Top 10 Signs You’re Seriously Into Indian Cooking

  1. You can’t remember the English names for common ingredients
  2. No matter what someone asks you how to cook, 80% of the time your instructions begin with “Heat up a Tbsp of oil and add jeera. When they begin to sizzle…”
  3. You stop measuring ingredients when making roti.
  4. You say belan instead of rolling pin, tava instead of skillet.
  5. You no longer keep your pressure cooker in the back of the cupboard.
  6. You perfect that palm-to-palm flipping motion to knock excess flour off of your roti.
  7. You know what regions your sabzi’s come from, and you start cooking sabzi’s from places other than Punjab.
  8. The only time you say the word curry, it’s followed by “leaves.”
  9. You keep your seven most common spices in a masala dabba.
  10. In your mind, a complete meal consists of daal, a sabzi, and rice or bread.

  

In Defense of Food

We haven't had many book reviews on the blog recently, but I just finished re-reading Michael Pollan's 2008 NYT bestseller, and it's worth discussion, especially in light of a recent business trip to DC/Virginia.

Pollan condenses his entire answer to "what should we humans eat in order to be maximally healthy" as "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Each of those three sentences contains a wealth of meaning, and without running afoul of fair-use laws, or paraphrasing the whole book, I'll try to summarize the key elements, specifically with an eye towards "what should I eat" advice.

"Eat food" sounds obvious, but he spends a couple chapters pointing out that, thanks to the food industry and helped along by a few pivotal government policies, eating "food" is actually rather difficult these days, since most of what is available in supermarkets actually falls under the classification of "food-like substances". Much of the "Western Diet" has been turned away from whole foods and instead consists of products that have two primary components, a base or substrate, and nutrients added after the fact. This construct has the advantage of being cheaper for the food manufacturer* and cheaper for the vendor b/c of longer shelf lives, and the consumer has been hoodwinked by "nutritionism" into believing that this substitution has been in their best interests so there are no complaints from that corner.

The second sentence, "Not too much", is the most straightforward - we as a nation eat way too many calories, regardless of their source. Pollan mentions the (dubious) advice to limit our red meat and saturated fat intake, and notes that we have, to some degree, succeeded in decreasing the fraction of "bad" food in our diet. However, this isn't really a result of actually eating less of the "bad" foods but instead just consuming more total calories while holding our "bad food" intake roughly constant.

This leads into the third piece of advice, "mostly plants", which is where we as a culture so frequently fail. Eating is pretty much a zero-sum game, and so if we eat more industrial foods, we do so either at the expense of something else (or by increasing our total caloric intake which isn't great either)... and generally that sacrificed item are vegetables. But "mostly plants" means more than just trying to choke down xx servings of veggies per day; it means paying attention to what the meat that you consume itself consumed. It means eating more plants and fewer processed foods. It means eating grass-fed organic beef.

The sub-title of Pollan's book is "an eater's manifesto", having also mentioned the important distinction between "consuming calories" and "eating & enjoying food". In Defense of Food contains a very good chapter that includes his advice on how to eat well (you really should buy the book anyway), but here are a few nuggets.

  • Trans fats are REALLY, REALLY bad. Avoid them at all costs.
  • Saturated fats aren't necessarily bad, if they are a part of "food" and not "manufactured food-like stuff".
  • Don't automatically believe in nutritionism. This reductionist science claims that amazingly complex foods can be replaced with a substrate + 100% of USRDA of 40 or so vitamins and minerals.
  • Eat organic & from farmers' markets, whenever possible. Not just because the toxins in "conventionally grown" foods aren't good for you, but because veggies grown in healthy soils are twice (or more) as healthy as industrial veggies, and while "organic" doesn't guarantee healthy soils, it's often a good hint. Thus, local farmers market foods are probably better than supermarket organics, if you have the choice.
  • Diversify your portfolio. One of the problems with the 20th century industrialization of food was the extreme drop in the diversity of sources in what we eat. Today the per capita diet contains 554 calories from corn, 257 from soy, and 768 from wheat. Yikes. We evolved as omnivores, and it makes sense that it's a good idea to eat a variety of grains (not too much of each), a variety of meats (not too much, not corn-fed), and variety of vegetables (from healthy soils).

And here's where we touch on uncomfortable subjects - Pollan mentions that there is a trade-off in eating between quantity and quality, and that the American system has focussed on the former, at the cost of the latter. "Turning out vast quantities of so-so food sold in tremendous packages at a terrific price is what we do well." As such, eating in America has very significant socio-economic under-(over?)tones: one must make the choice between eating healthily and spending more $$, or saving money while giving inferior/unhealthy meals to your family. Those of us who are lucky enough to have the extra time and money to acquire good food can do so, depending on where we live, but a large portion of the country does not have that luxury. Certainly we can hope that the more of us that shop at farmers markets, join CSAs, and plant gardens, etc will slowly shift the nation's food culture in the right direction, but is that enough? Surely not, but if the effort to improve our personal diets seems daunting, overthrowing the industrial-food empire seems impossible.

* really, "food manufacturer" sums up a lot that is wrong with current society. Farmers no longer grow food, they grow plants that, through several mechanical and chemical processes, are turned into substances that end up on supermarket shelves. What are the top two crops in the midwest? Corn & Soybeans, neither of which can be eaten by humans straight off the plant. Why corn and soy? Because those two are "among nature's most efficient transformers of sunlight and chemical fertilizer into carbohydrate energy (corn) and fat and protein (soy)."[p117] Incidentally, I highly recommend the documentary "King Corn".

  

Feral Kittens

My brother rescued some feral kittens two weeks ago. Beth and I were fortunately visiting for my Dad’s 58th birthday just 2 days after they were rescued, so we got to meet them.

The kitties hid inside the space under the dishwasher for some of their first 48 hours indoors. Apparently new kittens hiding inside a dishwasher is common enough that numerous people have posted questions about such a situation online.

My dad constructed a kitty scooping device using a candy cane lawn decoration, but it was not very successful.  I think leaving the kitties alone with the room quiet and a source of food, water and litter outside the dishwasher is the best approach.  They’ll want to come out eventually–and so they did; From the dishwasher they migrated to the under-space of the refrigerator. Here they’ve been blocked from getting back in there again, but they still liked hiding next to the fridge. They climbed around back there for a while, alternating which kitten was on top. I couldn’t tell whether they found it preferable to be on the bottom (and therefore protected by a feline shield), or on top and more mobile. After a while, I moved them to an alternate safe space—a pet taxi with food and water plates and a towel to lay on. They seemed to realize it was a preferable haven compared to the canyon next to the refrigerator. Here they are munching on some chicken in there:

I’m amazed that wild kittens can know how to use a litter box the first time they see one. They understood what it was for right away. After a meal, we put the orange tabby in the litter box, and he scratched around then stood up on two legs to relieve himself—a bizarre technique. I wish I’d captured it on video, although perhaps you will be glad that I didn’t. He’s quite good at standing. The calico cat liked to hide behind the litter box when she wasn’t in the pet taxi, as Kanye is pointing out here:

 

After all the offering of fingers to kitties, we made some mushroom/asparagus risotto. Kanye was not invited:

End of story.

  

Tricolor Bean Harvest

Our bush beans have ripened:

We planted a mix of three colors: green, yellow and purple. I’d never had purple beans before.

The purple color makes them easier to find among the leaves.

Despite appearances, they taste the same as green beans, are green inside, and, in fact, turn completely green when cooked. However, compared with the green beans (which I also love),  they seem to continue to taste quite optimally good even if they are picked a bit later than their earliest day of ripeness. I had read this about them, and now I concur. I declare the purple beans a winner; I will certainly grow them again.

We steamed these and ate them with no additional adornment. None seemed necessary.


  

Twice Baked Guaco-potatoes

Last week I had bought a sack of potatoes to make twice baked potatoes. When I got home, I realized I had an avocado as well. I thought, hey, guacopotatoes would be delicious and nutritious. So I made some. I liked them; Beth liked them too, but she preferred the non-guac ones.

Ingredients:

  • 3 baking potatoes
  • 1 avocado
  • 1 tsp minced roasted garlic
  • 2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup Monterrey Jack cheese
  • 3/4 cup sour cream
  • salt & pepper to taste

Procedure: Bake the potatoes. Allow to cool long enough to handle safely. Halve the potatoes. Scoop out the insides with a melon-baller or spoon. Mix the potato innards with the sour cream, cheeses,  avocado, roasted garlic, and salt & pepper.  Mash together with a potato masher or large fork. If you like, you can reserve some of the cheese for topping. Spoon the mixture back into the potatoes and put them under the broiler for a few minutes until you get some nice brown spots tops. I really liked the roasted garlic with the avocado in these.