Monday, September 21, 2009

Salt redux

If you haven't read the multi-part special feature on salt in the Globe and Mail, have a look. The series was first published during the summer, but is still available on their website and well worth examining.

In case we need reminding, Canadians consume on average twice the amount of salt required for a healthy diet. While we've become obsessed with monitoring our fat and sugar intake, we continue to scarf down 3,092 mg of sodium daily. Low fat and "healthy" choice prepared foods such as President's Choice Blue Menu products have up to 600 mg of sodium per serving, almost half-way to the 1,500 mg per day quota for optimal health. A diet high in sodium is particularly detrimental to individuals who have high blood pressure or are prone to hypertension. (Watch this narrated video diagram on how salt affects your body.) Clearly, if consumers were as attentive to the negative health impact of salt as they are to the effects of sugar and fat on their waistlines, manufacturers would be forced to redefine what constitutes a "healthy" choice.

The Globe feature includes a number of interesting articles. Who knew, for instance, that you can limit your salt intake by seasoning your food at the end of preparation rather than at the beginning? Apparently, we require less salt to taste when we salt previously unsalted food at the table verses food prepared with salt. Also amusing is Dave McGinn's The Sodium Diaries, a daily blog devoted to his efforts to stick to the 1,500 mg per day quota, which he fails miserably. I guess no one pointed out that if you want to stick to the daily limit, you can kiss eating prepared foods goodbye: everything from instant oatmeal to canned tuna, our ideas of "healthy" choices, contain heaps of salt.

The bottom line, as always, is that healthy living requires commitment and forethought. All we can hope for is that over time, our governments will consider excessive salt intake a national health crisis, as it did with smoking in the 1980's, and will throw its weight behind the awareness campaigns, incentives and bans this issue deserves.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Chocolate collard green pie

My next post is taking longer to write than I anticipated, so in the interim, here is something to read:

Chef Harry Eastwood has created Red Velvet and Chocolate Heartache, a book of baking recipes that hide vegetables in cakes, pies and cookies and apparently taste great. This article in the The Globe and Mail is a tad misleading, suggesting that Eastwood's recipes are healthy because they replace butter and sugar for veggies. While there are lots of specific starchy vegetables (not a kale cake in sight, I'm sure) in each recipe, they are also loaded with nuts to replace the butter, and they still contain sugar. Perhaps readers, sensing that "Muscavado" sugar must be exotic and therefore healthier than the plain old, are the same people who also think "evaporated cane juice" is somehow not sugar either. Regardless, almond flour baked goods are always a treat, so it's nice to have a new recipe.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Mass vs. volume... mass wins!

At last, the perfect loaf of bread. I've been waiting a long, long time for this. I had almost given up on being able to bake a light, fluffy loaf of bread. Even my husband was starting to get a little disparaging. After chewing thoughtfully on a slice of my last loaf, he admitted: "Maybe bread just isn't something you're good at making." Oh, how I hated hearing that. But a part of me thought that he might be right.

Until today, all of my bread has been leaden. "Dense" would be a compliment for my bread, suggesting the healthiness of whole grain rather than what the loaves really were: edible door stoppers. It seemed that each loaf I made was heavier than the last. Although they all contained the same amount of flour, less and less air puffed its way into the dough, compressing more and more grain into every slice. I followed my recipe book slavishly, measuring accurately, kneading accordingly. I would wait patiently at the oven door, hoping the dough would make its final ascent in the heat and heartbroken when it didn't. All of these efforts to no avail. My bread was a failure.

Today, I put my bread book away and thought I'd try one last time. I had nothing to lose, and so I followed the simple direction given by Michael Ruhlman in his book Ratio. His bread dough ratio is so simple: five parts flour and three parts water. Add some yeast, salt for flavour and oil if you like. Knead and let rise as you please.

I used my kitchen scale and measured out 20 oz of flour (mostly white; about 1/4 whole wheat) and 12 oz of lukewarm water. I added two packages of yeast, about 1/2 Tbsp of salt, a glug glug glug of olive oil and a long squirt of honey. I also threw in a handful of whole grains (millet and Scottish oats) for some crunch. Then, I kneaded the dough for about 10 minutes and put it in a bowl, covered with plastic wrap, and set it in the stereo cabinet to rise. After about an hour, I punched the dough down, wrapped it back up, and let it rise again. After another hour or so, I took the dough to the kitchen, kneaded it for about another minute or so, cut it in half to form into two loaves, and let them rise covered with a kitchen towel for about 30 minutes. Then I baked them for 35 minutes in a 375ºF oven. Done.

I surmise that the problems I had been having with my previous breads is that my recipes had too much flour and not enough liquid. By measuring the bread to liquid ration by weight and not volume, I will be able to make bread with consistency, I hope. As you may know, the volume of flour changes dramatically over time; sifted flour, light and lofty, will take up more volume per ounce than unsifted flour. Any European cookbook I have ever read always measures baking ingredients by mass, not volume. But for some reason, North American recipes have always relied on imperial volumetric measures for dry ingredients.

All this to say that if you like fresh bread, go out to Canadian Tire and buy a kitchen scale, measure out your ingredients and have fun. It's really easy, and will surely be the best bread you have ever tasted.

Eggs and broccoli

I went for a proper brunch the other day, and by proper I mean for a meal I could never be bothered to make at home. I had eggs Florentine, a life-long favourite: poached eggs on English muffin with steamed spinach and hollandaise. Making this dish at home, though possible of course, is fraught with difficulty. While steamed spinach and toast are fairly simple to manage, the other two components are a nightmare of timing and precision.

I've made hollandaise sauce once in my life: successfully, though not without the requisite bother. Setting aside the concern of the shocking amount of butter needed to make hollandaise, the sauce also requires feats of strength and patience to complete. The mixture of butter and egg yolk, once combined in a bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water (a bain marie), must be whisked continuously to avoid separation or over cooking. In addition, hollandaise must be served immediately after it has been made, for it continues to thicken if left on the heat or separate if unattended. Unless I either hire a sous chef or grow another pair of arms, poached eggs (a task requiring an equal amount of attention and care) and hollandaise is a meal best left to professionals.

And yet, now that I've had a taste for unctuous butter mixed with the tang of lemon juice and the smoothness of egg yolk, I can't go back to plain boiled eggs for breakfast. And so, I have invented my own poached eggs hollandaise: two soft boiled eggs with butter and a squirt of lemon juice. It's cooking down to the basic ingredients, and it certainly will never replace the original. But, cooking is about making something to eat, not driving yourself crazy, so I am pleased that my minimalist version is so satisfying.

From the web
Ever wonder how long mothers have been forcing their kids to finish their broccoli? Eight thousand years, give or take. This food time line tells us at what point in human history different food items found their way onto our plates. We've been eating wheat for 10,000 years, though ravioli is a 13th century invention. Some items I've never heard of, like the emmer and einkorn grains of 17,000 and 16,000 BC, respectively. Also listed is the first cookbook, a Dutch "kitchen book" called "Good and Noble Food", published sometime in the 15th century. Given Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in 1440, it must not have been long before someone noticed such books would be appreciated.

P.S. I took a break from Pickle Pea over the summer, as regular readers may have noticed. (Sorry for the lack of notice. Thanks for your patience!) I'm back now. Expect a return to my usual schedule of 3-4 posts/month.