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Life without peanut butter

Because my 10-year-old is allergic to peanuts, I had to give up one of my favorite vegetarian lunches, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I tried soy nut butter, but it has a distinct soy flavor that I found to be somewhat unpleasant. I even tried chocolate soy butter, but it was pretty vile, not too surprising, I guess. Other nut butters (almond, cashew, . . .) are out as Eli is equally allergic to tree nuts. Then a year or two ago, a friend introduced me to Sun Butter, which is made of ground sunflower seeds. It doesn’t really taste like peanut butter, but it has a pleasant flavor in its own right and goes well with strawberry jam. So, now I have a new default lunch, Wasa bread with Sun Butter and strawberry jam.

Anyway, it’s funny that I like peanut butter and jelly so much, since I absolutely hated both peanut butter and jelly as a kid. In fact, throughout elementary school, I had a plain cream cheese sandwich on white bread pretty much every day. I liked plain mayonnaise sandwiches also, but I only got those at home when I made them myself. Every now and then, my mom would throw in a tuna salad or egg salad sandwich, but I really preferred the cream cheese.

Fortunately, I do not have to worry about packing lunches for my kids most days, because our school lunch program is pretty good. The kids have access to a salad bar and fresh fruit everyday, and menu choices such as chicken nuggets and french fries have been removed. Even the pizza is whole wheat. Unfortunately, this is not the norm. Here is a link to an entertaining video on school lunches produced by high school students. It demonstrates pretty clearly what is wrong with school lunch programs today, and also what some districts are doing to improve. I’ll write more about school lunches in my next post.


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The Next Step

I have to say, following these rules (see sidebar) has been a lot easier than I expected. I enjoy the extra baking and my family likes the homemade bread and snacks. Making oatmeal from scratch rather than from an instant packet requires nothing more onerous than washing an extra pot. Frying an egg takes no more effort really than pouring a bowl of cereal, and on the weekends I make at least one extra large batch of whole wheat pancakes or waffles and freeze the extras for use during the week. Dinners also have not been a problem, as long as I think ahead.

I do find I need to shop for groceries more frequently because I am buying more fresh produce, but my trips to the grocery store are much quicker because I pretty much skip the entire middle section of the super market. I’ve even started taking my kids with me again, and instead of complaining about all the things I am not buying, they read ingredient labels, amazed at the number of ingredients found in some of their favorite snack foods.

In his book, In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan repeats the following mantra: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” I think for the most part, we are now eating “food”, as opposed to over-processed food products, so recently, I have been trying to act on the rest of the mantra, specifically “mostly plants.” I am finding this to be much more of a challenge.

For the most part, I have fallen into the habit of serving the typical American dinner: a slab of meat as the main course, accompanied by a starch, vegetables and maybe a salad. I’m searching for ways to eliminate or reduce the amount of meat (or eggs or cheese), in our diets. I have to admit, I have probably not been as adventurous as I could be. I should push the kids a little to try unfamiliar vegetable or spice combinations. But, to be honest, I find it incredibly frustrating to find, after spending an hour or more cooking, that my kids hate what I’ve made. I wouldn’t care really, but I feel obligated to find something else for them to eat, which is not easy especially since we no longer have things like frozen dinners or chicken nuggets in the house. For the time being, I find that the kids are very happy with a soup or chili in which perhaps half the meat is taken out and replaced with beans. I am hopeful that over time, I will be able to reduce the proportion of meat to beans until the meat is gone completely.

Here is a soup from Martha Stewart Living that contains both meat and beans. It also has turnips and kale, which my kids actually eat without complaining:

Olive oil

1 large onion, diced

1/4 C. flour

2 1/2 quarts of chicken or vegetable stock

2 med. potatoes, diced

2 parsnips, diced

1 large turnip, diced

1 bay leaf

1 whole chicken breast

1 bunch fresh kale, chopped

2 t. finely chopped fresh oregano (or 1t. dried)

1 can white beans, rinsed and drained

2 C. low-fat milk

1. Saute the onion until translucent, about 8 minutes. Stir in flour and continue stirring until combined, about 1 minute

2. Stir in the stock and add all the vegetables except the kale, the bay leaf and the chicken bresast. Cover. Simmer until chicken is cooked through, about 30 minutes.

3. Transfer chicken to cutting board, cool and then pull from bones and cut into 1/2 inch pieces. Return chicken to pot, add kale and oregano. Cook until Kale is tender.

4. Add beans and cook 10 minutes. Stir in milk; cook just until heated through, about 5 minutes. Don’t let soup boil or mild may curdle.

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What’s for Dinner

One of the biggest challenges to getting dinner on the table, for me, is that during the hours between the end of school and dinnertime, when I would like to be cooking, I am usually in the car instead, driving to soccer, fencing, music lessons and other activities. This is not an insurmountable problem, but it requires me to do some planning, not really my strong suit. I find it very hard to think about what I might like to eat for dinner at 10 in the morning, when I have just had breakfast. In the past, I would start thinking about dinner about half an hour before I wanted to eat, and hope to have it done within about an hour. I am trying to reform. However, on days when I just can’t decide, I usually just set a batch of bread dough to rise. Even a simple dinner of scrambled eggs and a salad becomes special with a loaf of fresh bread to go with it. Here is a link to an article containing my current favorite bread recipe.

Sometimes, instead of a loaf of bread, I make bagels, especially in the winter, because the bagels are boiled before baking, making the kitchen warm and steamy. A pleasure when the air outside is cool and dry, but not so much in the summertime. The recipe makes about 10 medium sized bagels, but it’s worth doubling. They freeze beautifully and taste so much better than your typical suburban bagel. The recipe comes from Molly O’Neill’s New York Cookbook, although I have modified her method of shaping the bagels.

1 package yeast

3 t. brown sugar

1 1/2 cups warm water

1 T. salt

4 cups flour

cornmeal for dusting

1. Place the yeast in a large bowl. Add the warm water and half the brown sugar. Stir well and set aside for about 5 minutes.

2. Add the remaining sugar and the salt and stir well. Add the flour one cup at a time. Using  your hands, mix the dough until the flour is well incorporated. Knead the dough in the bowl until smooth about 7 minutes. Cover and set aside in a warm place to rise for 40 minutes.

3. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface. Lightly dust a baking sheet with corn meal. Pull off a chunk of dough just big enough to fit comfortably in the palm of your hand. Roll it between your hands into a snake about 5″ long. Wrap the dough around your hand, twisting as you go, and seal the edges together. Place the bagel on the cornmeal-covered pan. Repeat until all the dough is used up. Set aside in a warm place, uncovered for 30 minutes.

4. Preheat the over to 425. Heavily dust another baking sheet with cornmeal (you will probably need two).

5. Fill a large wide pot two-full of water and bring to a boil. Using a wide slotted spoon, drop the bagels in batches into the water; they should not touch. Boil on one side for two minutes then turn and boil on the other side for 1 1/2 minutes. They will firm and puff up. Carefully remove from the water and allow to drain for 1 minute on a rack.

6. Place the bagels on the prepared baking sheet (you can sprinkle them with sesame or poppy seeds or coarse salt if you want). Place the sheet in the oven and bake for 12 minute. Turn the bagels over and bake until deep golden brown all over, about 7 more minutes. Remove from the baking sheets to cool on paper towels.

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Who are you calling stupid?

The Center for Consumer Freedom ran a full page ad in The New York Times last Thursday which said in huge type, “You are too stupid . . . to make good personal decisions about foods and beverages.” The ad then goes on to complain about the fact that the New York Department of “Hype” (actually the Department of Health) “has used your tax dollars to launch an advertising campaign to demonize soda,” continuing, “Food cops and politicians are attacking food and soda choices they don’t like. Have they gone too far?” It ends with the statement, “It’s your food. It’s your drink. It’s your freedom.” The group ran a similar ad in the New York Post, asking, “Big Apple or Big Brother?” and again referring to the city’s Department of Health as the Department of “Hype” for its warnings that soda leads to obesity.

So my question is, does the Center for Consumer Freedom really expect us to believes that this ad was placed by a group of citizens with grave concerns about the state of our democracy and our freedom of choice, that this is some kind of grass-roots effort to protect our basic civil rights?  I don’t think so. In fact, CCF was founded as the Guest Choice Network in 1995 by Richard Berman, executive director of the public affairs firm, Berman and Company, with $600,000 from Philip Morris to fight smoking bans. More recent donors have included Coca Cola, Tyson’s, Monsanto and Wendy’s.

Of course, Richard Berman goes to great lengths to conceal the names of the Center for Consumer Freedom’s donors. According to the Center’s website,  “Many of the companies and individuals who support the Center financially have indicated that they want anonymity as contributors. They are reasonably apprehensive about privacy and safety in light of the violence and other forms of aggression some activists have adopted as a “game plan” to impose their views, so we respect their wishes.” Really? Coca Cola and Wendy’s are worried about privacy? For more information about CCF and Richard Berman, take a look at this article The New York Times ran in 2005, or even better take a look at this interview Steven Colbert did with Richard Berman on The Colbert Report.

Even more condescending is a program backed by most of America’s largest food manufacturers called “Smart Choices.” The Smart Choices program is an independent ratings system designed “to help guide consumers in making smarter food and beverage choices,” according to the Smart Choices website. These companies, like Pepsico, Kellogs, Kraft, and many others, each pay up to $100,000 a year to participate and enjoy the green check mark on some of their foods. They hope to earn their foods the status of “better than” other foods. Among the “smarter food and beverage choices” are cereals such as Froot Loops, Cocoa Krispies and my daughter’s favorite “breakfast at Grammy’s house treat,” Lucky Charms. Fudgsicles also make the list as do Lunchables.  A spokeswoman for the Smart Choices program justified the inclusion of cereals such as Froot Loops with the comment that they are a better choice than doughnuts for breakfast. However, nutritionist Marion Nestle is not so sure. In her blog, Food Politics, she wrote,

Whether Froot Loops really is a better choice than a doughnut as the Smart Choices program contends, seems debatable.

If I read the Nutrition Facts and ingredient list correctly, Froot Loops cereal contains:

  • No fruit
  • Sugar as the first ingredient (meaning the highest in weight–41%)
  • Sugar as 44% of the calories
  • Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil and, therefore, trans fat (although less than half a gram per serving so the label can read zero)

But with an implied endorsement from the American Society of Nutrition, which is managing the Smart Choices program, I guess none of that matters.

Okay, believe it or not, I have spent hours writing this post and must now fall back on one of my favorite quick dinners, spinach quesadillas. This recipe makes two large quesadillas enough for 2 or three people:

1 T. olive oil

1 small onion

1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and diced

a pinch of oregano

1/2 lb. spinach leaves,washed and trimmed (8 cups)

chopped cilantro

4 whole wheat tortillas

1/3 cup grated cheese

sour cream or salsa

1. Heat the oil in a wide skillet and add the onion, chile and oregano. Cook about four minutes then add the spinach. Sprinkle with a little salt and cook until the spinach is wilted. Add the cilantro. If the spinach is very wet, put it in a strainer and squeeze out the excess moisture.

2. Place a tortilla in a dry skillet, preferably cast iron or non-stick. Warm on one side, then flip. Sprinkle half the cheese on top the cover with the spinach and a second tortilla. Cook until the bottom tortilla is a little crisp then flip and cook the second side. Repeat with the remaining tortillas. Cut the quesadillas into quarters and serve with salsa and sour cream if desired.

One problem I had with this recipe is that I found it very difficult to find commercially packaged wheat tortillas that complied with my rules. All of them had preservatives or partially hydrogenated something or other, so I’ve been making my own. Of course that makes this not such a quick dinner, but it the homemade tortillas do make a huge difference. Here’s my tortilla recipe:

2 C. flour

1 1/2 t. baking powder

1t. salt

2t. vegetable oil

3/4 cups lukewarm milk

Mix the flour with the salt in a medium bowl. In a separate bowl mix the salt, oil and milk. Add the milk to the flour and knead for about two minutes. Cover with a damp cloth and allow to rest for 15 minutes. Divide into 8 balls and allow to rest for another 20 minutes. One at a time, roll each ball into an 7-8″ circle and cook in a dry skillet until it starts to brown, about 30 seconds to one minute. Flip and cook the other side. Keep warm in a bowl covered in aluminum foil.

Foods with the Smart Choices checkmark include sugar-laden cereals like Froot Loops, mayonnaise and Fudgsicle bars
G. Paul Burnett/The New York Times

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Cue the Music

Michael and I took our two sons, ages 12 and 10, to a Decemberists concert in Montclair, New Jersey last week. They performed the entire Hazards of Love album, which is fantastic in concert. It’s really a kind of rock opera, so it’s very dramatic and entertaining in person. The boys were dragging a little by the end, but they really enjoyed the first half of the concert. Their favorite moment was The Rakes Song. Everyone in the ensemble except Colin Meloy pulled out a set of drums and began pounding away. Follow the link to You Tube, you’ll see exactly what I mean.

While we were there, we picked up a Laura Veirs CD, Saltbreakers. Laura Veirs sang on the Decemberists last album The Crane Wife, and I loved her voice. The more I listen, the more I like this album. Veirs has a quirky voice, sort of fragile and breathy at times, and very appealing.

Michael and I also saw Regina Spector in concert recently. She has a rabid, mostly female fan base. People kept interrupting the concert to yell out, “We love you!” We’ve been listening to her two most recent albums, Fidelity and Far nonstop recently. My 7-year-old daughter knows all the songs pretty much by heart. I think the kids like the songs so much because they have very singable melodies and also tell great stories. Listen to Samson, Fidelity or Folding Chair on her MySpace page and you’ll see what I mean.

Anyway, Michael has been more than tolerant of my admittedly geeky, girly music taste and I don’t think I’ve really told him how much I appreciate it. So there you go.

I’ll probably continue to interrupt this mostly food blog with posts about music from time to time. Actually, the name of the blog, The Process of Weeding Out is a musical reference. It is the title of a famous or maybe infamous Black Flag album. Wikipedia has an interesting explanation for the origins of the name. I won’t repeat it here.

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Shanah Tova

Okay, my husband said I really should post something about Rosh Hashanah, and he is right, but I am having a hard time writing anything original about a holiday that has been around for about 4000 years.  So, I will just say this: while laughing and  lingering over Rosh Hashanah dinner with a group of friends, and all our kids, I thought, “this is really what I’m going for, what my ‘rules‘ are all about,”  sitting down with friends and family to savor conversation and a great meal. It was exactly the experience I would hope to create everyday, on a smaller scale of course, at home.

In The End of Food, Paul Roberts wrote, “[T]he very act of eating [is] the basis of many of our social, family and spiritual traditions — not to mention the one cheap pleasure that could ever rival sex.” And it’s not just eating, of course, a good deal of the pleasure comes with the anticipation of the meal, the way the house smells when there is a chicken roasting or bread baking and also from sharing the meal with others. Why would we give all that up for the sake of convenience.

Even shopping for food can be a pleasant experience. I have become a regular at my local farmers market Sunday mornings, to the point where the people running the stands now recognize my son, remember he is allergic to nuts and warn him away from things he should not eat. Both of my boys enjoy going with me, noticing what is in season and maybe trying out the samples offered by many of the merchants. The USDA has a surprisingly informative website about farmers markets, including advice on starting your own. It also includes a link to search for farmers markets in your area. Don’t search by zip code, because it will only give you markets in the zip code you are searching. You will probably get better results searching your county.

Here is a recipe for a frittata that takes advantage of the abundance of leafy greens available right now:

1 large bunch of spinach, kale or chard


4 eggs

2 scallions finely sliced

3 oz. crumbled firm goat cheese

salt and pepper

1. Steam or saute the greens with a little salt until they are wilted and tender. Squeeze out as much moisture as possible then chop coarsely

2. Whisk the eggs in a medium bowl with a few pinches of salt and some pepper stir in the scallions, cheese and greens.

3. Melt the remaining butter in a 10-inch skillet. Add the eggs, reduce the heat to low, then cover the pan and cook until golden and puffed, about 8 minutes. This can also be cooked in the over at 350 for about 15 – 20 minutes.

If you have some fresh herbs around, or maybe a handful of arugula, add them to the greens before cooking. This is also fantastic with slices of freshly roasted red or yellow pepper.

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The Cupboard is Bare

My oldest son, who is 12, has been very supportive of this whole venture. In fact, he is frequently the one who will say in the supermarket, “Mom, you can’t get that, it breaks the rules.” However, the other day he said to me, searching the pantry after school, “The one thing I don’t like about this, is that I can’t just open up a cabinet and pull out a quick snack.”

Of course, that is just the point. As Michael Pollan pointed out in a recent article in The New York Times magazine, “the mass production of cream-filled cakes, fried chicken wings and taquitos, exotically flavored chips or cheesy puffs of refined flour, has transformed all these hard-to-make-at-home foods into the sort of everyday fare you can pick up at the gas station on a whim and for less than a dollar. The fact that we no longer have to plan or even wait to enjoy these items, as we would if we were making them ourselves, makes us that much more likely to indulge impulsively.”

So now I find myself planning those after school snacks everyday. The school gives the kids only about 20 minutes to eat lunch, and of course they spend more time chatting with friends than eating, so by the time they get home they are starving!

In the past, they would simply graze on cookies and chips all afternoon until they were too full to eat much dinner. Now, that after school snack has really become a fourth meal. The kids sit down at the table and I put out a big bunch of grapes or maybe some apple slices along with cheese, and if I’ve had time to bake, some banana bread or applesauce muffins. It forces us all to pause for a few minutes, so we can talk about the school day and figure out what sports practices, or homework are on the agenda for the afternoon.

My kids particularly like my whole wheat banana bread. The recipe comes from Molly O’Neill’s New York Cookbook. I have reduced the amount of sugar slightly and increased the proportion of whole wheat to white flour. I don’t think you can tell the difference:

1 stick unsalted butter at room temperature

1 cup brown sugar

3 large eggs

1 t. vanilla

1 t. baking soda

1/4 c. sour cream

1 cup whole wheat flour

1/2 c. all-purpose flour

1/4 t. salt

1 c. mashed banana (2-3)

Preheat over to 350 and grease a regular size loaf pan.

Cream the butter and brown sugar. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat until the mixture is light. Stir the baking soda into the sour cream and stir into the batter.

Mix the flours and salt. Add them slowly to the batter, alternating with the mashed bananas and mix until combined.

Add the mixture to the prepared loaf pan and bake for about 1 hour.

This also makes excellent muffins. Just follow the same recipe but bake for 20-25 minutes.

One final tip: If you have some very ripe bananas but no time to bake, just peel them, wrap them in plastic and stick them in the freezer. When you defrost them, they will turn to mush. Not good for eating, but perfect for baking.

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