Early warning here: I'm changing my plans. Pork Chops aren't happening this week. Swimmer Dude is going to be away, and my lady and I are gonna get dinner and a movie. So unless you beg me, there's going to be no recipe for tomorrow. (And I just realized I forgot to change the title before I posted this. Oh well.) For that matter, there really isn't one today. It's burgers. Who needs a recipe?
All right, the fact is that there are things to say about making the perfect burger. And it all starts with picking the right beef.
No, I'm not talking about making sure you source Organic or grass-fed beef. Both of which are great ideas, don't get me wrong, and I do both of them. Instead, I want to emphasize that you should get the 80% lean beef.
(Queue shocking turn of events music.)
Yes, this me again, advocating the consumption of fat. Now, part of my reasoning here is that I think a burger should be cooked well done. I'm willing to go pink on a steak, but all the little critterz are on the outside. A burger has them ground all through it. (Even organic beef has bacteria in it. I know, I looked it up. Actually I didn't, but I'm fairly sure about this. Feel free to chime in if you think I'm wrong.) I want it cooked!
The problem is that a 95% lean, well done burger serves as a pretty decent hockey puck stand-in. At 90%, you could pull off a juicy and well-done burger, but you're walking a fine line. Lose your concentration and you've again got a clay pigeon. Hockey and skeet shooting are both fun, but they lack the mouth feel that a nice, juicy (and well done) burger has. And neither goes particularly well with bacon and guacamole.
Yes, I'm using fatty beef, then topping it with fatty guacamole and fatty bacon. I may even whip up some homemade Chipotle Aioli and throw that in there. Four, four, four kinds of fat! Oh, and don't forget the Pepper Jack!
My pro-tip for getting a burger evenly cooked, that is, done in the middle but not charred on the edges, is to shape it into what might be mistaken for a middle-school pottery class ashtray, not that middle-schoolers would even make such a thing (though we totally did in seventh grade shop class). I press the center down nice and thin, but keep the edges fairly beefy. And yes, I really just did that.
In our generally gluten-free existence (my knees don't like gluten, quite apart from any Paleo considerations), we tend to go the Lettuce-Wrap route with our burgers, and I'll just warn you that a guacamole bacon burger is exceedingly messy in a Lettuce-Wrap configuration. But so worth it.
One more small tip: Season those suckers! Seriously, bust out the salt and pepper and go to town! Don't waste a nice, fatty burger by making it bland.
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I think we've covered burgers, don't you? Quick fact: The average son of Seth can consume two half-pound burgers in an evening and still ask for me to make fruit smoothies. Swimmer Dude can flat out eat.
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Okay, I'm going to go fire up the grill.
Normally I like to keep soup pretty simple, trusting in the flavor to sell it even though a basic chicken soup isn't anything complicated. Making my own stock certainly goes a ways toward solidifying that flavor. But since I have a ton of time on my hands these days, I've gone for a bit of a more involved soup, though the list of ingredients is still pretty simple:
- 1 large Onion
- 4-5 Carrots
- 3-4 stalks Celery
- 3-4 cloves Garlic
- 1-2 pounds Bulk Italian Sausage (pork)
- 1 15oz can Great Northern Beans or Cannellini Beans
- 2 15oz cans stewed tomatoes (or one 29oz can)
- 1-2 red bell peppers, roasted
- 2-3 cups chicken stock
- chopped basil and other herbs, either fresh or dried, to taste
Onion, celery, and carrots are a standard soup base (called "mirepoix"), so I don't think they even count. Garlic…duh. Doesn't count. So it's really just meat, beans, and the soup base, made of pureed tomatoes, peppers, and chicken stock.
Speaking of which, did you finish your stock yet? If not, just do like I told you the other night. Get it out of the fridge and put it on medium-high heat. Add a roughly-chopped onion and carrot, plus a few smashed cloves of garlic, some bay leaves, and a few crushed peppercorns. Let it simmer while you start prepping the soup.
- Finish your stock! (see above)
- Chop your onion, celery, and garlic (I go fine on the onion and celery and half-fine, half-coarse on the carrots. And I add extra carrots until I think I've got enough).
- By the way, I generally start with the meatballs and prep veggies while they cook. But if you're worried about the multitasking, go with this order.
- Crush your garlic and give it a nice chop, or squeeze it through a press if you must (you feel more cheffy if you crush it and chop it).
- (Any leftover bits of onion, carrot, and garlic can just get added to the simmering stock.)
- Make your meatballs and start browning them in batches. Remove to a prep bowl. Alternatively, just brown the sausage like any other ground meat. It's still good, just not as nifty. Or you could brown the meatballs in a skillet and start your veggies in a pot. But I don't like to miss all the wonderful browned bits of meat, so I prefer the one-pot method.
- After the meat is browned and removed, add your veggies and a nice three-finger pinch of salt. Any browned bits left in the pan will be essentially deglazed here.
- While the veggies are softening, throw your tomatoes and peppers in a food processor and puree until smooth. (I wrote a bit about roasted peppers yesterday.)
- Add a splash to a half-cup of wine of your choice (red/white/both) to the veggies when they start to stick (or really at any point).
- Before the wine is totally cooked off, add the pureed tomatoes and peppers. I understand there are compounds in tomatoes that only get brought out by alcohol. Not sure what they are, but evidently they do their best work drunk.
- Rinse your can of beans (or two) and add them to the pot.
- Add some chicken stock, a ladle-full at a time (helps to have a strainer handy through which you can pour the stock).
- Add the meatballs and any additional stock, to your desired thickness.
- Add any chopped herbs. I like basil. And chives.
- Once everything is bubbling, turn it down and simmer for as long as you like. I like to give it an hour or so to develop flavor, but as soon as the veggies are soft, you're good. I'd give it a minimum of twenty minutes or so.
This has become one of Swimmer Dude's favorite dishes, the same boy who claims not to like tomatoes and hates the smell of chicken stock. Cooking is transformation!
Seriously, I think the meatballs sell it for him. Who doesn't love a meatball?
Well, my soup's simmering, and I'm going to go watch a dumb movie or play a Word or two, or maybe finally write up that review of The Trouble With Physics. I could do ANYTHING right now!
What about you? Have a favorite soup recipe to share? And pro-tips?
Every now and again we start the week without a chicken dinner. Those times make me sad. Because Chicken Good!
There's nothing quite so comforting as a nice, whole roasted chicken. But if that's somehow too intimidating for you, allow me to lay out my much more complicated Chicken Pieces Dinner.
(BTW, here's the Roasted Whole Chicken Recipe – Wash it with water, pat it try, put salt on the it. Lots of salt. Maybe some pepper. Roast it for about an hour at 425. If the cavity fluids run clear, it's done. If not, wait a little longer, or use a probe thermometer and make sure you hit 165. Take it out of the oven and let it rest for ten minutes. Then eat it. It's really very challenging.)
So yeah, we're going Chicken Pieces here, namely nice bone-in, skin-on split breasts and whole legs (that's a drumstick still attached to a thigh).
Now, if you're somehow tempted to try and reproduce the awesomeness of my chicken with factory farmed, frozen, boneless, skinless, tasteless Tyson chicken, DON'T. Forget the whole issue of factory chicken farming being a crime against nature. Your chicken will suck. No other way to put it. And if you're used to such suckiness, you may not even realize it sucks. And that makes me genuinely sad. And just a little bit superior. I judge you for your bad chicken. Repent!!!
Leave the bones in. Leave the skin on. Eat the skin. If you think you don't like it, it's because you've never had it done right. Unless you're one of those "I don't like bacon" people. We're never going to see eye to eye in that case. But then you're probably not that interested in food that tastes good I guess. (If that came across as passive aggressive…tough rocks, pal.)
Incidentally, did you know chicken skin is made of PROTEIN? Despite what the legacy of the Low-Fat craze would have you believe, there's nothing unhealthy about eating the skin. True, it's got a nice layer of fat under it, but if it's a responsibly-raised bird, that fat is actually good for you.
By the way, if you happened across this post without reading Part 1, you may want to double back and check it out. If not, then here is the list of ingredients for my incredibly awesome…
Chicken Pieces With Roasted Sweet Potatoes and Salad
I didn't include salad dressing because, well, you've got to bring something to the table here. (Ba-Dum-Dum…Laugh Track.)
BTW, this is six pieces of chicken for three people. True, one of them's a growing boy, but even so I'm looking at deliberately having leftovers here. One split breast is more than enough for an average adult, and two legs should be sufficient for the growing boy. The rest is leftover for, er, leftovers and making stock. Adjust if you don't want leftovers. But do make the stock. (Instructions included in this post.)
Prep (an hour or so before dinner time):
- Get the chicken out of the fridge. With a whole chicken, this is much more important, but here it probably doesn't matter so much. But take it out fifteen minutes or a half hour early anyway. (BTW, culinary jargon alert! This is called tempering the meat. Helps ensure even cooking.)
- Scrub the sweet potatoes, then wrap them in foil and throw them into an oven at 400 or so. This is the longest-cooking ingredient.
- Prepare the salad fixings and set aside.
- Pat the chicken pieces dry with a paper towel and place them on a raised-edge cookie sheet, the easier to transport them to the grill.
- Season generously with a mixture of salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, and sage. How much of each? Just start with a tablespoon or so of salt and sprinkle everything else on until you've got a good mixture. It's going to be tough to screw up. Fine! Try a half-teaspoon of everything after salt. Maybe go a quarter on the sage and paprika. I just dump it all into a little prep bowl and mix it with my fingers.
- More on the seasoning: Season on all surfaces. Go hog wild here. If you overdo it, you can (gasp!) strip off the skin and just eat the meat with your salty fingers. With repetition, you'll get it dialed in just right. And tastes vary, so my mixture, while perfect in every way, may not meet with your diminished capacity for appreciating my perfectness. This is an understandable and completely unacceptable flaw in your personality.
Pause. Seriously, you should now do nothing for a bit. Those sweet potatoes are going to take a while. Probably close to an hour, depending on their size. Your chicken will take maybe a half hour to cook. So go play Words With Friends or something. BTW, challenge me. I dare you.
The nice thing here is that if the sweet potatoes are done early, they're wrapped in foil and therefore can't complain effectively about being done early. It's a very muffled sound anyway, and if you turn the oven off and just leave them in there, they'll eventually shut up.
Now this is where it gets tricky. You could go the safe route and just throw your chicken onto a baking sheet (something with sides) with a cooling rack in it. Your sweet potatoes could easily be moved to a lower rack. They'd be fine, though again they tend to complain about you moving their desk again. And you could pretty much just fire and forget (though watch for fire!) here, putting them in at 425 or so for about a half hour. Turn them if you want at some point, but it's pretty idiot-proof. The problem is that, like the Whole Chicken, it'll generate just a sliiiight bit of copious amounts of smoke.
Which is why I like to go with a grill-roast technique. And it may take some trial and error. But here's how it generally works. And by works I mean you may lose a leg or two. Of the chicken, of course! True, my chicken is worth an amputation here and there, but it's not strictly necessary or anything. You people are so dedicated!
- Turn the grill on full blast. And here you're now realizing that I'm using a gas grill. It's true. I sometimes use charcoal but the gas is so blasted (again with the fires and explosions with you!) convenient. So I'm sure you could do this with charcoal, but I don't have good instructions for you. Sorry.
- After it's up to heat (mine's around 500 when ready), throw the chicken on, skin side down. Now leave it alone, but without actually leaving it alone. I don't know, grill casual! (somebody please pick up this reference!)
- With your grill tongs (if you don't have these, you've begun grilling without the proper tools), flip the pieces to the other side after three or four minutes. This is why you don't walk away, here. Because if you're paying attention, you don't really need to know how long they've been going. Flip them before they burn, but after the fat has started to render.
- Did I mention you shouldn't be closing the grill top yet? No, I didn't. Don't. Otherwise these babies are going to go all Hindenburg on you. Oh, the humanity!
- While we're on the topic of the immolation of poultry, remember to have a glass of water handy, or even a spray bottle to quench those pesky chicken fat fires. You don't want your meal tasting like combustion.
- After you've gotten a good crisp on both sides, turn off half the grill. Or at least all the way to low. Again, trial and error. If you can go just to low and have no grease fires flaring, do it. Otherwise turn that burner off. You're now finishing the chicken using indirect heat. Much like you would do just roasting it in the oven. Only all the smoke is outside.
- Move all pieces onto the cool side of the grill and shut the top.
- In twenty-five minutes or so, your chicken should be ready. Check the skin. If it's not crispy enough in a particular place, feel free to give the pieces a quick stop on the hot side to crisp it up.
I like to let the meat rest a few minutes before serving, just to allow it to cook a bit more, just in case I didn't quite get it done. Of course, you can always reassure yourself by checking the internal temperature of your biggest piece and making sure it's 165 or better. Again, there may be some trial and error here. If you find one of the pieces is underdone, then that's the one you'll be using for chicken soup at a later time (we're doing a different soup this week).
Serve with your sweet potatoes and salad. I guess I could also point out that I called an audible here tonight while I was shopping. I decided we could use an extra side dish, so I made some quick roasted broccoli. Cut it into small-ish florets, toss with olive oil, salt and pepper (be generous), and roast at 450 for 10-15 minutes, or until it gets some char to it. Yum!
One more thing here: I burned my chicken. Should have turned off that side of the grill instead of just turning it down. It's not a complete loss or anything, just one piece destined for leftovers and stock-making. Most of the other skin is still good, though. No meat was grievously burned, thanks to the protective and delicious layer of skin. Which I unfortunately burned. You win some, you lose some. We'll file this under error, as in trial and error.
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Now you've enjoyed your amazing chicken. You wonder why you didn't cook this way always. I get it, but you're not done. No, you've got work to do for Wednesday! That's another little secret here, that you rarely cook for just one day. You're making stock! Yes, you are! Seriously, it's not that hard! Check it out:
Put the bones in a pot. Cover them with water by a couple of inches. Apply heat until the water starts to move but doesn't boil. Meanwhile, turn the oven on to 185-190. When the water is hot, turn off the burner, slip the pot into the oven, and go to bed.
Seriously, go to bed. It's not going to boil over, because the temperature's too low. It's not going to burn, because it won't evaporate that much. It's just going to suck every bit of flavor out of those bones and into the water. It's going to break down connective tissues and give your stock body. It's going to turn into one of the most healthful things you eat this week. That's right, stock (sometimes called bone broth) is fantastically good for you. And it's really cheap and (as you see) really easy to make. Once you start making it, you have a hard time believing everyone doesn't.
BTW, take it out when you get up for breakfast and let it cool on the stovetop until you head to work. Then pop it in the fridge (put a lid on it) until Wednesday night. It'll probably congeal nicely, which is ever so cool and lets you know you made the most of all that connective tissue.
If you're not following my menu, you may want to finish the stock without me. Which means bringing it back up to a simmer and adding some aromatics. Throw in a quarter to a half of a medium onion, roughly sliced, a chopped carrot, several smashed cloves of garlic, some fresh parsley (which was missing from the shopping list but isn't absolutely necessary), a bay leaf or two and some crushed peppercorns. Simmer for an hour or so. I generally do this while doing the prep for whatever soup I'm making. So my stock is ready right when it's needed.
See you tomorrow night for nice, easy chicken tacos, plus some prep for Wednesday's Italian Meatball Soup.
Wait, what's that? You've got leftover sweet potato? Turn it into breakfast!
Pumpkin "Brownies"! (original source recipe)
- 1 cup almond butter
- 3/4 cup mashed pumpkin, squash, or sweet potato
- 1 egg
- 1/3 cup honey
- 1 tsp baking soda
- pumpkin pie spices (ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg), to taste
- 1/2 cup chocolate chips
Mix everything together and pour into a greased 9x9 baking dish. Bake for 25 minutes or until the middle is no longer soupy. Garnish with freshly-whipped cream if you want dessert instead of breakfast. This is pretty much the one Paleo-ish baking recipe we've consistently enjoyed. I also like to pour it into a waffle iron, excluding the chocolate chips and subbing maple syrup in for honey, and not adding it until I've buttered the finished product. Yes, I know butter isn't Paleo. But it's butter!
Our schedule is interesting right now, because the Pancake Eater (who doesn't get so many pancakes now that we're mostly grain-free, so we'll call him Swimmer Dude) has swim practice from 6pm-8:15pm, which amounts to our having dinner after 8:30pm every night except Friday (earlier practice).
The Fair Elaine works out in the evenings, so I come home from work between 5:30 and 5:45 and take the boy to practice while she goes to the gym. Her workouts are often long, so I have a bit of alone time. Sometimes I catch a movie, sometimes I zone out to a video game. Sometimes I grab my Dad and play the short course over by his house. (Need to do that again soon.) And needless to say I do some reading here and there.
Mostly I just cook, though. With a bit of slacking off mixed in. Because at this point I've got most things we regularly make down to an art. So I thought I'd give all my legions (both of them) of readers a window into what goes into producing the restaurant-quality food my family enjoys. (I exaggerate.)
By the way, as the title of this post suggests, I'm going to milk this topic for the better part of a week. I figured I'd do a post for each dinner, maybe even with pretty pictures of the food.
But first, a post about planning the menu. For me, that usually means a long, drawn out family conference on the way to church. I ask, "What's anybody want for dinner this week?" Requests pour in from one or both of the other family members, and then I quickly override them and tell them what we're having.
Actually, the truth is that we tend to be somewhat predictable. In the summer, we're good with burgers and tacos once a week, so that only leaves three more meals to plan. In the winter, keep the tacos and substitute in chili earlier in the week. In the winter, we generally roast a whole chicken every week, then use the leftover meat for soup, made with fresh chicken stock from the carcass. In the summer, I tend to grill chicken pieces more often, and I likewise make stock for either soup (which sometimes seems strange in the summer) or to use in sauces and for pan-seared veggies (never underestimate the power of good chicken stock to make veggies pop).
So for my example week of cooking, we'll assume it's summer, but that we're okay with soup on a hot day.
I should also point out that I generally don't shop for the entire week. And I'll point out why in a bit. But first, the menu:
- Grill-roasted chicken breasts and legs (or drumsticks)
- Roasted sweet potatoes
- Italian Meatball soup
- Garlic-Sage Brined, Pan-Roasted Pork Chops with Pan Jus
- Garlic rice
- Roasted cauliflower
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You'll notice that I slipped in some simpler meals with the more complex ones. Though the complexity is drastically reduced by a little planning and prep, as you'll see.
Something to notice here is that if I only want to shop for Monday-Wednesday, building in a simple, low-prep meal on Thursday allows me to hit the market for Thursday and Friday provisions, and also allows me to easily squeeze in a bit of prep for the more complex Friday meal.
So assuming I want to do just three-day shopping, here's the Sunday shopping list:
- Bone-in, Skin-on Chicken Breasts and Whole Legs - three of each
- 3 Sweet Potatoes (I like Japanese Yams, but any variety will do)
- Salad Greens and other veggies for salad (beets!)
- 2 pounds Ground Chicken (or other ground meat. We have loads of grass fed beef in the freezer, so this is optional)
- Lettuce, Tomato, other taco fixings
- Avocados and Guacamole Mix (we like Frontera All Natural Guac Mix)
- Cheese, if you're inclined (Pepper Jack if you're man enough)
- Taco seasoning (I make my own, but not everybody's that awesome)
- Tortillas or chips, if you're so inclined
- 2 large onions
- 6 carrots
- Bunch of Celery
- Head of Garlic
- 1-2 pounds Bulk Italian Sausage (pork), depending on how meaty you want the soup
- 1 15oz can Great Northern Beans or Cannellini Beans
- 2 15oz cans stewed tomatoes (or one 29oz can)
- 1-2 red bell peppers
If you've already got a reasonably well-stocked fridge and pantry, the list is even smaller. And notice that nearly everything on the list comes from either the meat or fresh fruit/veggie section of the store. And the non-fresh items could be bought in quantity, making them both cheaper and more likely to already be in your pantry.
It's a couple of bags of groceries. (I won't say it's cheap, since I'm assuming good-quality ingredients here.)
Of course, you could add the Thursday/Friday shopping without too much more trouble:
- 4 Pork Chops (I go for center-cut bone-in chops, but you could go with something less gooderer)
- 1 Shallot
- 1 Onion
- 1 Carrot
- Head of Garlic
- 1 Lemon
- Head of Cauliflower
- Rice (white Jasmine is my preference)
- 2 pounds Ground Beef (I like 80% lean for burgers, and I'm right about it. Fat is good.)
- Leaf Lettuce (we go bunless, and grean leaf lettuce is by far the best lettuce wrapper)
- Bacon (But you already had some, didn't you? Oh, you're out? Of course you're out. Get more.)
- Cheese you already had if you wanted
- Avocados unless you've got leftovers from tacos
(Yes, guac for the burger. I'm again right about this.)
Personally, I'd split the shopping up, because I wouldn't want to let the chops or beef sit in the fridge for more than about three days. Might as well buy them fresh. And since burgers are a quick meal with little prep, you can afford to get out shopping on Thursday.
Also, the list would be pared down for Thursday if you planned a little better and got basically everything but the meat on Sunday. And your Thursday shopping would be more quickerer, to a greater degree.
(I like to put English in it's place. Anyone see what I just did there?)
In both my shopping lists, I'm assuming you've got a reasonably well stocked spice rack, with such staples as garlic powder, pepper, salt, onion powder, paprika, cayenne, sage, thyme, marjoram, and those kinds of things. You'll use them over and over when preparing fresh and delicious meat, so do yourself a favor and stock up. Better yet, grow some herbs. But still have the spice rack as a backup.
I'm also assuming you've got a bottle of red and a bottle of white wine. You'll need them. Don't drink? Me neither. But you're missing flavor if you skip the wine in your cooking. And don't buy cooking wine. Ask a helpful person what they'd get to cook with. Look for a decent wine that's on sale. I always taste whatever I buy, and so far they all taste dreadful to me, but I wouldn't skip it in a soup or sauce. You shouldn't either.
Aaaand I'm assuming you've got some olive oil. Or other cooking fat. Just don't go with anything in a clear bottle. It's basically poison.
Let's see, anything I missed? Fire away if there's anything you think I needed to address, and I'll either update it here or post a clarification. Who's cooking with me? (Seriously, you could do this, only on a one-day delay. Might be fun!)
I guess I should also clarify that I like to do some experimental cooking on weekends. So if I'm going to try Wine-Braised Beef Short Ribs, it'll be on a Saturday. Sunday we kind of pitch-patch, and maybe go out for lunch. For obvious reasons, we don't generally eat out during the week.
Okay, that'll do for now. Drop me a comment if you're so inclined. And you are inclined! You're downright angular!
I've recognized something: I have a dreadful tendency to pick books specifically to bolster whatever opinions I already have. I'm certain I'm not alone in this, and I really do strive to challenge myself by reading if not drastically-opposed views, at least something that hits things from a different angle. But I'm generally more inclined to find easy agreement with something that confirms my current thinking.
I feel so much better now that I've confessed that.
Not that many years ago, I was basically ready to give up on meat. Well, except for ribs. I always said I could be a vegan as long as I could still have ribs. And bacon. But I never quite flipped this switch, despite reading two books that sold the vegan or at least vegetarian diet.
But now that I'm back into the meat-eating fold, and veering toward Paleo/Primal, I've been doing a bit of reading on the subject. Along those lines, I watched a video online a few weeks ago, completely unrelated to diet in any way (like a movie trailer or something) and saw a "related" video titled "The Vegetarian Myth." Watched. Then got the book.
The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability, by Lierre Keith, is challenging, well-written, and basically devastating. The titular myth is that the vegetarian/vegan diet and lifestyle is the best answer for making humans healthy, preventing suffering, and saving the planet. Lierre Keith argues that it fails on all three counts. In fact, she points out that a vegetable and grain based diet is actually bad for humans, does nothing to prevent animal suffering, and has terrible environmental consequences.
Of course, she isn't arguing that factory farming and CAFOs (Concentrated/Confined Animal Feeding Operations) are a good thing. But she rightly points out that the same annual monocrops that factory farming is based on are the foods vegetarians flock to: grains. Keith points out that agriculture is the single most destructive force we humans have come up with, and I have to say I find her arguments compelling. She also makes a few other arguments I'm not completely with her on, like the destructiveness of patriarchal monotheism (though it has its faults).
Much of the argument about vegetarianism being unhealthy for humans runs quite counter to what you generally hear from nutritionists and even the food industry. Which should actually be a clue that it's not too far off. Having just read Why We Get Fat, I now understand the argument against consuming grains, and I won't repeat any of it here. But reading Keith's description of her steadily deteriorating health while following a vegan lifestyle makes me regret that I ever flirted with the idea of eating an animal-free diet. Especially given how much healthier I've become since eliminating most grains and leaving the skin on chicken.
For me, the real eye-openers were the sections about agriculture's effects on the environment and Keith's arguments about how eating a responsible diet including animal products is better for animals. I'll write a few words about that latter argument first.
The argument basically says that if you're eating a plant-based (grain and bean heavy) diet and telling yourself you're eliminating suffering and death, you're kidding yourself. Because agriculture takes a vibrant ecology, filled with all kinds of flora and fauna, and replaces it with a monocrop. All that death is on your plate. The natural cycle of life is that some animals eat plants, other animals eat those animals, and (gasp!) the plants eat everything that's left behind. Manure, carcasses, etc. So even plants eat animals. And if you don't use natural fertilizer (manure) for your monocrop, you use industrial fertilizer, created with copious amounts of fossil fuel. And watering your monocrop destroys wetlands and river habitats. All that death is on your plate.
And this doesn't even bring up the harmful human effects of U.S. Agriculture, the surplus of which causes starvation in other countries. That's right, starvation. U.S. Grain is sold below market price in other countries, driving local farmers out of business and into hunger. To say nothing of the fact that that grain isn't good for humans to eat anyway. (For all the bad press red meat gets, high consumption of grains is strongly correlated with increased heart disease. Yeah.)
I remember making black-bean burgers and thinking I was doing something good for myself, for the planet, and for animals. But now I'm done with fake meat. (For that matter, I'm way over fake "Paleo" bread. Blech.) Now I source meat either from farmers I've actually met, or from a reputable market that pulls from local and sustainable sources. Yes, I pay a premium for it. But it's better for me, better for my family, and better for the planet than cracking open a can of beans, mixing them with spices and gluten, and pretending to eat meat. And a grass-fed beef burger is so much tastier!
Now, I'm certain that there are any number of vegetarian sites out there that thoroughly debunk everything in this book (and then other sites that debunk the debunking). But that's the internet for you: an answer to everything. I don't tend to suffer from information overload paralysis in cases like this. In the case of my current eating/exercise, the results are all I need. I work out incredibly hard, and yet my joints feel better than they have for several years. Including the years in which I ate like a bird and gained weight. And I prepare that locally-sourced meat myself, spending some of the best time of my day putting good food on the table for my family.
I'll leave you with a quote from the book, and please check below for the video I referenced and a link to a lengthy podcast interview with the author. BTW, highly recommended.
No one told me. No one told me that life is only possible through death, that our bodies are a gift from the world, and that our final gift is to feed each other. No one told me that soil was the beginning place, made of a million tiny creatures who turned this bare rock into a cradle. No one told me about my real parents; I learned about photosynthesis in seventh grade, but no on told me it was a lullaby.
And no one told me that civilization was a war, that agriculture was the end of the world. I was told that eating those foods, those annual monocrops, would save the world. So I ate. I was always hungry, but I believed that righteousness and justice would have to be nourishment. I made it be true. Body and brain wore down, day by day. To the very last hour of my vegan life, I made it be true.
Link to Lierre Keith on ForeverFit.TV.
Next up, it's the long-awaited and very uneven The Trouble With Physics, everything you wanted to know about String Theory but were fortunate to avoid. I also picked up Heir to the Empire for the Star Wars Day NOOK Daily Find. Takes me back a few years.
I really enjoy cooking, and I know this probably sounds strange to mention at the beginning of a book review for a quite-obviously non-cooking title. Bear with me, though. I have a few Go-To dishes that I know will turn out right with minimal effort. Pumpkin Chili (the simplified ground meat version) or Leftover Chicken Penang Curry (must write this up!) are a couple of examples. Then I have a few Fallbacks for evenings when I want to keep it even simpler. Chicken Tacos come to mind. Or maybe something on the grill. But then sometimes I like to step out and try something more ambitious, and if it works it might become one of the Go-Tos. If not, well then we're just glad I did my experimenting on a weekend and Red Robin is a couple of minutes away.
Where am I going with this? Well, I guess I could categorize my reading in a somewhat similar way to the way I think about cooking. I have a few authors whose books I'll pick up because they're dependable (Robert Crais, Joseph Finder, Orson Scott Card). I have other whole genres that I can count on (Short Topic Science, anyone?). And sometimes I stretch myself and take on a new author and it either works or doesn't (someday I may finish Emma).
John Grisham is fairly dependable, so I'd place him somewhere between Go-To books and Fallback ones. For a time, he was solidly in Fallback territory, after I made the mistake of reading The Summons and The King of Torts back to back. Short review: decent set-up, lousy payoff. Oh, I still kept picking up his latest book and reading it, vowing sometimes that I probably wouldn't read the next one. And eventually he seemed to find his feet. The Innocent Man was absolutely tremendous, and The Litigators was quite good, though there were some misses along the way, too, as Grisham's apparent hatred of the death penalty made it tough for him to write realistic Bad Guys in his books dealing with capital punishment.
Fortunately, The Racketeer doesn't really touch on the death penalty. It does shed a bit of light on what I think might be his new hobby horse: RICO laws. If you're like me and the first time you heard the term "RICO" was in The Dark Knight, you may or may not know that these laws allow prosecutors to cast a very wide net in racketeering cases, getting more jail time for all concerned. According to Grisham, an unfortunate consequence of the net-casting is that you end up incarcerating people who actually did no wrong along with the guilty. As a fan of smaller government, I can't say I'm thrilled with the idea of making it easier for the Feds to put people behind bars, so I'm inclined to side with Grisham on this one even though I think his death penalty stance is puerile.
Well, here I go again writing more about Mr. Grisham than his book. My bad. So let me say that The Racketeer is another point in Grisham's favor. It's brisk, interesting, exciting and even a bit mysterious as the reader begins to question just how reliable the first-person narrator is. Malcolm Bannister is that narrator, a former small-time lawyer swept away into Federal Minimum Security Prison in a RICO case. He's been in five years with five remaining and he has a plan about how to get out. Because he has some information about a high-profile murder that he's willing to sell for his freedom. How he goes about it is great fun. Oh, it's not The Firm, but few books are. But it's a solid Go-To book in this case. And this is about all I can muster for a Go-To-Book Book Review.
What about you? Any Go-To authors? Anyone I should add to my stretch goals? Bueller?
Next up is Rachel Held Evans's Evolving in Monkey Town, a very enjoyable read and another title from my 13 in 13 list. I've also started another from that list, A Short History of the World.
I would loudly proclaim Michael Ruhlman's Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking the most awesomest cookbook around were it not for the simple fact that I also own Ruhlman's Twenty, which is even awesomer. (BTW, grammar snob though I am, I love making grammar snobs' eyes bleed.)
Most of the time if someone asks me to recommend one cookbook, I recommend both Ratio and Twenty. I consider them sort of a matched set because they cover some of the same ground and because Ruhlman is an excellent communicator.
Ratio sets out to loose the shackles holding the home cook to recipes by breaking down categories of cooking into simple numbers. So if you know that the ratio for biscuits is 3-1-2 (3 parts flour, 1 part fat, 2 parts milk), you can whip out a batch of biscuits to suit whatever ingredients you have lying around. It's of course true that biscuits generally contain other ingredients, but once you're comfortable with the ratio, you get a feel for how much leavening or salt or sugar you need, too.
Another example I use rather regularly is the pancake ratio of 2-2-1-1/2 (flour, milk, eggs, butter). I simply never use a recipe anymore, and it's not that I've got a recipe memorized; I've got the ratio down pat. And I know that if I stick with the ratio, I can add pumpkin or applesauce or bananas or sweet potatoes and they'll turn out wonderfully every time.
The fact that the ratios are done by weight is the key, especially for baking, because a volume of flour can vary widely in weight, so your results will be inconsistent if you measure by volume. And if you go by weight, you don't end up with a bunch of used measuring cups lying around. And since I likes it tidy in my kitchen, I likes measuring by weight.
To give you an idea of how useful this cookbook has been, dinner last night was Italian Meatball soup made with fresh Italian pork sausage from Carman ranch, beans from Sungold Farms, with chicken stock I made a week or so ago, served with 3-1-2 Biscuits. Tonight I made the Corned Beef recipe from the "Brine" chapter (yum!!), using some Carman Ranch beef. Hardly a day goes by now in which I don't use something I learned from Ratio, even if it just means that the stock I make all the time goes into so many different dishes. (Carman ranch, beans from Sungold Farms, with chicken stock I made a week or so ago, served with 3-1-2 Biscuits. Tonight I made the Corned Beef recipe from the "Brine" chapter (yum!!), using some Carman Ranch beef. Hardly a day goes by now in which I don't use something I learned from Ratio, even if it just means that the stock I make all the time goes into so many different dishes. (Pan-Seared Green Beans, anyone?)
I feel like a better cook for having read Ratio. I can't recommend it highly enough, though I will say that the NOOK version has wonky end notes. I'd love an updated version that corrects the problem, but then I haven't actually reported it anywhere but here.
(Ruhlman's got me so ratio-crazy that I'm considering making mayonnaise even though I don't really like mayo. But I want to try it!)
This was the first book to disappear off my 13 for '13 list and a book I started reading last year. I always love to finish last years' danglers. Next up is another leftover from last year, The Rocks Don't Lie, a book about geology that makes me want to read more about geology.
By way of getting my fat backside in gear and trying to look more like I did at thirty (though I just turned forty), I've been regularly attending high-intensity workout classes at a local (and awesome) gym called Sweat360. Twice a year they have a "Meltdown" event, which is a 6-week Paleo eating kind of thing, including body composition testing and goal setting and whatnot. So I'm just now coming out of that six weeks, with my pants feeling like they're a size too large and my joints feeling much, much better. (Triglycerides from 204 to 62…dude.)
In order to better understand the kind of program I was doing (and had done before), I picked up It Starts With Food: Discover the Whole30 and Change Your Life in Unexpected Ways, by Melissa and Dallas Hartwig. As I said, I'd done a Whole30 before, so I knew roughly what the eating portion of the plan would be, but I didn't know all the whys of it.
On Facebook, you might be inclined to believe that Paleo means "just add bacon," but that's sort of an oversimplification. Essentially you're going with Michael Pollan's "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." from In Defense of Food. Most folks equate Paleo eating with the low-carb craze of the early 00s, but that's also errant. No cheese, you see.
In fact, It Starts With Food boils down to this: Take a high-quality serving of meat (the size of your palm), then fill the rest of your plate with vegetables. So last night, for instance, I made a roasted chicken (with a wonderful pan sauce from Ruhlman's Twenty) and served it with roasted vegetables and steamed artichokes.
Actually, here I should plug Ruhlman's Twenty, which really got me through this six weeks. I'll do a separate review for it if I ever finish cooking through all the chapters, but I'll just say now that the many terrific primary protein recipes were key for me, as were several of his veggie preparations. Oh, and if you don't know Ruhlman, you should. He's awesome.
Back to the basics of Whole30 eating. The four food standards are that food should:
- Promote a healthy psychological response.
- Promote a healthy hormonal response.
- Support a healthy gut.
- Support immune function and minimize inflammation.
See, the Whole30 isn't just about not eating carbs or sugar or anything that simple. How often do you think about how food affects you psychologically? The authors of this book argue that our brains are wired to seek sweet, salty, and fatty foods because we've got deeply-wired instincts to seek foods that will help us survive. Which was totally valid for hunter-gatherers or other ancient peoples. But in our society, we've got engineered food products that hit all these tastes without offering the nutrition our brain expects. So we over-consume them. "Food without brakes" is an apt description of them.
Most people have at least a passing familiarity with the Glycemic Index these days, having heard of it in connection with some fad diet, but it's definitely a consideration when looking at your hormonal response to food. But while It Starts With Food discusses the index and the effect is has on insulin response, the authors also discuss leptin, glucagon and cortisol. Fascinating (and mildly horrifying) stuff.
The "healthy gut" chapter includes descriptions and causes of leaky gut, and I can testify that while eating according to Whole30 principles, I noticed far less intestinal distress than I was accustomed to.
In terms of inflammation, I'll just say that I worked out more and had far less soreness than I expected. Normally my knees are a major barrier to intense exercise and have actually kept me from running consistently for a couple of years. Now I'm planning to add some running back in. Of course, I recognize that losing about twenty pounds certainly did my joints a favor, but it's more than that. My knees just aren't as creaky now.
I'm planning to stick with Whole30 eating for the most part going forward, experimenting a bit with adding back in some foods I've missed, but I don't want to fall too far off the wagon. The bod just feels too good running on good fuel. Plus I really need to un-camouflage my six-pack. I know it's in there somewhere.
Really, I can't recommend the experience enough. Of course I recommend this book, but it might best be read during a Whole30 by way of making you more aware of what's happening along the way and the whys of it. You can get all the information you need about the actual plan for the Whole30 via the website, but I definitely would advocate reading the book along the way.
A couple of interesting things happened to me during the six-week meltdown (Whole45?). One was that I became aware that I'd been having more caffeine than I thought (the meltdown called for a two week caffeine fast), as I was assaulted by a ferocious headache about a day and a half in. Brutal. And here I thought I'd become un-bonded from caffeine. So I've added coffee back in a couple of days a week, but I'm trying not to compound caffeine on the other days. So no more daily iced tea for me.
Another interesting thing I noticed was an emotional response to fruit. One evening, I sat down to enjoy some time reading, with a mandarin orange and a cup of raspberries. I had just a few minutes to sit down before I'd be heading out to pick up my son from a church group and heading over to my parents' house for our weekly Amazing Race watching. As I sat there munching on the delicious, tart orange and sweet raspberries, a feeling of well-being came over me and I thought "This is so good I should grab another orange and bowl of raspberries and bring them to the folks' house to eat over there." So I clearly had an emotional response to the food, even though fruit is on the Whole30 "approved" list. But I realized why they don't recommend having fruit stand in for dessert: It reinforces dessert as a necessary part of "finishing" a meal.
So that's just a bit of personal anecdote to go with my experience of Whole30 eating. If you do it, it works. You'll feel better and probably shed a few pounds if you need to. Read the book. Do the program. And let me know how it goes. It's a LendMe title, so I'm totally willing to lend it out to the first person to request it via NOOK Friends. Though I may favor local friends to whom I've already recommended the book. (My links, by the way, are to Barnes & Noble, and the book is only $10 for the NOOK.)
Next up is Justin Lee's heartbreaking, well-balanced and challenging Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays vs. Christians Debate. And I'm a quarter through Jim Al-Khalili's Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas in Physics.
BTW, I've now realized it's exceedingly unlikely that I'll make my yearly goal total of 52 books this year, having just recently finished my 40th book (the Bible, go figure). Not sure how that happened, but I suspect it's the fact that my son the Pancake Eater started doing more of his own reading this year, reading the Hunger Games set plus a bunch of the Warriors series and Percy Jackson books, and I just didn't do that many read-alouds with him.
(Editorial comment: 19 read-alouds last year. 3 this year. Not including half of The Two Towers, which the boy and I mutually decided was too boring to continue.)
Maybe I'll try to finish up a few titles I've started but shelved. Probably not Emma, though.
Edit 10/25: Added the recipe in printable format.
I'm on Week One of the Sweat360 6-Week Fall Meltdown, so I'm casting about for as many recipes as I can find, or at least ideas to inspire me. I regularly make chili without measuring anything other than two pounds of this, two cans of that, everything else to taste, so I'm good about riffing on an idea. My fried RM mentioned a Pumpkin Chili recipe, so I gave it a look. (Check the link for the recipe if you like.)
I liked the idea of adding pumpkin for some added sweetness and thickness, but I wasn't in love with the idea of making bean-free chili with ground meat. Something about the texture of ground meat in chili cries out for beans, IMHO. But since Paleo disallows beans, I needed another way to make the chili really hearty and satisfying: Stew meat. Yes, it takes more time if you want to get it tender, but it's so worth it. And fresh off my positive experience with braised short ribs (Ruhlman's Twenty), I thought I could manage to get some stew meat tender.
(As a sort of Paleo joke, I made The Spinning Cook's Pan-Seared Green Beans to go with the chili. Get it? Chili…with beans. I know, right? Brilliant humor. You laughed until you stopped.)
So, here it is:
* 2 pounds stew meat (I used half beef, half pork from New Seasons)
* 2 cans diced/sliced/stewed tomatoes, pureed (15 oz cans)
* 1 roasted jalapeno, pureed with the tomatoes or diced (mine was red so I threw it in the Cuisinart)
* 1.5 cups chicken or beef stock (any stock will do, or you can substitute beer or wine if you're inclined)
* 1 to 1.5 cups cooked pumpkin puree (I used a quarter of a Sweet Meat Squash, but you could use practically any winter squash)
* 2 Tbsp chili powder (I make mine based on Alton Brown's recipe, but I add a tablespoon of whole coriander)
(If you're using store-bought chili powder, I'd also add a teaspoon or so of cumin, coriander, smoked paprika, and some black pepper)
* 1 large onion, diced
* 2 celery stalks, chopped or diced
* 2 carrots, chopped or diced
* 3-4 cloves garlic, crushed and chopped (or minced)
* 1 bell pepper, any color, diced
* 1 (4oz) can mild green chilies
* Salt and pepper
* Olive oil, bacon fat, or whatever fat you like
Some prep notes: I chopped veggies while browning the meat, but if you want to simplify things, just prep the veg first. I also used a skillet and a Dutch oven, but you could totally just go with the Dutch oven if you want to save on clean-up. But if you use both, you could start the veggies cooking while browning the meat. I also didn't cut the meat down to size. Instead, I browned it as is, let it get tender in the sauce, then pulled it out, gave it a quick chop, then back in. But you could cut it smaller if you want.
Preheat your oven to 300 degrees.
Working in batches, brown the meat in oil in a skillet, removing browned meat to a plate or bowl. Once the meat is all browned, deglaze with a cup or so of the chicken stock. Set aside.
In a Dutch oven, sauté the onion, garlic, carrots, celery, and bell pepper in oil until the onion is translucent. (You can go as far as you want, browning the onion and carrots for extra flavor, or just get them tender and move on.) Strain the reserved liquid over the vegetables. Add the green chilies, tomato sauce, pumpkin, and chili powder (or spice blend). Add the meat back in and add additional stock if you think it's looking too thick. Bring to a simmer, then turn the burner off, cover the Dutch oven, and slide it into the oven.
Leave it alone for 90 minutes or so. (An hour may be sufficient, and you can test by pulling out a chunk of meat. If you can't cut it with a fork you're not there yet.) I should probably note that you could just simmer it on the stove-top for all that time, but I think you get more even heating in the oven. And it makes you feel more cheffy, a thing which you can't undervalue.
I used a slotted spoon to pull the meat out onto a cutting board, then chopped them up a bit and added them back in. But there's nothing saying you can't stick with big old chunks. It should be tender enough that it wouldn't be much of a nuisance to eat in large chunks.
Well, I hope you enjoy it! BTW, I used another bit of the Sweet Meat Squash to make Paleo Pumpkin Breakfast Bars. We'll see how those came out tomorrow morning. They certainly look good, but I'm delaying gratification and letting more of my flab melt away overnight. Trying to look better before I turn 40.
While I've got you on the line, I'll ask for any exotic vegetable recipes you have, so long as they don't have dairy, beans, soy, or grains. So fire away! I've got a couple Endives in the fridge that I'm planning to braise one of these days, just because I read the Braise chapter in Ruhlman's Twenty and braising is incredibly cool.
I love to cook. I love that my son has come to expect pancakes made from scratch on the weekend. Oatmeal pancakes, pumpkin pancakes, sweet potato pancakes…yum! I love to make my own pasta sauce, try out new soup ideas, so on and son on, etcetera, etcetera.
But if I needed another reason to cook, other than it's awesome, Mark Bittman's little manifesto Cooking Solves Everything: How Time in the Kitchen Can Save Your Health, Your Budget, and Even the Planet provided several.
When I say little, we're talking a few dozen pages. So it probably stretches the definition of book by quite a bit. It's actually more like an essay. But I bought it from the NOOK Bookstore, so that's all the definition I need. It's one of many such short titles being sold these days for eReaders, intended to be consumed in a single reading session.
Who doesn't love a nice, short book about cooking? Mark Bittman is evidently a big name in the cookbook world, with his How to Cook Everything regularly showing up on lists of essential reads. I may have to double back and read some of Bittman's other work now that I've got a taste of his writing. (Unintended culinary pun there.)
As the title to this little volume suggests, Bittman wants us to do more cooking. He doesn't argue that cooking is easy, per se, but that it's both necessary and rewarding. And as the subtitle suggests, he argues for its being useful in making improvements to:
- Our Health – by keeping us connected with the ingredients we're using and being mindful of what we're putting in our bodies.
- Our Budget – by reducing our spending on eating out or on buying processed foods.
- Our Planet – by getting us to focus more on local and quality ingredients not produced by Big Ag.
Bittman drives home the idea that by cooking for ourselves, we make a huge difference not only for ourselves, but for our fellow consumers, our culture, and our world. In short, it's all the reasons you've probably already thought about if you're a home cook. But isn't it nice to have your opinion validated sometimes?
Here's one of the money lines for me:
It's not only a tragic irony that we can be simultaneously the best and worst fed country in the world, it demonstrates the dysfunction of industrialized American agriculture.
I'd recommend this "book" to anyone who's already cooking but needs some encouragement, or who needs a nudge in that direction. By the way, if you become my NOOK Friend, you could borrow this book from me via LendMe. Just sayin'. First come, first served. Find me this way: seth at heasley dot net.
Before I'm done here, I also have to plug my friend's cooking blog, as his mission statement lines up pretty nicely with the philosophy of this book. So go check out The Spinning Cook.
Not sure what's next up. I'm not making great strides on anything at the moment. But it seems like something always pops up.