Wednesday, December 26, 2012

It's Time for New Year Resolutions

What I Hope to Achieve in 2013
I must admit, 2012 was not one of my better years. Money was tight -who doesn't have that complaint, except of course the muckity-mucks in Washington for whom the bad economy is merely a political issue and not a reality.

I'm having a hard time keeping up with the bills, and work isn't exactly plentiful right now. Some weeks, at my day job, I don't get more than 12 hours. At my hourly pay, that barely covers a week's worth of groceries.

I've been experiencing chronic fatigue associated with hypothyroidism, but don't want to go to the doctor because the insurance company is always a pain about paying (though I make my payment every freakin' month) and I'm just too tired to deal with all their bullshit.

I suffered through a week of the most miserable flu in October. I don't usually get the flu, and if I do, I'm over it in a day or two. So I was pretty mad about being laid up a whole bloody week.

In December, I got a ticket (first in over 30 years), broke may toe (Won't go to the doctor's- see above), and my car broke down - twice.

On the plus side, I had a great Christmas. Everyone in the family is healthy, and we spent Christmas Eve eating pizza and opening presents. My toe still hurts like the devil himself is chewing on it, but I'm sure this too shall pass.

So my resolution for 2013 is to not have such a crappy year.

Now, I understand the current administration in the White House has no intention of worrying over the economy. The First Family isn't likely to experience foreclosure, have to go on food stamps, or forego a doctor's visit because the insurance company won't pony up.

But I'm not going to let the self-serving fools in Washington make my life more miserable, though it seems they do enjoy trouncing the working poor. I'm going to set out few simple goals, and I'm going to accomplish them. 

Ø  Create a recipe for the perfect gluten free brownie

Ø  Develop low-fat, vegetarian meals my husband will actually like

Ø  Make more cooking videos

Ø  Start a gardening blog

Ø  Exercise more- even when I'd rather take a nap

Ø  Find inner peace

While the big shots in Washington wreak havoc on the lives of their constituents for their own amusement, I, and many of you, will persevere. I resolve to have a better year in spite of the politicians and their Wall Street cronies. I resolve to have a better year in spite of health insurance companies and over-zealous policemen. I resolve to have a better year because I want to have a better year.
Wish me luck as I wish good luck for all of you.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Why the Fast Food Industry Isn't Failing

No time to make my own
Stir Fry during the holiday rush
During the holiday rush, I find I rely on the fast food industry for a few meals. While picking up some Chinese take-away, I thought about this article I wrote some time back. I've published it here on the blog because I think it explains why I, so adamant when it comes to eating healthy, still occasionally patronize these bastions of obesity.

It seems society is trending toward a healthier lifestyle, yet the media still reports that obesity is a major health problem; over one- third of American adults are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The fast food industry is often blamed for the collective expanding waistline; its sugar, sodium and fat laden fare is too often a steady diet for too many people.
This may be largely due to convenience. After eight, ten, or twelve hours at the office, it's difficult to pass by the drive-thru window, where for mere money the food is handed to you, hot and ready. When you arrive home, you don't need to cook and serve a meal, and then clean up afterwards. You can just eat.
That convenience is hard to beat, and it is the strong suit of the fast food industry. Whether its hamburgers, pizza or ethnic take-away, your food is ready within minutes after you put in your order. You only need to pay and walk away.
The resolution to eat more healthily and cut down on fat, salt and sugar is too easily set aside when your feet hurt and your brain is muddled with stress. It's the 'fast' in fast food that keeps the industry alive.
Food-on-Demand isn't the only advantage these food factories have over home cooked meals. Fast food restaurants deliver massive amounts of food for your money. With cost-saving deals such as "3 Pizzas for 10 Dollars" and "15 Piece Bucket of Chicken for $9.99," you may actually be paying less per ounce -or pound- for the take-out than if you had to make it yourself.
Fast food is vilified for its poor nutritional value, yet the industry continues to grow. The media campaigns for healthier diets and the publicizing of studies that show the negative effects of a fast food diet have only done minor damage to the industry's bottom line. So far.
Convenience and quantity make fast food attractive, but that minor damage to the bottom line is starting to hurt, and fast food franchises are looking for ways to regain their market shares. Fresher foods, such as salads and sandwiches on whole wheat bread are making their way onto the menus. The ubiquitous 'kids meal' is offering juice in place of soda, and including fruit cups as dessert offerings.
The once popular breaded and deep fried chicken is replaced with grilled skinless chicken breast served on whole wheat buns with lettuce and tomato. Hamburgers are grilled instead of fried. French fries are cooked in vegetable oil rather than lard.
Convenience and quantity keep the industry alive, but the food factory moguls anticipate their own economic downturn if 'healthy' isn't made part of the deal. The media campaigns, the published studies and widely read books on the topic of fast food and its relation to the current epidemics of diet-related diseases are starting to have an effect.
These restaurants can churn out food factory style, but are dependent on quantity; the food is sold cheaply because so many people buy it. But the lines at the drive-thru are shorter now, and the bottom line isn't as healthy as it once was. The fast food industry isn't failing because convenience and quantity are strong motivators. But good health is starting to take the lead.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Recipe for Apple Sausage Stuffing

When it comes to Thanksgiving, my husband I tend to cheat a bit on our low-fat diet; we love our gravy and mashed potatoes with turkey. We also like stuffing, the soft/crunchy concoction of bread, veggies and meat.
I'll make apple sausage stuffing this year, and I want to share that recipe with you. It's chicken sausage, instead of pork, so I feel like I'm at least trying to be a little low-fat.
But first, a bit of history.
The bready mix we're familiar with today likely had its origins in ancient Greece and Roman kitchens, but as to it being called stuffing, that dates back to the middle ages. The bread and veggie mix was called farce, meaning 'to stuff': It was a play on words referencing the brief and humorous plays, called farces, 'stuffed' between long and boring religious presentations.
Victorian sensibilities, however, found the word 'stuffing' a bit too graphic, and applied the term 'dressing' to the mixture. Today, the two words are interchangeable, and dressing may be cooked without getting stuffed into a bird's backside.
Apple Stuffing
1 lb ground French apple chicken sausage
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped celery
1 stick butter or margarine, divided
8 cups cubed bread, divided
2 cups chicken broth, divided
2 jalapeno peppers, chopped
1 large sweet apple, chopped
1 1/2 tsp rubbed sage
1 1/2 tsp dried parsley
1. Over medium high heat, brown the French apple chicken sausage in a large pan in a teaspoon of oil, adding the onion and celery to the pan when the sausage just starts to brown and cook for an additional 3 to 5 minutes, just until the veggies are tender. Remove the mixture from the heat.
2. Put half the butter in a large pot over medium high heat. Add 3 cups of bread cubes to the butter as it starts to melt, stirring to coat and moisten the bread cubes. Add approximately 1/3 cup of chicken broth to soften the bread.
3. Add the chopped apples and jalapeno peppers to the bread mixture, along with the remaining butter and stir to combine.
4. Add the remaining bread cubes and remaining butter to the pot. Stir to combine and melt the butter. Slowly add the remaining chicken stock, stirring the mixture to ensure all the bread cubes are thoroughly moistened and softened. Turn off the heat and stir in the sage and parsley.
5. Spoon the bread mixture into a buttered casserole dish, cover and cook at 375 degrees for 40 to 50 minutes. Allow the stuffing to rest for approximately 10 minutes before serving.
For a little more sweetness, add dried cranberries or raisins to the mixture while adding the remaining chicken broth.
A note about jalapeno peppers- The smaller the pepper, the more intense the heat. If you just want a little heat, use larger peppers. If you can't find fresh jalapenos, use canned, but test for heat levels before adding.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Celebrating Vegetarianism

October is Vegetarian Awareness Month...and no, that doesn't mean you have to buy cards or gifts for the vegetarians in your life. It means you, as a meat eater, should spend a little time trying to understand why someone chooses to follow a vegetarian diet, and how such a choice affects other aspects of their lives.

One example is how some vegetarians also opt to eliminate other animal products, such as leather or fur, from their lives. They may do this because they feel that killing animals for the sake of clothing is inhumane. These are compassionate people. What these people are not are zealots.

They do not leave pamphlets on your doorknobs touting the re-emerging practice of Meatless Monday, a practice born of war. How ironic that something that is now considered humane started from a most inhumane action.

Vegetarians do not gather in front of the meat counters at supermarkets and terrorize those perusing packages of top sirloin or rump roasts. They do not picket or protest or otherwise engage in acts of culinary disobedience.

Vegetarians just don't eat meat. It's that simple, and that complex. As anyone who reads this blog with any frequency knows, my daughter is a vegetarian and has been all her life. Her father and I have teased her, good naturedly, about this lifestyle choice, as she has teased us about our food choices. But her decision, from the time she first started eating solids, to reject meat has presented me with challenges that have proven to be opportunities.

All of us in our family eat healthier because I've always had to include meat free dishes in our family meals. When my husband was put on a restricted diet because of his heart surgery, I was challenged even further, but it would have been all the more difficult if I hadn't already been familiar with cooking from a vegetarian point of view.

With food trends being so well-publicized now, thanks to Food Network and Food Channel and all the foodie magazines, blogs and websites, one would think vegetarianism would be no big deal. But as my daughter points out in her blog post, "5 Ways to Help Vegetarianism While Not Giving Up Meat," some people still don't get it.

She tells of eye-rolls and heavy sighs, and people trying to trick her into eating meat. Shame on them. Shame on them for their deliberate ignorance and their disrespect. Food is essential to our lives, to our well-being, and food choices are a part of who we are as sentient beings.

So take a little time this October to set aside any food prejudices and make a few meatless meals, and offer to break bread with your vegetarian friends. You just may find that they are presenting you with culinary opportunities you hadn't yet imagined.   

Monday, July 9, 2012

Obamacare and Healthy Diet Prescriptions

I'm not a fan of Obamacare. I think forcing American citizens to purchase expensive health care insurance is not a solution to the health care crisis. President Obama can enact a law saying "You have to buy this product", but that doesn't mean the financially challenged among us will magically have the money to pay for it. It's a stupid law, even if it is considered constitutionally correct.

The health care crisis, in my opinion, can't be addressed by insurance plans. But since that seems to be the direction this administration is taking us, I'd like to discuss an idea I have for insurance companies to offer a better product.

Start with a Script 
I'd like to see "healthy diet prescriptions." Doctors often say, "Eat healthy. Stay away from fatty foods and reduce your sodium intake." For many people, those words don't really identify what constitutes a healthy diet, one that would aid in their staying healthy.

Now, insurance companies encourage doctors to assembly line their patients through the office so there's no real dialogue. Patients leave the office thinking they just can't eat McDonald's anymore. I propose that patients who have plunked down their $50 copay get a little more for their money.

Physicians write a "Healthy Diet Plan" prescription, and the patient is then sent to a certified nutritionist. The health insurance company pays for this visit; it's part of the original copay.

The patient gets an in-depth session with a nutritionist. The nutritionist develops a diet specific to that patient's needs, and takes the time to explain how best to utilize this plan.

The Cost of a Healthy Diet
Healthy foods, though, are more costly than cheap, junky food. A single green pepper can cost a dollar (How outrageous is that!)Lean cuts of beef cost around $8 a pound, and chicken breasts around $6 a pound - more in some regions of the country.

People often forego the better foods because their budget is already strained, and ground beef is cheaper than chicken breasts, and a can of beans (think fat and salt) goes farther than a single green pepper.

Ahh, but now the patient has a prescription for these healthier foods. Now, getting healthy and staying healthy through proper nutrition is a medical thing, not just a food trend. The patient isn't just buying expensive food, he's buying meds.

So, how does the healthy diet prescription help our patient reduce the cost of his medically prescribed diet?

Tax Deductions
According to the Obamacare plan, it falls to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to collect the penalties for lack of health insurance from those citizens unable or unwilling to pay for this product.

Medical costs, such as doctor visits and prescriptions, are tax deductible. I propose that anyone with a healthy diet prescription, or a prescription for a gluten free diet, or a prescription for a diabetes diet - you get the idea - is allowed to claim the cost of their foods as a tax deduction.

So, let's say our patient spends $75 a week on his prescription diet. In a year's time, he's spent $3900. That entire amount counts as a medical deduction.

Why Should Health Insurance Companies Do This
It's time for the health insurance industry to put its money where its mouth is. Health insurance companies yammer on about "health visits" and "preventative care" and send customers pamphlets about being healthy. They do this because healthy customers don't cost them money.

If we, as a nation, are putting the health insurance industry in charge of our health care, then it needs to put up or shut up.

Insurance companies need to pay for customers to stay healthy. They need to make it possible to deduct the cost of healthy foods, of yoga classes, gym memberships and exercise equipment.

The health insurance industry needs to subsidize health food stores and supermarkets that carry specific dietary foods that meet the needs of those whose conditions demand a specific diet. This subsidy would reduce the initial out of pocket costs of these foods for those who are already financially challenged.

If we, as a nation, are putting the health insurance industry in charge of health care, then we need to demand a better product, one that keeps us healthy, not leaves us sick and financially crippled.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Recipe for Gluten Free Chocolate Cake

Last Christmas, I received a copy of the Star Trek Cookbook by Ethan Phillips and William J. Birnes. It's a collection of recipes of the various foods served on the various Star Trek shows. One of the recipes is for 'Picard's and Troi's Earl Grey Chocolate Cake' and it's the inspiration for my Gluten Free Chocolate Cake that isn't dry and doesn't crumble when you slice it.

I use Pamela's Gluten Free Bread Mix and Flour Blend for this cake and superfine sugar. Just pulse granulated sugar in a food processor for about two minutes, giving it a finer texture, but don't process it into powdered sugar. I think the sifting of dry ingredients and the use of superfine sugar is what makes this recipe work.

Watch the video to see how this cake comes together. I've also included the recipe in this post. Please feel free to leave a comment on how the cake turns out for you.

Gluten Free Chocolate Cake

Dry Ingredients:
Pamela's Gluten Free Bread Mix and Flour Blend
2 tbs cocoa
1 tsp guar gum
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt

Wet Ingredients:
3 large eggs at room temperature
1 1/2 sticks butter
3/4 cup superfine sugar
2 tsp gluten free vanilla
2 tsp earl grey tea (you can substitute 2 tsp brewed coffee)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and butter an 8 in square pan
Sift the dry ingredients together into a mixing bowl
Stir to combine and set aside

Cream the butter and sugar in a stand mixer or with a hand mixer
Add the eggs one at a time
Add the vanilla and tea
Add the dry ingredients all at once
Mix until well blended

Spread the batter into the buttered pan
Bake in 350 oven for 20 to 25 minutes
Allow cake to cool completely before removing from pan
Frost with your favorite frosting
Slice and serve

Gluten free baked goods needn't be dry or crumbly. With a little finessing, you can convert most baking recipes to gluten free without sacrificing flavor or texture. This recipe is easy to follow and sure to please everyone, even those who don't need to go gluten free.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Gluten Free Cinnamon Rolls

Everyone in the family likes cinnamon rolls, and I used to make them from scratch quite often. Since my son's diagnosis of celiac disease, though, and of course my husband's and mine need to maintain a low-fat diet, and my daughter now out in the world on her own (but not too far away) I don't make them anymore.

But occasionally it would be nice to enjoy one or two of these sweet buns. I've tried a few recipes for gluten free cinnamon rolls, and they weren't bad, but the dough is always a little too dry.

On our last trip to Sprout's market, we picked up a box of Chebe Cinnamon Roll Mix, a gluten free product, for about $3.50. A 7.5 ounce box makes 12 rolls.

I followed the directions, rolling out the dough, sprinkling on the cinnamon and sugar mix (not supplied) and then rolling it up and slicing it into 1-inch sections to get the 12 count. I then, according to the directions, baked the rolls using a muffin tin at 375 degrees.

The rolls had that cinnamon roll flavor, but were dry. I wasn't really surprised. The tiny rolls were enveloped in dry heat, trapped in the deep depressions of the muffin tin. The dough had no choice but to give up the moisture.

When rolling out the dough, I barely made it to the dimensions called for on the package - an 8 in. by 12 in. rectangle. The dough then was quite thin and cracking at the edges.

Still... I think this product has potential. As I started rolling it out, the dough held together well and was moist- unusual for a gluten free dough made primarily from tapioca flour to hold up to a rolling pin.

I think I should have stopped at, say, 6 in. by 10 in. or even a little smaller, leaving the dough a little thicker. And I think I should have baked them in a baking dish or cake pan, rather than a muffin tin. And I think a temperature of 350 degrees would have been gentler on the dough.

I would rather have a smaller yield of really tasty cinnamon rolls than a larger yield of not-as-good-as-I-hoped rolls.

I'm going to try this product again, applying the modifications in the hopes of getting a good batch of cinnamon rolls out of a box. I don't mind cooking from scratch, and I will continue on my quest for a recipe for gluten free cinnamon rolls from scratch. I thought I had one a while back, but found that recipe lacked longevity as well. The next morning, the doughy treats weren't as moist and kind of rubbery. Real problem this.

I'm also going to try the recipe for cinnamon rolls on the package of Pamela's Gluten Free Bread Mix and Flour Blend. I'll let you know how that turns out.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Mad at Betty Crocker and Looking at New Ranges

Cooking and baking is a large part of my life and for that I need a good oven range. I have a freestanding electric range that has served me well for about twelve years now. But the door hinge is gone lame and so the door doesn't shut properly - which really messes with my cooking times and the consistency of the interior temperature. My cakes and cookies aren't quite right.

The coils on the cooktop are warped from age, (like so many of us) so when I put oil in a pan it all pools to one side. The pan doesn't heat evenly and so again, I am presented with uneven cooking temperatures.

Trouble is I really like this range: it has knobs for the cooktop and a digital set for the oven temps; the interior of the oven is just the right size; and it has the self-cleaning option.

But I know it only has so much time left before I have to replace it. So I've started looking and will likely get one of those new-fangled ceramic glass cooktop ranges - and will have to get a new set of pots and pans to go with it because the glass top only likes certain kinds of cookware. Geez.

So I'm going to have to spend a bunch of money on a new range and cookware. I'm wondering if there's a tax deduction in there somewhere.

And money is what brings me to my wrath against Betty Crocker. I was so utterly excited when I found that the company was producing gluten-free products I literally jumped for joy in the aisle. The cost was higher than the standard mixes, but not by much.

But now, I see in all the supermarkets and superstores the cost of Betty Crocker mixes is way up, usually $5.99 or $6.99. That may not sound like much, but when I see the standard mixes on sale at 5 for $5 - I get a little angry.

The company is well aware that gluten free products are a necessary medical treatment for those with celiac disease and gluten intolerance. And while brownies and cake may not be an essential food group, (or is it?) I still think it's kind of crappy that the products cost so much more than the counterparts.

It may be the retailers that are upping the price - I don't know. But I do know that when I first found Betty Crocker's gluten free baking mixes, they were less than $4 a box. That two or three dollar difference may not seem like much, but it's the principle, I think.

Anyway, I have to get a new range and I'm not buying so much of the Betty Crocker mixes now. So that's the life of this Contemporary Cook - Looking for a new range and Angry with Betty.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A West Indies Experience

We recently returned from a trip to Nevis, an island in the West Indies. It's a remote place; it took us three plane trips and a boat ride to reach the five star resort where we lived the fabled lives of the 'One Percent'.

We stayed at the Four Season, a resort hotel that includes two pools, a first-class golf course, tennis courts and hiking trails. There's an onsite spa, and the Swedish massage is just the right activity after a day of swimming and hiking.

There are plenty of restaurants and bars, and everyone drinks rum punch, wine and Carib, the local beer. But you can get Bud Light as well.

The food is fabulous, of course. The first night we attended a reception -the trip was a business trip, so such meetings were part of the package. As everyone sipped pink-colored rum punch and heady red wine, servers dressed in understated floral button down shirts and pale brown skirts moved through the outdoor restaurant with trays of appetizers.

I didn't really know what it was I was eating, but I recognized shrimp, spinach puffs of some kind, chicken with a very, very spicy dip, and skewered pork and pineapple.

As I said, the food is fabulous, but I believe most of what we enjoyed was somewhat 'adjusted' in flavors and textures from what the locals actually eat. I was expecting goat meat (in fact I looked forward to it) but what we actually ate was pasta, pizza, and sandwiches.

My husband described the pizza at the Neve restaurant as "Very good, almost as good as Wolfgang Puck's in Vegas."

Two of the restaurants, Coral Grill and Mango, offer local fare, but again, I don't think it reflects what the locals eat. As one attendee of our party said, "I'd like to go into town and offer someone one hundred dollars to fix me a meal like they would eat."

The highlights of this trip for my husband and me were the hiking, the jeep tour through the island, and the spa. The food, while perfectly prepared and scrumptious, was high-end sustenance, and well-suited to the tourist palette.

So, I did what any curious foodie would do. I bought a local cookbook, "A Taste of the Caribbean", written by expatriate Angela Spenceley. The Caribbean islands have a spicy and tantalizing flavor profile, and the overall diet is actually quite heart-friendly and vegetarian friendly. I'll be cooking up some of those recipes, and posting the results here. Then- We be jammin'!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Paula Deen: Poster Girl for Diet Related Disease

Unhealthy foods, such as the fat-and-sugar-filled dishes brought to you by the oh-so-southern Paula Deen, contribute to diet related diseases such as heart disease, hypertension and type 2 diabetes. It came as no real surprise to the foodie world that Paula Deen has type 2 diabetes.

One of the instigating factors in this disease is a high level of fats in the body: When you eat a lot of fat, a lot of sugar, and get very little exercise, you are at risk for type 2 diabetes.

Paula Deen was diagnosed with the disease three years ago, and continued to promote the high fat, high sugar style of cooking that earned her her place in the celebrity chef arena.

She claims that she has continually promoted moderation, though frankly, I can't ever remember hearing that word from her mouth as she added yet another stick of butter to the pot.

Paula Deen has built her culinary empire on fat and sugar. And no true capitalist can fault her for protecting that empire. But much like a sports figure caught with cocaine or molesting young women, loudly proclaiming he is no role model for his fans, Paula Deen is proclaiming that she is not to be held accountable for others who indulge in too much fat and sugar.

She's also saying that her moderation mantra gives her leave to continue indulging in fat and sugar - just not as much of it. After all, she did give up sweet tea, and if she just eats smaller slices of pecan pie and a little less of that burger in a donut - and takes her meds for which she is now a spokesperson- everything will be just fine.

Perhaps. But Paula Deen is overweight to the point of border obesity, and so is her husband. It's the obesity that is directly linked to type 2 diabetes, and she's had three years to address that issue. I know it's not easy, and she may not be able to lose much of that weight without more extreme measures, but that for three years she continued to tell her fans that every dish deserves a stick of butter and a cup of sugar - that's on her.

Paula Deen is the poster child for diet related disease. And that's too bad, because she knows her way around a kitchen, but she chooses to use her culinary powers for evil, rather than good.