Tuesday, January 24, 2012

I'm Coming Out

There has been a ton of stuff in the news and on the blogs and the Twitter this week about Paula Deen’s admission that she was diagnosed Type 2 diabetic over three years ago.  This in and of itself is about as shocking as finding out that poor Amy Winehouse died of complications from alcoholism, or that John Candy had a heart attack. No less sad, but not exactly a head scratcher.   A lot of my friends have been asking me what I think about the whole hoopla, and while I am not really interested in going too much into detail, for what it is worth, here is the short version of my opinion:

I have always been vaguely squicked out by a lot of the food she cooks.  The over the top amount of fat and sugar was too much even for me, and anyone who knows me knows I love some fat and sugar.  But like many others, the bacon cheeseburger between two doughnuts?
 The Krispy Crème Bread pudding with sweetened condensed milk?

 The deep-fried butter balls? 

That is not food, in my opinion. 

Early on in her career I found her sort of charming as a television persona, so I would tune in now and again, even though I don’t know that I ever actually wanted to make any of her food, but I stopped watching the show after a while because I felt personally that the "persona" had taken over, and felt somewhat like a caricature.   From all reports, despite her diagnosis in 2008, the food on her show never altered in its insane level of unhealthy.  Her own son has a new cooking show where he takes her recipes and tries to make them human... I caught half of one where he took her recipe for pimento cheese, and apparently in her version it had nearly 800 calories PER SERVING, not to meantion over 57 grams of fat!!  Anthony Bourdain called her the most dangerous person in America for promoting her type of food in a country plagued with an obesity epidemic especially among children.  (Now, I've seen Tony on TV eating enough Foie Gras, duck fat, and pork products at one meal to kill a small elephant, so perhaps he oughtent be quite so harsh, but still...)

I, like many others, do find it more than a little smarmy and self-serving that her public admission comes on the heels of signing a major endorsement deal with a big pharmaceutical company who makes diabetes medication.  They are about to launch a huge PR program that Paula will be the face of, which would be less annoying if she had been publically making changes since her diagnosis, or if her diagnosis were very recent and it was part of her "new lifestyle".   The whole thing seems somewhat suspect to me, and a shame, because she lost the opportunity of the last 3+ years to help her audience and other diabetics.  Not that I think she should have turned her programs into health food shows, but even being open about her own issues and bringing in SOME healthier recipes would have been a very good thing for her audience. 

 At the end of the day, my primary feeling about Paula Deengate is that I hope she stays healthy, I hope she uses her public forum to help educate people, and hopefully becomes a postive role model for both diabetics and people at risk for developing the disease.

 I do not have an endorsement deal with a pharma company.  Nor do I have the kind of notoriety that will have any public outcry from the news I am about to share…but I too was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes about six and a half months ago.  I was very lucky that we caught it at my annual physical, that I was totally asymptomatic, and within three months was able to bring my sugar levels back into the normal range through diet and exercise and the help of a medication that I am not being paid to promote.  (But hey, if the Janumet people are reading this, feel free to make me an offer!)

 My decision to not share this with my Chickens until now, was calculated.  Not because I have a product to promte or because I am being paid by anyone, but because I wanted to spend some time to figure out what my identity is as a person living with diabetes.  I wanted to spend some time thinking about this blog and its place in my life and as representative of who I am as a writer, and decide thoughtfully how my new reality might impact that.  I knew that I did not want to suddenly become a “Diabetes Blog”, or to only share recipes that were “diabetic friendly”, because those are not the things that inspire  me to write, nor are those the things that I want to cook all the time.  One of the most important things for me was to get to a place where I understood how my condition was becoming a part of me and my life before sharing with all of you.

The most important change for me as a cook and an eater was the universal agreement by my doctor, my diabetic nutritionist, and my diabetic nurse educator was that there are NO FORBIDDEN FOODS.  Not one.  There is not a single thing in the world I cannot eat.  I just have to manage my portions.  I can have pie.  I just can’t have the WHOLE pie.  I can have sugar.  I can have pasta.  I just have to know how much I am allowed to have at any one time and not go above that amount. EVER.   

 I can’t do what I used to do when dieting, saving all my carb portions for the whole day for a pasta blowout or Cheetos festival.  My life is about managing my sugar and preventing spikes, so no more huge bowls of mashed potatoes for dinner.  But a half-cup of mashed potatoes next to my chicken and broccoli?  Sure!  The occasional 1 oz bag of Cheetos along with my lunch salad, or a scant cup of pasta with a ton of veggies bulking up the sauce?  Absolutely.  Is it better if the Cheetos are baked and the pasta whole grain?  You bet.  But if I want the real deal, I can have it.  I just have to balance it with my other food, and not go over my limit. Low carb, not no carb is the only way for diabetics to keep their sugars in check, and not going into deprivation-mode keeps you MUCH happier psychologically.

 I’ve been working the low-carb thing for just over six months now, and while it is really hard sometimes, it also has allowed me to get a handle on a lot of my eating issues.  I’m down 3-4 sizes, trying to focus on getting smaller and healthier as opposed to “losing weight”, judging progress mostly by how my clothes fit and how I feel, so I’m not enslaving myself to the scale.  I’m somewhere in the vicinity of 40 lbs lighter than I was six months ago, but most importantly, I have had normal blood sugar numbers for 3 months, and my lifestyle has changed for the better. 

 Part of this for me was that I am NOT dieting.  I’m not counting calories.  I’m not writing things down in a journal, or rocking a points system.  Because these things have never worked for me in the past.  They work well for some, and my feeling is WHATEVER works for you, go forth.  Just never was able to have success myself with those methods. 

Instead, as a major recovering carboholic (hence the whole diabetes thing), I’m counting and managing carbs, and getting regular exercise, and so far, that has done the trick.  I know that in the near future I will likely hit a plateau and stop getting smaller, and then I will have to start paying stronger attention to some of my other food groups or up the amount of exercise I am doing, but until that happens; eating-wise my sole focus is on my carbs.  And it is pretty easy once you get used to it.  No more than 12 total carb servings a day, no less than 10 per day, and no more than 4 servings in any five hour period.  It is just that simple. 

 One serving of carbs is 15 net grams, so as long as I eat between 45-60 grams in a five hour period of my waking day, I’m good to go.  Net carb grams is essentially the total number of carbs in any ingredient or food item, minus ½ the number of grams of fiber.  So if I have whole grain pasta, and one portion is 35 grams of total carbs, but there are 10 grams of dietary fiber, my net carbs are 30 grams, which is 2 carb portions.

 I try for at least 2/3 of my daily carb intake to be from “healthy carbs”, i.e.: skim milk, whole fruits,  whole grains and whole grain breads.  But I don’t deny myself the occasional “processed” carb or refined sugar.  Keeping these things in my diet in moderation has saved me from falling off the wagon or bingeing.  I often save one of my evening carb portions for something sweet…four squares of ultra dark chocolate is one carb, and while it isn’t a hot fudge sundae (oh how I miss a hot fudge sundae) it is real chocolate, delicious, and keeps me mentally sated.  On the days where ALL my carbs are super healthy, I feel very virtuous, but on the rare days when only ½ of them are, I don’t beat up on myself.  It is all about balance, and if I keep within my allowable portions, I know I don’t put my health in danger.

 Obviously this is the very Reader’s Digest version, but as I mentioned, I have no intention of this become a diet or diabetic blog.  You are still going to get tons of amazing “normal” recipes (wait till I tell you about the Brown Sugar Bacon Cookies!), and the usual rants about whoever has ticked me off this week.  But when I come across a healthy recipe that I think is amazingly delish?  I’ll share. 

You have to be careful with this type of eating, in that low-carb does not always equal low-calorie.  Sometimes the calories can even be higher, which seems rude to me.  But for the moment, as long as I am staying within my limits, I am good to go. 

In honor of my coming out, I thought I would share a delicious low-carb recipe, that also happens to be gluten free.  (I don’t have a gluten issue, but if you do or know someone who does, here you go!) 

 This is a new one that I found over at ibreatheimhungry.com and I have adapted it a bit.  Again, this is not a low-calorie recipe, the calories are actually about the same as they would be for regular pizza crust, but for those of us who need to do low-carb or gluten free, it is a boon.  Because flax meal is entirely dietary fiber, the net carbs are negligible.  Which means if you are craving pizza in that “I want to eat a WHOLE pizza” way and not the “I am fine with being rational and having one piece of pizza and a big salad” way, but don’t want to derail your low-carb thing, especially for diabetics it is a much safer thing to eat.  The recipe also works for making crackers, which is a great thing to bring to the next wine and cheese party, especially if you aren't advertising your need to avoid lots of carbs.  Even better, it doesn’t need to rise and comes together in about 2 minutes, so you can actually have pizza faster than delivery.  It is a great base for whatever toppings you like, great for experimenting with leftovers!

 Almost No-Carb Pizza Crust

Adapted from I Breathe I’m Hungry Blog

 1 cup flax meal (ground flax seeds, I get mine at Whole Foods) 

1 whole egg plus one egg white (the original used 2 whole eggs, but I’m saving where I can, and it doesn’t affect the end result as far as I can tell)

1/3 cup finely grated parmesan cheese (the original used ½ c, but I found it fine with the slight reduction, and better for making crackers so that the parmesan flavor was less pronounced and didn’t interfere with any cheese you might want to eat with the crackers)

1 t kosher salt

Mix all ingredients in a medium bowl. Press onto a cookie sheet covered in parchment paper about 1/3 inch thick in a circle, leaving a slight ridge around the edge.

Bake in a preheated 350 degree (F) oven for 10-12 minutes. Should feel very firm to the touch.  Remove. Cool at least 15 minutes on a rack, but longer if you want. 

Place crust on a piece of parchment paper on a cutting board or on the back of a sheet pan.  Preheat oven to 400 degrees.   Add a light bit of sauce and the toppings of your choice (anything that is likely to get soggy, like watery veggies-tomatoes, peppers, onions, you might want to pre-cook to prevent the crust from losing its crisp).

I want to try doing just toppings and cheese and sauce on the side for dipping, but I like a really crispy crust.  As is, with sauce and not too much topping moisture, you should have a crust that is firm enough to pick up, but still pliable.  Slide the pizza (still on the paper) onto the center rack of your oven.  Bake for another 14-18 minutes at 400. Your toppings should be bubbling and your crust should be crispy on the outside.  Remove by pulling the parchment gently towards you and sliding the pizza back onto the cutting board or back of a sheet pan.  Let rest 5 minutes before cutting.   I like to do this at higher heat and directly on the rack because it helps ensure the crust stays crisp on the bottom.

For this pizza, I used about ¼ c of marinara sauce, 1 leftover turkey meatball that I diced up, about ½ a fresh mozzarella ball, sliced thin, and some fresh basil.  Because the crust is whole grain, it is filling, so this 10 inch pizza is enough to serve 2 people pretty amply, which would make it both rational in terms of calories and very low carb. 

Please understand, this is not going to have the taste or texture of regular bread dough.   It will remind you more of a soft nutty whole grain cracker.  So if you are having serious PIZZA cravings, you might find it disappointing.  But the flavor is good, and if you are open to it being its own thing, I think you will like it.  You can experiment and add herbs or other hard cheeses to the dough, try it with golden flax meal instead of brown, whatever you want!

 CRACKERS:  To make crackers, press or roll the dough thinly as you can on a greased cookie sheet.  Drizzle or spray with a small amount of olive oil.  If you want toppings like poppyseeds or sesame seeds or herbs, sprinkle them on top.  Score with a knife into the size crackers you want, I usually do squat rectangles.  Bake at 350 for 8-10 minutes, or until they feel very firm to the touch.  Cool on a rack before breaking into crackers. 

The last thing I will say is this...if you are at risk, either because of family history or a weight problem, get tested.  If your doctors says your sugars are pre-diabetic or getting close, get some help and change your eating before it becomes full-blown, because words like Chronic and Managable are not equal to Fun and Delightful.   There are plenty of skinny people who get Type 2 diabetes, and plenty of obese people who don't.  But know your numbers, and if you need to, make some changes.  Even the difference of losing 10 pounds or changing your diet or getting some exercise can make a world of difference.  I was on the high side of normal sugars for about five years, and if I had made some of these changes then, I might have avoided it becoming full-blown altogether.  Dumbass me.

Stay tuned later this week when we talk about some molecular cocktails and those Brown Sugar Bacon Cookies.  In honor of poor Paula Deen and everything she is going through this week.  Because if you are going to save one of your precious carb portions to have just one cookie, you definitely want bacon in it.  I'm not saying, I'm just saying.  (And Paula?  You can't deep fry it or put it between two doughnuts, 'kay?)

Yours in Good Taste,
The Polymath

Monday, January 23, 2012

Check out this new cookbook!

I was very honored when the people from Lodge Cast Iron, a company whose products I love and use and recommend all the time, asked me to contribute a recipe to their new cookbook!

As you all know, I am a total cookbook junkie, and have dreams of writing one of my own someday, so this was like a little gift!  And which is better, the book is filled with the kinds of recipes I love, warm, comforting home cooking, sourced from all sorts of wonderful people, from culinary professionals to passionate home cooks.  I am very proud to have been a part of it.

You can pre-order your copy by clicking here.  The Lodge Cast Iron Cokbook

They have printed my recipe for caramelized Brussels sprouts, which I have used over the years to make fans of many a staunch sprout hater.  Charming Suitor never much liked the sprouts till I made them for him this way, and Amazing Goddaughter loves them more than any child has ever loved a green vegetable.

But while the cookbook would be worth it for just that recipe alone, there are dozens more I'm excited to try, including a prize-winning chili recipe, pan-roasted sausage and grapes from award winning cookbook author Clifford A. Wright, and CS will heartily approve of the This Ain't No Yankee Cornbread recipe from Tamie Cook, the culinary director of the Good Eats series.

I hope you will check it out!

Yours in Good Taste,
The Polymath

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Christmas FAIL

Let me preface this post by saying that Charming Suitor and I had a wonderful Christmas.  We were both on vacation, we honored the traditions of my people by having a Chinatown Peking Duck feast and movie on Christmas Eve.  And the traditions of his by spending Christmas Day with my brother from another mother Officer K and his family, twinkly lights and presents and glorious ham. 

Let me also say that I completely own my personal part of the failure of which I am about to speak.  I do not want to imply that this situation wasn't of my own making. 

And yet...

NapaStyle.com can suck it.

Not familiar with NapaStyle?  They are the retail catalog and online store owned by Chef Michael Chiarello.  They sell tableware, gourmet presents, home decor, you know, my heroin.  I had never ordered anything from them before, but in the pre-holiday internet surfing, I came across their site, and wandered about for a while.  I have always had respect for Chef Chiarello.  From all reports he is a skilled chef, and genuinely nice guy. I have watched him on shows like Top Chef Masters, and thought he seemed a good competitor, made interesting food, and seemed universally well liked by his peers.  Charming Suitor and I have always said that on our next trip to Napa, we want to eat at his restaurant.  So I do not blame him for the issues I have with his side business.  I'm pretty sure he doesn't run it himself, but has a team of people managing the retail side for him.  And they can suck it.

I will start by saying that CS and I discussed the Christmas Tree thing back around Thanksgiving.  Being Jewish, I've never had one, but was certainly not adverse if CS wanted to have one, I think they are beautiful.  However, CS gave me a quick lesson in the less than fun aspects of having a tree.  We agree that neither of us like the look of the fake trees.  They seem all plasticy and trying to be something they are not. 

Real trees, apparently, are a major pain in the butt.  They get needles and sap everywhere, which is not ideal when you have really nice antique rugs that cost a fortune to clean.  They are a pain to set up and an even bigger pain to take down.  There is no earthly way to prevent the lights from becoming a tangled mess. 

Then there is the cost.  Having had cats for the better part of the last two decades, CS never had a tree, because tree + cats = broken ornaments and possible catrocution.  So CS does not own a single ornament, string of lights, or tree topper.  He smiled at me and my willingness to go all decorative for his holiday, but gently suggested that if he let me loose on designing a tree, we might have to hock a kidney to pay for it.  Having looked online at some ornaments, some of which were upwards of $20 EACH, I recognized that he was right.  Starting from scratch sounded very expensive, and we were both looking forward to the post-holiday sales, I knew I'd much rather have new boots than a tree.

Fast forward to December 14, and my discovery of NapaStyle.  While looking around the site, I see it.

A Christmas Tree. 

Made out of reclaimed French oak wine barrel staves.

Let's think about this....

They take old French wine barrels, which have given their all in the creation of delicious wines, take them apart, and craft Christmas trees out of them.  So while they technically fall into the "fake" tree catagory, they do so in a stylish way and without plastic greenery.  They are a repurposed product, so very "Green", which we like.  And Charming Suitor is a serious oenophile and wine collector, so I knew he would appreciate a wine barrel tree.  It is only 45" tall, so not some enormous monstrosity, and folds flat for easy storage.

My heart leapt.  It looked like we could have the best of both worlds, a sort of a holiday tree, that would look great, last forever, and not be a huge pain in the ass.

At this point, I realized that all over the NapaStyle website it said "Order ground shipping by December 18 for guaranteed Christmas Delivery."  I could picture the whole thing.  If I ordered that moment, I would get the tree by around the 20th.  The 21st was CS' last day of work before vacation, so while he was gone I could set up the tree, add a few little white lights, and maybe some trinkets from around the house...I have every champagne cork from every bottle we have shared since our first date, I could just place some of them on the "branches" and call it a day.  No enormous investment in ornaments.

The tree was not inexpensive, and CS and I had agreed not to do presents for each other, but I could not resist.  It was our first Christmas as a married couple and I wanted to do something special.

And I failed.

I ordered promptly.   And waited.  I got an order confirmation, but no shipping confirmation.  No tracking number.  By the 18th, I was getting worried that the surprise element would be impossible to pull off.  I checked my order.  It listed it as Processing.  I e-mailed Customer Service, asking why there was no shipping confirmation, when I had ordered within the advertised time for Ground Delivery by Christmas. 

Customer Service?

Did not reply.

On the 19th, I checked again.  Processing.  There was no way this thing was arriving by Christmas.  I went back to the listing for the tree just to look at it again, and then I saw it.  In tiny little print at the bottom "This item ships directly from Manufacturer, allow 3-4 weeks for delivery."

F***.  F***ety F*** F*** F***.

Now, I know that it was my responsibility to read the whole page before ordering this thing.  I get that they put that on the listing so that people knew it took a long time for the thing to get delivered.  And therefore I know that the Christmas failure, in almost every aspect, is my own.


For NapaStyle to have a CHRISTMAS item listed in their SEASONAL GIFTS section on December 14 on their website, which is screaming at you all over the place that you can order things Ground Shipping by Dec. 18 for Christmas delivery, and not make exceedingly clear that there is no freaking way to have that item by Christmas, that is just crappy.  Even if you keep the listing up, make the shipping restrictions BOLD, big letters, top of the listing.  THIS ITEM WILL NOT ARRIVE IN TIME FOR CHRISTMAS.  Which is worse, even if they decided not to do that, it is not hard to have your checkout set up with a ping that would tell you the item is a 3-4 week delivery time.  I ordered a bra the same day, and at checkout was informed that it was backordered and would not ship before 1/20, and it asked did I still want to order it?  A $45 bra.  Just a heads up, this will take a while to get to you.  But a $300 CHRISTMAS TREE?  That won't arrive for Christmas?  You're on your own, lady.

I took a deep breath.  It was the holidays.  Magical things happen all the time.  I sent Customer Service another e-mail.  Explained the sitch.  Asked for the phone info for the manufacturer, figuring maybe I could light a fire directly and still make it in time.  Wouldn't be as big a surprise, but we could decorate it together and still have it for the holiday.

Customer Service?

Never replied.

But suddenly @NapaStyle was following me on Twitter.

I gave it another shot, and tweeted to @NapaStyle AND @ChefMichaelChiarello  Hoping for a Christmas Miracle.

Neither replied. 

I direct messaged @NapaStyle "Having a issue and no response from customer service.  Help?"

No help was forthcoming.  I fessed up the whole mess to CS, who laughed, said it was a sweet thought, and that I was just really ahead of the game for next year.  Which made me feel better, but still....

Yesterday evening Charming Suitor and I returned from the Farm to discover a huge box on the front porch.  Yep, FIVE weeks later, our tree has arrived.  And to be clear, it is everything I thought it would be.  It is truly lovely, the perfect size, smells deliciously of oak and aged wine, and will be a wonderful addition to our holidays for years to come.  Charming Suitor absolutely loves it.  And we agree on two things. 

We have the coolest Christmas tree of anyone we know.

And NapaStyle is off our list. 

Because I get that ultimately the initial problem was my own idiocy and lack of careful reading....but the complete and total unresponsiveness, particularly at that time of year, is just unforgivable.

Yours in Good Taste and Festive Spirit,
The Polymath

Friday, January 13, 2012

C is for Cookie, that's good enough for me.

It's the little things.  That's what they always tell you.  Falling in love, or out of love for that matter, is almost never about the big things, it is about the smallest things.

I have occasionally flippantly said that I divorced my wasband because he brought home the wrong salad dressing from the grocery store.  This isn't empirically true.  I divorced him because after 11 years together, it became clear that we were no longer in love, no longer a good or smart or fixable match.  We had grown in directions that weren't compatible, and that manifested itself in myriad ways.  All of them little.  We weren't big fighters, there weren't horrible abusive blow-ups.  There wasn't some enormous catalystic event. 

(Catalystic is a word I have just made up, and give to you for your own use.  I'm a professional writer, I can do that.)

Nope, it was just a build-up of many many little things, the last of which happened to be bringing home the wrong salad dressing.  Which wasn't about the salad dressing at all, but rather about recognizing that after all those years, the man I was living with had no clue who I was or what made me happy.  (Or what makes salad delicious, but that is secondary.)

On the flip side, it is also the little things that made me fall in love with Charming Suitor, and make me love him a little bit more every eleven minutes.  The inumerable ways he has shown me every day since we met that I matter, the way he honors my opinions, the way he makes me laugh.  It is the way he will get into my side of the bed in the winter to warm it for me before I get in.  His genuine excitement at spending time out in the woods chopping down trees with my dad.  His tolerance of my (many) quirks and foibles.  The way he makes a perfect Negroni.

One of the things that always makes my heart smile is how he interacts with "my" friends.  (Who are now, blissfully, OUR friends.) 

Case in point, today's e-mail exchange about Amazing Goddaughter's current entreprenaurial endeavor:

From: Rachel
Sent: Friday, January 13, 2012 9:56 AM
To: Kevin; Stacey; Bill; susan; Jeremy; Denise; John
Subject: girl scout cookies, oh yeah it's happening...

 Hello friends...

 It's finally happening, Charlotte is selling girl-scout cookies, anyone interested in being pitched?

From: John
Sent: Friday, January 13, 2012 10:07 AM
To: Rachel; Kevin; Stacey; Bill; susan; Jeremy; Denise
Subject: RE: girl scout cookies, oh yeah it's happening...

 Yes, but I will require a side by side analysis of what makes her cookies better than others, including both qualitative and quantitative analysis. I expect a crisp sales pitch and I can only allow 10 minutes of my time.

 Also, I’d like some thin mints to snack on while I’m being pitched.

Charming Suitor's response?

From: Bill
Sent: Friday, January 13, 2012 10:07 AM
To: Rachel; Kevin; Stacey; John; susan; Jeremy; Denise
Subject: RE: girl scout cookies, oh yeah it's happening...

As this is my business, I concur with John’s analysis.

 First of all, in a commoditized business, first mover advantage is critical. We, for example to date, have purchased 3 boxes of cookies from the breeders in my office who have inundated me with seemingly innocent sign-up sheets. This does not preclude additional purchases, but rather provides a leading indicator for future gains in potential share. I believe we can establish benchmarks for next year’s selling season.

 As per John’s thinly (mintly?) veiled hint alludes, sampling programs are among the most effective trial vehicles to establish both awareness and conversion.  Again, I can provide a sample of one, confirming that the likelihood of purchasing Angry Samoans increases exponentially if one is simultaneously tasting said Samoan. I am sure that this result is transferable to Thin Mint consumers.  Of course, the issue is always scaleability.

 As there are at least two and possibly three Peanut Butter-driven product offerings available, Charlotte might stress the potential for breadth across the product line as opposed to depth of penetration within any given single vertical formulation.

 Don’t overlook the opportunity to initiate an ongoing panel to determine more brand-oriented metrics. We might consider a test versus control approach to benchmarking “softer” metrics like relative happiness of those who purchase Charlotte’s cookies versus the control group of complete slackers and non-nurturers who do not purchase cookies.

 The possibilities are endless. The challenge is establishing solid objectives, employing aligned strategies and flawless tactical execution.

 Remember, people buy from people they like, so I’m sure Charlotte will be wildly successful.  


And that?  Right there?  That is why I married him.  Because this e-mail made me laugh like a hyena in the middle of my day. 

And because he knows what salad dressing I like. 

It's the little things.

I can't guarantee you a CS of your own, but I can tell you that a good Negroni covers a lot of ills:


1 part Campari
1 part Gin
1 part Sweet Vermouth

Mix well and serve over ice with a slice of orange.  More delicious if shared with someone you adore.
Yours in Good Taste,
The Polymath

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Happy New Year! And wash your damn hands.

Chickens, in honor of the new year that has begun, and the spirit of change and embracing newness that accompanies this time of year, I want to talk about food safety.

 I know, I know, every other blog in the world is discussing how to stick to your resolutions, how to get rid of those holiday pounds everyone packed on, how to celebrate the wonders of the new year, offering expressions of love and gratitude. 

 And don’t get me wrong, I am full of love and gratitude.  2011, while somewhat relentless, was the best year of my life, since I got to marry my soul mate and best friend, have wonderful travels, and write a book that I am very proud of, which I will get to share with you next summer.

 While I managed to get through the festivities without putting on any weight, I didn’t lose any either, so it is time to get refocused on continuing to get smaller and healthier.  I make it a habit not to make resolutions, except to remember to be good to the people I love, laugh more, be kinder. 

 But a recent experience of a friend of mine made me think about a topic that is near and dear to my heart as a cook and a hostess, and I thought it was time I shared my thoughts.  After all, I consider it my obligation to inspire you all to eat well and entertain better, and sometimes that means fun ideas for tablesettings and delicious recipes, and sometimes it is more practical.

 Last week, one of my besties e-mailed our little lunch bunch to inquire as to the best way to avoid eating at an event at her friend’s home that evening. 

Not because she is on a post-holiday diet, her bod is, as the kids say, slammin’. 

 And not because she has dietary restrictions due to illness or religion. 

 She wanted to know how to handle not eating there because she knows her friend to be lax in the hand-washing department, having witnessed this otherwise put-together pal skip the sink in a public restroom, and a surprising dearth of hand soap in the woman’s personal bathroom and kitchen.

 We all recommended that she eat before she arrived, and then claim a recent bout of stomach flu had left her tummy wonky.   Apparently this tactic worked, and she was able to spend the evening with her friends and not let any food pass her lips.  But it made me think.  Maybe there are people who just don’t know how to handle food safety in their home, or how to make it clear to their guests that there is nothing to fear in the hummus.

 It almost goes without saying that I’m very diligent about food safety. 

 Charming Suitor might say obsessive, but it is his own fault that he didn’t eat the leftover take-out within a time frame I considered to be safe, and my throwing it away was just an expression of my love, protecting him from tummy troubles. 

Every time. 

 (You have three days, my love, and then it gets binned.  Period.)

 Expiration dates are my friends, I do pay careful attention to them.  (Not to be confused with Sell By dates, I’m diligent but not ridiculous.)

 But here is the deal…I have spent my entire adult life dealing with stomach issues.  Gastric reflux since I was 18, gallbladder removal in my early 30s.  I have enough problems dealing with my stomach’s irritability without inviting the additional problems of food-borne illness.  And I have had a few really horrible bouts of food poisoning.  Ever been sick every 45 minutes on a 12 hour plane flight?  No?  I have. 

Not. A. Good. Time. 

And here is the thing about food poisoning.  It is almost never about food that has gone bad, despite my dumping the dim sum.  It is almost always about either cross-contamination in the kitchen or food handlers who have not WASHED THEIR HANDS.

 All those incidences of toxic spinach and deadly cantaloupe?  From workers going to the bathroom in the fields, not washing hands and harvesting their own germs along with the produce.  Which is exactly what you do on a smaller scale if you don’t scrub up after you go potty.  All that salmonella?  One bad bird on a butcher’s board, and every bird after is tainted.

We know that eating out, things are out of your control, you go to places you trust and hope for the best. But you eat the majority of your meals at YOUR HOUSE.  That’s right.  Your best chance of getting food poisoning is to not have YOUR kitchen properly maintained, or forgetting to wash YOUR hands before you touch food.

 And since it can take food-borne illness up to 48 hours to incubate, that means the sickness you so easily blame on the restaurant you ate at tonight, could have really been the food you prepared yourself last night. 

 I’m not insane.  I don’t expect everyone to keep their kitchens like an operating theater.  I certainly don’t.  But there are a few simple things you can do to really make a difference. 

 And let me be clear, your friends NOTICE. You might think nothing of your son’s muddy soccer cleats and the dog’s battered chew toys dumped on your kitchen island, but people who come over see that and think “Hmmm, I think I’ll skip the cupcakes.”.  Mary Ann and The Professor might be cherished furry members of your family, but watching them prance out of the litterbox and then take up residence on the cutting board says “No crudites for me, please.”.

 And for sure, the one time you and I go to the ladies together and you keep me company while I wash my hands and you don’t so much as wave yours in the vague direction of water, that is the last time I break bread at your house.

 I have some really good friends who are terrible cooks.   Really REALLY awful.  Over or underseasoned veggies, meat the texture of shoe leather, crunchy in the middle potatoes, watery soups and mushy pastas.  But I double down on my Prilosec and eat at their tables, because what they make they make with love and effort and while I know the food isn’t going to be delish, I also have faith that it isn’t hazardous to my health.  Heartburn I can handle.  Its E-coli I’m not so keen on.

So, how do you make sure that you are keeping your family safe and your friends attending your parties?  It’s actually not that complicated.

 I swear by a simple diluted bleach solution to keep counters, sinks, and cutting boards ready for duty.  Just ½ t of chlorine bleach in a squirt bottle full of water.  I keep it on hand and give counters a quick spritz and wipe before and after prepping food.  If I prep food in my sink, same goes there.  It couldn’t be simpler, it’s an easy habit to get into, and it isn’t expensive.  Win, win, win.

 Kitchen sponges and rags get a run through the dishwasher along with the evening dishes.  Not necessarily every day, but at least two or three times a week, and for sure after preparing raw meat or poultry or eggs.  Doesn’t damage them, I just pop them in the top rack and let it go.  If you don’t have a dishwasher, a minute or two in the microwave will kill any bacteria, and be sure to toss them in the laundry once a week or so. 

 Cross contamination is your enemy, so wiping up the spilled raw egg from the morning pancake festival, and then using the same sponge to wash the plate and fork or wipe down the cutting board…you can see where the problem lies.  Many restaurant kitchens use different color cutting boards for different foods, but despite my diligence, I’m way too lazy to deal with six different colored cutting boards.  I keep two or three sponges in rotation and once I use one to wipe anything that had raw meats or poultry or uncooked eggs, I immediately pop it right in the dishwasher so I don’t forget where it has been. Then I just use my bleach water spray on my cutting board, and make sure to grab a clean sponge or paper towel for the wipe-down.

 I no longer have pets, but for the eight years I had cats, they had free range of the house….except the kitchen counters.  I trained them as kittens with a squirt bottle of plain water (don’t confuse it with your bleach counter spray, please!), anytime they went on the counter, or geared up for the leap, they got a faceful of water.  Took less than two weeks of being diligent and I never saw them, or any evidence of them, up there again.  If you don’t have the ability to train them, do think about whether you can limit their access to the kitchen when you are not there.  And again, if you can’t manage to keep your countertops a food-only zone, your before and after bleach water regimen will keep things safe.  Keeping litterboxes far away from the kitchen is also a good idea, regardless. 

And finally, there is no substitute for hand washing.  With soap.  I keep pump bottles of liquid soap in the bathroom and next to the kitchen sink.   When cooking, I wash before I start, and in between handling different foods.  Doctors say frequent hand washing is the best way to prevent colds and flu as well, so there are other health benefits!

 I’m not going to get into things like safe cooking temperatures; you know not to give your guests medium rare chicken.  But simple things like keeping your cooking surfaces and cleaning tools and hands clean, they will keep you and your family safe, and your guests asking for seconds.

 I also highly recommend the app Still Tasty to help you figure out if what you are about to eat is in the safe zone.  It totally validates my disposal of the leftover take-out.  (Every time.)

 Having the gang over this weekend, and testing a couple new recipes, so stay tuned for (hopefully) some tasty new recipes!

Yours in Good Taste,
The Polymath