Monthly Archives: August 2009

Healthcare, Health and the Politics of Food

obese ladies

It seems as though everywhere I turn, there is a new article on healthcare reform. This is certainly understandable as this issue is the current focus of Congress, leading politicians and citizens alike to express their passionate opinions that more often than not explode into heated debates. For those of you who have been living under a rock, here are three informative summaries on what is going on from The New York TimesWashington Post and  The Atlantic’s business blog. But as I sit here, sifting through various articles, blog posts, comments and message boards on healthcare in total information overload, I have come across a few interesting articles that relate healthcare reform to food. There have been a few ways in which food has been brought into the debate. For example,  there is the whole John Mackey of Whole Foods debacle, a strange mess that I am frankly tired of hearing about. Others have found a solution to both healthcare and global warming through organic foods. But I find the most interesting (and perhaps the most obvious)  link between healthcare and food to be the issue of obesity in America.

It is no secret that medical costs are soaring due to the treatment of diseases related to obesity, and so in any discussion of healthcare reform, the obesity epidemic is sure to come up. Indeed, the CDC held its first ever conference on Obesity Prevention and Control this summer in late July. The CDC  lists the discussion of “economic analysis of obesity prevention and control efforts (e.g., cost burden of obesity on healthcare system and employers, cost effectiveness of prevention)” and the “use of law-based efforts to prevent and control obesity (e.g., legislation, regulation and policies)” as two of its four goals for the conference. Clearly, public policy was at the heart of this scientific event.

One of the articles that stuck me the most was in this Sunday’s edition of The New York Times Magazine. In “Fat Tax,” David Leonhardt poses the argument made by Delos M. Cosgrove, heart surgeon and chief executive of the Cleveland Clinic. Cosgrove states that because obesity leads to an estimated cost of $147 billion and growing for Americans, individuals with a certain body-mass index should be charged higher health-insurance premiums. As Leonhardt puts it, “Harsh? Yes. Fair? You can see the argument.”

Of course, there are many issues with Cosgrove’s proposition. There are multiple factors that contribute to obesity, not just laziness. Along with genetics, obesity is correlated with socioeconomic status, and so taxing these individuals does not seem quite right.

Leonhardt points out that American society seems to be encouraging behavior that can lead to obesity. He describes our changed environment: “Parents are working longer, and takeout meals have become a default dinner. Gym classes have been cut. The real price of soda has fallen… the real price of fruit and vegetables has risen.” The first thing that Cosgrove lists here, that people are no longer cooking, reminded me of Michael Pollan’s article in the New York Times Magazine just a week earlier. In “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch,” Pollan argues that the rise of cooking shows  “has, paradoxically, coincided with the rise of fast food, home-meal replacements and the decline and fall of everyday home cooking.”

The fact that people are choosing not to cook is, to me, a major issue. When people cook, they see what goes into their meal. They immediately become conscious of their intake. People should make time for this, not cut it out of their schedules. The fact that people aren’t cooking in order to watch other people cook, as Pollan writes, is just some extra irony.

So perhaps we can take a moment to pause on healthcare, and consider health. I honestly believe that if people cooked more, they would be more nutrition-conscious. It is clear that something to change the cultural environment that  Leonhardt and Pollan describe in their articles needs to happen. What if schools offered more home economics classes? Not in a creepy Stepford Wives-in-training kind of way, but classes for both boys and girls in which they learn to cook nutritious food. Obviously, this requires economic resources. But if the government is toying with the idea of universal healthcare coverage, is this so outrageous ? In theory, it could pay for itself. Because studies have shown that healthy foods are harder to obtain in poor neighborhoods, perhaps the government could offer tax breaks to supermarkets that carry fresh produce opening in poorer neighborhoods? Obesity is clearly a health problem, and it is now inseparable from healthcare. Although these ideas are not new, there are few proposals  floating around Congress (perhaps with the exception of the soda tax) that focus on obesity prevention. Washington is too concerned with massive overhaul; Congress should should consider taking some of that trillion dollars over the next ten years and give some health programs (not healthcare programs) some serious funding.

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Green Peppers, You Are Dead to Me

green pepIn yesterday’s Dining and Wine section of the New York Times, Julia Moskin defends green peppers, “the sturdy yet forlorn supermarket vegetable that foodies love to hate,” in an article entitled “Image Problem? Don’t Pity the Bell.”

I, like many others who commented on this article, had no clue that green peppers were so controversial. Moskin traces the “unforgiving world for green peppers” back to Alice Waters, who is often credited with founding the food revolution of the ’70s and ’80s through the Californian cuisine featured in her restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkley, CA. Apparently she hated them for their bitter taste.

This struck a chord with me because green bell peppers are the only food I will go out of my way to avoid.  I also prefer not to have other bitter foods, such as Brussel sprouts, but I won’t necessarily pick them out of food served to me as I will with green peppers. I will eat pretty much anything else, just like many of the “modern food lovers” Moskin describes in her article. It’s just green peppers. I can’t help it, I’ve tried to force myself to enjoy them. And I have just discovered that I am not alone.

As a few comments and blogs point out, Moskin defends green bell peppers against their apparently numerous haters by describing the glories of cooking with cubanelles, poblanos, shishitos, pimientos de padron, and jalapenos. As such, Moskin’s defense is poorly researched and she in no way makes me want to give green peppers another shot. But this isn’t really my point.

I think that Moskin fails to discuss what is really interesting here: why do so many food lovers who “enjoy everything put in front of them” from “beef cheeks” to “goat udder” have such a strong distaste for green peppers, which aren’t particularly exotic at all?

And then it occurred to me: genetics. My family often jokes about the “green pepper gene,” which plagues about a quarter of my extended family members, myself included. A few of my uncles and I all agree that green peppers are practically inedible while the others have no idea what we are talking about. Could I possibly have inherited this distaste?

Well it turns out it is possible. There is a good amount of research out there on the genetics of bitter food sensitivity. Scientists use two synthetic substances, phenylthiocarbamide (PTC) and 6-n-propylthiouracil (PROP) to study the biology and genetic inheritance of the taste buds. For some people, these substances produce an extremely bitter taste while for others, PTC and PROP taste almost like nothing.

Green peppers and other bitter foods such as members of the cruciferous vegetable family (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, bok choy and kale) do not contain PTC or PROP because these substances do not occur naturally.  But studies have suggested that sensitivity to PTC and PROP may lead to an avoidance of such bitter foods.

I am certainly not an expert, but perhaps this genetic sensitivity to extreme bitterness accounts for the popular dislike of green peppers and my own personal repulsion. Don’t get me wrong, a little bit of bitterness can be great. Arugula? Yum. Dark Chocolate? Yes, please. But green peppers? Never.

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Wine Bars With Great Food Part II

Cork's minimal outside dining area. Call 30 mins ahead to add your name to the seating list and you might be able to score one (no reservations taken except for early pre-theater).

Cork's minimal outside dining area. Call 30 mins ahead to add your name to the seating list and you might be able to score one (no reservations taken except for early pre-theater).

I was very excited to discover that my new house is just a stone’s throw away from the popular DC wine bar, Cork. I went there for the first time last week for dinner, and had a great experience. Like Proof, Cork is a place known for its wine but also has great food; but while Proof has a full menu, Cork only has little plates to share.

As the  name suggests, Cork is very focused on wine. As we walked to our table in the back of the restaurant (the space is so much bigger than it appears from the outside!), it seemed as though everyone was enjoying a glass; there was not a cocktail in sight. I also discovered a framed copy of De Long’s Wine Grape Varietal Table hanging on the wall. Shaped like a periodic table, the poster organizes grapes based on their acidity and other factors. This allows the viewer to find their favorite types (Malbec and Montepulciano for me) and see what other grapes are similar. Very cool.

De Long's Wine Grape Varietal Table

De Long's Wine Grape Varietal Table

As for me, I had a glass of the Montepulciano, my current favorite dinner wine, and was not disappointed. I also tried the Côtes du Rhône, which was delicious as well. It is interesting to note that all of the wines by the glass are from Europe–France, Italy and Spain– only. I wonder why…

Seated in the back of Cork, we could see into the kitchen (teeny tiny!) and were surprised by how much food they could produce in the period of time we were there. But more importantly, the food was really good.

First, I need to discuss the Avocado over grilled bread with pistachios, toasted pistachio oil, and sea salt. Ordering this cold plate was a given for me, because avocado is basically the best thing in the world, especially with a little bit of salt. In the way that some people love bacon, I love avocado. But its different; when one cooks with bacon, the whole dish just tastes like bacon, while avocado just makes everything taste better. Cork’s version of avocado preparation is great; the pistachios add unique and delicious flavor.

We also ordered a number of hot plates, including the Grilled Angus Flat Iron Steak served with rapini, braised raddichio, and horseradish sauce and the “exotic mushroom duxelle” and french fries. My only real complaint of the night would be that they served us the french fries and then the mushrooms long before our steak arrived, when we ordered them with the hope that they would come together and complement each other. The last thing I wanted to do was fill up on french fries before the steak came. However, all three dishes were delicious. The hot, crisp french fries came with homemade ketchup with a palatable cinnamon spice. The mushrooms were really nicely flavored with fresh herbs; I only wish they were still hot when the wonderfully tender piece of  steak came.

I really couldn’t ask for a better place to be situated across the street from my house. I can’t wait for their Market and Tasting Room to open down the block… I envision a lot of cheese in my future…

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Wine Bars With Great Food Part I

A few months ago I discovered that Proof, known for their extensive wine list and knowledgeable sommeliers, actually has outstanding food. This epiphany was confirmed with my visit to Proof on Friday night for my friend’s birthday. Although I was disappointed to see that the menu had changed minimally since the last time I went as I was hoping for some new seasonal favorites, I tried many dishes I hadn’t had before and to my delight everything we ordered was a success.

The heirloom tomato salad with cucumbers and onions reminded me of something I first discovered at a young age in my father’s garden: tomatoes in August are incredible. In addition to the salad, we started with the tuna tartare, perfectly tender served in a spicy soy sauce for a kick of flavor. As for my main course, I ordered the scallops in green pea puree (which just tasted like potatoes), pea shoots, and a dab of carrot emulsion (barely noticeable). Although the accompaniments were a little odd, the scallops themselves were delicious. I also tasted the swordfish, a fish that I almost never eat because of its high mercury count and my general indifference towards large fish steaks, and it was phenomenally tender as our waiter promised. The miso glazed sablefish with soba noodles, zucchini, golden squash, and toasted sesame was my favorite dish because both the fish and all of the sides came had a great combination of flavors. The birthday girl ordered the Crispy Duck & Pork Confit (because why not, it was her day). The dish’s flavors successfully married the two different types of meat but both were too fatty for my taste.

Birthday dinner in Proof's modern, dimly lit dining room

Birthday dinner in Proof's modern, dimly lit dining room

This was a pretty serious dinner that would not have been complete without dessert and cheese. The cheesecake was incredible, rivaled only perhaps by the cheesecake at Wolfgang Puck’s DC restaurant, The Source, which caused my mildly lactose-intolerant friend to faint in their bathroom stall. Proof’s version is such a large portion of rich cheesecake that it can be comfortably split among four people, especially after a large meal. Ordering cheese for dessert is my new favorite thing; I would much rather finish my wine with some great cheese than fill up on such a heavy food as an appetizer before my dinner. Some cheese plate highlights:

Red Hawk: super stinky but smooth and relatively mild taste—a very strange sensation

Beecher’s Flagship Reserve Cheddar: not so glamorous, but I love cheddar so I don’t care

Pont-l’Eveque: Kind of weird, I thought it was going to be more brie-y, my least favorite

So please, go to Proof for dinner, not just drinks. And feast on cheese.

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New Neighborhood, New Favorite Italian Restaurant

outsideposto

I’ve moved! I am no longer a Georgetown student and I now reside in the Logan Circle neighborhood. This means there are a ton of new places for me to try in this recently re-energized area around 14th Street. And while I plan on expanding my culinary horizons in my new neighborhood and trying as many restaurants as possible, I can’t help but play favorites already. I moved in Sunday. It’s Wednesday. I’ve been to Posto twice.

Everything I have tried at Posto, both food and wine, has been delicious thus far. The antipasti I tried—prosciutto and a variety of cheeses—were high quality and flavorful. The antipasti also come with a basket of incredible bread that has been lightly charred in the pizza oven. All of the salads on the summer menu (they change their menu seasonally) look great, but I got the Insalata del Posto both times I went because it was just so good the first time. This arugula salad with fennel, toasted almonds, shaved pecorino romano, and red wine vinegar is flavorful, crunchy and refreshing.

The bread from the antipasti plates foreshadows the pizza crust. I used to think that the pizza at 2 Amys far exceeds any other DC restaurant’s pizza, but now I am not so certain. Posto’s crust is thinner than 2 Amys, which I prefer, and the other ingredients are comparable. Additionally, seasonal pizzas are introduced throughout the year while some of the favorite pizza options remain on the menu. I can only hope more restaurants specializing in artisinal pizza pop up in this pizza-starved city as they are all the rage in New York. Word is that Spike Mendelsohn of Bravo’s Top Chef and Capitol Hill’s Good Stuff Eatery is looking to open his own pizza spot.

The pasta at Posto is also excellent, not surprising considering its sister restaurant, Tosca, is known for their fresh pasta dishes. I tried the three meat ravioli in thyme butter sauce, which was very good, and every pasta dish that came by looked great.

While I definitely think Posto shines for its pizza and pasta, the seafood entrees were also very well prepared. The arctic char, one of my favorite fishes (a cross between salmon and white fish),  with peppers, asparagus, and lemon was good and the scallops with yellow tomato sauce, snow peas, and fried leaks were great.

Posto was a great start to my new neighborhood tasting tour. I can only hope to discover more culinary gems.

Posto
1515 14th St NW
Washington, DC 20005-3780
(202) 332-8613

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Can’t Go Wrong with Michel Richard’s Central

Michel Richard hard at work (thanks, NYT for the image!)

Michel Richard hard at work (thanks, NYT for the image!)

Whenever someone asks me for a restaurant recommendation in DC, I constantly find myself suggesting Michel Richard’s Penn Quarter restaurant, Central. Although Michel Richard is famous for his upscale Georgetown spot, Citronelle, Central consistently impresses me while Citronelle, well, doesn’t.

Located between the Capitol and the White House, Central is definitely a happening place, but relatively casual at the same time. The scene is both hip and low-key. Central’s bar holds a special place in my heart because it is the first place I tried St. Germaine, an Elderflower liqueur that goes well with Champagne and gin. Any bar that has this on hand is a great success in my book.

Perhaps the reason I constantly recommend Central to others is because the menu is very extensive and has something for everyone, without sacrificing quality (something from which I think Founding Farmers in Foggy Bottom suffers). I have tried many, many things on the menu, and have never been disappointed. The appetizers and salads are definitely standouts, and should not be skipped. The charcuterie selection has both traditional and more creative options; for example, their duck rillettes and faux gras (not to be confused with foie gras) along with the cheese puffs are great starters to share. The chopped salad, Asian style tuna and salmon carpaccio, and frog’s legs (perhaps for the more adventurous) are all great.

As for the main course dishes, I have yet to be disappointed. The mussels with white wine and garlic are delicious, especially if you just accidentally gorged on charcuterie and want to go with some lighter fare. Along with the mussels, the grilled salmon with lentils and the sautéed scallops with tagliatelle provencale are outstanding seafood options. For the hardcore carnivores, the ribeye steak is very tasty. I also consider myself a bit of a lamb snob, and Central’s lamb shank with creamy corn polenta and mustard sauce definitely passes the test—it is incredibly tender and delicious.

All in all, I’ve tried a fair amount of the options on Central’s menu, but there are still more dishes that appeal to me. I guess I’ll just have to keep going and ordering. I’ll update everyone if I’m ever disappointed, but I don’t really see it happening any time soon.

Central
1001 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20004
(202) 626-0015

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