Friday, July 29, 2011

The Snack Trap

it is no secret that i love (real) food. i love to cook and i love to eat.  there are days where i am constantly preparing, tasting & writing new recipes.  however, i am not what i would call a "snacky" person.  i prefer my meals and when i get a hankerin' for something in between i usually gravitate towards a piece of raw milk cheese, seasonal fruit or vegetable, a glass of kefir or home brewed kombucha.  although right now i could go for a small bowl of zerbe's potato chips fried in lard. anyway, this is not the case for most.  from what i can tell, and i am "in the field" everyday observing with a keen eye, americans have become addicted to snacks.   

snacking wouldn't be so bad if everyone was eating real food but they're not. roughly 17,000 new packaged, processed food products make it onto the grocery store shelves each year and most of them are not food.  chemicals have replaced food and are cleverly (read: deceptively) marketed as economical, convenient and healthy!  the marketing is so clever that adults buy the advertising, become addicted to the chemicals they perceive as food and then raise their children on them creating a whole new generation of people addicted to chemicals.  these products posses zero nutritional value and are made with cheap, dangerous ingredients, creating a vicious cycle of hunger and addiction that keeps people craving more and more in order to feel satisfied. this is what i call the snack trap: constantly eating to maintain stable blood sugar levels and instill a feeling of comfort.  the truth is that when you get caught up in snacking on packaged, processed foods this way, your body is in a perpetual state of dis-ease and there is nothing economical, convenient or healthy about that.

when i talk about constant snacking i immediately envision chubby legged toddlers with their plastic snack traps loaded with cheerios, pepperidge farm goldfish, pirate booty and those awful fruit flavored puffs my friend leah calls "baby crack." (have you ever tried to take those puffs away from a toddler?) these snacks provide an unhealthy dose of toxins in the forms of sugar, MSG, food dyes & colorings, high fructose corn syrup, vegetable oils, soy byproducts, GMOs, artificial flavors and fillers that keep kids busy chewing. sometimes i think parents love these foods just because they keep their kids quiet (drugged) so they don't have to engage.....but that's another talk show altogether.  the good news is that if you know how to read labels you will see exactly what is in packaged foods and can avoid them. (see truth in labeling).  by staying away from packaged and processed food snacks, this vicious cycle can easily be broken and snacking can be a fun, healthy, delicious good time for all. by the way, the snack trap is a useful invention for self feeding toddlers that can be filled with healthy and nutritious foods.

when packing food to go it is important to think about what types of food travel well.  summer is a great time to investigate as there are plenty of opportunities for picnics (breakfast, lunch and dinner).   i always pack snacks when we head out for  a day at the park as well as when i take my turn as class mum for a weeks worth of snacks for 25 children.  this can be a difficult task but i have found a solution (see below).  the thing you want to remember about snacks is that they should be nutrient dense, easy to eat and provide energy as well as flavor.  

on a typical day i will have any of the following smart snacks in my bag in order to restore myself and my children when we get to feeling low on energy: bison, beef or turkey kielbasa, raw milk cheese cubes, cherry tomatoes, radishes, salmon jerky, nori sheets or even sushi, dried fruit leather, fresh berries, dried figs, coconut macaroons, cucumber spears with sea salt, pickles, popcorn with coconut oil, sea salt & nutritional yeast, sourdough bread & butter, pate on cracker, a boiled egg, sesame seed crunch bars, a freshly baked muffin or bread, skewers with cheese and fruit, roasted whole beets - eaten like an apple, a peach, pear, plum, melon slices, ham slices, soaked and dehydrated walnuts and almonds, pita chips with guacamole, a container of hummus with steamed carrots and a thermos of real milk, bone broth, water or kombucha tea.  

all of the above mentioned foods can be prepared ahead of time and will sit happily in your bag until needed.  when my daughter or son says that they are hungry it usually means that they are bored (or growing).  my test is to offer them a few choices and if they don't want what i have offered, i then get them interested in an activity.  if after they have been involved in that activity for a little while they tell me that they are hungry again, it might just be time for lunch or dinner.  i remember coming home from school and wanting a snack before i ran out to play. i was ravenous! my snack always included a big glass of milk.  i was instinctively refueling in order to continue on. we need to listen to our bodies. sleep when we are tired, use the toilet when we have to go and eat when we are hungry. it's very simple and we should take our cues from newborns who are comfortable at the breast and not yet aware of anything but the basics to survive. we don't need to eat all day long.  if we eat good meals made from fresh, local, organic & whole ingredients then our bodies will be happy and perform as we need them to. again, i ask you to ask yourselves when making food choices for yourself and your family "have people been eating this for at least a hundred years?"  I guarantee that when you abandon the snack trap and throw away the puffed rice cakes, butter flavored pretzels, soy crisps, booty, 'whole grain" goldfish, part skim string cheese, blue go-gurt and pizza combos and any other disgusting astronaut-like concoction you squeeze from a tube, you will bring a hungrier, more enthusiastic Family2Table who can really taste and appreciate real food prepared with love. 

how to avoid the school snack trap
parents who feed their children real food often have a hard time dealing with the community snack situation at school. some parents choose to home school just so their children do not have to be exposed to poor nutrition.  I totally understand and have been there -- i frequently have to clear my throat and remind parents of where i stand.  

if you are having this problem this is what i suggest.  write a friendly letter (or email) to all of the parents in your class letting them know that your child has a sensitivity to processed, packaged foods.  this sensitivity needs to be regarded and respected as seriously as any food allergy (i.e. peanuts) and exposure to processed, packaged foods will result in health problems for your child somewhere down the road.  exposure to neurotoxins such as MSG, food colorings, soy, GMOs and other chemical additives could produce severe reactions and possible illness.  let them know that these chemicals could also produce adverse reactions in their children as sometimes food sensitivities do not surface until later and you don't want to take any chances.  i do not intend any disrespect to anyone with a severe allergy nor do i take any food allergies lightly.  i only mean to compare in order to convey my concern for the health of our children. 

if they are persistent in pushing garbage food on the kids please ask them to 1) limit the number of ingredients in the package to three 2) notify you so you can provide an alternative for your child and 3) really read the label and see what is in the package.  oftentimes parents will look at labels and decide that it is not so good for anyone to eat.  another suggestion is to come up with a list of approved snacks that all the kids will enjoy and stick to that list for the year.  when birthdays arise, have a set recipe for a treat that everyone makes to celebrate.   declare your child's classroom a processed, packaged food-free zone! after all, parents want happy, smart kids and toxins are not good mood, developing brain food.

Sunday, July 3, 2011


life would be a sad, boring, flavorless place without fresh herbs.  i absolutely love them, rely on them, am inspired by them, can't get enough of them. i remember the exact moment herbs took hold of my heart and never let go. i was working in a corner shop in tribeca in 1988.  the chef was an incredibly talented young painter turned cook named shelly boris who one day gave me the task of picking and cleaning an entire case of basil.  not so much fun but definitely an a-ha moment for me.  the real love affair began when i was asked to pick and chop a selection of herbs for the herb mayo we made fresh daily for our sandwiches.  as i pulled the beautiful little thyme leaves off the stems, i brought my fingers to my nose and took a deep inhale of the fragrant oil that lingered on my skin.  i did this repeatedly with all the herbs (tarragon, dill, basil, parsley, cilantro, chives) until i had chopped them all and incorporated them into the freshly made mayo.  i ripped off a piece of crusty tom cat bakery baguette, applied a thick layer of the herb mayo, sprinkled with sea salt and took a bite. that was it. i was hooked. in love and forever a slave to fresh herbs.

my grandmother used to say that when she didn't know what to cook she would get a pan of onions sauteing. the smell of the onions would inspire her and within minutes she would know what to do for dinner. for me onions work pretty well but nothing inspires like fresh herbs and right now is the time to go get them! basil becomes pesto for pasta, halibut, tomato salad, corn relish and more! cilantro longs for roasted sweet potatoes with sweet chile sauce and sour cream, rosemary, oregano & mint scream for lamb, chives beg for sour cream and creme fraiche, thyme marries roasted chicken perfectly, tarragon holds hands with scrambled eggs, chicken salad and sauteed radishes, dill runs side by side with egg salad, cucumbers and beets & thai basil, lemon verbena, mint and chives make my coconut milk fish soup sing like Callas.  shall i go on?  oh yes.....

those beautiful lush leaves and flowers lend spark and vibrance to food. versatile and forgiving, herbs lend a hand to breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert. they take a starring role as beverages in teas (hot or infused cold), summer coolers, infused vodkas, fermented beverages and digestives. they serve as natural remedies for what ails us, beauty aides to make us glow and lend a healing fragrance in aromatherapy to tweak our moods and put our mind-body connection back in the game.  chamomile calms and soothes, cilantro pulls heavy metals from the body, mint for IBS and digestion in general, rosemary oil to invigorate and repel lice, oil of oregano to kill yeast and bacteria, sage for blood flow and parsley to detox.  in short herbs inspire wellness, health, happiness and flavor throughout!

it would be difficult to declare a favorite herb. i have a few. i used thyme this morning in my breakfast of sauteed onions and chicken liver with fried egg and ruby red kraut. i also used it last night when i sauteed summer squash with garlic scapes.  as i write this i am sipping an iced chamomile tea infused with lemon verbena and mint and dinner tonight will include halibut in basil butter with radishes and tarragon.  there are always at least a half dozen bunches of fresh herbs in my vegetable bin (all wrapped in paper towel individually) as well as a cabinet full of freshly dried herbs (i have a dehydrator so i dry my own and put them up for the winter).  my usual stock includes thyme, basil, cilantro, tarragon, chives, flat leaf parsley, dill, oregano and mint.  

storing fresh herbs is tricky. some say they must be kept in plastic bags with the air sucked out of the bag. i prefer mine in paper towels. it really depends on your fridge and where you put them. basil can go from lush green to black in less than a day. i have put my basil in a glass of water and then put that in the fridge - it keeps well especially if you still have the roots attached.  i like to use basil right away. i also tend to make herb purees in olive oil as soon as i get my fresh herbs home.  i find parsley, mint, cilantro and basil hold the best this way.  pick and quickly wash and dry the herbs. individually process them in your cuisinart adding good extra virgin olive oil and some sea salt.  these will keep in the fridge for a good 3 to 4 weeks.  these purees can then be turned into pestos (all herbs can make a good pesto), gramolata, chimi churri sauce, pastas, soups, stews, salad dressing, marinades, condiments, a spread for sandwiches, a quick spark to hummus, whisked into eggs for frittata and omeletes and even into dough for savory biscuits, breads and scones.  purees can even be frozen and used later.  a time and money saving way to use fresh herbs!

if you don't use fresh herbs in your cooking i strongly suggest you try them and find out why i am gushing.  not only do i think you will get inspired by their flavor and endless creative possibilities, i also think they can be an exciting addition to your home and family lifestyle.  growing an herb garden - even in a small apartment in manhattan is a beautiful way to engage your entire family in the farm to table process and educate them about new and interesting flavor combinations.  in our tiny 400 square foot, not much sunlight apartment here in nyc, my kids know that you can grab a fragrant handful of leaves from a flower pot and turn a plain dish into something that sparkles like pixie dust. as a matter of fact, my daughter and i play a game called name that herb where you have to close your eyes, take a big whiff and you guessed it - name that herb!  we do this at the greenmarket every saturday and i am amazed at her ability to identify herbs by smell.  children are also very savvy when it comes to identifying herbs in food.  ask them at the table if they know what they are tasting. it's a great way to get a good food conversation started at the table.

in my opinion, thyme and rosemary are the hardiest potted herbs. they grow like stink week and will be the gift that keeps on giving if you remember to cut them back and water them.  children love to help at mealtime. asking them to pull herbs for a meal will make them feel very helpful and important.  they will also be more likely to try something new if they had a hand in growing it and making it.  keeping herbs will be a family project that everyone will benefit from. if you have cats, grow catnip too!

before i give you some of my favorite herbalicious recipes i want to turn you on to something.  when you clean and pick your herbs always save the stems (this need not be done on the inside of a double album cover i.e "frampton comes alive").  stems can be used to impart flavor to many dishes. for example, i stuff my stems inside the cavity of a chicken when roasting or use them as a bed to roast meat and fish upon.  stems can be used to flavor braises and sauces just like using a vanilla bean (pods already removed) to flavor cream and custard.  herbs are packed with flavor and it is up to you to get the most out of them. 

last wednesday sylvia and i went to market. i asked her what treasure she wanted to find. she quickly said lemon verbena.  she also said "laura ingalls says that miss beadle the school teacher on little house on the prairie smells like lemon verbena and i want to smell what she smells like."  we found a beautiful bunch of lemon verbena at cheryl rogowski's farm stand and i gave it to sylvia to smell.  "well?" i said. "what does miss beadle smell like?" she replied "ice pops with honey." so we went home and made them. we call them miss beadle pops and we hope you enjoy them when you bring your Family2Table.


radishes with tarragon - clean and quarter radishes. melt good butter in a saute pan. add radishes and saute till brown but not too brown. add sea salt, pepper and fresh whole tarragon leaves. saute for another minute and transfer to a serving bowl. serve hot or warm.

herb roasted tomato sauce - pre heat oven to 425 degrees. empty 2 cans of organic whole tomatoes into a roasting pan. add 6 whole cloves of garlic, 1/4 cup olive oil, 3 TBS balsamic vinegar, sea salt, pepper, 6 stems thyme, 1 long sprig rosemary, 6 stems oregano. put into oven for 1 hour - 1.5 hours or until the liquid has reduced and tomatoes are roasted with color. remove herb sprigs (let whatever leaves fall into the sauce remain). using a hand blender, blend sauce till smooth.  use immediately or cool and hold in fridge. use hot or cold.

lemon and thyme roasted chicken - (4lb.- 4 1/2lb. chicken) preheat oven to 450 degrees. salt and pepper chicken inside and out. fill cavity with large bunch of thyme and 1 whole lemon cut into quarters. place chicken in roasting pan in oven, legs first. after 20 minutes reduce heat to 400. after another 20 minutes reduce heat to 350 and rotate chicken in pan.
after another 20 minutes take chicken out of the oven and let rest for another 20 minutes before portioning. 

coconut milk fish soup - for each quart of fish stock use one can of organic coconut milk. combine coconut milk with fish stock. add julliene carrots, thinly sliced haruki turnips, diced summer squash, freshly shelled english peas, whole cilantro leaves, whole thai basil leaves, chopped lemon verbena leaves. bring to a simmer until vegetables are soft and herbs have permeated the soup. salt and pepper to taste.

watermelon and feta with torn basil - cut watermelon and feta into bite sized pieces and place on on top of the other. garnish with a piece of torn basil and serve.

miss beadle pops - bring a quart of water to a boil.  place a large bunch of lemon verbena into the water and turn off the heat. add 3 TBS raw local spring honey and cover to steep.
strain the herbs when cool. add to ice pop mold and freeze. (optional - add lemon zest from 2 organic lemons for texture).

rosemary roasted new potatoes - preheat oven to 425 degrees. cut potatoes equal size. toss with olive oil and chopped rosemary. sprinkle well with sea salt & pepper.  place into oven for 30 minutes. turn potatoes for color on all sides. roast for another 30 minutes until golden on all sides. 

baked herbed goat cheese & apple - preheat broiler. slice a hearty apple (johnagold, mutsu, winesap) into a 1/4 inch round. add goat cheese and press down to cover. sprinkle with fresh herbs - thyme, dill, chives, taragon, basil - salt & pepper.  drizzle with olive oil and put under broiler until golden. serve with a simple tossed green salad dressed with olive oil, fresh lemon juice, salt & pepper.  (optional - substitute apple with roasted beet or crostini).

basic lentils -  saute onions, 1 crushed clove of garlic carrots and celery till translucent. add herbs - thyme, marjoram, rosemary, parsley, chervil and lavender - add tomato, add 1/2 cup wine and reduce. add 2 quarts of stock (veg, chicken or beef). add lentils (about 2 - 3 cups). bring to a simmer for 1 hour. shut off flame. when cooked, add salt and pepper and let sit in liquid and finish cooking.  cool and hold in glass jars with liquid.