Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Make Food, Make Memories

My oldest child's fifteenth birthday has come and gone, and for her special day she requested the meal she always requests: Soy Sauce Chicken. In cookbooks you may come across this as "Red-Cooked Chicken," but let's be honest--it's more brown than red, and the brown is the brown of soy sauce. I'd include a picture here, except that Soy Sauce Chicken is not particularly photogenic. I remember bringing it to a potluck once, and another of the guests commenting, "I'm guessing it tastes better than it looks."

The reason I bring up my daughter's homely favorite is that I'm a big believer not only in family meals, but also in family recipes. Specialties that only mom or dad or grandma or Aunt So-and-So make properly, and that we have only eaten in the context of family. There's a reason that, every time I visit my mom, I beg and wheedle for her pot stickers, chow mein, and scallion pancakes. There's a reason that, whenever we visit my in-laws, Rita produces her macaroni salad and Jell-O salad and even Navajo tacos.

Not Rita's Navajo Tacos, but the same idea []
Along these lines of family foods and memories, I just read a wonderful memoir that will be debuting on August 14:

Having very much enjoyed Flinn's The Kitchen-Counter Cooking School, I was anxious to get my hands on this one, and it did not disappoint. Flinn's big, adventurous family didn't have it easy, but what they lacked in money they more than made up in love, joy, and food. I never thought I'd come across a family grandpa who did worse than my husband's--a fellow who abandoned a wife and six children during the Depression--but Flinn's grandpa actually one-ups good old Ray! The author recounts stories from multiple generations and both sides of the family, each chapter ending with a family recipe. Humorous,wistful, and moving, I highly recommend this book and am hoping Philip from Readers to Eaters will carry it in future. (N.B., Philip will be there this Thursday Market, with his wonderful display of food-oriented books! Ask him for his current favorites.)

One curious thing that has happened in our country, and that happened in Flinn's own family, was that, as money and convenience foods became more readily available, the putting-by of food and home-cooking-to-save-money practices fell by the wayside. Flinn's family canned and preserved like Armageddon lay ahead--mostly because the summer bounty of their Michigan farm was free or almost free, and it was expected to feed the family as long as humanly possible the rest of the year. And now to think that these economical stand-bys now equal the most expensive of foods! All because canning and preserving are becoming lost arts, we are now willing to fork over $8-10 for a jar of jam or pickles! (I include myself in that number, since I neither can nor preserve but love when someone else does.)

The good thing about family food traditions is that it's never too late to start one. Family favorites are no more, after all, than food everyone in the family enjoys having on a regular basis. Taco Tuesdays count. So do Pizza-and-a-Movie Nights. But how much more special and irreplaceable are those memories when the foods are cooked by loving hands from the best and freshest ingredients?

My daughter's beloved Soy Sauce Chicken is still my mother's recipe, but I've added my own variations, replacing the mass-market chicken with pastured Market chicken, the vegetables with Market vegetables, and the eggs with Market eggs. Because why not be comforting, delicious, and wholesome? (As always, Market ingredients marked with an asterisk.)

Soy Sauce Chicken
4 scallions,* chopped
1 cup sherry
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 cup water
3/4 cup soy sauce
1 whole chicken,* cut into pieces 
1 bunch radishes,* stems removed
3 carrots,* cut in chunks
6-8 eggs,* boiled and peeled 

Combine sauce ingredients and bring to a boil. Add chicken and vegetables, return to boil. Then cover, reduce heat to Low, and simmer 45 minutes. Turn chicken occasionally to color. After 45 minutes, add eggs, pushing them down into the sauce to color. Simmer another 45 minutes.

Serve over rice or noodles. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Diet Pendulum

Last Thursday, when I was buying my dozen farm-fresh eggs from Gray Sky Farm, another customer was bemoaning the fact that she couldn't eat as many eggs as she liked "because of the cholesterol." Remember that dietary advice? That, if you had to have eggs, better make it egg whites because of the cholesterol.

Gray Sky chickens gathering for some Chaco Canyon Cafe leftovers
I tried to give her the ten-second argument for why eggs are back on the menu, based on "the latest studies" and what I'd read in The Big Fat Surprise, but I don't blame her if she tuned me out. With the diet pendulum always swinging back and forth--fat/no fat, carbs/no carbs, etc./no etc.--who can keep up? Or, if they keep up, who can rein in their skepticism?

It may interest you to know, however, that the eating-cholesterol-raises-cholesterol theory was laid to rest in 1952(!) and has stayed dead in further studies. One telling quote from Nina Teicholz's book:
...When Uffe Ravnskov, a Swedish doctor, upped his consumption of eggs from one to eight per day (about 1600 mg of cholesterol) for nearly a week, he made the remarkable discovery that his total cholesterol level went fact, eating two to three eggs a day over a long period of time has never been shown to have more than a minimal impact on serum cholesterol for the vast majority of people.
Never mind that, as Teicholz goes on to discuss, cholesterol levels don't even correlate with heart disease and the suite of Western diseases, unless you're talking small-particle LDL.

What does this mean for us?

Buy that dozen eggs. Heck--buy two dozen!

Teicholz goes on to laud the wonders of animal fats in a convincing way, full of plenty of studies, facts, figures, and so on, and I gleefully went back to frying in bacon fat and butter. She isn't the only one calling for the return of meat and whole dairy and animal fat in general. Remember how I said I'd take a look at Wheat Belly?

Well, I did. (You can read the full review on Goodreads.) Dr. Davis begins his beef with the hybrid wheats grown in America. (They aren't GMO, since they've developed these wheats the old-fashioned way, crossing different breeds to get the traits they want.) You name it, wheat causes it: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, GI issues, Celiac--acne, for crying out loud! Why does it seem like every new book blames everything wrong with the world on one thing, be it wheat, sugar, transfats, what-have-you?

The doctor's orders? Cut the wheat. But not only the wheat. Cut carbs, basically. Not only breads and pastas and cookies, but also "most fruit," black beans and pinto beans--I would name more forbidden items except that he lost me at black beans. Are you kidding me? Who could keep to such a diet, unless they were deathly allergic or at death's door?

Here's the problem #1 with most diet advice: it's unsustainable. Yes, you can do protein shakes for two weeks, but you sure can't do it for life. Yes, you can cut most carbs for weeks, but you sure can't do it for life.

Here's problem #2: you become a pain in the hindquarters when people want to feed you. I'm a firm believer in food bringing families and communities together. Barring food allergies, asking your hosts to accommodate your latest dietary endeavors is not fun. I had this problem when I read The Year of No Sugar. Man, was that family a nuisance! They weren't giving up sugar for any reason, as far as I could see, except to get a book contract, but everyone around them had to jump through hoops.

Here's problem #3: most diets are crazy expensive. Whether you have to buy the signature foods or whether you're going Paleo on your own. I don't see how going mostly-meat is even possible for the average wallet or for the planet. Dr. Davis claims you eat less on proteins and fats, and I believe he's probably right, but you still have to eat something, and that something is pretty pricey, when not supplemented by carbs.

[Climbing down off soapbox.]

Dr. Davis argues that abstinence is easier than allowing yourself tiny amounts because the carbs have an addictive element, and the man has a point. Every year when we do Sugar-Free January, I find going cold turkey way easier than having one dessert a week, but does this have to apply to fruit and black beans???

All that said, my family will continue to eat sandwiches, fruit, black beans, and the occasional sweet treat, along with our Market eggs and meat and cheese. If I have to give up something food-related, I think first in line would be the chemicals and additives found in processed food, but even that rule is flexible. If someone lovingly prepares me Hamburger Helper, salad from a bag, and brownies from a mix, I will say thank-you and enjoy...