.5g fat, $6.69
Per Serving: 193.7 calories, 2.6g fat, $1.12

CHG Favorites of the Week

Food Blog of the Week
The Amateur Gourmet
Adam D. Roberts waxes poetic about all things food, often to hilarious effect. His most popular post, “Chutzpah, Truffles, and Alain Ducasse,” deserves every accolade out there, and his most recent, the stomach-churning “My Worst Restaurant Experience, Ever” will make you thank your lucky stars you only found part of a rubber glove in a burger once.

Food Comedy of the Week
Anal Retentive Chef
The late, great Phil Hartman would have been 60 next week. In tribute, here’s one of his greatest creations.



Food Organization of the Week
Capital Area Food Bank of Texas
Hurricane Ike devastated large swaths of the Lone Star State, and CAFBT is right in there, helping with aid and supplies. You can donate on their site, and follow their progress through their excellent blog.

Food Quote of the Week
“You can't be happy that fire cooks your food and be mad it burns your fingertips.” – Chris Rock

Food Video of the Week
“Butter” by A Tribe Called Quest
Smooth, laid-back jam (no food pun intended) by Queens’ favorite sons. Even if you’re not a big hip-hop fan, there’s no hating on a song that namechecks Bel Biv Devoe.



Totally Unrelated, Extra-Special Bonus of the Week
“So What” by Pink
You know, I like to think I only listen to pasty white British men sing mopey ballads about isolation and long-past loves. But secretly? Given the chance? I’d lock myself in a room all day and turn Pink up to 11. Girl’s got crazy moxy, and she puts out some solid pop tunes, to boot. Her most recent, “So What,” details her breakup with her husband, motocross star Carey Hart. Somehow, it’s forlorn and mature and inspirational, and still rocks my face off. Watch it, and see if you don’t hum this thing for a month.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Angus Anguish: Is Angus Beef Worth the Money?

Within the last few years, Angus beef has leapt beyond a little known, well-respected meat to an omnipresent leviathan. From Food Lion to McDonald’s to that dinky Irish Pub half a block from the bank, it’s become the go-to beef for discerning (and not-so-discerning) dining establishments, as well as freezers across our fair nation. In fact, the way things are going, it’s just a matter of time before lunch ladies offer Angus Tacos instead of Mystery Meat Tacos on Taco Tuesdays.

But what exactly IS Angus beef? Why has it become so popular lately? Does it really taste better than regular beef? Is it healthier? Is it worth paying higher prices for? Let’s discuss.

Q: What is Angus beef?

A: It’s not, as some have suggested, bovine anus. Nor is it a cut of beef, or the region from which the cattle hails. Instead, Angus beef is the meat from Angus cattle, “the most popular beef breed of cattle in the U.S.” (Wiki). Known for their adaptability, they “mature at around two years of age, and have a high carcass yield with marbled meat” (Wiki).

Widely assumed to be better tasting and tenderer than regular beef, Angus doesn’t come cheap. Supermarkets and fast food joints sell it at higher prices because it’s cultivated a good reputation through careful marketing and good word of mouth.

Q: Okay. Got it. So what is Certified Angus Beef?

A: Certified Angus Beef is a company brand. Owned by the American Angus Association, CAB’s mission is to “increase demand for registered Angus cattle through a specification-based, branded beef program to identify consistent, high quality beef with superior taste.”

In other words, CAB monitors meat, and gives their special stamp of approval to that which exceeds 10 stringent, self-determined criteria. According to their own website, “only 8 percent of beef makes the grade.”

Q: Is there a difference?

A: Yep. CAB-stamped beef is harder to find, and generally considered to be of higher quality than mere Angus beef.

Q: Okay. So what’s the problem?

A: The problem is, CAB did their jobs so well that we Americans started to associate the word “Angus” (as opposed to “Certified Angus Beef”) with high-quality meat. Now, every crummy supermarket and two-bit fast food joint can market Angus Beef, and consumers assume it’s the good stuff. It’s been wonderful for cattlemen, who’ve taken some PR hits in recent years.

CAB itself claims: “Since its origin in 1978, our company has established an extremely positive reputation for the brand. Subsequently, this has led to imitators in other Angus programs. Many have specifications below our ‘modest or higher’ marbling level, and most do not monitor product use and promotion in restaurants and grocery stores as we do. Unfortunately, the growing number of Angus brands creates confusion among consumers and producers alike.”

Q: So, we’re charged more for Angus beef, even though it isn’t necessarily a better meat.

A: Yes.

Q: But, whether or not it has a CAB stamp, I heard Angus beef just tastes better. Is this true?

A: Not exactly. While Angus beef does seem to be tenderer, many feel the flavor isn’t that much different from regular beef. One NPR expert says, “Trained experts can taste the difference … But if you go to a USDA Choice piece of meat that has the right kind of marbling, they’re all going to be just about the same.”

Still, taste is relative. If somebody truly finds Angus beef more delicious than Brand X, who’s to argue?

Q: Okay. So here’s the next question: why wasn’t Angus beef popular before now? Why has it only hit the big time in the last few years?

A: Marketing and consumer demand, man.

Despite recent health trends, it turns out that a LOT of Americans want big, rich food. Not only that, but they want it done well, and they’re willing to shell out more money for it. Restaurants have responded to with fancier breads (ciabatta), better produce (portobello mushrooms), and supposedly higher-quality meats (Angus beef). Supermarkets have done the same, with a wider range of upscale offerings.

It’s a trend marketing folk call “premiumization,” and it’s proven enormously profitable for the food industry. Angus beef is a great (if not the best) example.

Q: And now, even places like McDonald’s and Burger King are catching on.

A: Yes. Let’s take McDonald’s as our example. Historically, it’s “‘long suffered’ from poor ratings when it comes to overall food quality” (Luna). To remedy that situation, Ray Kroc’s megacorp is offering premium foods. Among other items, it includes a range of Angus burgers, replete with “crisp green iceberg lettuce, sliced red tomatoes, [and a] bakery-style sesame seed roll.” They go for around $4 or so (Hamburger).

Of course, while the nicer fixins are great, this can’t be overstated: Mickey D’s isn’t serving the high-quality Certified Angus Beef. It’s just regular ol’ Angus beef, which hasn’t been proven to taste any better.

Q: And they’re making mad dough from it?

A: Yep again. According to CNN, McDonald’s shares went up 18 percent by mid—2007, just months after the burgers were introduced. The story is similar in other companies.

Q: How could this be bad?

A: McDonald’s is a major player in the beef industry. There haven’t been shortages reported yet, but if Angus burgers become the norm, they’re bound to happen. Plus, the bigger an operation gets, the more difficult it becomes to maintain quality control. Those halfway decent Deluxe burgers you get today? Could be chemical-riddled approximations of beef tomorrow.

On a more personal note, as a former employee (along with 10% of the rest of the U.S. according to Fast Food Nation), I can tell you firsthand that McDonald’s isn’t particularly concerned with the product it presents to the public. I’m guessing it’s a matter of time before the fixins morph into half-rotted iceberg lettuce, floppy tomato wannabes, and something kind of resembling bread. But, uh … that’s just me.

Q: You look like you want to say something else on this.

A: I do. There’s also the cost/quality issue. As we mentioned, no one’s proved that (non-CAB) Angus beef necessarily tastes better. Yet, consumers are still shelling out $4 a pop for Angus burgers, or corresponding amounts for Angus beef at their local Pathmark.

Q: I thought this was a healthy eating blog. What about the nutrition?

A: Beef is beef. It’s not the healthiest thing in the world, nor will it ever be. If there’s any added danger, it’s that Angus beef burgers are often marketed as indulgences, meaning they’re made larger and include additional perks (more toppings, bigger buns, etc.). To wit: a Big Mac has 540 calories and 29 grams of fat. An Angus Burger Deluxe has 740 calories and 41 grams of fat. If given the choice between the two, which would you opt for?

Q: Um. The Big Mac?

A: Uh … I guess. Actually, I’m not sure what I was going for with that question. Next!

Q: Second-to-last question: if I want a really good piece of Angus beef, what should I look for?

A: Look for the USDA grade (Premium, Choice, Select, etc.). A CAB-certified Prime cut of Angus beef will cost a small fortune, but could make you forget about other meats permanently.

Q: Final question: how do you, Kris, feel about all this?

A: To be honest, I’m not sure. But all of a sudden, I want a burger.

Readers? What do you think? Chime in on the comment thread.

~~~

If you like this post, you might also dig:

~~~

SOURCES

  • “Angus Cattle.” Wikipedia.org.
  • CertifiedAngusBeef.com.
  • Cuozzo, Steve. “How to Tell if it’s Prime Time.” The New York Post. 9/6/07.
  • Enis, Matthew. “Consumers Eat Up Meat Marketers' Gourmet Branding.” Supermarket News. 6/4/07.
  • Gentile, Gary. “CKE Sues Rival Over Angus Burger TV Ads.” Associated Press. 5/26/07.
  • Hamburger, Zoe. “The Big Apple Welcomes the Big Angus!” PR Newswire. 8/21/07.
  • Kavilanz, Parija B. “Bigger is always better for this burger chain.” CNNMoney.com. 5/22/07.
  • Luna, Nancy. “McDonald's set to roll out premium patties Monday.” The Orange County Register (California). 3/1/07.
  • Macarthur, Kate. “They may not know what Angus is, exactly, but diners and shoppers shell out for higher quality.” Advertising Age. 5/7/07.
  • Mahon, Paul. “From the Editor's Desk.” Ontario Farmer (Canada). 5/20/08.
  • McDonalds.com.
  • Walkup, Carolyn. “Fast feeders fill up menus with premium beef offerings: Angus, sirloin items join upgraded fare at major QSR players.” Nation’s Restaurant News. 3/26/07.
  • Ydstie, John. “Cattle Branding: The Rise of Black Angus Beef” All Things Considered. NPR. 10/3/04.
  • Yavorcik, Carin. “Angus label doesn't necessarily ensure high quality.”
    The Columbus Dispatch (Ohio). 8/29/07.

(Photos courtesy of dlb Angus, StarCinema Grill, and Telegraph.co.uk.)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

City Kitchen Chronicles: There is No Free Breakfast

by Jaime

Last week I got the chance to represent CHG at the Starbucks Better Breakfast Hour, a blogger event described to us as “the opportunity to chat with other bloggers about breakfast trends and the importance of starting off your morning with a healthy routine,” but, let’s be honest, I saw as, “ooh, free breakfast and maybe I’ll meet Adam Roberts.”

Adam Roberts wasn’t there but Ed Levine was! And he was awesome. And there was also a lot of breakfasty food to try and good conversation on healthy vs. healthier, and a lot of me thinking about marketing. And I got a free Americano. (The thing about Starbucks generously upgrading your tall Americano to a grande is that while that’s nice and all, it also means you’re getting double the caffeine! Woo!)

The caffeine high’s worn off by now, though, so let’s look at Starbucks’ “healthy” breakfast options. I don’t know how many of you go into Starbucks with any regularity – while delicious and convenient, it’s rarely healthy or cheap – but if you’ve been in, you’ve probably seen these new residents of the bakery case. As they made their way around our Better Breakfast Hour Table, I took a judicious sampling of each (and photos!).



The Apple Bran Muffin is a little too sweet (and I like sweet!) but decently tasty, with big, juicy raisins outnumbering apple pieces.





The Berry Stella, despite a promising name and shape, is dry and disappointing, though real fresh berries on top are a nice, tart touch.





The Chewy Fruit & Nut Bar is a decent chewy granola bar thing.






The Perfect Oatmeal is oatmeal. The topping options – dried berries, mixed nuts, brown sugar – are all tasty, but instant oatmeal is instant oatmeal, and I’d rather make it at home for 35 cents.


Starbucks also offers a Protein Plate, comprising a small whole wheat bagel, a hardboiled egg, some grapes and apple slices, a piece of cheese, and peanut butter. I didn’t taste it, but it looks like one of the more legitimately healthy options, with fruit and protein and healthy fats. I was frustrated that the other “healthy options” were just healthified versions of the usual sugar-bombs. I’m all for the occasional sugar-bomb, don’t get me wrong, but I’d rather splurge for a brownie than think that adding inulin and whatever sort of protein to a muffin makes it something other than a muffin.

That’s when I got thinking about marketing. One of the Starbucks representatives said something like, “We wanted to come up with healthy, wholesome foods.” But what I really think was going on was, “We want to come up with foods that we can market as healthy.” They’re not lying about anything – the apple muffin is lower in calories than other muffins, all of these foods are free of artificial sweeteners, and those are good things. But take for example the Multigrain Roll. It is, in the brave words of Ed Levine, “just a bad roll.” But is there something about a dry whole grain roll covered in mysterious, exotic seeds that makes you feel like you’re eating something healthy? “Oh,” we think to ourselves, “this must be better for me than the muffin. It’s not sweet! It’s not fun!” And then we feel like we’ve eaten something healthy.

But would any manufacturer who is actually concerned about health add sugar to almond butter? I actually can’t begin to parse the motives behind that one small action, but it’s been worrying away at my brain. I was so excited that almond butter was an option. Starbucks could’ve copped out with a squeeze packed of peanut butter, but they went the healthier and more exciting route. And then added maple syrup.

The conversation around the table was pretty split between the mom-bloggers and the foodies. (There was also a fitness blogger/personal trainer, but I didn’t hear much from her.) The moms were psyched for the healthier options for them and their kids – convenience and “better than pound cake” ruled. The foodies’ discerning palates were not pleased with Starbucks’ new creations.

I was somewhere in between. Some of the food – hi, Multigrain Roll, I’m looking at you – wasn’t worth eating, but some was tasty, and a healthier option than other Starbucks fare. But I keep coming back to healthy (what Starbucks is calling the new menu) versus healthier. If I want healthy, I want real, whole foods, eggs and bananas and vegetables. And it’s the fantastic bonus that those foods, when they come from my kitchen, are cheap, too! I could assemble my own version of Starbucks’ protein plate for probably a tenth of the cost.

What do you think? When does convenience win out for you? Do you want healthier food at Starbucks, or a decadent chocolate brownie?

Tuesday Megalinks

Being Frugal: Edible Landscaping for Beginners
Imagine being able to eat the plants surrounding your home without being rushed to the hospital with some horrible, mistletoe-induced malaise. Here, Lynnae shows you how.

Casual Kitchen: How to Make the Best Cornbread, Ever
Cheap? Hell yes. Healthy? Um … kind of? But to quote Chris Rock, “ain’t nothing wrong with cornbread.”

Casual Kitchen: Why Spices Are a Complete Rip-Off and What You Can Do About It: The Spice Series Part 1
Dan raises the red flag on McCormick’s & Co.: “High spice prices have almost nothing to do with supply and demand. Instead, high spice prices come from an almost total lack of competition in your grocery store.” Sing it, man.

Chow: Unforbidden Fruit
Writer Helena Echlin devised a brilliant fruit bartering plan: she made her neighbor a tray of lemon squares (hopefully Barefoot Contessa’s) in exchange for a bushel of his lemons. Note to my fellow Brooklynites: this could also well with the drug dealers next door.

Consumerist/New York Times: Supermarkets Begin to Shrink
Well, this is interesting. The U.K.’s Tesco has been so successful, quite a few American grocery chains are thinking of adopting their marketing model: “smaller store sizes that emphasize things like cafes, prepared meals, and produce.” But … but … what will I do without 48 brands of beans?

Culinate: The Organic Top 20
Wonderful list with beautiful accompanying pictures and great blurbs on the 20 foods it pays to buy organic. Also included: the ten you shouldn’t bother with. (“Bugs don’t like asparagus, so farmers hardly ever use pesticides on the crop.”)

Epi-Log: Eating Your Veggies
It’s become standard practice to hide vegetables in kids’ food, but what about their giant, older counterparts (a.k.a. “adults”)? Only 12% of Britons get their allotted dose of produce per day. So, how do you trick yourself into eating more veggies?

Festival of Frugality #143: Living Almost Large
It’s a celebrity theme this week, with nice entries from My Daily Dollars (To Buy in Bulk: Long Term Meal Planning) and Frugal Fu (Stop Food Waste to Save Money). I especially liked Frugal Fu’s idea to let your child help pack his lunch.

Get Rich Slowly: Frugality in Practice – Home Canning
Holy moly, that’s a lot of jars. JD’s wife Kris has been working overtime to preserve their summer harvest, and it’s paid off in spades. I can never, ever let The Boyfriend see this post, because he will die of envy.

Get Rich Slowly: Fighting Food Budget Killers
Cheese: it’s the downfall of many a dieter and saver, both. But you know what? If you’re going to splurge on a food, let it be one you love. It beats the crap out of depravation.

The Kitchn: When Do You Use Low Fat Substitutes?
Since the Kitchn tends to attract folks who’re hardcore about their cooking, the comment thread makes for a super-interesting read. Lots of folks don’t use substitutions, period, and someone named ilovebutter throws out a lot of good arguments as to why.

Lifehacker: Make Sure the CSA Doesn’t Confiscate Your Snacks
Lifehacker’s actually writing about an older Kitchn post here (featured on CHG a few months ago), but their additional 138 comments are more than enough to suggest a second look.

Mom Advice: 35 Ways to Save on Your Grocery Budget
Most people just make lists. Amy makes lists with links! Excellent.

Money Saving Mom: Quick and Easy “Survival Menu” #1
Currently in her first trimester with baby #3, Crystal’s been riding the rollercoaster to Nauseatown. Here, she details her plan to sustain herself and her family without losing her lunch.

My Open Wallet: Taking a Deep Breath
Though it’s not about food per se, this is a phenomenal series of posts, and shouldn’t be missed by anyone with aging parents. Essentially, Madame X’s dad has fallen ill, and it’s fallen to her and her sister to get his affairs in order. An absolute must-read.

New York Times: For Better, for Worse, for Richer, for Pasta
Sweet piece on Italian cooking maven Marcella Hazan (she of the Roast Lemon Chicken), describing her upcoming bio as well as her 53-year marriage to husband/translator Victor.

New York Times: The Key to Wedded Bliss? Money Matters
Get Rich Slowly had a great analysis of this piece yesterday, which lists seven rules every married couple should follow to maintain a financially solvent home. Rule #2, “Run a Home Like a Business,” can’t be overstated.

Serious Eats: Who Should Pay at a Birthday Dinner
Tonya was invited to a birthday party for a friend at a restaurant. Tonya ordered soup and tea. Tonya was forced to chip in $500 for the bill anyway. Tonya almost cried. (I would, too). Tonya now wonders … should she have done something different?

Slashfood: The Strange Rise of Tofu Noodles
The recent rise of Hungry Girl recipes have caused a run on Shiratiki, vacu-packed tofu noodles that clock in at 40 calories a bag. I’ve never tried ‘em, but hear varying reports. Readers, what say you?

Slashfood: Thinking Can Make You Hungrier
Woo hoo! Now I know why I put on 10 pounds just looking at a cheeseburger! I THINK too much. It’s hard being intellectually, uh … y’know … good.

Smart Money: 6 Ways to Save on Beer, Wine and Liquor
Market-based alcohol-buying tips not seen elsewhere. (Thanks to Consumerist for the link.)

Time Magazine: Meat – Making Global Warming Worse
This breakdown of cattle’s effects on the environment goes so much further than their farts. Read and learn.

Wise Bread: 8 Meatless Dishes for Meat-n-Taters Lovers
If you’re in the market for something hearty, but can’t quite splurge on a thick hunk of beef, Lindsey Knerl’s octet of rich dishes should please your palate. And seriously, who can argue with grilled cheese and tomato soup? Not I, said the rabbit.

Wise Bread: Frugalize Any Recipe
Writer Philip Brewer breaks it down into three easy steps: take the recipe apart, use what’s on sale, and use less of an expensive main dish. Easy peasy.

(Photos courtesy of Snewpy.com, Flickr member Mestes76, and House Foods.)

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