How and Why to Eat Well

Food is the new record collection: I can tell a lot about someone by what's in their pantry.

As popular as cooking is, though, it's still somewhat of a lost art, because as Nigella Lawson says, it's easier to impress people with food than it is to give them real pleasure with it. You could say the same of music, really. Flavor is a valuable thing, and like most valuable things it takes care and attention to create.

In my own kitchen, I'm a traditionalist, and like my grandmothers before me, I don't mess with The Way It's Done. The only seasoning I use aggressively is salt. Everything else is, as musicians say, buried in the mix.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


My families are a mixture of Italians and Southerners, so family recipes were always pretty interesting. Here's one my grandmother used to make. She lived alone, but she always cooked meals for herself and would sit down with a nice plate to enjoy her food. I loved that about her.

Nona's Telephone Road Relish

1/2 cup finely chopped celery
1/2 cup finely chopped olives
1 pickled green jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely chopped
1 unpeeled piece of garlic
Olive oil
pepper and salt

Combine the first three ingredients in a mixing bowl. Take the piece of garlic, put it on a cutting board and then take a big chef's knife and cover the garlic with the wide, flat side. Give the knife a couple of hard smashes using the heel of your hand (you can cover the knife with a towel if this scares you). Take the peel off the garlic, then toss the garlic into the bowl. Stir well, sprinkle with pepper and salt, and stir again. Transfer the mixture to a jar, like an old pickle jar or mayonnaise jar that has a screw-on lid. If you don't have a jar, a glass bowl will do. Pour olive oil over the mixture until it comes up to the top of the vegetables. Screw the lid on tightly (or cover the bowl with some plastic wrap) and let sit in the refrigerator overnight.

You can serve this relish with hamburgers and sandwiches. I like to add about 1/4 cup of it to a 14-ounce can of tomatoes and simmer it in some of the oil from the relish. This makes a nice sauce for pasta with shrimp or tuna.

My other grandmother was from a once well-to-do Southern family. She was an only child, and I don't know who taught her to cook but it must have been my great grandmother. They both had some wonderful specialties -- my mom still moans over the fact that she never got Mama Hallie's lemon meringue pie recipe. Here's one my grandmother taught me how to make.


1/3 - 1/2 lb. Beef scraps (steak bones, leftover steak, or two oxtail bones from the grocery store)
1 onion, diced up
2 pieces celery, diced
1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes
1 14-ounce can tomato sauce
1 cup of each:
diced carrots
green beans cut to 1"
whole-kernel corn
green peas
1/4 cup barley
1 14-ounce can cream-style corn
pepper and salt

Put a big soup pot on the stove over medium heat. Add some vegetable oil to the pan, enough to barely coat the bottom. Cut up the steak into little bite-size pieces. Add it to the pot along with any soup bones you're using and let everything brown evenly, stirring frequently. Next, add the chopped onion and celery and cook until it's softened. Then, add the tomatoes and the can of tomato sauce. Fill each of the empty cans up with water and add the water to the pot. Break up the tomatoes with the back of a spoon as you're stirring. Season with pepper and salt, about 1/2 tsp each. Cover the pot and let this simmer for about 30 minutes over low heat.

After 30 minutes, uncover the pot and add the remaining vegetables and the barley. Cook for another 30-45 minutes or until the barley is tender. Last, add the can of cream-style corn and cook until the soup returns to a simmer and is bubbling hot. It should be thick, but not as thick as a stew, so add some extra water to loosen it up if you think it needs it. Remove the soup bones and serve.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


There are two guys in my band from Sheboygan, Wisconsin -- let's call them the Two Guys From Sheboygan. After many missed invitations, I finally got myself over to Cory's for a real Sheboygan bratwurst cookout, complete with his parents visiting from Sheboygan.

Now, I live for stuff like this. Little ol' foods from places that specialize in those little ol' foods. Cory's parents brought the sausages, hard rolls, and even some 4-year aged white cheddar, fresh from 'Sconnieland, and you can bet I was taking copious notes. This is the kind of food you can't get just anywhere, so when you do get it, it's glorious.

You think you know what bratwurst tastes like? Not if you buy it at the grocery store. And if you can't get all the way to Munich or the German Alps for the real thing, you'd do well to fly some in from Wisconsin and give your friends a fantastic treat. This bratwurst, cooked outside on a grill, doesn't taste smoky or garlicky or any of those other flavors that tend to make sausage all taste the same. And there's no liver in it, so give that idea up, too. It's just quietly savory, and all the flavors balance together into something you can't really figure out.

And the brats are only half the experience. The other half is the rolls, which although they're called "hard rolls" are anything but. They're as light and soft as a fresh piece of French bread, but more satisfying and chewy. They're not sausage-shaped, either, which is cool.

Sheboygan brats are served on a buttered hard roll with good mustard, ketchup, slivered red onions, and a side of coleslaw. If you're up to it, put two sausages on there, but Cory's mom said you can also just slice one sausage longways in half to cover the roll. And they're great left over: Warm them up in a skillet. Butter the roll and heat the halves face-down in the skillet til the butter melts.

Don't wait for football season to try them. Baseball and brats are the ticket. Get yourself to Sheboygan online. Some of the best local factories don't ship their sausages, but the following vendors do, and they're Cory-approved. Johnsonville sausages are widely available, but according to him they're not quite as good.

Sheboygan Bratwurst Co
Fresh Sheboygan Hard Rolls
Johnston's Bakery
Bake Your Own Hard Rolls

And how 'bout some local brew?


Look, I'm sort of tired of the Food Conundrum. Bored with it, really. For most of my lifetime Americans have been whipped around on issues of Bad Foods, calorie counting and nutrient management. Meanwhile, the rest of the well-fed world kicks off their shoes and hunkers down with the same delectable cuisine their people have been enjoying for millennia without rotting their guts out or going diabetic by age 10.

Food is a problem, but I don't think it's THE problem. I think Americans are just vulnerable. We have a culture that offers and encourages innovation to great effect, but the downside is that we're constantly re-inventing and questioning basic life processes like what to eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and that oh-so-American anomaly, the Snack. (I don't think any other country could feed the third world on the Pepperidge Farm Goldfish stuck to its carpets and car seats.) Our economy is driven by our willingness to doubt ourselves, try new things and gratify instantly, but it's had an unfortunate effect on our appetites -- and its gotten our goat in ways we didn't see coming.

I took my mom out to lunch yesterday and ordered a BLT. They brought me a gorgeous, cinematic plate, toasted artisan sourdough with that ruffly green leaf lettuce peeking out from piles of perfectly charred bacon. The sandwich wasn't huge by New York deli standards, but it was easily two full-size sandwiches disguised as one. I could have eaten one of the halves and been more than satisfied. But what did I do? I ate the other one, too, most of it anyway, unable to leave the gorgeous, cinematic food on the plate to go to waste or cart it off in styrofoam to ossify before I could eat it later.

See what I mean? And I don't blame the restaurants. That'd be like blaming Judas Priest for those teen suicides. Restaurant food is entertainment, and good restaurant food is art -- so in some way it has to be larger than life. I picked up a restaurant trade magazine once and flipped through it to find concepts like "optimal plate coverage". A bit of research into this is good for chowhounds -- it helps to know where both your food and its preparers are coming from.

In educating ourselves about how to eat well, it'd be great if we could just stop questioning the basics and get on with the enjoyment of eating, with our appetites and impulses strapped down safely in the back seat. To do this requires questioning not what we eat, but our own habits and impulses, and the rationality of our behaviors. Eating everything on my plate when my plate is too full is, well, crazy. I admit it. And it makes my body crazy, too. Eating only raw foods or fat-free foods or macrobiotic foods or vegan foods....Draw your own conclusions about these forms of exclusion, but to me when the rest of the race is still thriving, after thousands of years, on the same endless interpretations of nature -- healthy balance, artful variety and moderation -- I'd rather be hedonistically omnivorous right along with them. They seem to know what they're doing.

I read somewhere that the rational brain is always contending with the emotional brain for dominance -- and because the emotional brain is bigger and stronger, it can usually bully its way to the top. You have to be smarter and more patient to outfox your irrational brain, especially when it comes to hunger -- which, along with the other appetitives like, absolutely give you a run for your money. This is one reality the food industry is way ahead of the rest of us on. Protect yourself. Get smart. Stick it out. It'll be worth it.

And I've got some ideas...

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Cheese that goes "BOING!"

I just discovered that Cotija cheese doesn't melt. Can't melt. Won't melt. I was hungry for a grilled cheese sandwich, so I dug out the Cotija, which I normally use to grate over pureed black beans (my beau likes these -- says they remind him of his medical missions to Veracruz). Anyway I sliced some up, and the texture of it made me curious. It has that spongy, tight, curdy texture like Halloumi, the Middle-Eastern cheese that you can grill like fajitas and it'll practically bounce off the countertop like rubber. So instead of putting the Cotija on bread, I buttered a skillet and put it in there. Little slabs of it about 1/4" thick. And you know what? It turned the most gorgeous golden-brown color. I flipped it and did the other side. Then I ate it, and it was buttery salty heaven.

So I guess I got my grilled cheese. But it started me thinking of other ways you could serve grilled Cotija -- which, although not as interesting or exotic as Halloumi, costs about three times less. It's a popular Mexican cheese down here. I haven't tested any recipes yet but here are my ideas:

Lime-garlic marinated Cotija, fire grilled with peppers and onions
tortilla-crusted fried Cotija
Cotija french fries with habanero ketchup
Cotija 'croutons' for salad
olive-oil cured Cotija with tomatoes, fresh oregano and lime juice

Now for the bad news. Cotija has 120 calories per ounce, 10 grams of fat, 7 grams of protein and 480 milligrams of salt. So let me add one last recipe idea to the list, just to round out the cast:

Fried Cotija with chocolate fudge sauce

Friday, February 19, 2010

How do you take your sugar?

A friend forwarded me a link to a lecture on high-fructose corn syrup. It's not the newest news that this form of sugar is insidious in many/most processed foods in grocery stores and restaurants. But, it's a reminder that if your shopping cart -- and your belly -- is still mostly filled with commercially-made groceries, you'll want to start policing the labels of those foods.

And not just snacks and desserts. Here's a list of foods you might eat every day; commercial brands can have some form of sugar listed in the top three ingredients:

Granola, raisin bran, and other "healthy" cereals
Whole-grain breads
Peanut butter
Bottled salad dressings
Mayonnaise products
Flavored yogurt
Canned soups
Jar pasta sauces

People with high-sugar diets are developing the same diseases as heavy drinkers are (diabetes, hypoglycemia, liver and heart disease) because the sugars are chemically identical. It also talks about the USDA’s role in selling food, both at home and abroad, that’s been stripped of nutrients (like fiber) in order to extend shelf life. In moderation these foods aren't toxic -- but we were never meant to consume them in daily and ubiquitous doses. If you don’t have time to listen to the whole lecture, here’s a recap of what he advises for children and adults to return to sensible levels of sugar consumption. Again, it's not about eliminating any or all of these foods from your diet -- it's about having them in moderation and reading labels so that YOU can choose how you want to take your sugar.

For kids:
  1. Sweetened drinks (including some baby formulas) are the biggest dose of sugar in kids’ diets -- and the easiest to reduce. Keep water and milk in the fridge, and limit sugary drinks to a treat, not every day (including and especially fruit juice!)
  2. If your kids are more sedentary, match active time with sedentary time (i.e. Play outside for 30 minutes to get 30 mins of computer or TV time)
  3. Have kids wait 20 minutes before eating seconds
  4. Pair the sugar and carbs in their diet with some fiber (i.e., whole fruits are good, whole grains are good) Fructose in nature is usually packed inside fiber, which limits absorption of the sugar, helps the body feel fuller, and aids digestion.
For grownups:
  1. Eat more fiber-rich foods in their natural state, both sweet and savory. It increases satiety, nourishes, and wards off diabetes. Examples: fruits, legumes, whole grains like brown or wild rice, leafy and cruciferous green vegetables, sweet squash like butternut
  2. Exercise to burn stress, not calories. Exercise increases your metabolism and helps your body process toxic stress chemicals. Don’t obsess about “burning off” a cookie - calories will take care of themselves, even while you’re resting, if you eat wisely. Stress and sweets love each other, so try to control both in your daily life.
  3. Pair your sugar or carbs with fiber — save fiber-free desserts and carbs for now and then, not every day, and stop keeping them in your pantry to tempt you. If you have a tough habit to break, start by making your own junk foods from scratch (French fries, cookies, cheese straws, etc). They'll be less processed and you won't want to go to all that trouble every day. Once you're weaned, you can slowly re-introduce the faster versions into your routine on a rare-treat basis. You'll crave them less as you eat them less.
  4. Sodas, lattes, Gatorades: if you'll kill these from your everyday diet, you'll knock out a huge part of your sugar consumption. Sugar substitutes screw up your brain-stomach communication -- they can scramble satiety signals so that you end up hungrier. Let yourself have the real stuff, just not every single day.
This is all an argument for moderation. Yet it's hard to moderate sugar when you don’t know it’s hidden in most “convenience” foods. If anyone else has tips for savvy eating, please share them!

One trick I like is sweetening my own foods. I choose plain yogurt and flavor it with really good vanilla, or add my own fruit and a natural sugar. You can also buy unsweetened peanut butter, or use the grinder in the bulk aisle, then add a touch of honey to round out its flavor. It's also preservative-free, so you can buy smaller amounts and always have it very fresh. SO much more delicious.

Sunday, September 27, 2009


Fun ways to save hip, thigh and buttloads of calories, and still get the killer food buzz

Everybody loves summer clothes. And summer food. They're lighter, brighter, less complicated, and you can cram way more of them into your suitcase and belly than bulky winter items. Sitting outside someplace over a frozen cocktail or three is a national pastime in summer, too.

But beware -- some treats are double and triple-loaded with sugar, fat or calories, and a little bit of savvy can stretch your budget and give you the exact same satisfaction. Why pay more?

Here's a list of ten common calorie-packed summer treats, and how to lighten up!

LOADED: Ice cream
LIGHER: Gelato
The reason the Italians are reputedly so chic and acculturated is because they invented tricks like this. Gelato is made with whole milk, not cream, which instead of tasting bland is the most transcendent frozen experience you can have. Heavy cream, ostensibly, obscures the essence of the main flavors in the gelato, but the whole milk has just enough butterfat to intensify flavors at low temperatures. If you're sticking to chocolate and vanilla, you're gastronomically dead -- when in Rome you'll order pistachio, nocciola (hazelnut), zuppa inglese, or stracciatella, and you'll never go back. Now, here's the biggest trick of all: the portions. Those teeny tiny cups and spoons will pack more bliss than you can imagine, so don't order the large -- trust me, it'll be twice what you can comfortably enjoy -- and a good gelateria will scoop in as many flavors as you care to try even if you order the "piccola" cup.

LOADED: Enchiladas
LIGHTER: Tacos al carbon
The trick here is simple: portion control. I don't know about you but when somebody sets a plate of runny goodness in front of me, swimming in chili gravy and cheese, I'm not likely to leave any of it on my plate. Then I feel bloated and crappy about myself for the rest of the day. I tried the taco trick once and it was the cure -- small portions of lean grilled meat on small tortillas, with toppings served on the side so you can add your own. Fajitas are a runner-up, but again, who can leave a platter of them half-eaten? Order charro beans on the side instead of the refried, and skip the rice, which is redundant. You'll have your Tex Mex and eat it, too, and you'll have enough pocket calories to splurge on chips and guacamole. Order the small and share it. It's just the right amount.

LOADED: 6-ounce grilled steak
LIGHTER: 6-ounce grilled swordfish steak
It's hard to have a huge appetite in 102-degree heat. And six ounces of meat or fish is technically twice the recommended single-serving amount. But when you're having friends over for a dinner party those portions just look stingy. Get the freshest swordfish available, smear it with olive oil, pepper and a handful of coarse salt, and grill it for 5 minutes per side. It's juicy, luscious, carbonized, and as dense as chicken but feathery light. There's no hint of fishiness, so even kids will gobble it up. If you want to score extra calorie points, grill smaller portions of fish or beef, then slice them and serve them on a bed of greens with avocadoes, mango, maybe a handful of pasta, and a nice tart vinaigrette.

LOADED: Baked potato
LIGHTER: Baked potato for two
You see where I'm going with this one. A giant russet potato that weighs a full pound at the grocery store is easily enough for two people. Here's what you do: split it in half lenthwise before you bake it. Smear it with olive oil and coarse salt. Bake them face down and uncovered for 40-45 minutes in a baking pan in a very hot oven (425-450F). The cut side will turn golden, and the skin will be so crispy and salty it'll become your favorite part. Serve with whatever you like. You can also choose small Yukon Gold potatoes and roast them whole. It's just right.

LOADED: Frozen coffee drinks
LIGHER: Iced coffee
It doesn't matter how you order it: "lowfat", "no-fat soy," "sugar free," bla bla bla. Just own up to the fact that those frozen coffee slurpees are addictive, and the more of them you drink, the more calories you're packing on. A single pint-size one of these naughty concoctions has about the same amount of calories as a loaded ham sandwich. Empty calories don't do it for me. I pick iced coffee with whole milk and drink it unsweetened, or with a teaspoon of raw sugar. It's creamy and fantastic, and about half the calories. And it goes great with the ham sandwich.

LOADED: Grand-slam breakfast
LIGHTER: Breakfast tacos
I admit when I'm on the road, nothing is better on a Sunday morning, after an exhausting weekend of shows and late nights, than a big fat ol' platter of eggs and sausage and hash browns and toast with a side of pancakes. But unless you're having it in bed, and sharing it with somebody cute, I wouldn't advise it more than once a month or so. I've gotten addicted to Pete's Tacos at Maudie's here in Austin. They're basically a grand-slam breakfast on a tortilla, minus the pancakes, and with only about a tablespoon or two of each ingredient stuffed inside. But when you get two of them on your plate, you feel like a glutton anyway. Go ahead, chow down. Portion control triumphs once more. And at about a buck fitty per taco, you've still got enough cash and calories for some hair of the dog. Other killer taco spots in Austin: El Chilito, El Sol y La Luna. or any dumpy little place with a packed parking lot on Airport Blvd.

LOADED: Frozen margarita
LIGHTER: Margarita on the rocks

To make a frozen margarita taste as zingy as a regular one, bartenders have to use a much higher concentration of sugar and juice. It's like drinking frozen limeade concentrate with 1 can of water instead of 3. Stick to a well-shaken cocktail poured over ice, and have 3 for the caloric price of one frozen! This is a useful rule to apply to any frozen drink, and yes, ALL of them can be ordered on the rocks, or shaken until ice crystals float in them and served straight up.

LOADED: Pint of lager

A shandy is the perfect summer drink if you like ice-cold beer. It's a British concoction of lager mixed with an equal amount of 7-Up or other lemon-lime soda. If you're a sworn diet-soda lover then you can slice calories in half on this drink. Otherwise, try a mixture of 7-Up and club soda for an even more refreshing and less cloyingly sweet version.

LOADED: Bloody Mary
LIGHTER: Michelada

Maybe you have to live within driving distance of Mexico to know about this exotic little cocktail. It's a salty-sour flavor base of fresh lime juice, chili powder, spices and seasoned salt poured over a tall glass of ice and served with a bottled Mexican beer on the side so that you can mix your own. Beer over ice? Como no. Try it and you'll be converted.

LOADED: Homemade lemonade
LIGHTER: Homemade lemon soda pop

I've been on a rabid hunt for years for the perfect bottled soft drink -- not too sweet and not too blah, and with none of that Splenda stuff faking out my system. One day I ordered a Tart Lemonade off the menu at the famous Magnolia Cafe here in Austin, and it was a revelation. They'd made a seriously strong pitcher of fresh lemonade and left out the sugar! You can do this at home and mix it with club soda, sweetened fruit juice, or even cream soda for the perfect lemonade cocktail that's only as sweet as you like it. Or heck, drink it straight, like I do. The extra dose of acidity is actually healthy for your digestion, too.


Swordfish has a high mercury content, so if that's a concern, try this recipe with skewered prawns, diver scallops, or halibut steaks.

Serves 4

4 swordfish steaks, 6-8 ounces each
¼ cup olive oil
1 tablespoon coarse kosher salt
1 teaspoon mild powdered red chile
1 teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon garlic powder

Trim and discard any skin on the swordfish steaks. Rinse and pat them dry with paper towels. Place them in a glass baking dish. Combine the salt, pepper, chile powder and garlic and set aside. Coat the fish on both sides with the olive oil, then sprinkle the spike mixture evenly over the fish on both sides. Allow to sit at room temperature for 30-60 minutes. Grill the steaks for 5-7 minutes per side, or until the fish is just opaque in the middle. Serve with the salsa spooned over the top of the fish.

Serves 4

2 limes
2 small or 1 large ripe avocado
1 mango, peach or other soft pitted fruit (or substitute pineapple)
1 tablespoon chopped green onion
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 teaspoon powdered red chile
Pepper and salt to taste

Gently grate the zest of one of the limes and place it in a small mixing bowl. Slice and squeeze both the limes and stir in the honey, green onion, salt and pepper. Dice the avocado and fruit and add them to the lime juice mixture, tossing very gently to coat well. Transfer the salsa to a serving dish, sprinkle the chile powder over the salsa and allow to steep at room temperature for 30-60 minutes.