Rethinking Fat, Sugar, and Salt.

photo credit | gourmetmetricsphoto credit | gourmetmetrics

The corona virus pandemic has sent us to our homes and forced us to cook. No one knows yet how many will continue once pandemic policies are relaxed, but some will. If you are one of those hungry folks who only recently has discovered the joys of cooking, please read on.

Being new to cooking probably means you grew up in a culture that measures healthy in nutrients. Nutrients like fiber and protein are good. Nutrients like fat, sugar, and salt / sodium are bad. Food is fuel and energy is measured in calories. Superfoods like cauliflower or kale make headlines but nutrients and calories remain the dominant metric for measuring healthy. 

I know all this because I get paid to run nutrition stats for websites, book editors, and federally sponsored institutional foodservice.

These nutrient centric one size fits all guidelines were built with the best of intentions on a foundation of sameness, similarity, conformity, and uniformity. And that is the reason why so many food focused folks like chefs, food writers, and home cooks have problems with the guidelines.

Flavor is what counts at their table. They know for instance that roasted cauliflower is more delicious than steamed cauliflower. They know fat carries flavor and salt is a powerful flavor enhancer. 

As a home cook and RDN, I too am critical of the guidelines. My views are divergent, divergence being the rejection of sameness, similarity, conformity, and uniformity. I was lucky. Growing up in California meant eating fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables all year long. Living in France for several years meant honing my cooking skills and developing my culinary palate. I learned to eat before I started my nutrition studies so I knew what delicious tasted like before I learned how to count nutrients and calories.

Having one foot in nutrition stats and the other in home cooking gives me a unique perspective because I know down to the gram and the milligram when the meals at my table are guideline compliant and when they are not. From a nutrient compliance perspective, my pattern is mixed.

Detailed below are some stats I ran before the pandemic. The stats reflect aggregate nutrient values for the meals I cook at home.

✅Sodium is a nutrient to avoid and salt enhances flavor.  Because I cook from scratch and salt to taste, sodium is within acceptable range. 

✅Fiber is a beneficial nutrient. Because we eat so many vegetables and legumes, fresh seasonal fruits and whole grains, fiber is always well represented at my table.

✅Sugar is the new toxic nutrient. Natural sugars appear on my table as fresh seasonal fruit. Added sugars appear as home baked cookies, my signature pumpkin pie, or some of my other favorite home baked desserts. Sugar is within acceptable range.

✅Protein is adequate to meet nutrition need and comes from both animal and plant sources. Our portions are guideline compliant but smaller than what most of my fellow Americans expect to see on the plate.

❌Fat used to be the toxic nutrient. And my pattern has been consistently out of compliance for 25 years. My stats reflect calories from total fat is 35% to 40%. Our Dietary Guidelines set a 35% limit and the most recent World Health Organization Guidelines set a 30% limit. Olive oil is central to my cooking and is considered a healthy fat but I have a very generous hand. Milk and cheese are full fat. Nuts are part of our daily pattern. 

Being a registered dietitian and deciding to follow a divergent pathway puts me in an awkward position. If I were willing to reduce my use of olive oil, to use fat free dairy, to eat more carbs, and to develop a taste for skinless boneless chicken breast, my pattern would be optimal. Since I’ve never felt comfortable telling others to follow guidance I don’t follow myself, I prefer working in recipe analysis.

The stats I run for institution foodservice and book editors are nutrient focused because nutrients remain the standard protocol. But things are changing.

Nutrition science is wicked hard. Truth be told, significant disagreement currently exists among nutrition researchers about what is and is not healthy. The old nutrient focused paradigm that I learned in the early 1990s is cracking at the foundation. Seismic shifts are traumatic. The ground needs to stabilize before a new foundation can be built. Something will coalesce but no one knows yet, when a new paradigm takes form, if we’ll be counting nutrients or foods or patterns or all three.

Culinary divergence in a nutrient obsessed food world is stressful, liberating, and in my humble opinion necessary.

Stressful because we want to do the right thing but we’re not sure yet what the right thing is. Liberating because we have more freedom to be creative and to experiment. Necessary because we need to put the joy back in eating.

These are exciting times to be writing about food and nutrition. These are also exciting time to be learning how to cook.

 

Rethinking Healthy

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

Here’s the menu for a delicious, somewhat indulgent celebration meal I shared with family and friends in December. 

The meal reflects my kind of healthy. At least my kind of healthy before I decided to become a dietitian and learned how to measure healthy in grams of fat.

Over the last three decades we’ve been taught that palatability and healthy are polar opposites. Stealth health is a term still used today with regard to food. In other words, many people still believe that if food is obviously healthy, it’s not to be trusted.

That polar divide dates back to the 1990s. Research was going on prior to that date linking dietary fat to heart issues, but implementation didn’t happen until 1990.

That was the year congress passed the NLEA (Nutrition Labeling and Education Act). I was totally unaware that anything important had happened when I started my nutrition studies in 1993, the same year the Nutrition Facts Label appeared on packaged products. Buried under layers of regulatory cement, the new law contained austere nutrient-based criteria for healthy. Initially, the criteria were only applicable to packaged goods but by the end of the decade, the damage was done and the word healthy was successfully redefined as low fat.

The only items on my Christmas menu that qualify as healthy using these austere criteria are the baguette, the steamed rice, and the clementines. 

Low-fat is healthy dominated the first decade of this century. According to NBC news, when a group of researchers set out to understand the views of executives at major U.S. restaurant chains regarding the addition of healthy options to their menus, they were able to determine why by ensuring anonymity to the executive’s interview.

“If we put something on the menu and say it’s healthy, it’s the kiss of death,” one executive told the researchers.

The kiss of death was not limited to restaurant food. The first time I ran numbers on a mix of fresh mesclun with vinaigrette dressing, I discovered to my horror that my salad couldn’t qualify as healthy either. Too much fat. And too much saturated fat.  Olive oil has a higher fraction of saturated fatty acids than walnut or avocado or some of the other wonderful oils that can be used for a vinaigrette. In other words, my salad was even more unhealthy because I used olive oil.

Healthy as low-fat remained set in regulatory cement for 25 years. In 2015, however, something happened. That was the year the FDA sent a warning letter to the manufacturer of KIND BARS.

Most of the errors were minor technicalities except for one major misbranding error. The FDA requested that the manufacturer remove the word healthy from the label. The bars identified were made with nuts and because nuts are high in fat, the gram values exceeded those austere criteria set back in 1990.

KIND BARS complied but decided to file a citizen’s petition asking the FDA to re-evaluate. And the FDA agreed. The agency acknowledged the science related to recommendations for intake of dietary fats had evolved and, as per a 2016 guidance document, stated its intention to exercise enforcement discretion on an interim basis shifting the focus away from limiting total fat to encouraging unsaturated fats.

Et voilà. With the stroke of a bureaucratic pen, my menu got healthier. The menu as a whole just meets the current level 35% calories from total fat and my green pea soup, green beans, and rapini now meet this interim FDA criteria for healthy.

About the same time that the FDA published their interim guidance, a group of academic researchers working out of a university in Brazil published a document that took a completely different approach to healthy. 

Nutrition researchers and policy professionals in this country are used to breaking foods down into smaller and smaller components. Researchers have worked hard to develop hundreds of thousands food codes. Using these food codes, policy professionals can manipulate foods precisely and accurately in every conceivable combination of nutrients, micronutrients, or any other component.

The Brazilian academics reversed the process. They took a step back and developed a system that consolidated foods into only 4 groups: Unprocessed / Minimally Processed; Processed Culinary Ingredients; Processed Foods; Ultra-processed Foods. They called this food classification system NOVA.

Most chefs, home cooks, and food writers relate immediately to NOVA. Working with intact foods every day and thinking about food as a whole comes easy. A whole onion. A whole egg. A whole piece of Clothbound Cheddar.

My dietitian colleagues struggle with NOVA because they have been trained to think about food differently.

Dietitians are taught to think about food as nutrients. Onions are low in calories and contain no fat. Eggs are high in cholesterol. And even an artisan hand crafted cheese is high in saturated fat. In their view, NOVA seems crude, simplistic, and downright unprofessional.

Sometimes I feel like I’m caught between two coasts. I understand why NOVA upsets my zealous colleagues but I love the approach. 

And I love looking at my menu through the NOVA lens. Carefully sourced fresh ingredients. Enough salt, sugar, and fat to ensure palatability. Lots of freshly cooked vegetables and fresh fruit.

Here’s how my menu breaks down. All aromatics (onion, celery, carrot), garlic, fresh herbs, rapini, green beans, and clementines are obviously raw, minimally processed and belong in Group 1. Not so obvious foods included in Group 1 would be lamb shanks, spices, dried split peas, whole milk plain yogurt (pie crust), fresh egg (pumpkin filling), basmati rice, and refined wheat flour.

Olive oil, salt, butter (pumpkin filling), and sugar are classified in Group 2 as processed culinary ingredients. Canned whole tomato, canned pumpkin, and Bordeaux rouge are classified as processed foods and placed in Group 3. Only the mass-produced packaged baguette, the prosciutto, and the Armagnac are candidates for ultra-processed or Group 4.

And I’ve ended up coming full circle in my belief about healthy. It’s not that nutrients aren’t important. Nutrients are very important. But in the process of drilling down deeper and deeper, something basic has been forgotten. Let’s hope that something basic has not been lost.

Looking at the plate through a NOVA lens is a gentle reminder that food is more than the sum of its nutrient parts. And that palatability and healthy don’t have to be polar opposites.

What section of the supermarket do plant based meats belong in?

photo credit |gourmetmetrics
photo credit |gourmetmetrics

The food scene is changing fast. Plant-based products have arrived and they are disruptive. They don’t fit in the usual slots. It’s not the first time rapid change has disrupted our food supply and it probably won’t be the last, but each time a disruption occurs, our sense of normal needs adjusting.

I posed this question in a couple of forums. Where should a supermarket put a product that is engineered to taste like ground beef but manufactured from pulverized plants and here’s what came back.

EMOTION OUTBURSTS

Plant-based meat analogs evoke passion ranging from evangelical ecstasy to visceral derision.

For true believers, the promise of phasing out livestock production is an absolute good for our health, the planet, sustainability, and the welfare of animals. For many others and for a variety of reasons, replacing real meat with fake meat is misguided. One particularly caustic commentator suggested putting the product in the pet food section because the texture of pulverized plants is the same as canned dog food.

PRAGMATIC SUGGESTIONS

The vegan/vegetarian section would be a logical place and that was the section I checked first. Nothing new. No faux burgers. Just the usual collection of traditional veggie burgers.

Meat analogs can’t go in the organic food section, at lease now yet. The first generation meat analogs don’t meet the USDA organic criteria. One brand even proudly lists the use of two genetically engineered components.

A section dedicated to sustainability might be a candidate for meat analogs. Climate change activists believe red meat is bad for the planet and ruminants like beef and dairy cattle are a big contributor to global warming. But that position is controversial and other groups, especially the regenerative agriculturists, disagree.

Business decisions get made based on many factors and it appears manufacturers have pushed hard to get their meat analogues into the meat department. And that’s exactly where I found the package. Beyond Meat Burgers were right next to the grass-fed burgers in the frozen meat section.

FOOD 2.0

Food 2.0 was the most creative response I received. As technology continues to disrupt the food section, supermarkets will respond as best they can. Food 2.0 is as good as any catch word to describe the brave new world of food tech that we have just entered. The FDA has cleared both major meat analog manufacturers for retail sale and that means a tsunami is about to hit the supermarket floor.

Many of my fellow dietitians have concerns about the healthiness of meat analogs because they are highly processed. I share that concern but to date there’s no good evidence that ultra-processing per se is unhealthy. Lots of speculations and gut feelings but no hard evidence except for one study published this year which established a correlation between a diet of ultra-processed foods and weight gain.

So what should we do while we wait for more evidence?

My plan is moderation. I’m okay with a meat analog from time to time, but my gut isn’t used to high tech food and I see no reason to change right now. So for the time being, the proteins you will find on my plate most days will be lentils and chickpeas and 100% grass-fed beef.

Here’s why indulgence has a place at my table.

photo credit: gourmetmetrics
Omelette plated with greens and cannelloni | photo credit: gourmetmetrics

An omelette is my go to meal when I’m hungry, pressed for time, and feel like indulging myself.

Pictured above is a quick and dirty meal I put together a couple of weeks ago. Bitter greens and cannelloni beans mixed with calamari, restaurant leftovers from a meal the night before, filled up half the plate so all I did was make the omelette.

My meal was delicious. Greens and legumes fall into the healthy column, but I’m wondering about that omelette …

First cholesterol and now veganism.

Since the 1970s, we’ve been told to avoid foods high in cholesterol and egg consumption has taken a major hit. In 2015, cholesterol was removed as a nutrient of concern and the 2015 Dietary Guidelines say eggs are now okay with this disclaimer. Eggs like all animal based proteins should be consumed in moderation.

Vegans take that advice one step further.Eating an egg is as bad as smoking cigarettes.” That claim was made in a recent Netflix movie funded and produced by folks promoting veganism. What the Health got mixed reviews but vegan messaging tends to be aggressive and the message is clear — eating eggs is not okay.

Does anyone think eggs are healthy?

An Organic egg farmer in New Hampshire recently filed a citizens petition asking the FDA to allow them to label eggs healthy based on the revised guidance issue by the FDA. The petition points out that the fatty acids in an egg are predominantly unsaturated.

Eggs do have an impressive nutrient profile. Excellent protein with all essential amino acids, a favorable mixture of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids, and a very impressive list of micro- and phyto-nutrients.

So what is it — are eggs healthy or unhealthy?

Here’s the problem. Eggs are a mixed bag and making an omelette with butter or oil and salt adds more variables to the bag.

My omelette has strong positives. Complete protein plus all those other micro nutrient benefits.

And my omelette has strong negatives. Saturated fat, calorie density, and sodium.

Here’s why I use the word indulgent.

Swinging back and forth from one extreme to the other is not helpful. We need a better approach. Some kind of hybrid system that scores the omelette as a whole.

Towards this end, an approach developed in the UK and recently implemented in France has potential. The metric is weight based and positives are balanced against negatives to come up with a single score. I’ve adapted this approach for recipe analysis. When I ran the numbers, my omelette got more negatives than positives.

Actually got a lot more negatives than positives and that’s why I use the word indulgent.

Some final thoughts on healthy.

• Nutrition research is constant and ongoing. Saturated fat and sodium score negative because current guidelines from both the US and EU recommend moderation. Both nutrients however remain controversial in some research circles. Especially the complex issue of saturated fats.

• Ingredient quality and degree of processing aren’t scored. Pastured local eggs, California certified olive oil, and home cooking add value for me but are not part of the scoring metric. And because I value home cooked from whole minimally processed foods, delicious indulgent is okay at my table as long as I source my own ingredients and make it myself.

• Putting my omelette, or any other meat based protein, on the same plate as greens and legumes makes the whole plate healthier.

Reducing a radiantly complex plate of food down to a couple of nutrients is insane.

Photo Credit: gourmetmetrics
Salade Composée | photo credit: gourmetmetrics

That’s not to say that nutrients aren’t important. Because they are. They’re very important. But nutrients are only one of many parts to a complex story.

Take my beautiful salade composé pictured above. There is so much more going on than a string of numbers can communicate.

NUTRIENTS

Let’s look at the nutrition facts first: 660 calories, 48g fat, 8g satfat, 660mg sodium, 30g carbohydrate, 8g fiber, 6g sugar, 26g protein.

INGREDIENTS

Here is the list of ingredients: arugula, chickpeas, tuna, cucumber, tomato, egg, farro, red cabbage, parsley. All artfully arranged or “composed” on plate and generously dressing with a classic vinaigrette.

Those chickpeas were home cooked with salt from a heirloom variety. But I had many other options. Canned, drained, or rinsed. And how old were the chickpeas because age really does make a difference when you’re cooking chickpeas from scratch.

The tuna pictured above is Tonnino, a branded product imported from Italy. Again, there are many options to choose from. Is it domestic or imported. Line caught or net caught. Skipjack or yellowfin or albacore or one of the lesser known species. Jared or canned or fresh.

As for the vegetables, one thing for sure is they were imported from some warmer part of the country because here in the northeast planting doesn’t get started until May. Probably not USDA organic either because my Italian green grocer believes “organic” is a scam and tells me his customers don’t want to pay extra for the label.

Eggs are from pastured hens that are free to roam, weather permitting. The farro is grown here but I’ve used farro imported from Italy and it’s very tasty. Finally my classic vinaigrette is made with a certified branded dated olive oil from California and a distinctive sherry vinegar imported from Spain and salt.

Ingredients always generate so many questions and it’s hard to believe your choice of ingredients doesn’t impact the healthiness of the plate independent of those nutrition facts noted above.

SO WHAT EXACTLY MAKES A PLATE HEALTHY?

That’s a good question and the answer all depends on who is looking at the plate.

If you’re the FDA, you’ll gauge “healthiness” on milligrams of sodium, the ratio of saturated fatty acids to unsaturated fatty acids, and the respective percentage contributions of certain essential nutrients to established reference values per day. I understand how to run those stats and am happy to explain the calculation in detail.

If you’re the USDA, you’ll gauge “healthiness” on cups of vegetables, ounces of protein, grams of saturated fatty acids and milligrams of sodium with bonus points for whole grains and fish. Again, I know how to run those stats and can explain in detail.

I’m just not sure, however, that explaining in detail is helpful. I’ve tried in the past and most folks go glassy eyed.

And I’m also not sure my explanations answer the question of whether of not the plate is healthy. The folks who believe low fat is healthy won’t like the fact that 65% calories come from fat and 11% calories come from saturated fat. Vegans won’t think the plate is healthy because of the tuna and egg. Carnivores won’t think it’s healthy because there’s no meat.  Keto enthusiasts will reject the plate because of the grain. The organic crowd will reject the plate because my vegetables are conventional. So you see, it all depends.

Maybe someday researchers will figure out how to reflect all the radiant complexity in my salad with a single healthy symbol. But for now it makes more sense to my simplistic mind to source my ingredients carefully, go with my gut, check the nutrition facts, and retain at all times a healthy dose of common sense.

Looks like the French are up to mischief again …

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Something happened in France at the end of last year.

The French government officially endorsed Nutri-Score on October 31, 2017 and that beautifully designed 5 color graphic pictured above because the official voluntary front of the package scoring system in France.

Why voluntary? Because France as a member of the European common market is not allowed to mandate a food label. However, several large French food manufacturers have already agreed to start using Nutri Score and a couple of enterprising young French entrepreneurs have already launched an app that reads barcodes and scores products.

Americans are used to French influence. Think French restaurants. Or Bordeaux wine and Brie cheese. Or Jacques Pépin. And most Americans are familiar with French food. We suspect the French eat perhaps a little more butter and cheese than most of us think is healthy. And we may also suspect the French have a more casual approach to food that allows for enjoyment without guilt. But I’m sure you’ll agree with me when I say that consumer package labeling is not the usual place one looks to for French inspiration.

Besides, why look to France when we have our own version of a front of the package label.  Ever notice those little boxes with numbers and percentages on the front of packaged foods as you’re walking down a supermarket aisle? Sometimes there is just one box. Usually there are four boxes. Sometimes up to six boxes. Here’s what our Facts Up Front label looks like

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The first box always lists calories per serving. The next three boxes provide information on nutrients to limit in the diet: saturated fat, sodium, and sugars. Subsequent boxes if they appear are used for nutrients to encourage.

The two systems reflect two very different approaches to the same problem. One isn’t necessarily easier or better than the other. A shopper who wants to choose healthier packaged items can succeed with either system. But because the approaches are so different, I decided to compare the two, detail those differences, and share my discoveries with you.

  1. The French system is color coded. Facts Up Front is not. So let’s say right up front that the color range makes the label more intuitive. Dark green indicates a healthier choice. A lighter shade of green and oranges in the middle. At the end, a deep reddish orange to indicate not so healthy choices.
  2. The French system is weight based. Facts Up Front is portion sized based. Our American system works well for comparing two brand of potato chips or whether or a portion of potato chips with a portion of an energy bar. The French system is based on a consistent weight and helps consumers compare calorie density and percentage weight. For example potato chips usually are 500 or more calories per 100 grams whereas most granola bars are closer to 400 calories per 100 grams.
  3. The French system sums up multiple nutrient numbers and presents the consumer with a single color coded score. Our American system puts 4 or more discrete values on the front of the package and it’s up to us put a picture together.
  4. The French system scores food groups. Our American system scores only nutrients. The combined weight of fruits, vegetables, legumes, or nuts is summed as a percentage of the total weight. The higher the percentage, the more points a product earns. Our American system focuses exclusively on nutrients, more specifically the nutrients to limit or avoid. There is a place for nutrients to encourage like fiber or protein or potassium, no mechanism for scoring a food group.

So there you have my run down of the differences. The best labeling strategy of course is that strategy that works for you and most folks tend to like the strategy they are used to. So most Americans will feel more comfortable with out American portion sized system and most French people will feel more comfortable with the French weight based system.

As for me I’m intrigued with the concept of including food groups in the scoring algorithm. Especially if those foods are intact whole foods. Fascinating idea and one worthy of more thought …

Are we just a nation of disabled eaters?

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I sure would like to think we’re not. But I listen to my colleagues talk about their own food fears and those their clients struggles with. Good foods. Bad foods. Cheat days. Calorie paranoia. And I’m very grateful that I already knew how to eat, and how to cook, before I studied nutrition.

If not, I too might be struggling, terrified of eating the wrong food, and burdened with food fears. I loved food before I became dietitian and I love food today. The difference is that today I know enough to break the rules and have confidence in my decisions. Let me share how I make a salad and how I adjust the rules to fit how I eat.

Salads are for summer. So I start with lots of healthy greens, vegetables, and legumes. Then I add a protein. And I finish with enough delicious vinaigrette dressing to make my zealous colleagues cringe and keep the folks at my table coming back for more. Fat. Salt. Acid. Works every time.

INGREDIENTS FOR 2

GOOD EXTRA VIRGIN COLD PRESSED OLIVE OIL – 60 grams or 4 1/2 tablespoons

SHERRY VINEGAR – 20 grams or 4 teaspoons

DIJON MUSTARD – to taste up to 1 teaspoon

SALT – 1.2 grams flake salt or 1/2 teaspoon (1/4 teaspoon table or most sea salt)

CANNELLONI CANNED OR HOME COOKED BEANS – 100 grams cannelloni beans or 2/3 cup

TOMATOES –  100 grams cherry tomatoes or a handful

CUCUMBER – 80 grams or 1 small

MIXED GREENS – 200 grams greens or 4 cups chopped – mesclun, endive, radicchio, red leaf, green leaf, romaine

HAAS AVOCADO – 100 grams or 1/2 whole

GRILLED CHICKEN BREAST – 170 grams or 6 ounces – other protein options are tonino, hard cooked eggs, feta cheese, salmon.

METHOD

Make dressing first by mixing olive oil, vinegar, mustard, salt together in the bottom of a 2 liter salad bowl. Wash and dry greens. Wash and prep other vegetables. Cut up and add chicken pieces. Add legumes, tomatoes, greens, chicken, and avocado.  Mix just before serving.

Proportions are important. My ratio of dressing to everything else is about 9 to 1. In other words, 1 ounce dressing (2 tablespoons) to 9 ounces everything else that goes into the salad. These are weight based measures. Please don’t be concerned if you’ve never used a scale. Here’s your chance to develop your eye and manage your own taste preferences. You might find you like more dressing or less dressing than I do. Practice makes perfect and the more salads you make the better you’ll get at using your eye and tasting as you go.


NUTRITION

Nutrition Facts per serving: 560 calories, 41g fat, 19g carbohydrate, 32g protein, 470mg sodium.

And yes 41 grams of fat per serving is lots of fat and, trust me, some of my zealous colleagues are not happy because well over 50% calories in the salad come from fat. But here’s how I look at that percentages. What matters is best measured over the course of a day or even better over the course of a week. Olive oil and avocado are calorie dense; greens and vegetables are calorie un-dense. So of course most of the calories are going to come from fat.

Now let’s dig down a level and check out the ratio of unsaturated to saturated fatty acids. Most fatty acids are unsaturated from the olive oil and avocado. Those unsaturated fatty acids are what my more flexible colleagues refer to as “healthy” fats.

As for protein, my tule of thumb is about 25 grams per meal. So a serving of salad is a bit over. Note too that protein comes from mixed sources – chicken and plant.

Notice too, there’s not a lot of carbs and no refined carbohydrate. Just intact carbohydrates from the vegetables, some sugars from tomatoes, and 7 grams dietary fiber per serving. Now 7 grams may not sound like a lot, but think about that fiber like this. One serving puts 25% of the Daily Value on the plate.

Last word goes to potassium. The new label format will mandate potassium be listed as a line item. Note the sodium is 470mg per serving. Now compare that number with 1200mg potassium per serving. In other words, more than twice as much potassium as sodium. That’s a really good ratio.

Food Composition per 100 grams is only for NERDS like me: 10g fat, 4g carbohydrate, 9g protein, 77g water.

Fat, Salt, and Split Pea Soup

 

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Thank goodness fats are no longer considered a toxic substance. I did my nutrition studies during the height of the low fat is healthy years. Just imagine how confused I felt when I ran my own numbers and discovered my daily pattern was based on an unhealthy amount of fat.  That was just 20 years ago and as you know things have changed.

My split pea soup depends on fat to bring out the flavor of aromatic vegetables – onion, carrot, and celery. Finely chopped and sweated in lots of olive oil, this mirepoix adds color, hearty flavor, and sweetness to the soup. Without that generous dose of olive oil, the recipe wouldn’t be as delicious.

Salt of course is the other critical component. I learned I use too much fat but I also learned I under salt.  Salt is critical to good cooking but if you know your way around the kitchen you know how to squeeze flavor out of all the ingredients so there’s no need to use so much salt.

Recipe writing is not my strength. I do provide proportion but in both metric and common measure and some instruction. But if you’re a beginning cook and need basic instruction or technique, I suggest you check out a website like Simple Recipes or New York Times Recipe Box or one of the reputable collections available via the internet.

Rest assured that messing up a split pea soup is really hard. Burnt onions. Rancid olive oil. Confusing table salt with kosher flake salt. These are mess ups. But proportions of split peas to onion, carrots, celery can be highly variable as can the amount of liquid. So making this soup is good practice for trying your hand at no recipe cooking.

RECIPE for 3 liters (12 cups)

• 500 grams split peas (2 1/2 cups – generous pound)

• 400 grams mirepoix (1 1/4 cup chopped onion; generous 3/4 cup chopped carrot; generous 2/3 cup diced celery)

• 100 grams olive oil (7 1/2 tablespoons)

• 2 to 3 liters water or stock (8 to 12 cups)

• 12 grams salt (4 teaspoons Diamond Crystal® Kosher Salt or 2 teaspoons table/coarse sea salt)

Start by rinsing the split peas. Then gently sweat chopped onions in olive oil until golden browned and aromatic at least 30 minutes. The longer the onions sizzle softly in the oil the more aromatic they get. Add carrots and celery and sauté another 30 minutes. Now add liquid, split peas, herbs of choice, salt, and gently simmer partially covered until split peas are fully softened and starting to fall apart. Pass the soup through a food mill for an even textured consistency.

INGREDIENTS – Good flavor starts with sourcing the best ingredients. Look for split peas from the most current harvest. Sometimes these dates are hard to find. Store managers often really don’t know and in all due respect many could care less. Best to buy from a trusted supplier. As for the olive oil, no reason to use your best. High heat destroys some of the healthful properties and delicate taste aromatics. I use an everyday extra virgin olive oil from California. As for the liquid use water or vegetable stock or chicken stock in any combination. What’s important is the final volume, about 3 liters or 12 cups.

NUTRITION – I run numbers on all my recipes but I don’t post label results, however I’m happy to send you those numbers if you want them so just let me know.

I prefer using common measure. Most folks can visualize a cup of soup and once you know a cup of soup puts about 230 calories in the bowl, you can do the math yourself. Serving sizes always vary depending on how the soup gets served.  Appetizers are usually less than a cup. Main course soup for supper is usually more than a cup. Snackers I’m sure have their own favorite amounts.

Here’re a breakdown for the nutrients per cup that I check for:

• Protein. This soup qualifies as vegan so all 10 grams per cup are plant protein. Ham hocks or bacon or cheese are common additions to split pea soup. They add more protein and you’ll end up with an animal plant protein mix.

• Fiber. Both soluble and insoluble dietary fibers are beneficial from a health perspective. All legumes are fiber rich and split pea soup has lots of fiber, about 11 grams per cup.

• Fat. Olive oil is the source of fat and contribute 35% of the calories as per proportions used above. Using olive oil ensures that the fat profile will be predominantly unsaturated fatty acids. Adding ham hocks or bacon or cheese adds saturated fatty acids and changes the fat profile.

• Salt. Essential for a good tasting soup. Keep in mind however it’s important to salt to your own taste. So the most important step is learning to salt is to know your own salt tolerance. Always keep in mind that under salting is safer. You can use a sprinkling of finishing salt just before serving. Desalting an over salted soup is hard.

Using 4 teaspoons Diamond Crystal® Kosher Salt Diamond for 3 liters soup, one cup of soup has about 410 mg sodium. Sometimes I use only 3 teaspoons of salt which works out to 320 mg per cup. I don’t seem to need as much salt as many other cooks and eaters like to use. For me, a little bit of salt goes a long way. Salting to your own taste is really important because we don’t all taste salt the same way.

Why you may be asking do I specify salt by brand name? The answer is because brand and grind make a difference. So I’m not writing a sponsored post. There are two brands of kosher salt and one brand sits much lighter in the spoon than the other brand so it makes a difference which one you use.

Roasted Chickpeas

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Aren’t they beautiful? My first attempt at roasted chickpeas turned out extraordinarily well. I don’t use the term food addiction lightly, but these little beauties are about as close as I get to addictive eating.  I had to stop myself from demolishing the whole bowl in a single sitting one handful at a time.

The chickpeas need to be really dry before you start. I learned how important the drying step is the hard way through trial and error. This step is crucial to the success of the finished dish.

The first time I roasted chickpeas, they were thoroughly dried and tasted especially crunchy. Used my own home cooked chickpeas, drained them, and left them uncovered on a plate for 24 hours in the frig.  The second time I made it, didn’t have time for a thorough drying and the result was tasty but just nearly as crispy. The third time I made it, I used canned chickpeas and no amount of drying seemed to counter the slightly sodden soaked texture of the canned product. My take away is cook up your own chickpeas from dry and be super attentive to drying them out prior to roasting.

Here’s what you’ll need to make up your first bowl about 6 handfuls.

350 grams (2 generous cups) chickpeas, cooked and drained

15 grams (1 tablespoon) olive oil

2 tablespoons Za’atar

700 mg (1/4 teaspoon) salt or to taste

Spread chickpeas out on a flat surface and pat dry with paper towels. Let them air dry for at least an hour. Based on the three batches I made, the longer the drying process the better and overnight in the frig is best.

When you’re ready to roast, heat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a pan with parchment paper and spread the chickpeas out evenly on a pan. Bake until crunchy, about 30 minutes, stirring or rotating every 10 minutes during the roasting process. While the chickpeas are roasting, add olive oil, spice/herb mixture, and salt to a bowl.  When chickpeas are completely roasted, pour them into the bowl and stir to distribute the oil, spices, herbs, and salt evenly.

My roasted chickpeas was inspired by a recipe from The New York Times Recipe Box, Melissa Clark’s Crunchy Roasted Az’atar Chickpeas which in turn was featured in Maureen Abood’s Rose Water & Orange Blossoms, published in 2015.

BUY GOOD STUFF

• Home cooked chickpeas roast crunchier than canned. So I’m always throwing dry chickpeas in my bag

• My salt of choice is Diamond Chrystal Kosher Salt. Because it’s flaked, the salt sits light in the spoon. If you’re using either table salt of a coarse sea salt, reduce volume to 1/8th teaspoon.

• Sumac is a reddish purple powder ground the berries of the sumac plant and is used extensively in middle eastern cooking to add a tart acidic taste. It was a new discovery for me but I know we’re going to be friends for life. I love bitter. I love acid. And now I love sumac.

• Za’atar can be purchased from stores that specialize in Middle Eastern products. I just made my own using the following proportions: 4 teaspoons dry thyme, 1 1/2 teaspoons whole sesame seeds, 1/2 teaspoon sumac.

Now for my Nerdy Nutrition Note. The recipe serves 6 and each one of those servings fits nicely in my hand. I’m not sure about you, but I tend to eat roasted chickpeas by the handful. Now that handful is about 120 calories. Along with those calories, I put 5 grams of predominantly unsaturated fatty acids from olive oil and chickpeas, about 16 grams carbohydrate 20% of which is fiber, and 5 grams of excellent plant based protein in my hand.

My Search for Ceci Neri

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It all started because I love La Cucina Italiana. The food photography is breath takingly beautiful and my Italian is good enough to get through a recipe or short article.

Recently the online magazine had a little blurb on ceci neri / black chickpeas. Color was amazing. A beautiful deep dark shad of sepia. Destiny was calling. How could I resist?

So I googled black chickpeas and began my search. I discovered these little beauties were declared a heirloom vegetable recently and just in time too to keep them from disappearing forever. Asking around if anyone ever heard of a black chick pea, one of my Italian colleagues said yes she heard of them, even seen them in the market but never tried them. Another colleague, an ex-pat American living in Rome, replied she had also heard it them but thought black chickpeas were only used for animal feed.

One benefit of living in New York City is everything is for sale somewhere. And sure enough in the deepest darkest bowels of industrial Queens I found an Italian wholesale importer who was willing to sell me one kilo bag. I took a subway and walked the rest of the way to the warehouse and returned with my kilogram bag.

Once home, I poured out a third of the bag (350 grams), washed them, and started the soaking process. It takes a long time.  At least 48 hours to soak plus another 12 hours to cook.

Two days later the water was so black the chickpeas had disappeared from view. Usually I include soaking water when I cook, but this water looked ominous. What to do. A third colleague who runs a cooking school near Bari in the south of Italy came to my rescue via Facebook and confirmed that folks usually toss the soaking water.

Now for the cooking. Twelve hours requires starting pretty early so I started at 7am and finished off about 7pm using fresh clear water. Once soaked and hopefully cooked, my black chickpeas were actually sort of soft and strikingly beautiful. That deep dark intense sepia must be brimming full of phytonutrients but I wouldn’t know where to start to track down which ones.

Now what to do with them …

I tried them in a couple of different dishes and got nothing but complaints. Just between you and me, the taste was okay for my palate, more robust and earthy than the usual ones, but even after all that soaking and cooking, they were dense and still distinctly chewy.

The only preparation I could find that worked was hummus. I added lots and lots of tahini along with a good amount of olive oil, lemon juice, and salt. All to taste. I used so much tahini in fact I lost track of how much so I couldn’t run my usual nutrition numbers.

The black chickpea hummus was edible, attractive, and acceptable to the folks at my table.

Waste not. Want not. I am committed to repurposing.

We ate lots and lots and lots and lots of black chickpea hummus.

Culinary excursions are always exciting. Sometimes you discover wonderful new foods you love and can’t live without. And sometimes you learn why you’re the only one out there chasing the illusion ceci neri.