Mourning a Culinary Legend

It is remarkable to me how the world is reeling from the loss of Anthony Bourdain,who will be remembered as the every man’s culinary hero of the early 21st century.  The outpourings of grief from such diverse circles shows what an impact he had on contemporary society.  I have a very different perspective.

As a rising female chef on the mid  1990’s I read Bone in the Throat, Bourdain’s first novel about the culinary underbelly, which might I add is dead on.  Ironically my life was a bit of the flip side of Anthony Bourdain’s, I was a trained writer with a degree in English working as a chef on a Caribbean Island.  I grew up in Manhattan and at that point wanted to distance myself as much as possible from that world.  When I left the Caribbean I headed to Cape Cod where my husband and I have been raising our two daughters, now teenagers.  See that is supposed to be one of the perks of being a chef, you get to live and work in these supremely beautiful places people spend all year saving up for a week long trip to visit.

So my journey has brought me to where Bourdain’s journey began, but though our paths may be an inverse of each other his love of food and adventure has profoundly affected my work and many of my fellow Culinarians.  Food is a powerful thing, it manages to cross political and social boundaries like nothing else.  Food brings us together, food sustains us, food brings us pleasure.  It is a profound part of the human equation and Anthony Bourdain sought to teach the masses how important this aspect of the human condition was to society.  Food is unique to geographical and cultural regions, just like flora, fauna and even language.  Food can tell us so much about a society or region, in a way that nothing else can.  Food allows social connections that profoundly affect families and communities.  I think this is part of why Bourdain’s tragic death has affected so many people, he helped us see the power of food and its ability to cross social divides that nothing else can.

His death is a tremendous loss to not just the culinary world, but to all of contemporary society that seeks to find meaning and connection.  A shared meal is a powerful thing that should be savored and respected and Anthony Bourdain did his best to help the world try and understand this simple fact.

Embrace the Plant Based BBQ

This past holiday weekend had lots of outdoor BBQ grills fired up and grilling everything from hot dogs to hamburgers to sausages and steaks.  It is the beginning of the grilling season and our grills are usually crowded with loads of meats, but there is so much more to grill and these choices will not help your health and the health of the planet.  This summer BBQ season why not break with tradition and instead of meats let those delicious summer vegetables take center stage.

Vegetables soak up those same delicious marinades the way meats do so if you have a favorite one don’t throw it away.  Another bonus is the quick cooking time vegetables have on the grill so there is very little cook time, ideal for the hungry masses.  Even better, the novice griller need not worry about under-cooking  their foods and making someone sick because vegetables simply don’t do that!

Lots of vegetables work on the grill but here is a list of some of my favorites that work great, be sure to always clean your grill before putting the veggies on so they don’t stick.

1) Mushrooms (portobello, and shitake are my favorite)

2)Summer Squashes

3)Peppers (all varieties including hot)

4)Asparagus

5)Eggplant

6) Wedges of Radicchio or Bok Choy

7) Cauliflower Steaks

Even better here are some fantastic marinade recipes to help you take this vegetables to a whole new level.

GINGER SOY MARINADE

¼ cup Sesame oil

½ cup Canola Oil

¼ cup Rice wine vinegar

¼ cup Good quality soy sauce

¼ cup Honey

¼ cup Orange juice (optional)

2 tbs. freshly grated ginger

Juice of one lemon

3tbs. Toasted sesame seeds

1 tsp. Crushed red pepper

  1. Combine all of the ingredients and whisk together

LEMON HERB MARINADE

Juice and zest from 2 lemons

2 tbs cider vinegar

1/3 cup olive oil

¼ cup fresh basil

¼ cup fresh parsley

¼ cup cilantro

2 garlic cloves

sea salt and pepper to taste

  1. Combine the ingredients in a food processor or blender and slowly add oil while running to help it emulsify

.

CILANTRO MARINADE

½ cup Fresh Cilantro

¼ cup fresh lime juice

Few cloves of garlic

Hot sauce to taste

2/3 cup Olive Oil

Salt and Pepper to taste

  1. Place first 4 ingredients in blender, while blending slowly add olive oil so that marinade emulsified
  2. will keep tightly sealed in refrigerator for up to a week
  3. Make a smoked chili variation on this recipe by adding 1 or 2 chipoltes in adobo, perfect for corn and bean salads
  4. So make the shift this year and embrace those grilled veggies!!!!!

 

The Past, Present and Future of Grocery Stores

I love teaching my culinary classes to seniors because it affords me the opportunity to talk about how our food systems  worked 50-60 years ago, and how much has changed in what is relatively a short period of time.  Most of my students remember  when milk was delivered in glass bottles to your front door every morning.  Yesterday a gentleman asked me if people still canned, as he fondly remembered his childhood  basement stocked with jars of fruits and vegetables lovingly canned by his mother to feed the family through the winter.  We often wax nostalgic about trips to the local butcher for a fresh cut of meat wrapped in nothing but butcher paper and twine, or the green grocer which offered a selection of colorful fruits and vegetables, but only what was in season and nary a plastic bag or wrapper in sight.  How we feed ourselves and our families has dramatically changed in the last  century, and in this humble food advocates opinion, not for the better.

History tells us the rise of the grocery store started just about 100 years ago with the Astoria Market in Manhattan.  It was an attempt to bring products together in a single marketplace to provide customers with greater convenience, the birth of the convenience food era which we are still in the throes of.  The Great Depression enhanced the growth of these stores as merchants went out of business and everyone was looking for the best deals. The emergence of home refrigeration which allowed customers to shop in bulk for perishables that they were never able to do before, also had a profound effect on the growth of these stores.  The rise of the automobile further changed how we shopped because we could purchase greater amounts on fewer trips.  In fact changes in  transportation was one of the biggest game changers in the food system, because what was always regional or local food systems got stretched and was now crossing state and  even international borders.

These brought big changes to how we as Americans view food.  First off,  most of us have very little understanding of seasonality, and why would we when you can go into an American grocery store and by fresh strawberries anytime of the year, or corn or any other fruit or vegetable for that matter.  But the impacts of the rise of these mega stores is far greater than any of us can begin to imagine.  The greatest threat these stores pose to humankind is that they have completely disconnected humans from the food they eat.  Let us remember our most basic human elements, providing food and shelter for our families so they can survive.  That is it, all humans are designed to do, and by breaking the connection humans have with feeding themselves, you disrupt the balance.  There is a unique satisfaction gleaned when we provide a healthy meal for our family, especially if you have had to grow or raise some of the food on your plate, but most Americans have absolutely no understanding of this anymore.  Dinner may be heating up a frozen entree or a drive thru at a fast food restaurant on your way from one over-scheduled activity to the next.  This is how the majority of us feed ourselves and then wonder why we are a nation in a health crisis whose roots are found in poor dietary choices.

The rise of Amazon and on line grocery shopping is poised to change the system even further, in ways I am not sure we can yet understand.  However I don’t want to see these changes, I want to return to a time where we shop for goods from our community and locally owned stores.  Already the trend of the farmer’s market is beginning to wane as Americans attention span, shortens and the next new trend comes into favor.  How we feed ourselves shouldn’t be a trend.  Your dollars speak louder than anything else so use them wisely and shop local whenever you can!

Trendy Diets: The Ketogenic vs. Whole Foods Plant Based

Anyone who knows me and my work at The Optimal Kitchen, knows I am continually striving to further my education and knowledge of food and food systems. The field of nutrition, and really just about anything these days is dynamic, constantly changing and evolving, and in order to stay on top of things you need to continually educate yourself. Anyone who follows nutrition is aware there is a new fangled diet coming out every few years and there will be some scientific data to support it. But does that mean it is the best way to feed ourselves?

There is a lot of hype these days around the ketogenic diet and almost as much buzz about a whole food plant based lower fat diet. Both have various scientific studies to support their claims and even as a professional in the industry it is significantly challenging to decide what is best for our bodies. First off we are all individuals and as such, many of us have starkly different nutritional needs than friends and even members of our own family, but isn’t there some kind of common ground?

First let’s lay out exactly what these diets are and how they work.

The Ketogenic diet: there is not much difference here from the Paleo Diet , the Atkins Diet or even the South Beach Diet since they all work on the same premise. These high fat, high protein diets drastically reduce the amount of carbohydrates a person eats forcing the body to use ketones for energy instead of carbohydrates. Foods that people eat on these diets consume are avocados, nuts, seeds, grass fed meats (including lard), olive oil, vegetables, fish and eggs. The ketone diet is anti-inflammatory in nature and has proven extremely successful, especially among children with Autism. By depriving the body of carbohydrates, it forces the body to convert fat to energy, resulting in an initial weight loss for so many which is great. For many suffering from chronic diseases with inflammatory origins this diet works and has profound positive affects on their illness.

Whole Food Plant Based: No animal products of any kind, meat, dairy, eggs etc and no processed foods of any kind. The diet is includes whole grains, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and fruits. The benefits of a plant based diet is an abundance of phytonutrients from fruits and vegetables and the balancing of your body’s ph. This diet has been proven to lower total cholesterol levels and starve cancer cells, as well as helping many to lose weight.

So now we know what they are and the question is which is best? Well, that is a matter of how you look at it. There are benefits to both of these diets for the human body, but when I look at the bigger picture I always find myself going back to the Whole Foods Plant Based Diet. Here are my reasons:

1)Sustainability: the reality is that our population is growing by leaps and bounds and in order for everyone to have enough food to eat; we need to stop growing crops for animal consumption and focus on growing foods for human consumption.

2)Environmental: consuming animal products, even pastured and grass fed have a significant impact on our environment. Our agricultural production is one of the biggest polluters of our water systems not to mention greenhouse gases, and even rainforest destruction due to the increased demand for pastures.

3)Cost: pastured meats are expensive, much more expensive than whole grains and legumes which makes this way of eating out of the financial reach of so many.

4)Body ph: Every now and then the nutrition conversation shifts to the body’s ph and how the acidic body, a result of a diet that is made up of animal products and processed foods, leads to a myriad of poor health outcomes. It is in the acidic state that cancer cells flourish and inflammation takes hold. The only way to reduce your body’s ph is to consume huge amounts of fresh raw fruits and vegetables which help to bring the body into a more alkaline state

5)Ethics: How we raise and slaughter animals these days is not always humane. This is not to say there are not small regional farmers doing their best to humanely raise livestock for human consumption, it is simply that this is not the norm and often out of financial reach for so many.

So I will continue along my path of trying to show everyone how easy it can be to shift to a Whole Food Plant Based Diet by offering these food from The Optimal Kitchen. Yes, we are omnivores and having a bit of meat every now and then is ok but remember there is a reason meat rhymes with treat. If you want to feed yourself and your family well, have it be affordable all while being a good steward of the planet this is the best change you can make.

To educate yourself I suggest you watch 2 documentaries, each profiles these ways of eating and decide for yourself which you think is the best choice for you and your family.

On Netflix:

Hungry For Change (Plant Based Whole Food)

The Magic Pill (Ketogenic)

 

Summer will be here soon!

Even though it may not feel quite like spring,  the calendar says we are deep into spring ,which means that bathing suit season is just around the corner.  This can be a stressful time for many of us as we start to peel off those winter sweaters and turtlenecks only to realize we are a bit squishier and a tad larger than we were last fall before winter came.  First off give yourself a break.  It is entirely human to pack on pounds for the winter to keep us warm and prevent starvation from a lack of food.  However, modern society and food systems ensure that it is no longer difficult to access food in the winter, but the evolution of our digestive systems  still likes to hold onto those calories when it gets cold because that is what nature tells us.

This is a constant challenge for humans and their weight, and it doesn’t matter what special diet program you try or what food you decide to eliminate in a desperate attempt to have that beach ready body by Memorial Day weekend.  The simple fact is that our bodies are still designed to handle periods of starvation, which simply never come anymore.  Another example of advances by modern man which rather than making life much easier has layered on even more challenges and a whole host difficulties related to our weight and health.

However the solutions can be easy.  Get active, whatever you do, get that body moving.  Our bodies are designed to move and when we don’t, problems arise.  Eat real food.  Stop trying magic potions or powders, they may work in the short term, but it is not a realistic solution.  Focus on consuming copious amounts of fruits and vegetables balanced with a bit of meat and grains and of course those healthy fats, which are key to our health and yes even our weight management.  I won’t lie to you, most of us eat too much, simple.  And  when I say we eat too much, I am not talking about fruits and veggies, it is usually the junk, or even the food disguised as healthy, such as cereals, granola and health bars and the like, that doom us.

So  stop beating yourself up for gaining weight this winter, instead start living by this easy to follow rule “If your grandparent would not recognize it as a food product or if you can’t pronounce more than 1 ingredient, put that food back, or better yet get rid of it.”  Respect your body by feeding it what Mother Nature intended.

The Grocery Store Challenge

Grocery store aisle.

About 10 years ago just, after I finished my coursework in nutrition, I started giving classes on How to Navigate the Grocery store. Soon after you could find loads of articles on-line and in magazines on how to tackle the massive grocery stores and find only the best quality whole foods, ideal for your health. The rules were simple, shop the perimeter, that is where you will find produce, seafood and meat and dairy (though if you have read any Optimal Kitchen blogs before you know I am a bit anti-dairy). Once you have stocked up on those whole foods do a quick check of the organic section for any dry goods you may need and your ready for the check out.
We should have known that once us nutritionists starting talking about the hidden dangers lurking within those aisles, that the supermarket companies would devise some kind of plan to get us back in there. Alas one of my local grocery stores has fallen victim to this type of deceptive marketing and this past month has completely rearranged the store and removed my beloved organic/health food section. Of course I was the obnoxious customer who asked why in god’s name they thought this new layout was beneficial to anyone. Keep in mind I had just spent 20 minutes looking for my organic tamari which I buy regularly. I was told they decided to co-mingle the organics with their conventional counterparts so that shoppers could do price comparisons and be more informed shoppers. Sounds good, right. Well, if that was the case why wasn’t the tamari in the Asian section next to all the other soy sauce products? If you can believe I found it next to the barbecue sauce, the only explanation I could muster was that they thought tamari was akin to terriyaki sauce and belonged with the marinades and bbq sauces!
All I can conclude from this absurd re-organization is that customers where getting too smart, and those looking to improve their health through the foods they eat were avoiding those center aisles, chock full of all sorts of unhealthy goods. But why would the store want customers to load up on those unhealthy processed foods, what difference does it make to them if you only buy produce and other whole food products? It is quite simple really, the mark-up on those processed goods is far greater than that of fresh fruit, vegetables, meats, eggs and even dairy. It is in the store’s best economic interest to get you in those middle aisles shopping so they will do all they can to drive you there. This is not meant to demonize grocery stores, which are a big part of any community’s economy, but it is meant to inform you that you these practices exist and why they do. Ideally we would all be getting the majority of our food from local farmer’s markets or co-ops but that is simply not realistic. Instead I urge you to try and shop at smaller, locally owned grocery stores that don’t decide to re-arrange the store every year simply to keep customers wandering the aisles, eyes glazed over simply throwing things into their cart because they are unable to find the goods they really want and need.
Where we choose to spend our money will have a great impact on how stores operate. If you decide to no longer frequent those mega grocery chains, even though it might save you some money and instead shop at your local farmer’s market and specialty stores, we might just change how these stores operate. Knowing who and where your food comes from is definitely worth the extra cost. And remember when you support local stores you support your community not some corporation.

 

 

Climate Change and How we Eat

The double whammy of Nor’easters this week should convince almost anyone of the perils of climate change.  My favorite beach clam shack will be demolished after 60 plus years because this latest storm eroded away 40 feet of the protective due, virtually cantilevering the building over the beach.  Now I am not hear to argue about climate change, but I can tell you that how you eat has a profound effect on the environment and thus the climate.

Here is a simple statistic almost anyone can understand.

How much water to we need to grow:

1lb of Most Vegetables: 20-40 gallons

1lb Grains: 200-400 gallons

1lb Meat: 1300-1500 gallons.

But it doesn’t end there.  Animal production in the Agricultural industry has surpassed transportation as the greatest source of Greenhouse gases, primarily methane.  This is caused by a double whammy of more cows being raised for a meat hungry culture and forests being clear cut to create pasture land.  As a result we have less trees that are nature’s way of capturing excess greenhouse gases.  So what does all this mean.

It is simple we need to eat more vegetables and fruits, which put much less strain on the environment, and are certainly better for our health than meat.  I would encourage anyone reading this to try and shift towards a vegan diet as much as possible, but as a realist I know a complete vegan diet for most is not going to happen. Aim for a vegan meal per day or be a vegan just a few days a week.  Visit the Optimal Kitchen.com for vegan recipes that will help you embrace a plant based life style.  Your body and the planet will thank you for it!

Remember to Take Care of Yourself

Even those of us who work in the alternative health field can  fall victim to  to our own health issues.  For busy moms like myself, I think it is all too common for us to ignore warning signs our bodies might be giving us and just keep plugging along .  I mean who has time to take care of themselves when you are taking care of everyone else.  Well this January my annual physical was a wake up call that indeed, I need to start taking care of myself and putting my own personal needs a bit higher on my list.

In the late 1990’s I had Graves Disease and after a terrible reaction to medications I decided to have my Thyroid removed, via a nuclear cocktail.  As a result I have to take a rather high dose of synthetic thyroid hormone everyday, or at least I am supposed to.  I make sure my 13 year old takes her daily medication religiously, I give the dog her meds everyday, never missing a dose and my husband never has to worry about running out of his vitamins or prescriptions because I make sure he always has them, but what about my Thyroid  Meds?

Well after having my  GP read my metabolic lab reports I was shocked.  My thyroid was so out of whack, the numbers indicate I should not even be functioning, yet somehow I still was.  Some of you might not realize that a slow thyroid or lack of medication results in dramatically increased cholesterol levels and other poor metabolic outcomes but these functions are inter-related.  So my cholesterol was high for the first time in my life, but more importantly I realized that the lethargy I had been feeling, both mental and physical had a medical reason.  Once I knew how out of whack my endocrine system was functioning,  I began to realize how crappy I actually had been feeling.  It is amazing how easy it can be to  ignore symptoms when we are busy. After my appointment I went home to realize that I probably had only been taking my pills 20% of the time.

Let my experience be a wake up call to you.  No matter how busy you are taking care of others, remember if you don’t take care of yourself it all falls apart.

Hearth & Home

There is something about the holiday season that makes me wax a bit nostalgic.  Perhaps because we remember the holidays from our childhoods, but there is something in the air that brings me back to a simpler time.  And whoa, the older I get, the more I realize how simple the times were and I am talking the 1980’s!

My love of food started way back  when I had the privilege to be born and live on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, home to some of the world’s best foods.  Our family traditions were pretty much the same for the 20 some years we lived there.  For our Christmas Eve party my mom would travel 20 blocks north for all her meats from the Madison Avenue butcher, her favorite having lived in the neighborhood in the early 70’s.  She got all the fish she need just next door at the fishmonger.  Canapes and spreads came from William Poll over on Lexington Avenue in the mid 70’s, much closer to home on 72nd.  Produce  and of course the Christmas morning Panettone hailed from Grace’s Marketplace, the uptown location of Balducci’s which opened in the mid 80’s saving us from trekking down to Greenwich village to shop at the original. Last but not least, the smoked salmon and Stollen came from the  Danish specialty store Fraser Morris on 74th and Madison.

What I am getting at is, the Holidays, of which food is such and important piece, used to mean traveling all over the city to find the best  and freshest of whatever you were seeking out, made by a skilled food artisan who delighted in offering you the very best product for your holiday feast.  I loved going with my mom to these unique small shops and exchanging holiday cheer with shopkeepers and seeing all the amazing foods and smelling the incredible pungent smells of the season, even at the fishmongers!

Today since I live out in rural Cape Cod, much of which is shut down for the season, things are a bit different.  I will still head to my local fishmonger, so grateful to still have one, I think scallops might be on the menu this year and the local butcher for the filet, which I won’t eat but will be a favorite of my daughter’s on the Christmas Dinner menu.  Lucky for me my mom was in Manhattan this week and will be bringing up the Stollen and Panettone and my connections with local farmers will ensure I get the best local produce available, lucky I love those winter greens and squashes. And as far as Christmas treats, the girls and I have been baking cookies every year for as long as I can remember and I don’t see that changing anytime soon, except this year we will be adding my new Sea Salt and Caramel Pecan Bars to our baking menu!

Food is one of the best ways to steep yourself in tradition and help you and your family connect in unique ways.  Honor your family roots with traditional dishes and try going out on a limb and incorporating something new.  Food is what brings us together, lets give it the respect it deserves.

 

Staying Healthy Through the Holidays: EAT THOSE VEGGIES

So you have survived Halloween and the sugar fueled candy fest  and we have made it through the eating frenzy of Thanksgiving.  Now we just have to contend with the month of December and the constant onslaught of cookies, cakes, drinks and a whole host of decadent treats to derail our healthy lifestyle.  The good thing is there is still 5 weeks before the Christmas and New Years holiday so we can use this time to prepare.

I don’t know about you ,but I am still paying the price for Thanksgiving, even though I never seem to eat that much at the Holiday meal, I spent the days after having a bite of stuffing  here a smidge of pie there. It isn’t the weight I worry about as much as the fact that I don’t feel great when I eat like that and it lasts for days after.  For my teenage daughter I was pretty stunned how badly she broke out after the dairy laden meal, dairy is her nemesis when it comes to teenage hormonal break-outs and I shouldn’t be surprised.

So as a practitioner that focuses on prevention it is time to start now.  We have several weeks to strengthen our immune systems, lose a bit of bloat and excess weight and get ourselves feeling fit and energized, and ready to tackle the craziness of the holiday season.  I could give you a list of daily shifts in your diet or exercise regimen to tackle these challenges but I am giving you one simple tip that if followed will help ensure you stay healthy through the holidays.  EAT YOUR VEGETABLES! Yes that is it and I can’t say it enough.  If you consume your 9 fist size servings of fresh vegetables, 3 can be a fruit, I promise you will be filling yourself with the fuel you body needs to thrive and prevent yourself from overeating unhealthy foods.  All the vitamins, minerals and fiber are guaranteed to keep that immune system strong and energy levels high. So go ahead and eat that rainbow and remember the brown that is chocolate isn’t part of it!