The Nation on Food Democracy

foodforall

Everyone should check out this week’s issue of The Nation, a special called “Food for All.” Various restauranteurs and food activists including Alice Waters and Dan Barber contribute articles to support the grassroots movement of “food democracy.” These authors argue that a transformation of the food industry is necessary and they discuss the various obstacles that our nation must overcome in order to make safe and nutritious food available to all.

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Parental Example: A Solution to Disordered Eating on Both Ends of the Spectrum?

As I discussed here, the obesity epidemic has been widely publicized recently in light of the current healthcare debate. Amidst the discussion on obesity, obesity-related diseases, and the funds required to care for individuals who suffer from these diseases, there have been a couple of interesting articles on unhealthy eating habits on the opposite end of the spectrum: unhealthy dieting habits, anorexia, and bulimia.
In Jeffrey Zaslow’s Wall Street Journal article, “Girls and Dieting, Then and Now,” Zaslow describes his reunion with members of the 1986 fourth grade class at the Marie Murphy School in Wilmette, Ill., whom he had interviewed about their dieting habits some twenty-three years ago. He discovered in 1986 that among these young girls, the majority of them restricted their diets because “boys expect girls to be perfect and beautiful and skinny.” Not surprisingly, most of these women continue to stress about their appearance and thus their weight today. Further, as actresses and models become thinner and thinner, young girls are employing more and more dangerous methods to look like them. While I thought it was interesting that Zaslow interviewed the same women two decades later, I found the conclusion to be predictable and uninventive.
When I began reading Frank Bruni’s article “Eating Anxiety: Is Anyone to Blame?” on The Atlantic’s online food channel, I thought, “Oh no, not another article about Frank Bruni’s weird relationship with food,” a popular topic in light of the former food critic’s newly published memoir that discusses his struggle with weight and eating. But I was pleasantly surprised by Bruni’s ultimate suggestion to his readers. He advises parents to “instill good food sense in their children the same way they instill a good work ethic: by example.” I am certainly a believer that eating and exercise habits are learned, perhaps through my own personal experience, and that it is important for parents to set healthy examples. At least Bruni offers a feasible suggestion to help solve the problem of disordered eating, one that could apply to both obesity and unhealthy diet restriction.

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I Love You, Eggs

Eggs: Perfect in their simplicity

Eggs: Perfect in their simplicity

After my rant a couple weeks ago about how gross I think green peppers are and why, I thought I might write a post about one of my favorite foods to maintain some semblance of positivity. I didn’t have to think twice about the topic: eggs were my answer.

Eggs are fantastic for a number of reasons: they’re cheap, healthy, easy to make, taste great, and can be combined with lots of different ingredients and cooked in many different ways depending on individual taste. Basically, eggs are the perfect food.

I like eggs cooked all different ways: over easy with a nice runny yolk, scrambled, in a frittata, in an omelet, boiled and poached on toast, to name a few. My favorite way to make an egg meal for myself is to make a vegetable scramble. I chop any vegetables that I have in my refrigerator and sauté them in olive oil on medium heat. I like to use a wide variety of vegetables in every scramble including, but not limited to, onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, asparagus, broccoli, spinach, avocado, and kalamata olives. I then take one whole egg and two egg whites and scramble them in a bowl. Next, I add shredded cheese, usually feta, goat, or sharp cheddar, to the eggs and mix well. Once the vegetables are almost completely cooked, I turn the heat way down to low heat (this is KEY to decent eggs) and add the scrambled eggs, distributing the vegetables into the runny egg. Every so often I stir the eggs in the pan so that they cook evenly and none of the eggs are cooked too much. A few minutes later, I sprinkle some salt and pepper on them and have a delicious and nutritious meal.

Eggs are obviously great for breakfast, but for me, they are the ultimate comfort food. If I’ve had a long day and I don’t feel like spending a lot of time in the kitchen but need to eat something before I crawl into bed, an egg scramble is the way to go.

Eggs have recently gotten a fair amount of praise from celebrity chefs and food writers. I loved what Mark Bittman did in his recipe posting and corresponding podcast, “More-Vegetable-Than-Egg Frittata.” This really exemplifies how eggs can be used not as the main focus of a dish, but as a component to maintain texture and form, a strategy that I employ in my vegetable-heavy scrambles. In Eric Ripert’s post on his visit to Blue Hill at Stone Barns, he gushes about the soft boiled egg he ate (farm fresh, of course) that had been perfectly cooked in a circulator bath set at 61.9 degrees. Here, Ripert shows that although eggs are nothing new, the art of egg-cooking is continually advancing. Simple as eggs are, the possibilities are endless.

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Neyla: Ehhh, I Blame Restaurant Week

                I really like Restaurant Week in theory: top restaurants offer discounted prix fixe menus for lunch and/or dinner, giving people on limited budgets the opportunity to try places with expensive reputations. I enjoy the Restaurant Week buzz—browsing menus, organizing big group dinners with friends, reading recommendations—because it is fun and social. However, I find myself consistently disappointed with the whole experience, both in New York and DC, and this year was no exception.

                I am not the first person to feel this way about the Restaurant Week tradition. It seems as though everyone remotely interested in the DC food scene has an opinion about Restaurant Week. Other nay-sayers agree that the menus are often dumbed down and that the $35 dinner price tag is frequently not that much of a bargain. I would think that restaurants would want to put their best foot forward to impress the restaurant week patron so that he or she would want to come back for a full-priced meal. It is unfortunate that so many restaurants fail to do this, leaving some restaurant week-goers feeling like they were tricked into buying a mediocre meal.

                Because of my overall negative feelings toward the institution of Restaurant Week, I was hesitant to write this post about my Restaurant Week visit to one of my favorite restaurants in DC, Neyla. I recommended Neyla to a group of friends who wanted to try somewhere new in the spirit of Restaurant Week because I had been to Neyla many times before and was always very happy with my experience. While the regular a la carte menu at Neyla is not outrageously expensive, I still thought it would be a good choice considering its consistency in the past and the Restaurant Week menu offerings (main course options included two of my favorite dishes to order out, short rib and sea bass). Neyla is also a great place to go with a big group; they have big round tables (much better for conversation than rectangle ones) both out on the pleasant outdoor patio and in the funkier main dining room inside.  

Neyla's exotic interior reflects its flavorful Lebanese food

Neyla's exotic interior reflects its flavorful Lebanese food

                I’m puzzled as to why Nelya hasn’t gotten more recognition in DC. It has really good Lebanese food in the heart of Georgetown at the intersection of N and Wisconsin. I barely ever read about it, especially compared to the oft-buzzed about Zaytinya. Their beet salad (although I think they might have changed it) was at one point a beautiful mound of red and golden beats tossed with creamy goat cheese. It was perhaps the best I’ve ever had. My sister, who is also a big lamb fan, once shared the most extraordinarily tender leg of lamb with me off of the list of specials there.  Neyla also has a very extensive and delicious tasting list of classics including hommus, tabouleh, baba ghannoug, and grape leaves. Their complementary lebneh, which they serve with zatar spiced pita toasts and olives, is creamy, garlic-y, and delicious. The wine list, including a variety of Lebanese choices, is extensive. They even have a belly dancer.

                But my Restaurant Week meal was just ehhh. I started with the tuna tartare tabouleh, and the tuna was not great, in both quality and quantity. My friend’s chicken in filo dough appetizer was much more substantial, though also a little bland. I shared both the sea bass and the short rib. Both were decent, but not as interesting as I’d hope considering Neyla’s usually exotic flavors. The desserts were pretty bad. This, for me, is generally Restaurant Week’s downfall. Why don’t they include desserts that would be featured on the full-price menu? The macaroons I ordered tasted like they came from a tin; they paled in comparison to dappervan’s. The sorbet just tasted like standard grocery store sorbet.

                So, go to Neyla. Just not for Restaurant Week. And if anyone knows a truly great place for Restaurant Week next time around, let me know.  I have yet to be impressed.

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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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