Wednesday, August 24, 2011

my newest food love: Beeler's bacon ends

Many, if not most, of us with health or dietary concerns end up paying more for our food than we would if we were throwing caution to the wind, as I must admit I have often done. We read labels, double check our reference guides for questionable ingredients, and stifle a low moan as we pay the tab. Our health is worth it, I have no doubt, but still...

I am always on the lookout for a more cost-effective way to stay healthy. I have, personally, made some major missteps trying to make sense of food over the years. Little is more frustrating for me than to eat or drink what I don't really like but expect to aid my health, only to find out those same products are hindering not helping. That is annoying!

Recently, I've added a little bacon back into my diet. Bacon does certainly not have to be from pork, though I am not really excited by the other options, personally. I know many who are. I like pork bacon but have rarely eaten it in recent years for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is all the scary additives. Many versions of uncured bacon are on the market, addressing one of my concerns, though in my opinion, they have two major drawbacks: price and flavor. It is never fun to spend more than you'd like on something, take the time to prepare it, and then have to choke it down or toss it. No, thank you.

I never thought of myself as a picky eater, but those close to me would probably beg to differ. I think we all want our food to taste good, and that is certainly a matter of personal preference. I don't care much at all for smoked anything; I don't even like walking into restaurants that specialize in BBQ because of the smokiness. So, with bacon, which I know is smoked, I have a very narrow window of acceptable taste these days. That adds to my hesitation to spend a lot on a new bacon.

Enter Beeler's bacon.

I'm not suggesting that Beeler's is new, just new to me. I love the flavor. Yes, it's smoked like almost all bacon, but somehow it doesn't have that super-smokey taste of many of the uncured bacons. I'm a bit of a purist with bacon and don't care for sweet or fruity tastes, though I know many love them, and the plain version works well for me. For those who do like it sweeter, they have that, too. Beeler's bacon is sliced fairly thick, which is not my personal preference, and it also tends to be a little pricey, I think. But, and this is a big but for me, they also make available a slightly larger package of bacon ends and pieces. These are cut irregularly as the name implies, though I find this a perk. It's like getting a variety pack for half the price of the plain version. I tend not to lay bacon out in neat and tidy strips for presentation on a plate, so the variation in shape and size does not bother me. That said, there are plently of lovely slices within the package that would be fine for that. There are also many very meaty portions with virtually no fat. It's a fun grab bag. The price is really about half that of their regular sliced bacon. Check them out .

Another bonus is that the rendered fat is considered one of the preferred fats for cooking when following a Paleo diet, so nothing is wasted. Since this bacon is free of added nitrates and nitrites, it is relatively pure. This applies, too, to uncured beef bacon, though I haven't tried it yet. It will take a bit of getting used to, this idea of cooking with animal fat, after all the years of avoiding it. I am carefully, cautiously approaching the concept.

Monday, August 22, 2011

paleo is looking better all the time

For almost a year now, I've been trying to forge out an eating plan, a lifestyle really, that makes sense, tastes good, and doesn't make me sick. I know that's where many of us are. Some of you luckier ones have nailed it. I must confess I'm just a little jealous, but I also realize you've worked long and hard, succeeded and failed, suffered and triumphed. Finding our way through this food maze is a challenge at best. My hat is off to any and all who have found their way through.

 I'm still at what feels like a hit and miss stage, but my aim is getting a bit surer and my navigation skills better. I do so want to see the opening at the end of this maze. Some of my early missteps were downright silly. I bought gluten-free mixes and flours with some abandon, at least in terms of the other ingredients. My first was Bob's Red Mill Corn Bread Mix. It's a really good mix and makes a beautiful cornbread. I was thrilled. I hadn't been able to eat corn bread in years. Turns out I still can't. I was so sick afterward that I just lay around whining for a day or so. I really cannot explain why I would think I could suddenly eat corn, or for that matter, milk, sugar, or soy. Just being gluten-free isn't enough as most of you know from personal experience. Some things, like corn, I already knew. Others, like zanthan gum or tapioca or agave, I hadn't paid much attention to before. Unfortunately, the "no" list continues to grow.

The silly thing, and this does not say too much for my thought processes, is that I keep trying recipes containing ingredients I know, or at least should know, I can't eat without repercussion. I don't ever knowingly eat anything with gluten, but I have kept trying other foods, maybe in the hope that a different combination would be magical. And shoot! the recipes and stories from others who are gluten-free always sound and look so good.

So I'm still looking but getting a little encouraged as I read more about Paleo eating. Eating like our ancestors may have eaten is intriguing. As with all things, I have to remind myself not to jump off the cliff first and then check to see if there's a soft landing or way back second. I've been reading a lot of blogs and Face Book pages for the last few weeks. It looks pretty good on the one hand. On the other, though, it's a bit confusing. The various sources I've read do not always agree on exactly what's in and what's out. It mostly works for me on an intellectual level. On a more fundamental level, I can get quite excited about much of the food. The food groups completely ruled out by the Paleo diet are all those I cannot or should not eat. The "should nots" are the ones that don't make me deathly ill, but do slow me down and don't add to my health in any way. I'm thinking this kind of diet may be much easier for those of us who already omit most of the contraband already.

Please understand, I am not trying to get others to follow in my footsteps. I'm still wandering through this darned maze, anyway, so at best it would be irresponsible. If, though, you, like me, are still struggling with finding what works for you and what doesn't, you might want to read some of the FB pages just for fun.

I've been trying to follow a version of this plan, of which there are many, for about ten days now. It's not long enough to make a decision, but it is long enough to have gathered some interesting data, admittedly 100% anectdotal. From day 1, I had more energy and less of an appetite. By day 2, my clothes were a lot more comfortable. By day 3, I'd lost a few pounds. But by far the most compelling and most exciting part for me is that I have not been in pain or been particularly hungry while sticking to the guidelines.

I'll go into detail about what we've been eating and cooking with pics and recipes very soon. For now I'd just like to mention a few dishes that have been basics for me the past week or so. I've grilled beef, chicken, and salmon a few times, each time making extra to be the beginnings of breakfast and lunch. On several occasions, I took thinly sliced leftover steak to work as breakfast. It was filling, easy, and reasonably priced, especially since one small steak stretched to 3 meals that left me fully satisfied. That may be the oddest thing for me, that so little food leaves me feeling full when no grains or grasses are present. I've also grilled or sauteed summer squash, making extra of that, too. It's been an adventure, or really the beginning of an adventure. More to come soon, including our incognito Paleo dinner party.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

shopping for food

Talk about your personal choices. What we choose to eat, where we eat it, and where is buy is darned personal. I am continually amazed at the number of people who seem to feel it is necessary to lecture others about the appropriateness of their choices. Sadly, I know I have done just that from time to time, not because I think for a moment it's my right or obligation, but simply because I get carried away. That may be what happens in many cases, I don't know and can't know for sure.

What I do know is that any of use who read food blogs or pages, or for that matter, have conversations about food, have probably been on both sides of those lectures. The self-righteousness is suffocating sometimes. I really think there are times when we just can't help it. You know, someone asks a question or makes a comment, and before you know it, here comes the adrenaline,  out comes the soapbox, and it's all downhill from there.

That's how I get sometimes when the topic of groceries comes up. I say with pride, "I don't go to grocery stores." It's mostly true, I don't shop at supermarkets, but so what?  I do not think that is a superior position. It is a choice I make, we make really, in how we will spend our money and what we will put on our table or in our bodies. It is, admittedly, a choice  of privilege. It costs a heck of a lot more to shop at natural foods stores (which really are a smaller version of grocery stores), specialized mail-order companies, health food stores, and direct organic produce suppliers. My argument is always that we avoid waste, don't buy junk, and that that kind of evens things out. I can hear you snickering. Of course, it doesn't. My food bill is high, but my medical bills are on the decline. I now buy far less in the way of supplements. I virtually never eat in restaurants or buy ready-made food.  And then, there's the pain element. I am not at all fond of pain, and consistently eating and shopping this way has been my first ray of hope in a long time.

All that said, I will try to avoid the soapbox as I make a case for buying the best food you can afford. We are assaulted from so many directions by edible items pretending to be food. People often say that if your grandmother wouldn't recognize it as food, that item should not go in your cart, on your plate, or in your mouth. We will have to stretch that to great-grandmother pretty soon, as generation after generation is inundated by these edible food-like substances, as Michael Pollan refers to them in Food Rules: An Eaters Manual. By the way, if you want a quick, entertaining read, get this book. I teach high school students and have worked with a number of teachers, administrators, aides, and secretaries over the years who believe home-cooked means heated in the microwave after being removed from freezer or shelf. Many women as well as men I've worked with consult each and every day with their spouses to determine which is stopping by what restaurant to pick up dinner on the way home. That's where many of us have gone with food.

If you are reading a food blog, you're probably not doing that, at least not often. It still surprises me to see comments on my friends' blogs and FB pages from annoyed readers who want everything in a mix or a can or with no more than three ingredients. I like quick. I like easy. But bottom line for me and many of us is that is has to be food, and for me food rarely comes in a box, never contains GMOs, isn't boiled past recognition to extend its shelf-life and kill bacteria that never should have gotten in it in the first place, and nourishes my body. Did I mention does no harm? That said,  I buy humanely raised lamb, beef, and poultry from people who say they care about their animals and their customers and act in ways that confirm it. I buy wild-caught cold water fish almost exclusively from northern Pacific waters. I buy shrimp from Oregon and produce raised locally by organic farmers who want me to know their names. Some things I can't get locally, so I do a fair amount of mail order. I no longer buy grains at all, and beans are next to go. The only dairy product in our house on a regular basis is heavy whipping cream from organically raised cows. (I still miss putting it in my coffee, but I do not miss the pain in the least. I know I'm a whiner)

More specifically, if you're interested in sources, we order steaks and ground meat from Hearst Ranch, the cattle ranch you see when visiting Hearst Castle on the central California coast at San Simeon. We also order a wide variety of meats and other products from Wellness Meats. You'll see links to their website at the top and bottom of this page. Check them out. They have a lot more than meat, and their shipping is virtually free. One thing I love about Wellness Meats is that you can order one or two packages each of lots of different things, if you'd like. It's almost like shopping in an amazingly well-stock gourmet store. Vital Choice Seafoods is just about the only place we buy fish or shellfish. Their packaging is wonderful, and they, too, have free shipping. I absolutely love their cold-smoked salmon. I could live on it.

While I order some things singly, like almond flour from Honeyville, I also go to for harder to find items, or at least harder for me to find. Things like Celtic sea salt and organic coconut milk, even Pacific Foods chicken and vegetable broths, I order from Amazon. I do not spend a lot of time shopping. We order intermittently, not weekly or even monthly.

I know my shopping patterns are not the norm. Then, my eating patterns are far from the norm, I guess. We eat food and that's just not normal these days, I'm told. I sure hope you're with us.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

why I rarely buy food from Costco

I should preface this with some clarification. For years we have shopped at Costco almost weekly and loved most aspects. Granted, we have never loved the impersonal, warehouse ambiance or the sometimes inexperienced and under-prepared staff, but it's kind of an adventure seeing just what will be on the shelves and in the aisles from one week to the next.

My concern with their food, though, is a significant one. It is not unusual to see freezer doors standing open for long periods of time with pallets of, hopefully, frozen food waiting to be put away. I've witnessed on many occasions, a group of employees standing near open doors like this visiting or discussing work or whatever for up to 30 minutes while the food sits there waiting. I couldn't help timing them; it's the OCD thing. Of course, any of us who shop there have seen foods that should be refrigerated or frozen sitting throughout the store, say with the shirts, and then returned to its "appropriate" location. Appropriate, in my opinion, would be the trash at that point. When you and I pick up something from a refrigerated shelf, we tend to expect that the item has been kept chilled since production. And this memory fest would not be complete without noting the fly trapped inside the package of freshly made party sandwiches we were about to buy a few years ago, but I'm hoping that was a fluke..

 What worries me even more, though, is where this food originated. I like to buy local, as I've often mentioned, and am amused to see produce from across the world on the shelves when those products are grown right here. I'm not talking out of season now, I mean tomatoes in July, for instance. I am concerned, too, about fish, which is sometimes caught in the cold waters of Alaska or Canada and then shipped to China for processing because that's cheaper than doing it locally, even factoring in the transportation costs. Wow! It still amazes me that companies do that. I am certainly not saying that all the fish at Costco has been handled this way. I am saying I feel we all have reason to question it. A look at the packaging is telling. Some have statements that are very clear and thorough, others leave you to fill in the gaps. I worry about those gaps. At least the packaging on the farm-raised Atlantic salmon, if one were even remotely tempted to buy it, states clearly that color has been added.

The entire issue is clearly and inexcusably, in my opinion, punctuated by the incorporation of ingredients grown and processed in China into foods labeled organic. We used to buy Costco's organic, frozen mixed vegetables. I know it's not the best, but they were handy to have in a pinch. I'd throw them into soups in the winter or add them to a stew. More recently, probably following the edamame craze, Costco has seen fit to add edamame from China to their organic vegetable mix, previously grown exclusively in the US.

I should be clearer, I suppose. I am not anti-imports. I love many of them, but this issue has multiple implications, including the need to support our local economies. But I'm a foodie of sorts, and a bit of a health nut by necessity. On top of that, I'm not really excited about the possibility of slowly, or quickly for that matter, poisoning my family. Shoot, we're warned against buying dog food from China.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

peanut butter poop

When I was in elementary school, right after the invention of paper but well before the concept of word processing, school lunches were, in a word, edible. Shoot, some of them were really good. Good as in these days we might blog about them. For many of you, I know that sounds as absurd as government subsidies to corporations with profits in the multi-billion dollar range, but really, they were good.
Justin's Nut Butter Organic Classic Peanut Butter, 16-Ounce Plastic Jar (Pack of 3)
My favorite day was Wednesday. At Horace Mann School in Bakersfield, CA, we almost always had chili beans, corn bread, and peanut butter honey squares. There was other stuff too, but seriously, I did not care. They could have served roasted sprinkler heads and I would not have noticed. I LOVED chili beans with corn bread. But even more, I lived for peanut butter honey squares. The coolest thing, by far, was getting to sit with my friend who did not like them at all. Can it get better than that? It's like going to Noriega's and sitting with people who don't like pickled tongue. You dream about these things. (I guess the Noriega's comment is regional, but check them out on Google if you don't live in California.)

When my children were in school, peanut butter honey squares were around somewhere, but they were few and far between. They had to experience them which meant I had to make them myself. Now those were the days when anything healthy had to have wheat. Can you believe it? The only issue was what form the wheat would take. Wheat germ won out. I began with peanut butter, honey, non-instant dried milk, and wheat germ. I cringe just writing it, but that was the stuff from which peanut butter honey squares were made. Ya gotta do what ya gotta do.

Somehow along the way, let's call it the muse of creativity and not a young mother's laziness, the squares kind of disappeared. Being rather, okay seriously, irreverent I renamed them. I was now serving my children "peanut butter poop." I'd make it in a bowl, keep it in the refrigerator, and scoop it out as needed. Rolling the mass into irregular light brown logs was just fun. I have wonderfully creative children, so they were on board from the beginning.

It began to get even more delightful when new generations came along. My grandchildren were introduced to peanut butter poop with ease, as were their cousins. One of my favorite stories is one my daughter, Kristen, tells. Her sister-in-law, Erin, whose son had spent some time with us off and on, appeared at her door with a jar of peanut butter and a jar of honey. She said something like, "Okay, I need peanut butter poop." The wording may not be quite accurate; I hope the message is.

For better or worse, that's part of the legacy I leave my children. They both cook well, very well, and I believe they both approach food with awe, admiration, and no shortage of irreverence. I am one proud parent.
Barney Butter Smooth Almond Butter, 16-Ounce Jars (Pack of 3)
Details of peanut butter poop are almost anticlimactic. You need to make it your own. Take some peanut butter (these days I use almond butter) of your choice. Stir in a sweetener, honey or maltitol syrup or maple syrup or agave or raw sugar. I don't use milk anymore, but if you do, add some dried milk. It's so very forgiving. And it's so very good.

Make up your own name, just don't tell my children or grandchildren or nephews or any of their friends. For all my focus on irreverence, peanut butter poop has become sacred around here.

Friday, August 5, 2011

if only I could take all the credit for my marinated mushrooms

It's funny how individual food history develops. Sometimes recipes are passed down through generations, sometimes it's a silly playful interpretation like peanut butter poop, sometimes a dish just kind of attaches itself to us and becomes our signature.

I am a self-confessed Martha Stewart nut. I could read her books, listen to her talk, watch her for hours. That said, I haven't seen much of Martha Stewart in awhile, though I know she is still very much around and a voice I would follow anywhere. When my daughter was married some time ago, we poured over Martha's cookbooks, especially Entertaining. I think I may have memorized half the recipes and all the stories in the book. I loved it. Kristen's reception had lots of fun foods, many from Entertaining. One I don't remember using that day was for a mushroom salad, possibly because Kristen seriously hates all things mushroom. Still for me, that mushroom salad recipe has evolved, as most good recipes do, into something reminiscent of but not identical to its origin.

The first time I remember making what have gradually become my marinated mushrooms was for Felicity's first birthday party. Felicity will soon begin her sophomore year in college, so it's been a year or two. Now we serve them again and again and again. Most of my friends and family, except Kristen, have tried these in one of their many forms. They are a must-have at our parties and find their way into many potlucks and family dinners.

Marinated Mushrooms
(adapted from Martha Stewart's Marinated Mushrooms with Red Peppers)

  • 2 to 3 pounds mushrooms, quartered if large, stems cut off
  • 8 ounces olive oil
  • 6 ounces red wine vinegar
  • 4 ounces finely diced red onions
  • 3 to 4 ounces finely chopped flat-leaved parsley
  • 3 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 1 packet stevia or 1/8 tsp pure stevia
  • sea salt and pepper to taste
 Clean mushrooms and place in large bowl. Combine all other ingredients and pour over mushrooms. Allow marinade two to three hours or more to penetrate mushrooms. Taste for seasoning and add additional salt and pepper, if needed. Serve at room temperature. I like to serve this with fancy picks and lots of napkins. Your favorite gluten-free bread will be really handy for the wonderful marinade.

This dish is deceptively simple. If you like mushrooms, praise, and easy dishes as much as we do, it will become a mainstay. If you've tried these, please add your comments here. If you haven't, you absolutely must make these mushrooms. Oh, and if you're a great fan of red pepper strips, check out Martha's original recipe.