Category Archives: Food for Thought

Red Meat, White Lies

In Old English times, the term “meat” meant any edible food.  During the medieval period this definition narrowed to only land animals. This inevitably arose out of religious dictums forbidding consumption of certain land animals on particular days of observance.  Some maintain that definition today and some take it a step further, employing the term “meat” to denote only red meat, e.g., beef or lamb.  It’s astounding how arbitrary our definitions of things are.  Even more fascinating, a capricious definition, as opposed to the true nature of the entity, can wield tremendous influence over peoples’ reaction to it.   Somehow society has generated a conception of red meat as bad and white meat as good.  The pork industry, endeavoring to capitalize on this misguided, health-crazed vilification of red meat, now purports pork as the “new white meat”. 

By definition, meat is animal flesh, any animal, particularly its muscular tissue.  I emphasize the muscular structure because with the exception of organ meats, when you eat beef, chicken, pork, lamb, venison, fish, snails, crabs, or even a rattlesnake, you are consuming the muscular structure of that animal. 

 Nevertheless, current dichotomous thinking distinguishes “meat” from non-meat by color.  Red meat is red because of myoglobin, an iron containing protein that transfers oxygen from the blood to the muscles of the animal.  Muscles which are used more will contain more myoglobin, (since they require more oxygen), and will be redder or darker in color.  Take chicken for example.  A chicken uses its legs far more than its breast muscles and hence, they are darker.  Moreover, there are different kinds of myoglobin and some are redder than others.  pH, (a measure of acidity vs. alkalinity), also affects meat color.  Beef is redder than pork because of the amount and types of myoglobin and the pH.  And these chemical differences are not good or bad, healthy or unhealthy. 

 For those that define “meat” as only red meat, color is only the surface discriminator.  The underlying differentiator is usually fat content and cardiovascular health.  The whole fat issue and its relation to health is a complex web whose spider is fat-phobia.  There are many types of fats, (polyunsaturated, saturated, monosaturated, trans fatty acids, etc.), which in turn have a variety of effects on the body.  The average person doesn’t take the time to learn all the details.  It’s easier to just lump “fat” into one generic concept and then avoid it like the plague, hence, fat-phobia. 

Polyunsaturated fat, monosaturated fat, and Omega-3 fatty acids have been purported to reduce cholesterol, and possibly prevent cancer and lower blood pressure.  Saturated fat is the fat that can raise cholesterol levels. 

 Thus, it is not the fat content per se of any particular meat that is important, but the amount of saturated fat.  According to a study from the Archives of Internal Medicine, (Vol. 159, June 28, 1999, p. 1331-1338), subjects consuming lean red meat and subjects consuming only white meat, had no differences in their cholesterol levels.  This was because the discrepancy in their saturated fat intake was too small to make a difference on their serum cholesterol levels.  (Three ounces of round steak has about 3 grams of saturated fat while three ounces of skinless chicken breast has one). 

 On a grander scale was a meta-analysis by Harvard researchers.  They reviewed 20 studies involving over 1.2 million people from 10 countries, and found no increase in risk for heart disease amongst those who consumed unprocessed red meat, namely, raw, unadulterated beef, lamb or pork.  The hot dog, bacon, and lunch meat crowd however, did not fare as well.  http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/press-releases/processed-meats-unprocessed-heart-disease-diabetes/

In any event, while some cuts of meat are higher in saturated fat, all red meat is high in protein, iron, B vitamins, zinc, choline, and selenium, a mineral implicated in preventing cancer and improving cardiovascular health.  Ounce for ounce beef has twice the thiamine and riboflavin, three times the iron, five times the zinc, and seven times the B12 of chicken.  Beef also contains conjugated linoleic acid, (CLA), which has inhibited cancer growth in laboratory animals.  Half of the fat in beef is monosaturated fat, (like olive oil), which has been hailed as having many health benefits.  Less than half of the total fat in beef is saturated fat and one third of it is stearic acid, a particular saturated fat that has no effect on cholesterol. 

  Now granted, if your goal is to lose weight, all fats are equally high in calories.  Even I would recommend leaner cuts and in moderation.  But if your concern is heart disease, keep in mind though that numerous other factors, other than fat, play a role.  Most physicians agree that genetic makeup is a significant determinant.  Some people’s biochemistry will produce higher amounts of cholesterol no matter what they eat.  Conversely, we all know individuals who have ate rich diets, engaged in other risky practices and lived to a ripe old age.  Genes are a whimsical and unfair bestowment of fate.

 Genetics aside, your age, sex, physical activity, stress, weight, substance use, environmental pollutants, personality, and other medical conditions, all influence whether you’ll be visiting a cardiologist someday.  Yet I’ve met individuals who ignore many controllable factors, who smoke or drink to excess, and yet incessantly monitor their dietary fat.  Unfortunately, all the fish and vegetables in the world will not save you if genetics are not on your side and you’re ignoring all of the other variables. 

 In summary, our beliefs about certain foods, which in turn drive our behaviors, are often arbitrarily influenced by socio-cultural factors, dietary fads, advertising, misinformation, ignorance, etc.  Although excessive fat consumption may pose some health risks, our society has elevated its malevolence to a disproportionate degree.  Meat is not poison.  It is a nutritious food that can be salubriously consumed in moderation.

Turn the Dial to Broil

chefBroiling is a dry heat method of cooking whereby a radiant energy source is located directly above the food.  In other words, the food is underneath the heat.  Many people refer to broiling as “upside-down grilling” but that’s not completely accurate.  To understand why we must discuss the ways heat is transferred to food. 

Convection is when heat is transmitted via moving currents of liquid or gas.  Thus, when you bake or roast something in your oven, the circulating hot air surrounding the food performs the cooking.  Conduction is when heat is transferred through direct contact from the cooking vessel to the food.  Turn on your frying pan, fill it with bacon, and the heat is conveyed directly from the flame, to the pan, to the bacon.  Boiling is a combination of both.  The food cooks from direct contact with the water, (conduction), and from the circulation of the water, (convection).  Finally food can be cooked by radiant heat, a.k.a., infrared radiation.  Such is the case with broiling.  Here the food is in close proximity to the heat source but not touching it.  Grilling is not pure infrared radiation.  You certainly achieve radiant heat from the nearby coals or gas flame, but you are also cooking via conduction, since the food is actually touching the grates.  Therefore, and I know I’m being a little pedantic here; broiling is cooking via infrared radiation while grilling is a combination of infrared radiation and conduction.  Whew!  Glad we got that out of the way.

With the exception of the tiny thermal technicality I just outlined, everything else about grilling and broiling is the same.  Because broiling is a dry heat method, only tender cuts of meat are suitable.  You would never broil a pot roast, lamb shank, or beef brisket.  They would become even tougher. Cuts from the rib and loin of our four-legged friends are best suited for broiling.  Fish, shellfish, vegetables and chicken are also good candidates.  You should also never broil a thick cut of meat, even if it is of the tender variety.  Broiling is very intense heat and fast cooking.  If the piece of food is too thick, the exterior will be burnt by the time the center is cooked.  So ixnay to the on-the-bone chicken breast.  Do boneless breasts instead.  Conversely, if the piece of food is too thin, you’ll obliterate it.  Stay under an inch in thickness but not as thin as a cutlet. 

Of course, this all depends on the quality of your oven.  I’ve cooked in ovens that had a wimpy broiler.  The food never develops that sear like you obtain on a grill or by sautéing.  If your kitchen is vitiated by such an oven, use an alternative method.  Searing the food creates strong flavor.  A broiler that falls short in the heat intensity department will shortchange your taste buds.

The basic broiling method is as follows:  First, make sure your broiler has completely preheated.  If you start the food in a cold oven and turn on the broiler, the food will not properly sear.  And by the time it does it will have overcooked from the prolonged and gradually escalating thermal trip.  Next, lightly brush the food with oil.  This will add flavor, help prevent sticking, and facilitate the production of a uniform sear.  Then season the food with salt, pepper, and whatever other spices you wish to use.  If you’re not planning on making a sauce from whatever drippings accrue in the pan, you can cover the broiler pan with aluminum foil for easy cleaning.  Place the food on the pan and then into the broiler.  Four inches from the heat source is usually sufficient.  Keep a close eye on it.  As soon as the first side is browned, flip it.  The second side will not take as long since the food is partially cooked at this stage.  Remove when the second side has browned. pots

BROILED PORK CHOPS WITH HARICOT VERT

Haricot Vert are tender French string beans.  Use regular string beans if your supermarket doesn’t carry them.

4 center cut pork chops

Olive oil as needed

Rosemary, chopped, as needed

Salt and pepper to taste

4 oz. dry white wine

4 oz. beef or veal stock

1 bay leaf

4 cloves garlic, chopped, (divided)

Gastric, as needed, (see recipe below)

6 oz haricot vert

3 shallots, chopped

Preheat the broiler.  Brush the chops with oil and sprinkle with rosemary, salt, and pepper.  Do not cover the pan with foil.  Broil until desired doneness.  Remove the chops and cover with foil to rest and stay warm.  Place the broiler pan on top of the stove and turn the heat up to high.  Deglaze the pan with white wine, and then add stock, bay leaf, some additional rosemary, two cloves of the garlic, and reduce for a minute or two.  Add two oz. of the gastric. Continue to reduce and taste, adding more gastric if necessary.  Strain the sauce before serving.  Sauté the haricot vert with the shallots in olive oil until almost tender.  Add the remaining cloves of garlic toward the end and season with salt and pepper.   

GASTRIC:

4 oz sugar

½ cup white wine vinegar

Heat the sugar in a saucepan until it melts and turns a pale brown.  Add vinegar and cook until sugar has completely dissolved and is incorporated into the vinegar. 

 

 

Wine & Dine

Ordering wine in a fine restaurant can be intimidating and confusing to say the least.  Perusing a typical wine list can be as daunting as the instructions of a do-it-yourself project.  There are three variables that may work for or against you when ordering wine in a restaurant:  the wine list itself, the restaurant staff, and your own level of expertise.

The key elements of a wine list are the extent of its selections, the manner in which it’s organized, and the prices.  Generally speaking, the fancier and more expensive the establishment, the larger the wine list.  While a more comprehensive list provides greater choices, it simultaneously offers greater confusion.  Instead of there being one Chianti in your price range, now there are seven.  Which one do you choose?  Suddenly price alone is not an effective discriminator.  This is where your own expertise, or if you’re not that savvy about wine, your willingness to seek guidance from the staff comes into play.

How the list is organized will determine its user-friendliness.  Most lists are first divided into red and white wines.  If the list is more extensive there may also be sections for champagnes, dessert wines, or ports.  Unless it’s a small list, the red and white sections will be further subdivided into countries, e.g., American reds, American whites, French reds, French whites, etc.

A thorough list should contain:  1) the name of each wine and/or the producer, 2) the vintage, and 3) the price.  The name of the wine and who produced it are not always one in the same.  French wines for example are often named after where they are made, not who made them.  The wine list may contain a Pommard, (a specific village in Burgundy), but any of hundreds of producers, with varying degrees of skill, could have made the actual wine.  If the list omits the producer’s name your ability to make an informed decision has been curtailed.  This is assuming of course, that you are knowledgeable about some of the more reliable producers.

I’ve never encountered a wine list that did not have prices, but it’s amazing how many times I’ve seen them without vintages.  Just last night I had dinner in an upscale Italian restaurant where the wine list was devoid of vintages, (and the server equally devoid of knowledge about vintages).  I find this unfathomable.  The year the wine was made is one of the fundamental elements in discerning its quality, especially for European wines.  There can be significant differences in quality from one year to the next.  If you’re interested in learning more about wine it will behoove you to know the recent vintages.

The last aspect of the wine list is price.  Expect to pay two to three times the store price for a bottle of wine in a restaurant.  Dissolve yourself of the fear of looking cheap.  Never succumb to spending more than you planned due to the staff’s persuasions.  If you ask the server for a recommendation, inform him or her of your price range.  If you’re lucky, the wine list may contain a small description of each wine but this is not standard practice.  Thus, if you desire more information about a specific wine, are unfamiliar with the good producers or vintages, or you’re trying to choose from one of those seven Chiantis, you are now at the mercy of the restaurant staff.

Top of the line restaurants will have a sommelier (saw-muh-LYAY), the resident wine expert.  If you’re dining at such an establishment, then you’ll be in good hands.  Sommeliers are not only skilled in wine but customer service.  A good sommelier will never intimidate you but make every effort to match you with the right wine based on your needs.  Seek their assistance without hesitation.

However, few of us are dining in four-star French restaurants on a regular basis.   If you need guidance at your standard eatery it’s a crapshoot.  Your server may not be any more knowledgeable about wine than you but you should still ask.  Many people are leery of soliciting advice for fear of looking ignorant about wine.  You have nothing to be ashamed of.  You don’t have to be a wine expert just because you want to go out for dinner.  You’re the customer, you’re paying the bill, and you have a right to seek information.

Then of course, is the ritual of the wine presentation.  Your server will first display the bottle to you.  This is for you to ensure you received the wine you ordered.  Don’t just nod your head.  Check the bottle.  I have been served the wrong wine or the wrong vintage on more than one occasion.  Next, you’ll be presented with the cork.  This is for you to inspect it to determine whether the cork is good.  About 5% of wines have corks that have become infected with a fungus.  When this is the case the wine is said to be “corked” or “corky.”  You’ll know because the cork will have an unmistakably moldy smell, like wet cardboard.  Naturally this affects the wine.  If the cork does not smell like wine, but has any off aromas, send the bottle back.

The final step is tasting the small sample the waiter pours into your glass.  This is your last chance to determine the wine’s quality.  The degree to which you care for the wine will vary on your personal taste, but if it tastes bad, genuinely bad, as if something is wrong with it, send it back.

chef

No Substitutions Please

Are you one of those people who frequently request substitutions when ordering meals in restaurants? You know who you are. All you “sauce-on-the-siders,” ingredient changers, and “can-you-make-mine-steamed” freaks. And if you’re not switching ingredients or cooking methods then you’re deleting them: no anchovies, no cheese, no dressing, no mushrooms, no this, no that, etc. Or, the worse kind, the patrons who reinvent the dish: “Uh, instead of the cognac cream sauce on the steak can you make me a bordelaise?”

The antithesis of these individuals are the restaurants that will not allow any substitutions. Many will note “no substitutions” on the menu. While most restaurants will expend some effort to accommodate their guests, these ultra-rigid establishments have drawn a line in the sand on the shores of menu augmentation.

Well, the proverbial coin has two sides. On the customer’s side, individual palates vary for a plethora of reasons. Factors such as biology, psychology, and previous food experiences all contribute to the
diversity in human taste preferences. Now throw in weight loss restrictions, medical ailments that affect diet, religious prescriptions against certain foods, and individual idiosyncrasies, and you have a ponderous amalgamation of forces destined to cause the person and the menu to clash. And why shouldn’t the patron have things his or her way? They are paying for it after all. Why should someone have to spend money to eat their food the way someone else intended?

Flip the coin. Because substitutions are a pain-in-the-ass and disruptive to the flow of service. Working in a restaurant is much like being on a fast-paced, non-stop assembly line. There is an incessant stream of orders and a very narrow window for you to churn out your link in the chain on time. Your particular steps in the process are not that varied but they are overwhelmingly repetitive and relentless. To adapt, the mind habituates to the task. Chefs and servers work on “automatic” most of the time. Your seemingly simple request to substitute onions for the tomatoes on the salad sends ripples through the previously seamless flow. The server must retain your request on paper or in his memory. He or she must then inform the cooking staff. The cook must retain that information until the time comes for him to prepare your dish. Finally, he must enact a different set of motions to implement the change. And your request is one drop of water in a sea of tasks, (and other special requests), being performed simultaneously. Even a simple alteration is deranging to this rehearsed concentration. Think about how many times you’ve asked for extra lemon with your tea, no mayo on your sandwich, or this instead of that and didn’t get it. You’re left wondering why they can’t remember such a basic command. It’s because they’re so used to not doing it that way.

Some solicitations are even more complex such as asking for an ingredient that the restaurant has, but is not on the menu. Inevitably this product hasn’t been prepped since there was no anticipation of using it. Now it must be fabricated, (washed, trimmed, cut, etc.), in order to prepare it for cooking. These requests definitely throw a monkey wrench into the assembly line. Now other guests may receive their food later because of your special needs. Finally, there are requests that just can’t be done on a moment’s notice such as whipping up a bordelaise sauce.

But, I believe there are times when these inconveniences are merely the surface, albeit plausible, explanations for a restaurant’s resistance to substitutions. I believe the real reason, especially in establishments allowing no substitutions, is the chef’s ego. Insecure chefs are far more likely to personalize a patron’s special request and be affronted that their creation is not being appreciated as is. They fail to appreciate that the customer’s whims are not an appraisal of their food or culinary skills, but are a manifestation of their own strivings, i.e., the aforementioned medical, psychological, and religious influences on food choices. The “no-substitution” chef’s ego is undermining common sense and sound business management. This is a no-brainer folks. Which restaurant will you return to, the one that meets your needs or the one that staunchly refuses?

So, to invoke my trademark phrase, where does all this leave us? Well, balance is always in the middle. So is compromise. Customers are paying the bill and thus, have some right to have things their way. But if you’re a little too picky, have a little consideration for the extra demands on the restaurant staff and the subsequent effects on other diner’s meals. For chefs, the restaurant is not just a showcase for their creative culinary talent; it is their livelihood. And like it or not this is a customer service business. Approximately 60% of restaurants will go belly up in three years. Inflexible, temperamental chefs have a choice of cooperating with patrons’ reasonable requests or making a substitution of their own: their ego for bankruptcy proceedings.

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By: Mark R. Vogel, Epicure1@optonline.net

A Monarch and a Pear Tree

The twelve days of Christmas are a traditional festive period beginning on Christmas Day and ending on the Epiphany on January 6th. The time-honored custom of celebrating the entire twelve day span has been all but lost in modern times. According to the popular Christmas carol, on the first day of Christmas the beloved was presented with a partridge in a pear tree. Sure beats a sweater. Ineluctably the words of the song were never meant literally but embody symbolism. One interpretation of the partridge and pear tree for example, is that it is a simulacrum for Christ and the cross.

Turning our attention to a more secular sovereign, King Henry III of England, (1207-1272) was an aficionado of pears. England was importing them from France during his reign but Henry, and his wife Eleanor of Provence, took it a step further by abetting their propagation. They planted many pear trees in their extensive gardens. Interestingly, and ironically, Henry failed to reestablish English control over a number of regions of France, one being Anjou, (now called Maine-et-Loire), the namesake of a very popular variety of pear.

Pears originated in Asia where they grew wildly in prehistoric times. They have been cultivated in China for approximately 3,000 years. They were known to the Greeks but were more popular with the Romans who also played a role in their proliferation. The actual word pear first came into English usage in the 16th century. Today there are over 5,000 species of pears, thanks to selective cultivation. France, South Africa, Australia, Argentina and America are all significant pear producers. In the US, the major pear states are California, Oregon and Washington.

Depending on the variety, pear season begins in July and extends through January. Thus they are a classic fall and winter favorite. Pears improve in flavor and texture after they are picked. Choose specimens that are free of any undue blemishes or notable soft spots and/or bruises. Allow them to ripen at room temperature and then refrigerate them if you are not promptly consuming them. Pears contain dietary fiber, vitamin A, phosphorous, potassium and small amounts of vitamin C.

Pears, like many fruits, can be consumed raw or cooked. They are an ideal choice for poaching, particularly in red wine with cinnamon, cloves, and other fall spices. They are also a good choice for a compote, a preparation of fresh or dried diced fruit, cooked in sugar, syrup and spices. The compote is then used as a garnish, sauce, topping, etc., on both savory and sweet dishes. Pears can be paired, (sorry I couldn’t resist), with savory dishes such as roast duck or pork loin. But it is undeniably the dessert realm where they shine. Tarts, sorbets, ice creams, mousses, and charlottes (a molded dessert made with sponge cake or ladyfingers, and filled with fruit and custard), are all good avenues for pears.

Use slightly firmer pears when cooking them to prevent them from becoming mushy. After peeling and cutting pears, if they are not being immediately added to the dish, or if you have a number to peel and cut, sprinkle them with acidulated water or lemon juice to prevent them from browning.

Bartlett pears are the most common in the US. they can be red or green. They are sweet and juicy and good either cooked or raw. Likewise for Anjou pears except their external color is usually redder. Bosc pears are brownish in color, have a slightly grainier texture and are a little less sweet. They are a good choice for baking and poaching since they hold their shape better. Asian pears range in size and color, from brown to yellow-green. They’re a little crunchy and amazingly juicy. Seckel pears are reddish brown, have a spicier flavor, and are not as popular for eating fresh. Their firmness renders them better candidates for cooking and canning. Comice pears are larger, rounder pears, yellow-green to yellow-red, very sweet, and best eaten fresh.

Pear & Gorgonzola Crostini
12 slices of bread from a French baguette
(or other long narrow loaf)
Olive oil, as needed
1 pear, peeled, cored and chopped
Lemon juice, as needed
1 cup crumbled gorgonzola cheese
2 tablespoons heavy cream
¼ cup chopped walnuts
4 slices of bacon, cooked well done
and crumbled

Preheat the oven to 375º. Slice the bread into 12 crostini and drizzle with olive oil. Bake until golden brown. Chop the pears and immediately stir them with the lemon juice in a bowl to prevent them from browning. Mix in the remaining ingredients. Spoon the mixture over the crostini and serve.

By: Mark R. Vogel, Epicure1@optonline.net