Cooking Tips

Bread from around the world

In the last Cooking Tip, I discussed lean and enriched doughs, how to recognize them and what type of product they produce. It is just amazing that the same simple ingredients – flour, water, salt, sometimes yeast – can be used to produce such very different breads. As we learned in last week’s Tip, adding enriching ingredients such as eggs, butter and dairy will produce a much different type of bread. Other add-ins or flavorings may be added. Techniques used also can produce different results. In this Tip, I will go over just some of the myriad types of bread that can be found around the world. This list is far from comprehensive. For example, I have only listed five kinds of Italian bread whereas there are at least 350 different types. You will recognize many of the following but will also probably find some that are new to you.

Italian Breads

Casatiello

This is an Italian yeasted Easter bread that was supposedly made after Easter to use up leftovers. It is stuffed with meat, cheese and even hard-boiled eggs before baking. It is baked in a round shape with a hole in the middle.

Ciabatta

The word “ciabatta” means “slipper”, a reference to its oval shape. It is an Italian yeasted bread made with a lean dough. It has a chewy crust and soft interior due to a high water content. It is characterized by numerous air pockets in the interior and is excellent for sandwiches and paninis.

Focaccia

This Italian bread is baked in a sheet pan to produce a flat loaf with a texture similar to pizza dough. It is made of flour, yeast, salt, water and olive oil. Before baking, it is usually dimpled and coated in olive oil, creating a crunchy, thin crust. Many bakers will add herbs, garlic and/or flaky salt. Others will top this bread with veggies or meat.

Grissini

This is an Italian breadstick that is crisp and dry.

Pane Toscano

This translates to “Tuscan Bread” and is a regional specialty of the Tuscany area. Another name is “pane sciocco” and is translated “tasteless bread”. That name is due to the absence of salt in the dough. It is thought to have begun in the Middle Ages and was a way for the people to protest high taxes on salt. Since the absence of salt does make it bland, it is not normally eaten on its own. Rather, it is typically served with cured meats and/or strong cheeses.

French Breads

Baguette

This is a yeasted bread that makes one automatically think of France. It is typically long and oval in shape with slits in the top that allow for gas expansion while the bread is baking. As its only ingredients are flour, water, yeast and salt, it would be considered a lean dough.

Brioche

This is another French bread but one made with an enriched dough containing abundant butter and eggs. The crust is soft and the texture light. The flavor is rich and slightly sweet. It is delicious to eat on its own but also makes a spectacular French Toast or bread pudding.

Croissant

This delicacy is not only yeasted but is laminated, a process that involves rolling and folding the dough numerous times with plenty of resting times as you go along. It is this process along with the butter that creates the flaky, crispy layers that we all love.

Fougasse

This is France’s version of focaccia. Traditionally shaped to look like a leaf, it is spongy and light and often garnished with fresh herbs. Other typical ingredients include sundried tomatoes and cheese.

Pain de mie

Another yeasted bread, it has a very thin crust and a thick interior. These characteristics are achieved by baking in square or rectangular covered pans. The lid prevents the bread from fully rising, giving it a fine, compact crumb. It looks like your typical American sliced white sandwich bread and is ideal for the classic Croque Monsieur sandwich.

Indian Breads

Chapati

A type of unleavened Indian flatbread that is usually grilled rather than baked. It is typically eaten with meals but can be used to scoop for eating.

Naan

A very popular Indian flatbread that uses yogurt in the dough, which adds softness, chewiness and acidity. It is traditionally cooked in a tandoor oven but there are methods to make great Naan in your home kitchen.

Paratha

Another unleavened Indian flatbread that is very flaky due to layers formed during the shaping process.

Puri

A deep-fried unleavened Indian flatbread that has simple ingredients of flour, water and maybe cumin seeds. The dough is rolled into flat round disks and then deep-fried. It is during this frying process that the puri puffs up like a pillow.

Roti

An unleavened flatbread that is popular in India as well as the Caribbean. There are different versions with different ingredients and are usually cooked on a griddle.

Breads from other regions

Arepa

Coming from Latin America, arepa bread is made from cornmeal. It is flat and round and may be baked, grilled or fried. It may be plain or made with fillings.

Bammy

A Jamaican flatbread made from cassava root, soaked in coconut milk and then fried, steamed or baked.

Bannock

An unyeasted quick bread popular in the UK and traditionally made from a single type of grain such as barley, oats, wheat or rye along with water, buttermilk and baking soda. It is typically baked on a griddle.

Barmbrack

This is an Irish yeasted bread that adds sultanas and raisins into the dough. It is said to be part of the Halloween tradition in Ireland. Various small objects may be baked into the dough and then used to tell the person’s fortune.

Challah

This Jewish yeasted bread’s typical shape is a long braid. It is yellow in color due to the addition of eggs and/or egg yolks. Other ingredient’s include sugar or honey but no milk or butter.

Injera

From Ethiopia comes this bread made from teff. It is a type of sourdough and is used to scoop up meats and stews. It has a spongy texture and slightly sour flavor.

Knäckebröd bread

This is a Swedish crisp bread that is more of a cracker than a bread, it is made mostly from rye flour. A variety of seeds (sesame, sunflower, pumpkin, flax) are often used to make different versions.

Lavash

Claimed by food experts to be Armenian in origin, this is a large, oval-shaped flatbread made only from flour, salt and water. It is leavened with a sourdough starter. It is traditionally cooked by placing it against the inside of a clay oven known as a tonir. It is a staple of Armenian, Iranian and Turkish cuisine. Here’s a great video showing how it is made in Armenia.

Matzo (Matzoh)

This is a Jewish unleavened bread with the texture of a cracker that is traditionally consumed during Passover.

Pita

From the Middle East, pita bread is cooked at very high temperatures, creating an air bubble in the center. This makes a pocket into which you can stuff other ingredients.

Soda bread

It is a traditional Irish treat. This is a quick bread made with flour, buttermilk and baking soda. It may or may not also contain oil, butter, eggs and/or sugar. When made with whole wheat flour, it is known as Brown Soda Bread or Wheaten Bread. Typically, it is sprinkled on top with rolled oats.

Taftan

This is an Iranian leavened bread that is made from whole wheat flour, milk, eggs and yogurt and often flavored with saffron or cardamom. It is normally baked on the walls of a tandoori oven.

Vanocka

This is a sweet bread from the Czech Republic that is prepared during the Christmas season. It is braided with a texture similar to brioche. It is usually flavored with rum and lemon zest and topped with sugar, almonds & dried fruit.

Yufka

This is a very thin, round unleavened bread that originated in Turkey and made from flour, water, salt and olive oil. It is rolled out to a paper-thin thickness. Some feel this was a precursor to phyllo dough and is often used in making Turkish pastries. However, it may also be found filled with sandwich items.

Zopf

A traditional Swiss bread that is braided and has a rich, buttery flavor. It is made of flour, butter, yeast, milk and eggs. Both in appearance and texture, it is similar to the Jewish bread, challah.

I don’t know about you but just reading and writing about all these breads makes me want to get into the kitchen and try something new. If you do that, let me know.

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Bread Doughs – not all the same

Do you make your own bread? Do you want to learn how to make your own bread? When you look at recipes, there are certain similarities among the ingredients such as flour, yeast & water. However, other recipes might call for sugar, eggs, butter or milk. Why these ingredients are added in some recipes and not in others is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

All bread dough is not the same. There are different ways to categorize doughs but for the sake of this Tip, we will look at just one way. Doughs can be thought of as either Lean Doughs or Enriched Doughs.

Lean doughs

This type of dough has a short ingredient list, generally only flour, salt, yeast and water. Some lean doughs may contain sugar/honey or even oil but only in very small amounts. For example, my favorite pizza dough recipe is a lean dough although it contains olive oil but only 2 tablespoons for a pound of flour.

When baked, lean doughs produce a bread with a crusty exterior and an airy open crumb (the interior). It also has a hollow sound when baked.

Examples of lean dough products

  • French & Italian breads
  • Artisan breads
  • Sourdough bread
  • Pita bread
  • Pizza crusts

Enriched doughs

These doughs will have added ingredients such as fat, dairy, eggs and/or sugar. These ingredients enhance flavor and give you a bread with a soft and tender texture.

Fat

  • Fat tenderizes the dough by coating and shortening the gluten strands, creating a softer and more tender crumb.

Sugar

  • Sugar weakens the gluten network by bonding to water molecules, blocking the flour proteins from doing the same. Remember that flour contains the proteins glutenin and gliadin. When these are mixed with water, the proteins combine to form gluten. So, by limiting the interaction of the flour and the water, you are limiting gluten development.
  • Sugar also absorbs water giving a moist, tender crumb.
  • Sugar browns quickly and so, many enriched doughs are baked at lower temperatures.
  • A sugar content of more than 10% will slow down yeast activity by pulling water away from the yeast, which means a longer fermentation time. Some recipes will call for an increased amount of yeast to compensate for this. You may also use what is termed “Osmotolerant” yeast. It is a special strain of yeast that works well in this environment.
  • This dough will also be heavier since sugar, butter and eggs are heavy ingredients.

Eggs

  • Egg yolks will weaken the gluten network by bonding to flour proteins.
  • Egg whites contribute to the dough’s structure.
  • Breads made with eggs are tender and slower to stale.

Milk

  • This is another ingredient that weakens the gluten network while also yielding tender breads with a longer shelf life.

Examples of enriched dough products

  • Brioche
  • Challah
  • Soft dinner rolls
  • Sandwich bread
  • Cinnamon rolls
  • Hamburger/Hotdog rolls

You may ask why this should make a difference to you. Afterall, you just want to follow the recipe and end up with a delicious bread. Knowing the above information can help you achieve the end result you want. By looking at the ingredients in the recipe, you can immediately see if it is a lean or enriched dough. You will then know what your bread will be like – either crunchy and chewy or soft and tender. If you know what type of bread you want to have, you can then pick out a recipe that will produce that result. If you want those soft, pillowy dinner rolls, you are going to want an enriched dough recipe. On the other hand, if you want that chewy baguette, don’t use a recipe with those added ingredients.

Some people may ask which dough is better but it isn’t really a matter of better or worse. They are both equally great doughs but just give you different results. If you bake much bread, you will want to have both in your repertoire.

Here’s to a great Baking Year!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

In my Cooking Tip on “Fats in a Healthy Diet”, I discussed culinary oils in general. In this Tip, I want to focus on one type in particular – Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

This is one of the most expensive type of culinary oils you will buy and we all like to make sure we get the best for our money. I have done some research on how to pick out a great olive oil and following are what the experts tell us.

Here are certain things to look for.

  1. The harvest date – The “Best By” date may be 24-32 months after bottling and 1-2 years after pressing. The “Harvest” date is a much better indicator of freshness. Try to pick one with the most recent date, remembering that olives are usually harvested in the fall and winter, meaning the harvest date for what is on the shelf will be the year before.

  2. The container – Look for oil that is in a dark container. Light can degrade the oil. Pick an oil where the container protects the oil from the light.

  3. Country/Region of origin – Look for where the oil was sourced. Higher quality olive oils will be sourced from one country. Note that wording like “Product of Italy” might only mean that it was shipped from Italy, not necessarily that the olives were grown and harvested in Italy.

    Less pricey & mass market olive oils are often a result of buying cheap bulk oils from all over the world and blending them. This means less quality control over the handling of the oil but it also means these oils lack the distinct flavor that you expect from a good olive oil.

  4. The Cultivars – Look for the specific olives that have been harvested.

If at all possible, taste the oil before purchasing it. This generally means going to a gourmet food store or a shop that specializes in oil. The typical supermarket is not going to offer tastings outside of the rare special event.

The reason that we must be savvy olive oil shoppers is that some deficits in the industry have been documented. In a 2016 article from the Denver Post, the writer noted that about 75% of the extra virgin olive oil sold in the US is often diluted with lower quality olive oil. The article goes on to note that a 2010 University of California study found that 69% of imported oils sold in California stores at that time failed to meet international standards for olive oil.

Not only will the authentic, high-quality extra virgin olive oil give you tremendous flavor and variety of that flavor but the fresher, more pungent-tasting oil is higher in polyphenols, which are high in antioxidants.

To be fair, since these exposes, the industry has attempted to improve quality standards. In 2010, the USDA issued the “United States Standards for Grades of Olive Oil and Olive-Pomace Oil.” However, these standards are voluntary. So, producers may choose to seek certification by the USDA as “US Extra Virgin Olive Oil” if they wish, but that it is not mandatory.

Some states have gone further, including California. They have adopted standards recommended by the Olive Oil Commission of California. According this website, “California olive oil handlers who produce 5,000 gallons or more are required by law to participate in the OOCC’s mandatory government sampling and testing program. Producers with less than 5,000 gallons may voluntarily participate in the OOCC’s government sampling program.”

The California Olive Oil Council (a different entity) has a mission to “uphold the highest standards within the olive oil industry through its Seal Certification Program”. The members of COOC must submit their oils for testing and evaluation to ensure it meets the qualifications to be labeled Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Therefore, if you buy an oil with the COOC seal, you can be assured that you are getting the real thing.

What do you do on a daily basis, though, in your kitchen? Authentic, high-quality extra virgin olive oil can be very expensive. If for no other reason, you probably don’t want to use that for all of your oil needs. That is why most of us have other more moderately-priced oils that we use for general cooking use. We save that special oil for vinaigrettes, for dipping and other uses where the flavor shines through.

What is in your kitchen? I looked in my pantry and I have two different olive oils, only one of which is extra virgin. When I looked for the above items, this is what I found. Even though I purchased it from a reputable olive oil retailer, it had no harvest date. (I wonder if this was due to the fact that the oil was brought into the store in a bulk fashion and then bottled and labeled by this particular retailer.) It did list both the country from which the olives were harvested as well as the particular varietals. It was packaged in an appropriate bottle. Since it was a Spanish oil, it did not have COOC certification. All in all, not bad.

The next time I am in my local supermarket, I am going to look for these recommendations. My guess, though, is most of those on the shelf will be sorely lacking. Let me know what you find, not only in the kitchen but also where you shop!

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Fats in a Healthy Diet

In this final installment of my series of Cooking Tips on healthy cooking/eating, I want to discuss fats and oils and the place they play in healthy cooking.

Ever since the 1970s, fat has been proclaimed as the worst offender in our diets. However, we are finally beginning to realize that not all fats are bad and that sugar plays at least as big, if not larger, role in unhealthy diets. As I mentioned in a prior Tip, the fats that you want to limit and/or avoid are saturated fats and, especially trans fats. (I must mention that the recommendation to avoid all saturated fats is not totally without disagreement. For a scholarly review of this subject, see this article published in a 2018 issue of Nutrients.) Even with sugar, it is not all sugar you need to limit but what is called “added sugar” – the sugar that is not natural in the food.

You may have heard the terms “good fats” and “bad fats”. Bad fats are usually thought of as saturated (see above article reference) and trans fats. As I mentioned in a prior tip, trans fats are normally found in packaged and processed foods. Sources of saturated fats are:

  • Dairy products – butter, whole milk, yogurt, cheese
  • Meat products – lard, bacon, red meat, poultry skin

Good fats are:

  • Monounsaturated fats – found in olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, avocados, olives & nuts.
  • Polyunsaturated fats
    • Omega-3 fatty acids – found in fatty fish, walnuts, chia seeds & flaxseeds.
    • Omega-6 fatty acids – found in vegetable oils (safflower, sunflower, oil and soybean) as well as sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and walnuts.

In the literature, there is some caution about omega-6 fatty acids based on the fact that the body can convert the most common omega-6 fatty acid, linolenic acid, into another fatty acid, arachidonic acid. The latter is a building block for molecules that can promote inflammation, blood clotting and blood vessel constriction. However, the body can also convert arachidonic acid into other molecules that calm inflammation and fight blood clots.

Most Americans eat more omega-6 fats than omega-3 fats, about 10 X more. Some will look at the ratio of omega-3 fatty acids to omega-6 fatty acids and advise us to cut back on omega-6 fats to improve this ratio. However, the problem is felt not so much to be an excess of omega-6 fats but a deficiency of omega-3 fats. So, you want to improve the intake of omega-3 fats but not decrease your intake of omega-6 fats. Here is a chart from Nutrition Action that breaks down oils in terms of saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated content.

Apart from health, there are other considerations for choosing which oil you should choose for cooking. There is really no one all-purpose oil for culinary purposes. It depends on how you are going to use the oil and something called the “smoke point”. This is the temperature at which the oil starts smoking and breaking down. Therefore, some oils are better suited to higher temperature cooking. See this chart from Serious Eats on smoke points. Here are some recommendations for oils to have in your kitchen.

  1. A high-heat neutral-tasting oil – this is the type of oil you should reach for when you are doing high-heat cooking or in dishes where you do not want to taste the flavor of the oil. Examples include canola, safflower, sunflower, corn, grapeseed & peanut oil.

  2. Olive oil – there is a difference between light or refined olive oil and extra-virgin olive oil. The latter has a lower smoke point and is generally more expensive. Most of us recommend saving this extra-virgin olive oil for making salad dressings or for dishes such as dips where you want the flavor to come through. For other uses, use a less expensive and more refined olive oil. (Stay tuned for a Tip specifically on extra-virgin olive oils.)

  3. Specialty oils – if you cook Asian food, sesame oil is indispensable. Also, a nut oil such as walnut oil lends a wonderful flavor to nutty vinaigrettes. These are considered seasoning oils rather than cooking oils.

Oil does not last indefinitely and must be stored properly. Since heat and light can damage oil, store it in a cool, dark place. In that case, most oils can last up to a year. There are specific oils, though, that require refrigeration. Check the label but examples are grapeseed and nut oils. Some culinary experts recommend storing all your oils in the refrigerator. If you do that, some may thicken and you will need to let them sit out on your counter a few minutes to come to room temperature.

With this Tip, I bring my series on healthy cooking/eating to a close. I hope you found it helpful and it will be an impetus to improve your diet. Allow me to end with some advice with which I started this series. Get in your kitchen and cook more from scratch. Try to get away from processed and packaged foods. Just that one change will be a giant step in the right direction!

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Cooking Healthy Proteins

In the last Cooking Tip, I talked about choosing healthy proteins. In this Tip, I want to discuss how to cook those proteins so they are delicious as well as healthy.

As I mentioned in the last Tip, other than healthy fatty seafood, most of the best choices are lower in fat. That means they can easily dry out and be unappealing to eat. To prevent this, you need to take care when cooking them.

The best way to ensure your meat is not overcooked is to cook by internal temperature, not by time or appearance. I love the Thermapen by Thermoworks but there are other good thermometers out there that are less expensive. I wrote an earlier Tip on thermometers with more information.

When you are cooking that protein, you want to monitor the internal temperature intermittently and remove it from the heat before the internal temperature gets too high. For all meats, there will be what is called “carry-over cooking”. Once you take it off the heat, the internal temperature will continue to rise a few degrees – less with smaller pieces of meat, more with larger ones. So, you should pull it off a few degrees before hitting the desired temperature.

Below are some target numbers for different proteins. For a printable chart, click here.

  • Ground meat
    • Beef, pork, veal, lamb – 160°
    • Turkey, chicken – 165°
  • Fresh beef, pork, veal & lamb – 145° with a 3 minute rest
    • Note this does not account for varying temperatures between rare and well-done.
  • Poultry – 165°
    • Some feel that legs/thighs are more tender when cooked to 170-180° as it better breaks down the connective tissue.
    • Since chicken breasts are often over-cooked and unpalatable, see this article about cooking your chicken to a slightly lower temperature but holding it for a particular amount of time.
  • Salmon
    • Wild – 120°
    • Farmed – 125°

Another way to improve flavor among beef & pork is to salt at the appropriate time, which is either a minimum of 45 minutes before cooking or immediately before cooking. If you salt in between those times, you are assured of a drier end product. For more information, see this Tip.

Now for some great ideas with actual recipes. First, I highly recommend you become skilled at making pan sauces. They can add wonderful flavor without much added sugar or fat. See this Tip for how to do this. Adding a quick and flavorful sauce to your beef, pork or poultry can easily enliven your dinner table.

Proteins do not need to be the main star of your dinner table. Why not add them to a great dinner salad? One of our favorites is this Summer Salad with Cumin-Crusted Salmon. Not only will you be eating some great fiber but also healthy seafood. The seasoning rub on this salmon is also just a great one to use whenever, not just with this salad.

How about fish tacos? Try this recipe for Fish Tacos with Black Bean Salad from AllRecipes or Salmon Tacos with Collard Slaw from America’s Test Kitchen.

Let’s move to Poultry. Have you ever noticed how large chicken breasts are nowadays? Most chicken breasts that are for sale in the store are at least 8 ounces and, at times, can weigh 10-12 ounces. If you are paying attention to portion control, you should limit your intake of meat to about 3-4 ounces per serving. So, when you see a recipe that calls for 4 breasts and it says that the recipe will serve four people, that is based on much smaller breasts. Weigh your chicken pieces before cooking and then only use the amount that will give you that 3-4 ounces per person.

Another thing to notice about chicken breasts is that they always have one end thicker than the other side. If you cook them whole, the thinner side will be overdone before the thicker end is cooked through. You can solve this problem in a number of ways. You can pound the breasts to an even thickness before cooking. You can slice the chicken into two so that one piece is thicker and the other thinner. Then, cook them, monitoring the temperature and taking the thinner one out when it is done and continuing to cook the thicker one. Finally, something that I like to do is to cut the chicken either into similarly sized strips or cubes and cooking them. This is a quick and easy technique that works great unless you wish to serve an entire breast.

The important thing is not to overcook your chicken. That is best done by monitoring the internal temperature. An interesting method I ran across a few years ago is this method on TheKitchn.com. It is very easy and turns out great results. I like to use this method and then slice the chicken for sandwiches rather than buying the much less healthy deli meat.

Here are some other recipes that I like. First up is one from Ellie Krieger –– Balsamic Chicken with Baby Spinach. There is great flavor plus wonderful nutrients from the spinach and tomatoes. Serve with whole wheat couscous for another burst of nutrition. Here is a “go to” recipe for when you need a quick but tasty dinner – Caramelized Onion Chicken from Cooking Light. Note that it does contain jam, which is high in sugar. However, it only uses a small amount. For a company-worthy but healthy dinner, try this one from Epicurious – Sauteed Chicken with Shallot-Herb Vinaigrette. I will caution you, though, that the marinating time listed is too long. See this Tip for more information.

I love pork but do try to limit my intake of it. Cutting a pork tenderloin into medallions, cooking them stovetop and then making a flavorful pan sauce is something so easy to do. Pork also pairs so well with fruit. Here are a few ideas.

I am not a fan of beef and so, it is easy for me to have it only rarely. If you are going to indulge in a steak, review last week’s Tip on which cuts are best and the above info on making a pan sauce. That will allow the steak to be shown off but enhanced in a healthy way.

For an interesting take on burgers, try these Cherry Burgers from Eating Well. For a spicier bite, here is an interesting Southwest Burger from Cooking Light. Finally, a delicious winter dish is this Beef Tagine with Butternut Squash, also from Cooking Light.

I hope this gives you some help in putting fulfilling but still healthy meals on your table!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Proteins on a healthy diet

We are moving forward in this series on cooking/eating healthy. After discussing some general tips, grains, breads and veggies, in this Tip I want to look into the subject of proteins. According to a 2018 Gallup poll, only 5% of U.S. adults consider themselves to be vegetarian. Therefore, I will mostly be discussing meat/seafood. I will not be discussing cooking methods in this Tip but will leave that for the next one.

There are a couple of general recommendations that almost all experts will give. First is to avoid processed meats such as lunch meats, hot dogs, bacon, sausage and jerky. Second is to eat smaller portions of fish and meats. Given that, let’s move on to the sources of animal protein.

I am sure that most of you have heard that you should limit, or even eliminate, your intake of red meat. This includes beef, pork and lamb. Why is that? That recommendation is based on the fact that red meats have more saturated fat than other protein sources. I will note that there are some people out there that do not agree with this recommendation and feel that red meat is not as bad as everyone says. However, most experts feel that consuming red meat is often linked with cardiovascular disease.

When you do consume red meats, the recommendation is to eat leaner cuts. See the following chart for the USDA’a definition of lean versus extra-lean. These numbers are based on a 3½ ounce serving and will help you when looking at the nutritional labels in the store.

 LeanExtra-lean
Fat10 gm5gm
Saturated fat4.5 gm2 gm
Cholesterol95 mg95 mg

For beef, another recommendation is to choose “Choice” or “Select” cuts as they will have less fat than “Prime” cuts. For example, if you look at one of the most popular (although one of the fattiest) cuts of beef – Ribeye Steak – the fact content is 50% higher for Prime than Choice. For ground beef, choose a package that is labeled at least “90% lean” and, if you can find it, 93% or 95% lean.

A look at the nutritional label of different cuts can be enlightening. A package of Choice Sirloin steak shows 10 gm total fat and 3 grams of saturated fat, putting it into the “Lean” category. The same serving size of a Choice Ribeye contains 17 grams of total fat and 8 grams of saturated fat.

The reason the fattiest cuts are more popular is that fat contributes to flavor and moistness. When choosing the leaner cuts, you need to take care when cooking so they do not dry out. I will discuss this more in my next Tip.

For pork, the leanest choices are pork loin and pork tenderloin.

The leanest cuts of lamb are loin, leg and shanks.

Poultry

When most of us think of healthy meat, we think of poultry. The most common poultry we eat is chicken although turkey is another excellent choice. Much of the fat found in poultry is in the skin. The same serving size of skin-on poultry can have three times or more as much fat as skinless. Because the skin can protect the meat from moisture loss, many chefs will leave the skin on when cooking but remove it before eating.

Breasts will be the leanest type of poultry. Without the skin, chicken breasts have under 2 grams fat per 3 ounce serving and less than ½ gram of saturated fat. Chicken thighs can have twice as much fat as breast but would still qualify as lean. Many feel they have more flavor and are moister. Similar cuts of turkey will have even less fat than chicken although at these low levels, the difference is minimal. The lower fat content does, though, tend to make turkey drier.

Seafood

Seafood is something that most of us probably do not eat as often as we should. Although seafood can be relatively high in fat, it contains some very heart-healthy polyunsaturated fats known as omega-3 fatty acids. In fact, seafood is considered the best (but not the only) source of this type of fat. Other good sources of omega-3 fatty acids are flaxseed oil, flaxseeds, walnuts and chia seeds. There is another type of fatty acid known as omega-6 that is often discussed in tandem with omega-3. I will wait on the discussion of this fatty acid for an upcoming Tip on Fats.

Although the above mentioned fatty fish may be healthy, they are higher in total fat than other types of seafood. If you are in the market looking at the seafood, the flesh color will give you an indication of fat content. The leaner choices are those that are lighter in color whereas the darker ones are going to contain more fat, albeit healthy fats. Below is a chart showing you the fat content in a 3 ounce serving. The amount of omega-3 fatty acids in seafood also varies with the fattier kinds containing more omega-3s. Examples include salmon, herring, mackerel and sardines. If you want more detail on this, see this article from Seafood Health Facts.

Fat ContentTypes of Seafood
High Fat (10 grams or more)Herring, Mackerel, Sardines, Salmon (Atlantic, Coho, Sockeye and Chinook)
Medium Fat (5 to 10 grams)Bluefish, Catfish, Rainbow Trout, Swordfish
Low Fat (2 to 5 grams)Tilapia, Halibut, Mussels, Ocean Perch, Oysters, Pacific Rockfish, Salmon (Chum, Pink)
Very Low Fat (less than 2 grams)Crab, Clams, Cod, Flounder/Sole, Haddock, Hake, Lobster, Mahi-mahi, Pollock, Scallops, Shrimp, Tuna

Plant sources of protein are great in that they do not contain saturated fats. Examples are beans, peas, lentils and nuts. They also provide dietary fiber and other nutrients.

Unless you are a committed vegetarian or vegan, it is good to know that both plant-based and animal protein have benefits and drawbacks. Animal foods are denser in essential amino acids and are more easily digestible.

Plant-based protein is often low in calories and high in fiber. It is, though, a little less digestible. Plant proteins rarely contain all the essential amino acids. This is not to say that you can’t get all the nutrients you need from plant foods; only that it takes effort and planning.

We all need protein although getting sufficient protein is not really a problem for most Americans. Learning how to pick and choose the best proteins is essential to a healthy diet. I hope this Tip combined with the next one on Cooking Methods will help you make better choices.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Veggies can be exciting!

We are now on to Tip #4 in this series of Cooking Tips on cooking/eating healthy. In this Tip, I want to talk about a very important part of everyone’s diets – Vegetables. We all should be eating more veggies but it would help if we could make them a bit more exciting without sacrificing nutrition.

All veggies are high in important nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. They are also high in fiber while being low in sugar, fat and sodium. There are some differences, though, in vegetables. Veggies can be divided into starch and non-starchy. Starch breaks down into glucose in our bodies and these veggies are higher in calories than non-starchy and lower in fiber.

It is recommended that we eat all types of veggies but we should consume more of the non-starchy, especially if you are diabetic or pre-diabetic.

Non-starchy vegetables contain only a small amount of starch. Here are some of the most common. One caveat – beets and carrots straddle the line between starch and non-starchy. So, if you are trying to decrease your intake of starchy veggies, you should limit these two items.

  • Artichoke
  • Asparagus
  • Beets
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Carrots
  • Cauliflower
  • Celery
  • Chard
  • Cucumber
  • Eggplant
  • Fennel
  • Greens (Collard, Kale, Mustard)
  • Green Bean
  • Jicama
  • Kohlrabi
  • Leeks
  • Mushrooms
  • Okra
  • Onions
  • Pea Pods And Sugar Snap Peas
  • Peppers
  • Radishes
  • Rutabaga
  • Salad greens
  • Summer Squash (Yellow, Zucchini)
  • Tomato
  • Water Chestnuts

Starchy veggies contain more starch but they also have abundant nutrients. Some examples are:

  • Potatoes
  • Corn
  • Lentils
  • Parsnips
  • Peas
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Winter Squash (acorn, butternut)

The best form to eat vegetables are either fresh and frozen. Frozen is a great option as they are picked at the height of ripeness and then quickly frozen. Be careful, though, that the frozen package you pick up does not contain a sauce or seasonings. These often contain added sugars and sodium. Watch out for canned vegetables as they also often contain sodium and sugar. As I have said in my prior Tips in this series, you should become adept at reading the nutritional facts labels. Make sure the only ingredient on the label is the vegetable.

Unless you are eating canned or frozen veggies, you need to clean them. The USDA recommends washing your produce under cold running tap water to remove any dirt & reduce bacteria. If there is a firm surface, such as on apples or potatoes, the surface can be scrubbed with a brush. Do not use detergent or soap as these are not approved for use on foods. You could ingest residues from soap or detergent absorbed on the produce. Note that the recommendation is just for plain water. You don’t need any special type of produce spray. If you really want to do more than just plain water, make a mixture of 1 part distilled white vinegar to 3 parts water. This is really not necessary, though.

There is a bit of debate over washing pre-washed, bagged greens. Although some recommend washing these items, many others say you are more likely to introduce contamination from your kitchen by doing so. Also, any pathogens left on pre-washed greens are probably so tightly adhered that washing them again in your kitchen is probably not going to do anything. The latter is the opinion of the USDA.

What about peeling your veggies? It is generally accepted that the peels are full of beneficial nutrients that you will lose if you peel them. So, if you are able to just scrub your veggies and eat/cook them without peeling, you are better off. There are some peels, though that are just too fibrous to eat or they are too difficult to clean properly. In that case, wash them first and then peel them. By washing them first, you are not transferring debris/pathogens from the outside to the inside. Most pesticide residue can be removed by washing. However, if you are concerned about this, peeling will give you an extra measure of comfort.

Now that we know which veggies we should eat often, which ones we might limit somewhat, and how to clean them, how do we make them tasty? There are those people, like my husband, who just love veggies in the purest form. If you are not one of those, let’s look at some ways you can increase your interest.

Having a salad every day is one of the healthiest habits you can form, whether it is before dinner each night (as we do) or as the main part of the meal. It is a great way to get a variety of veggies in one dish. Start with a mixture of greens such as lettuce, spinach, arugula, microgreens or more. Add in fresh veg such as celery, carrots, cucumber, bell peppers and green onions. One drawback for me in making sure we eat salads every day is all the prep – slicing and dicing all those ingredients. Something I do to make this easier is to prep ahead for a few days. If I am making a salad for Monday night, I also set out small bowls for the next three nights. I then cut up enough veg for each of those nights and put them in the small bowls. Now, for the next three nights, I just have to put my greens in a salad bowl and dump in the contents of those bowls of precut veg. Voila – instant salad!

Sometimes we will eat our veggies raw but other times, we want them cooked. Cooking veggies can alter them in the following ways.

  • Texture – caused by the fiber in the veggies
    • Fiber is made firmer by:
      • Adding acids such as citrus juice, vinegar or tomato products.
      • Sugars – this is more often used when cooking fruit
    • Fiber is softened by:
      • Heat – the longer you cook veggies the softer they become.
      • Alkalis – this is why you do not want to add baking soda to your veggies as it will make them mushy.
  • Flavor – flavor can be lost in the cooking liquid and with prolonged cooking times
    • Cook your veggies in as short of time as possible to limit flavor loss.
    • Some veggies where a bit of flavor loss is preferable is with strongly flavored veggies such as onions, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, turnips and rutabagas.
  • Color – there are white, red, green & yellow/orange veggies
    • White
      • Potatoes, onions, cauliflower
      • Other veggies may not be white on the outside but are on the inside. Examples are cucumbers, zucchini and celery.
      • Acid helps to keep the whiteness. So, if you are cooking your veggies in water, add a small amount of lemon juice.
      • Cooking for shorter amounts of time helps preserve the color.
    • Red
      • Red cabbage, beets
      • Acids turn them brighter red.
      • Alkalis turn them blue or blue-green.
      • Over-cooking leads to loss of the red color.
    • Green
      • Acids lead to loss of the green color.
      • Overcooking turns bright green veggies to an unappealing olive green.
    • Yellow/Orange
      • Carrots, corn, winter squash, sweet potatoes, some bell peppers
      • Yellow & orange pigments are very stable. Acids and/or alkalis do not cause much of a color change.
      • Overcooking can dull the color.
  • Nutrients — nutrients are often lost by overcooking or cooking in a lot of water.

The main ways of preparing veggies (other than eating them raw) are boiling, microwaving, steaming, sauteing, grilling or roasting. Here is a colorful guide from Cooksmart.com showing you which veggies do best with which methods of cooking. The same website has a great section on how to prep veggies if you are not familiar with how to get them ready for eating.

Boiling

This is not the best method as it is so easy to overcook the veggies and much of the flavor and nutrients can be lost in the water.

Steaming

This method leaves your veggies crisp and there is less loss of flavor. It works great for porous vegetables such as asparagus, broccoli and cauliflower.

Microwave

This is one area where your microwave is a useful tool, especially (but not exclusively) for frozen vegetables. A few minutes in the microwave and your veggies are ready for the table.

Sautéing

Sauteing is a great way of cooking veggies as it allows you to get some color on them. You can use a nonstick pan or you will need to add a bit of oil if using a regular pan. Heat your pan, add a small amount of oil and heat until hot. Before adding the veggies, add some aromatics such as shallots, garlic, or ginger. These will add great guilt-free flavor to the veggies. After sautéing the aromatics, add the veggies and cook until done. If the pan gets too dry during the cooking process, you may add a splash of water/broth. Add a bit of salt to taste as you are cooking and, if desired, finish with some acid such as lemon juice. Optional toppings include a grating of parmesan or pecorino cheese, nuts or seeds.

You can even do a combination of the above two if you are cooking raw veggies. Start them in the microwave with a touch of water to soften them – no more than about 3 minutes. Then, toss them in a hot pan (beware of splattering) as above and finish by sautéing.

You can even do a combination of the above two if you are cooking raw veggies. Start them in the microwave with a touch of water to soften them – no more than about 3 minutes. Then, toss them in a hot pan (beware of splattering) as above and finish by sautéing

Roasting

Roasting veggies requires you to preheat the oven and takes longer (~30-45 minutes) than other methods. However, as moisture is driven off in the oven, it does concentrate flavors and leaves you with crispy edges.

Something that is helpful to get crispy results is to put your sheet pan in the oven as you preheat it. That way, your veggies start to cook and sizzle as soon as you put them on that hot pan. Oven temperature recommendations vary but are usually pretty hot — 400° to 500°. I will prep my veggies, put them in a bowl, season them with salt and fresh herbs (rosemary, thyme) and toss them in a small amount of olive oil. You can even add a bit of balsamic vinegar. Carefully remove the hot pan from the oven, add the veggies and roast until tender and crisp.

Grilling/Charring

I am not a fan of most grilled foods and so, we do not own an outdoors grill. However, I do like to grill or char veggies stovetop. For that, I use either a grill pan or a cast iron pan. After preheating the pan, I add the veggies and cook them until they are brown and just a bit charred. I normally toss them first in a small amount of olive oil, salt and pepper. When cooking them on the pan, space them apart so they will char. If you place them too close together, they will steam, which is not the result you want with this method. I especially like this method for zucchini and Brussels sprouts.

None of these methods require you to add anything to the cooked veggies before eating. However, you can consider a small grating of a flavorful cheese such as parmesan, pecorino or asiago or a sprinkling of nuts such as slivered almonds. Just to be sure to watch how much you add. Some like to add a pat of butter (although this is a saturated fat) or a drizzle of olive oil. You can get butter-flavored olive oil or herb-infused oil for more flavor.

I hope this Tip will encourage to eat veggies every day whether it be in a salad, as a side dish or even both. They can be extremely tasty and are certainly a necessary part of a healthy diet.

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Bread — Delicious but can it be healthy?

Do you love bread as much as I do? I made some wonderful “Honey Butter Yeast Rolls” for Christmas dinner. Yes, they were fun to make. Yes, they were delicious. However, healthy they were not. Are you able to eat a healthy diet and still consume bread? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip, the 3rd in my series on Healthy Cooking & Eating.

Let me start with the disclaimer that I am not a dietician or a nutritionist. Also, I will acknowledge that there are those who feel we should never eat bread of any kind. Starting from the viewpoint that never consuming bread is not realistic for most of us, let’s try to see if some bread is better to eat than other kinds. I am also limiting this discussion to wheat bread, not gluten-free alternatives.

In my 1st Cooking Tip in this series, I mentioned a definition of healthy foods from the American Fitness Professionals Association. “Healthy foods … are those that are close to how we would find them in nature, have undergone few industrial processes, and contain few to no additives.” How does that apply to wheat bread?

When you find grains of wheat in nature, they are composed of an outer bran layer, an inner core called the endosperm, and the germ.

  • The bran is a fibrous outer layer that has abundant B vitamins, insoluble fiber, antioxidants and phytochemicals as well as a small amount of protein. This layer also contains most of the minerals in grain, such as iron, copper, zinc and magnesium.
  • The endosperm makes up about 85% of the kernel. It is about 50-75% starch and protein although it also contains some iron, B vitamins and soluble fiber. This is the part that becomes white flour.
  • The germ is high in fatty acids, a small amount of protein, trace minerals, B vitamins, vitamin E and phytochemicals.

To make white flour, the bran and the germ are removed leaving only the white endosperm. Because that process removes so many of the natural nutrients, the flour is then “enriched” by adding back in some of these nutrients. Minimum standards of how much should be added is set by the FDA. The whole grain also contains something called “phytochemicals”, the most important being antioxidants. According to Science Direct, “phytochemicals are defined as bioactive nutrient plant chemicals in fruits, vegetables, grains, and other plant foods that may provide desirable health benefits beyond basic nutrition to reduce the risk of major chronic diseases.” It is thought that over 75% of these are removed from the wheat kernel when making white flour. The healthy fatty acids in the germ are also removed to improve shelf life.

There are those that feel enriched white bread is not a bad choice because so many of the nutrients are put back into the flour. There are others that feel that the nutrients that are added in are not as healthful as they are not “natural” to the wheat. Most of those added nutrients are vitamins and minerals (although not all of them are replaced) and not the phytochemicals. One item that is definitely less in white flour is fiber but, once again, some feel the difference in fiber content between white flour and whole wheat flour is not significant. You will have to determine what is important for your family and yourself.

There is what is known as “ancient wheat”. This is a type of wheat that has been grown since the ancient times. One variety is called “Einkorn” and is felt by many to be far superior to our modern wheat. I have personally known people who cannot eat our processed flours who have no problem with einkorn. This even includes those with celiac disease. It is not a trial you should undertake, though, without your doctor’s advice. Still considered “ancient” but slightly different than einkorn are “Durum” and “Emmer” wheat.

How do you use all of this information? Whether you bake your own bread or buy bakery bread, you need to learn to read food labels. Even among the same type of flour or bread, the ingredients will vary according to brand. Let’s start with flours.

If you like white flour but want it enriched, it will be easy for you. Most of the standard supermarket brands will be enriched. If you would prefer to stay away from enriched flours, you need to look at the labels carefully to make sure they don’t list those items. For example, Gold Medal All-Purpose flour’s label shows this: “Bleached Wheat Flour, Niacin, Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Enzymes, Folic Acid”. That is obviously enriched.

On the other hand, King Arthur All-Purpose flour has this ingredient list: “Unbleached Hard Red Wheat Flour, Malted Barley Flour”. No enrichment there. Bob’s Red Mill is another brand that has chosen not to enrich their white flour. A third one you can sometimes find in the stores is from Arrowhead Mills.

If you would rather get your nutrients in a whole form, opt for whole wheat flour. There should be at least a few options available where you shop. Baking with whole wheat flour, though, is not as simple as swapping it one-for-one for white flour. You should find recipes meant for whole wheat flours and do some experimenting.

Some people say they do not like the taste of whole wheat products as they are heavier and nuttier. There is a product called White Whole Wheat although not all companies make this. This type of flour is made from a different type of wheat but is still whole-grain. Baked goods using this will be lighter in texture and flavor. Not all brands make this product but King Arthur Flour does. I also saw a listing for a Kroger white whole wheat.

There are some wonderful whole wheat/grain bread recipes if you have the time to bake your own. Here are two that I have tried and liked.

If you do not want to make your own bread but just want to buy something acceptable, turn to the labels once again. Do not pay attention to the name of the bread as it can be confusing. The name might say whole wheat, multi-grain, all-natural, etc. This doesn’t really tell you much. What you want to see on the ingredient list is “whole grain” or “whole wheat”. Preferably, choose a bread where it says “100% whole-grain” or “100% whole-wheat”. At a minimum, you want the first ingredient to be whole wheat even if there are other ingredients following that. Even among different 100% whole grain products, look at the fiber content and buy the one that is highest. Try to avoid ones with added sugars. Looking at a number of 100% whole wheat breads in my local market showed the sugar content to vary from 1 gm to 4 gm per serving.

Just as you should check the labels on the store-bought bread, you should also check the nutritional facts for your home-made bread. Other than the preservatives (which I prefer to avoid) that are in the store-bought versions, the other nutritional facts may not be that different. For example, let’s look at this comparison. As you look at these, please note that one serving is one slice although the size of that slice might differ.

RecipeKing Arthur 100% Whole Wheat BreadKroger 100% Whole Wheat BreadPrivate Selection 100% Whole Wheat Bread
Serving Size1 slice/55 grams1 slice/34 gm1 slice/45 grams
Calories14090130
Total Fat4 grams1 gram1.5 grams
Saturated Fat2 grams0 grams0 grams
Trans Fat0 grams0 grams0 grams
Cholesterol10 mg0 mg0 mg
Sodium230 mg200 mg270 mg
Total Carbs23 grams18 grams24 grams
Dietary Fiber4 grams2 grams4 grams
Total Sugars4 grams2 grams4 grams
Protein5 grams3 grams6 grams

I think most of us would agree that bread is delicious and very satisfying. It is not something, though, that should be eaten with abandon on a healthy diet. I hope with this information, you will be able to make the best choices for you.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients · Techniques

Whole Grains can be very tasty!

In this Part 2 of my Cooking Tips series on healthy cooking, I want to talk about one very important thing you can do and that is to eat more Whole Grains. I will not be talking about flours and bread in this Tip. That will be in a future Tip. For this one, I will concentrate on grains we may serve as a side dish. All recipes I note are ones that I have tested and find very tasty. Try these recipes as a way to get more whole grains into your diet in a delicious way but also as a starting point to experiment.

What are whole grains? Grains are the edible seeds of plants and for it to be “whole”, it must contain all of the main three parts of the seed.

  • Bran – fiber-rich outer layer with B vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals. The latter are naturally found in food and are felt to be important in disease prevention.
  • Germ – the core of the seed that is rich in healthy fats, vitamin E, B vitamins, antioxidants and phytochemicals.
  • Endosperm – the interior layer composed of carbohydrates, protein and small amounts of B vitamins and minerals.

When you are shopping, you need to pay attention to the nutritional facts label. It is not always straightforward. A 2013 study by Public Health Nutrition looked at products considered Whole Grain and evaluated them to see what would be most useful for the consumer as far as labeling. What they found was that just looking for the term “whole grain” can be misleading. You should see “whole grain” on the label and try to pick products where it is at the top of the ingredient list. However, also look for products with more fiber but less sugar, sodium and trans-fat.

There are many wonderful whole grains out there. Although you can get all of them online, I am going to limit my discussion to those you are most likely to find in your local supermarket. Some of these are gluten free and others are not. I will note that in the description.

Before discussing the individual grains, I want to talk about cooking them. I tend to cook whole grains with the “pasta method.” Cover the grains with liquid, bring to a boil, cover, reduce to simmer and cook until done. Here is a chart from the Whole Grains Council that will give you more specifics. If you are one of us that lives at high altitude, review this Tip on Cooking at High Altitude. You will need more water and more time to cook most of these whole grains.

To liven up the final dish, here are a few ideas.

  • Cook using low/no sodium broth. Can also cook in fruit juice but those are high in sugar. Vegetable juice is another alternative.
  • Toasting the grains before you cook them heightens the flavor. Those that take toasting well are amaranth, millet, oats, quinoa & wheat berries.
  • Add nuts, seeds, citrus zest and/or dried unsweetened fruit.

Now to the actual grains.

  • Amaranth
    • Gluten Free
    • These are the tiny seeds of the amaranth plant. The seeds are not a true grain.
    • When cooked, they resemble brown caviar and remain crunchy.
    • It has a strong, grassy flavor.
    • Cook it up like grits or make a porridge.
  • Barley
    • Can be whole (hulled) or pearled. The hull is very tough and must be removed.
    • Only the hulled is considered “whole”. However, it is harder to find and takes longer to cook.
    • Can be served as a side dish or added to soups/stews.
  • Bulgur
    • Wheat kernels that are boiled, dried, husked and cracked. Also known as cracked wheat.
    • Because bulgur is precooked, it is quick to prepare. You are essentially just rehydrating it.
    • Often added to soups, stuffed veggies and salads. Tabbouleh is one very characteristic bulgur-containing dish.
  • Corn
    • Gluten Free
    • Whole kernels are ground into cornmeal, which is then often used in baking.
    • Popcorn is a different strain of corn but is still a whole grain.
    • Polenta, toss fresh corn in salads, soups and quiches.
  • Couscous
    • This is not really a grain but a pasta made from semolina flour, and therefore, is not a whole grain. There are whole grain varieties that are made of whole wheat durum flour. They are much harder to find in stores but are readily available online.
  • Farro
    • This is a high-fiber, high-protein wheat that can be found in three forms.
      • Pearled – the bran & outer husk is removed but still retains some fiber. It has the shortest cook time and is the most common in our stores.
      • Semi-pearled – part of the bran is removed. It is sort of a middle ground in terms of nutrition and cooking time.
      • Whole – the whole grain remains intact. It has the longest cook time.
    • It has a chewy texture and a nutty flavor.
  • Millet
    • Gluten Free
    • A small, round ivory grain with a mild flavor.
    • Has a mild flavor and mixes well with other foods.
    • Use like rice.
  • Oats
    • Gluten Free but some companies process their oats on the same machinery as other gluten-containing grains. So, be sure they are certified gluten free.
    • Contains a special variety of fiber that’s felt to be helpful in lowering cholesterol.
    • Both old-fashioned & steel-cut are whole grains.
    • Steel cut is chewier and nuttier.
  • Quinoa
    • Gluten Free
    • A small, light-colored round pseudo-grain. It is not a true grain but is in the same family as spinach and chard.
    • It is naturally coated with a bitter and soapy layer, called saponin, that is to deter animals. It should be removed by rinsing in water before cooking. Some brands will be pre-washed when you buy it.
    • It is quick cooking.
    • Comes in white or red varieties.
    • It has a mild flavor, is chewy and slightly nutty.
    • Good in pilafs, salads, casseroles, soups.
  • Rice
    • Gluten Free
    • Limit your intake of white rice but, instead, choose brown, red, black or wild.
    • Brown rice can be long-, medium- or short-grain. Two of the most popular rices, basmati & jasmine, also come in brown versions.
    • Pigmented rices – black, purple, red, mahogany. The color is caused by the anthocyanin pigments in the outer bran. This makes them very high in antioxidants.
    • Wild rice is not true rice. It is an aquatic grass.
  • Wheat berries
    • The whole kernels of hard red spring wheat before it is ground into flour.
    • Because they are whole and firm, they take a while to cook. It is often recommended that you soak them overnight to shorten the cooking time.
    • Cook them in simmering liquid for anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour or cook them in a slow cooker.
    • It is chewy & nutty.
    • Add to soup, chili, salads, side dishes.

That is quite a bit of information but just scratches the surface on whole grains. I hope you are intrigued and challenged to try some of these whole grains. I know my favorites are bulgur and farro. What about you? Do you have a favorite?

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Healthy Resolutions

We all know that January is a popular time for trying to improve one’s health. People join gyms, they start fitness routines and they promise themselves they will start to eat healthier. These are great goals and I want to discuss the latter goal – eating healthier. One of you asked me how to make healthy food tasty as she has some health conditions that require her to watch what she eats. As I researched her concerns, I realized that what her diet advises is also a very healthy way for us all to eat. I will be writing a few Cooking Tips that will help you to cook/eat healthy but in a way that does not sacrifice flavor and satisfaction. In this first Tip, I want to discuss some general principles. In subsequent ones, I will dig deeper into some of these points. I do want to caution you, though, that you should always check with your health care provider about his/her recommendations. They may wish you to alter some of what I am going to say

If you have been reading these Tips for very long, you know that my purpose is not to provide you with recipes. Rather, I want to encourage you to seek out quality ingredients and learn good cooking techniques. With that, you can cook whatever you want to cook. It is the same with cooking healthy. You do not need any special ingredients or equipment. You probably have everything you need; you just need to cook with some guidelines in mind. I will, though, be giving you some recipe ideas in the upcoming Tips.

Cook from scratch

The number one thing you can do to cook healthier is to eliminate as many prepared or processed foods as you can. If you cook mostly from scratch, you will automatically be cooking healthier.

Limit processed foods

There are so many convenience (aka processed) foods on the shelf and in most of our pantries and refrigerators. That convenience comes at a cost. I like The American Fitness Professionals Association’s definition of healthy foods – “Healthy foods … are those that are close to how we would find them in nature, have undergone few industrial processes, and contain few to no additives.”

What does that mean? It means not using boxed mixes for dishes. No Hamburger Helper. Rather, make your own pot of pasta and fresh sauce with healthy ingredients from your pantry and refrigerator. Add herbs and spices that you like. Just a sprinkling of a good quality, flavorful cheese on top before serving. By doing this, you are decreasing the sodium of the meal along with many additives and preservatives, which are in those boxed items. If you choose to make a whole grain pasta, you are upping the fiber content. Not only is this healthful but will also make you feel fuller longer.

Another example is purchased salad dressings. A worthy goal is to eat more greens and veggies. A simple way to do this is to have a salad before each dinner. If you drown those greens in a high sugar and processed store-bought salad dressing, you are not doing yourself any favors. If, instead, you make your own vinaigrette, you are using minimal ingredients and those that you do use are minimally processed. You do not need to sacrifice flavor to do so. A simple vinaigrette is easy to make and can be very tasty. See this prior Cooking Tip for how to do this.

Cook a wide variety of foods

It is so easy to get into a rut of making and eating the same things all the time. Not only is this monotonous but you are missing out on so much. Don’t eat just white rice. Branch out and experience brown, red, black and wild rice.

There are also so many other grains out there that will be better for you than white rice and do not take much more effort to cook. Try quinoa, farro, barley, couscous or bulgur. Cook them in a low-sodium broth rather than just water. Add interest with herbs/spices, nuts and unsweetened dried fruit.

Go for whole foods

As much as you can, cook with whole foods such as fruits, veggies and whole grains. Try to include these at most of your meals. Remember that frozen fruits and veggies are just as good if not better than the fresh variety as long as they are not packaged in a sauce or had sugar, salt or other ingredients added to them.

Fruits can be incorporated into your cooked dishes. Many meats are complemented nicely with a light sauce that includes fruit. Pork and apples is a classic but you can also use fresh figs, peaches, grapes, pears, etc.

As mentioned before, incorporating a salad into your lunchtime or evening meal is a great idea. For more variety, try roasting, grilling or sauteing veggies as a side dish.

Have fun with herbs and spices

Experiment with adding herbs and spices to your dishes. They will add a pop of color and flavor to your grains, meats etc.

Use smaller amounts of some foods

Rather than opting for a low-fat variety of something or trying to eliminate the ingredient entirely, just use smaller amounts of the full-fat variety. For example, choosing an extra sharp cheddar cheese will allow you to use less and still have amazing flavor. Many low fat cheeses are not a good idea. They do not taste as good and often have a binder added to improve texture. Another example is cutting down on the amount of oil called for when cooking. Don’t just dump in whatever the recipe calls for. Start with less and then, if you need more, you can add a bit more.

Fats and sugar

Which of these is worse for you? That continues to be somewhat of a debate but there are a few things we know. As for fats, limit your use of saturated fats. These are fats that are solid at room temperature such as butter and lard. Saturated fats are also found in animal products such as most meats & dairy products and also in tropical fats. When cooking, opt for monounsaturated and polyunsaturated oils such as olive, canola, safflower or sunflower. Swap out your beef and pork for seafood.

A type of fat you should try to completely eliminate is trans fats. Although there is a very small amount that can be found naturally in nature, most come from a certain type of food processing. Therefore, once again, you will automatically decrease your intake of it when you cook from scratch. Also, food labels are required to list the amount of trans fats. Note that foods containing less than 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving are labeled as having 0 grams of trans fats.

With sugar, the most important thing is to limit your use of added sugar. Pay attention to food labels for sugar content. Recently, the FDA updated the requirements for food labels and they must now show not only sugar content but “added sugars”. This should help you make smarter choices.

Consider some meatless meals

You do not have to be a vegetarian but you can make a concerted effort to have at least some meals without meat. A fun and tasty way to do this is with Grain Bowls (aka Buddha Bowls). Although these bowls can contain meat, many do not. Here is a prior Cooking Tip with more information on this dish.

Keep your pantry and freezer stocked

If you have what you need to cook healthier already in your pantry and/or freezer, it will be much easier to follow through.

Finally, have the attitude that almost nothing is forbidden but many things should be eaten in moderation. One example is butter. I love to finish a pan sauce with just a small pat of butter. This adds a richness both in terms of flavor and texture. If you only use a small amount, you can do this without feeling guilty.

If you have made a resolution to cook and eat healthier this year, I wish you the best of luck. You can do it and it is not that difficult to do so. I hope these few tips will help you get on the right track.