A Case for “Special Occasion Food”

On September 30, 2011, in Food, by Chris Baccus
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An occassional exception

 

I predominantly make sustainable food choices.  Eating three to four times a week vegetarian, buying my food from local, small farms, and shopping organic when local options are unavailable make up how our family eats.  A big part of being sustainable is avoiding processed and fast foods.

That said it is great making better food decisions, but having a rigid relationship with food takes the enjoyment out of eating and enjoying food should be part of one’s total food experience.  What an excessive fad diet culture and nutrient of the moment fanaticism has created is a food culture in America that forgets eating is supposed to be an enjoyable part of life.

So while our family has reduced eating out, make considered choices when buying food, and have moved to a diet that’s mostly vegetarian with some grass-fed, pasture raised, small farm meats we still do enjoy a break so that we are not so unpleasant that we abstain from moments for “special occasion food.”

What does “special occasion food” mean?

It is a phrase I’m borrowing from author Michael Pollan. “There is nothing wrong with special occasion foods, as long as every day is not a special occasion,” Mr. Pollan writes. “Special occasion foods offer some of the great pleasures of life, so we shouldn’t deprive ourselves of them, but the sense of occasion needs to be restored.” (source NYTimes.)

He is not talking about food at a wedding or party, though they are occasions with food. Pollan is talking about how our relationship with food has become unhealthy by eating fast food and snacks as a normal behavior and that transversely we who make more healthy decisions can become just as unhealthy in our thinking if we deny ourselves foods we enjoy. Just do it from time to time and have a healthy perspective even when making an occasional (there’s that word again) exception from eating sustainable food.

So I have no issue having an In-N-Out burger or a gas station taco from time-to-time knowing that 95% of the time our family is eating food that is responsible to the environment and the ethics of our society.

Now back to finishing up my Double-Double.

Salad with Chicken, Chickpeas, Beans and Avocado

On September 29, 2011, in Recipes, by Chris Baccus
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A simple dish that is full of flavor with minimal effort

This dish has been favorite of our home all summer. It is made with simple ingredients and can easily be modified if an item or two was missed at the last market visit.

Salad with Chicken, Chickpeas, Beans and Avocado
Serves 4

1/2 lb wax beans, washed and thinly sliced
1 can chickpeas, drained
1/2 avocado, cut into bit-sized cubes
1/4 fresh lemon juice
1/3 cup and 1 Tablespoon olive oil
2 boneless skinless chicken breasts, butterflied
Small head of lettuce
Salt and pepper

In medium bowl, stir together the beans, chickpeas and avocado. In a small bowl blend the lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper.

In a large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high heat. Season chicken with salt and pepper. Cook for 3-5 minutes on each side.  Once cooked split butterflied chicken in half. For healthier appetites, this recipe double the chicken breasts to 4.

Toss lettuce into beans, chickpeas and avocado.Place salad mixture on each plate then add chicken breast and gently spoon lemon juice dressing over salad and chicken.

Note: I’ve substituted red onions in place of beans.

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Hello Ragu, Welcome to 2011. Dads can Cook!

On September 28, 2011, in Food, by Chris Baccus
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What an obnoxious play on stereotypes. Ragu, yes that company that makes jarred sauces, is using moms to promote their latest recipe campaign with a YouTube video that insults dads titled Dad Cooks Dinner: What is Dinnertime Like When Dad Cooks?

So I obviously cook and can easily put a jarred spaghetti sauce like Ragu to shame in about 10 minutes with a few tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, carrots, and thyme. Out doing processed convenience food with fresh whole foods is easy, which is why most people should buy the ingredients and take the 10 minutes it takes to make a pasta sauce instead of reheating a jar of dehydrated onions, sugar and ‘cheese cultures’ into a saute pan (full ingredients here.) Plus the sauce has 7 grams of sugar? Why does it need sugar? Use shredded carrots and ripe tomatoes and there is no reason to add unnecessary ingredients.

Food quality aside the more troubling thing here is the brand’s reliance on outdated stereotypes. The video features several moms who share how poor their husbands are at cooking and while I’m sure they are not personally talking about all men, it definitely comes across that way.

Let’s flip the tables for a second.  If a tablesaw manufacturer did a campaign like this featuring a bunch of men saying how idiotic women are with power-tools would that be effective and responsible marketing? I highly doubt it.

Perhaps we'll all look back at how backwards 2011 was thanks to Ragu.

So please Ragu give modern families a break.  Your “idea” here might have been cute in Leave it to Beaver days but guess what a lot has changed and I know a lot of men who are the primary cooks at home.  Also, I’m not going to tell you that I’m never going to buy your product because truth be told I never did or ever would. I prefer making pasta sauce from scratch that no jar, not even the one’s twice the cost of yours can compare with.

 

Hat tip to C.C. Chapman who runs Digital Dads for sharing his thoughts about this video:  Ragu Hates Dads.

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Review: Candle Cafe in New York City

On September 26, 2011, in Food, by Chris Baccus
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Corn Chowder on a cool late September evening

One of the most compelling attributes of New York City is its rich variety of restaurants. A stroll down any avenue or side street is like walking down the cookbook aisle of a bookstore.  You are sure to pass steakhouses, Italian cafes, Indian houses, French bistros, and just about anything else your palate desires.  Choosing can be quite exhausting. However, this last weekend I was in Manhattan and I knew exactly where I was going to sit down to explore a new experience in my culinary travels.

The Candle Café is often referred to as the best vegan restaurant in New York.  Whether it is or not, I honestly cannot confirm as this was only my second vegan restaurant in the city.  I can confirm it is a must stop for diners interested in the pleasures that can come from a menu limited to fruit, vegetable and grain.

Some of the farm-to-market entrees

Limited is not the right word as the menu explores the great bounty that can come from so many options the soil provides us and one is sure to be debating which dish to get instead of the typical struggle a non-meat eater has at most restaurants in this county – where there is a token dish for vegans, if there is even one.

That’s the beauty of a place like Candle Café. It demonstrates vegan cooking can excite even the most boorish gourmand.

It was a busy Saturday night, yet getting a table was still possible. Unfortunately, this demonstrated quite possibly the best vegan restaurant is still an oversight in Manhattan.  I was dining alone and sat at the bar near the front door. The bar is more juice bar than cocktails, yet the restaurant does feature many organic wines.

I opted for a smoothie, a bowl of corn chowder, and something called “Paradise Casserole.”  The menu also features a full page of seasonal items that was due to change next week as one customer informed me. She was eating a delicious looking marinated, sesame seed crusted tofu salad.

The corn chowder promptly arrived following my smoothie.  Since vegan uses no dairy, the chowder was more of a broth than creamy puree.  There were whole kernels of corn and diced carrots and celery.  The broth was full of flavor with a bit of thickness that did border the line of soup versus chowder.

Paradise Casserole lives up to its name

Soon after finishing my soup and it being cleared away, the Paradise Casserole arrived. It’s a layered dish compromising of sweet potato puree, black beans, and millet. The millet acted as the foundational integrity as the casserole lay on top a bed of sautéed kale. A small cup of warmed balsamic vinaigrette rested to the side, which a poured gently around the edges of the kale.

Casseroles have pretty much died a much deserved death since their over use in the 1970s, yet Candle Café makes an argument for the return of the casserole.  The layering adds to the experience where one bite can comprise of sweet potato and kale while other bites may include the sweet potato, black bean and millet.  The warmed vinaigrette added another level of interest. It all ended well as I mixed in some more dressing with the sautéed kale.

Candle Café was a pleasant departure from my normal stops in New York and its menu made me consider future dishes to prepare at home as we have transitioned to three to four days of vegetarian or vegan meals each week.

Sound proofing the Vitamix

I did leave one final takeaway. The juice bar has a Vitamix blender that was encased in Plexiglas to reduce the loud noise of the machine. Having the same blender at home and knowing the deafening sound it blares, perhaps a Plexiglas project is in my near future.

 

Candle Café
1307 Third Avenue
New York City, NY
http://www.candlecafe.com/

 

 

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Consumers Defend McDonald’s Vehemently in Comments

On September 23, 2011, in Food, by Chris Baccus
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It’s an interesting phenomena I’m sure we will see more and more of as our nation’s obesity rate climbs from 33% today to 50% by 2030 – the defense of fast food.  Within the past month I’ve read two articles critical of McDonald’s and watched virtually the same public outrage repeat itself in each instance. One would think with increased obesity, increased cases of diabetes in children, and with a gaining movement away from processed foods that criticizing the poster company of crap food would be a noble cause in publications like the New York Times and Salon, but that isn’t the case.

The first article was a piece in the NY Times discussing McDonald’s move to self-regulate itself into better nutritional outcomes in its Happy Meals product: “McDonald’s Trims Its Happy Meal”.

The second article came last week from Salon where Monday’s PopRx Health writer pondered the seemingly obvious hypocrisy: “Why children’s hospitals tolerate McDonald’s”.

Both pieces took question with McDonald’s intentions. For instance the Times article shared the reasoning:

“McDonald’s made it clear that it was changing the composition of Happy Meals in response to parental and consumer pressure. It also pledged to reduce the sodium content in all of its foods by 15 percent, with the exceptions of soda and desserts. It set a deadline of 2015 for limiting salt, and said it would spend the rest of this decade cutting back on sugars, saturated fats and calories and making adjustments to portion sizes.

The Salon article factored down McDonald’s presence in hospitals to simple economics:

“‘Like any business, when the restaurant is in or on the hospital campus, we lease the space and pay rent,’ said Dr. Cindy Goody, McDonald’s senior director of nutrition. Follow the money — the marriage between fast food and children’s hospitals is, at its root, a side effect of competitive market forces in healthcare.”

Though to be fair, the Salon piece did start from the foot in the door McDonald’s gets from their philanthropic angle from the Ronald McDonald’s House program which is a very well respected charity that benefits families going through some serious child health issues. The article really wasn’t critical of the philanthropy itself, but rather shined a spotlight on how the company uses it to gain more access into hospital food offerings.

The Salon piece kind of reminded me of soft drink machines in schools.  Where cola makers do philanthropic activities for the schools and generously pay for placement in school hallways or cafeterias. It’s part philanthropy and part paying for critical product placement. That’s basically what the Salon article was questioning.

Reader Comments Outrage

One would think that the comments from readers would be critical of fast food. Sure there were a few people who shared their disgust with fast food and their dollars buying access to hospitals or doing very little to ward off government intervention.  Instead what happened in both cases was consumer outrage at the authors.  That outrage came in four distinct forms:

  1. Parental Freewill: Don’t criticize fast food marketing or quality; instead, blame parents for not making the right choices for their kids.  It’s not the company’s fault. It’s the parent’s fault.
  2. The How to Order Better Helper: Stop saying everything is bad for you at a fast food restaurant. If you buy x, don’t get y, and ask for z instead of s than you can eat a healthy meal there.
  3. Brand Defenders: Stop using <insert fast food restaurant name> as a scapegoat. There are all kinds of temptations in life leave <insert fast food restaurant name> alone!
  4. Deep Throat Defense: Follow the money. It’s all about money. If you solve the money spigot issue you’ll solve the problem. (for those who don’t know the phrase ‘follow the money’ was coined by the Watergate scandal film ‘All the President’s Men’. more here.)

So next time you’re reading an article critical of fast food changes or where it buys its way into unexpected places, read the online comments and I’m sure you’ll find one of the four “defenses” coming from an outraged reader.

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Dadgum Lemon Pepper Grilled Chicken

On September 22, 2011, in Recipes, by Chris Baccus
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Lemon Pepper Grilled Chicken with Mixed Vegetables

I had the pleasure a couple weeks ago to meet the President/CEO of Masterbuilt, a company that makes fryers, smokers and grills. John McLemore was here in Dallas making a stop on his DADGUM, That’s Good! book tour. I remember seeing the email invitation thinking I’m not sure I even know how to pronounce “dadgum” but what the heck it sound like a good break from family and work for a couple hours. Besides, being able to properly say “dadgum” might come in handy in the south.

John was a great host as we shared some BBQ at Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse. We chatted about his family’s business, social media, cooking, and yes even gas station tacos. It was a fun evening and in full disclosure I did get a free copy of the cookbook and dinner.

Nothing brightens up raw chicken like lemons

After a couple busy weeks of work, I finally had some time today to try a recipe. Seeing how I don’t own a smoker – I know I really should. Nor do I own a deep fryer – my wife has killed that idea many a times. I went with the grill recipes and one particularly caught my interest since I had a cut up whole chicken from Windy Meadows Family Farm waiting to be used.

If you don’t know about Windy Meadows Family Farm, you should. It’s a local farm that raises pasture chickens with no antibiotics, hormones, and no chemical dips when processing. They do all of their own processing too and are out of Campbell, Texas just east of Dallas.

The cookbook is easy to follow and every recipe comes with a tip from the author

The recipes in Dadgum, That’s Good! are pretty simple. This one required only a few ingredients and required some time marinating.

Guys will feel comfortable making any of the 125 recipes, just note that the book is divided into styles of cooking so if you don’t have a deep fryer, the recipes there may not be so useful though you could easily adapt and pan fry some of the dishes. Fortunately, I may have found a way to get a fryer into the house. I had no idea but they work for doing what’s called “low country boil” which is basically a form of steaming.

Grilling the Lemon Pepper Chicken

Fortunately, most people have a grill and you can use gas or charcoal.

Lemon Pepper Chicken
Serves 4-6

1 (3 1/2 lb) whole chicken
2 tablespoons black peppercorns
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 cinnamon stick
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 medium lemons cut into wedges
4 tablespoons of melted butter

Using poultry shears, butterfly the chicken, open it flat and place the breast side up in a large baking dish or pan.

Coarsely crush peppercorns, fennel and cinnamon in a blender. Mix with the crushed garlic and rub over the entire chicken, inside and out. Cut the lemons into wedges and squeeze juice over the chicken. Scatter the lemon pieces under and over the chicken. Marinate the chicken in the refrigerator overnight in a baking dish or resealable plastic bag.

Preheat grill to 350 degrees. Pour melted butter over chicken. Now place the chicken on the grill. With grill lid closed, grill chicken for 15 minutes, then turn and grill an additional 15 minutes, or until internal temperature reaches 165 degrees F. Remove from grill, cover with aluminum foil and let the chicken stand for 10 minutes before carving and serving.

The recipe turned out great. It was easy and reminded me again how I should cook more than boneless, skinless chicken breasts. The flavor is far greater with bone and skin on, plus I have enough leftovers to do some really amazing chicken salad and maybe enough to also make some chicken soup.

For more recipes and to order John’s book, click here.

This post first appeared on Dallas Food Nerd.

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Supermarket Pastoral: Chickpea Miso

On September 22, 2011, in Food, by Chris Baccus
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Made with lightly polished organic brown rice

I kept seeing this product called Chickpea Miso at Whole Foods and finally had a good reason to buy it. It definitely makes its case for attention promoting its “entirely handcrafted in the centuries-old Japanese farmhouse tradition” process. You can even see what that is all about thanks to a 2010 Cooking Channel feature highlighting the Massachusetts company.

 

The product is amazing.  It tastes fantastic and really is unlike any miso I’ve ever had; though, I confess I’m no miso connoisseur. The ingredients list though takes some liberty with adjectives to describe some rather ordinary items: “Deep well water, lightly polished organic brown rice…sun-dried sea salt…and koji culture.”

You can learn more about this product at their website.

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Udon Noodles with Vegetables

Grown-up Top Ramen: Udon Noodels and Vegetables

On September 20, 2011, in Recipes, by Chris Baccus
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Udon Noodles with Vegetables

Quick and Easy Top Ramen for Grown-ups

We were coming back from an early evening photo shoot for the boys. Stephanie bought a deal on Living Social and we spent some time out at Arbor Hills Park in Plano. It was the typical rush from work, get caught in some traffic, and then come back home get the kids ready for bed and finally have a moment to make dinner.  Fortunately, I had a simple recipe from the {Custom Made} Life blog.

Preparing the vegetables

Cooking some sweet potato and carrots

Basically take a few vegetables, some udon (or soba) noodles, and make a broth.  People who do not cook can cook this. I promise.

Best part it’s really quite tasty and hit the spot after all of our evening running around and it only took 15 minutes to make.

Chickpea Miso

Really impressed with this chickpea based Miso concentrate

It was also the first time I used a chickpea based Miso concentrate from Whole Foods. It’s a bit pricey at $10 a jar but I have to say it really added a great flavor to the broth; though, I’m sure a package miso from the asian food aisle is fine too.

For the full recipe, please visit: Recipe: Udon Noodle Soup

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Baja Chicken Tacos from The Savvy Spoon Blog

On September 8, 2011, in Recipes, by Chris Baccus
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I’m discovering several types of food snobs in Texas.

There is the Tex-Mex snob who will tell you where to go for the best Tex-Mex, usually in some Texas town you’ve never heard of or one that is at least a 4 hour drive from wherever you are currently.

Then there is the BBQ snob.  This type of Texas food snob will inform you about the best place ever somewhere not listed in the Yellow Pages. No you will find it on the side of the road, isolated from every form of civilization, except someone decided to plop down a double-wide and hang a sign out advertising BBQ ribs and chicken.  Wooden picnic tables come standard.

I’m quickly becoming the other kind of snob – the dreaded taco snob. If the taco has lettuce in it, the restaurant will be forever known as Taco Bell-ish or Chi-Chi’s-like. Then there is the tortilla, is it too doughy or too dry or too greasy?  Is the meat properly seasoned? Is there enough cilantro or did they forget the cilantro?  If you haven’t read my Gas Station Tacos blog, you are missing the sad, pathetic monster I am becoming…

So, when it comes to tacos — I am unbearable, which brings me to my making some Baja Tacos from The Savvy Spoon blog.  In full disclosure, I know the blogger as we have some common friends and both attended a Social Media Club event where we met. Cayla is a fellow California native who is also now here in Dallas.

I noticed the Baja Taco recipe while reading her blog last weekend and decided it looked like a good option after work. It’s simple. I could make the chicken before I left for work and I had all the ingredients without a stop at the grocery store.

One of the ingredients did make me hesitate: the use of packet McCormick’s Hot Taco Seasoning. I actually had some in my spice cabinet since I used to use it for ground beef hard shell tacos in my B.T.I.T..S. (Before Turning Into a Taco Snob) phase. Yes I know it reads “Be Tits”. Oh well, it just came out that way by accident. I swear.

If I had to do this recipe again, I’d remove the packet.  It’s far too salty. Instead, I’d substitute the following:

1 Tablespoon Cumin
1 tsp Paprika
1/2 tsp Ground Cayenne
ground pepper to taste
and reduce the water from 3/4 cup to 1/2 cup

I think that would improve the flavor and take away the excessive salt from the McCormick’s product. Other than that change, I think the tacos are a good option for a simple after work dinner.

Thanks Cayla. I hope you’ll understand my change as I am a taco snob.

For the recipe and other great recipes and food finds checkout The Savvy Spoon Blog.

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Basic Red Sauce, the Essential Ingredient

On September 6, 2011, in Recipes, by Chris Baccus
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With two sick kids during the Labor Day Weekend, I had plenty of time to prepare some sauces to freeze for later.  It had been awhile since I made Mario Batali’s Basic Red Sauce recipe. It is a staple in my kitchen and each batch of the recipe makes 4 cups of sauce. I typically use 1 cup per 1 lb of pasta leaving 3 additional cups to separate into freezable bags.
FoodSaver is a great product and excellent for saving your sauces, salsas, and leftovers for another day.  Just be sure to write what it is and when it was made. I keep everything for 6-months or less.
After freezing a few cups of red sauce, I kept one cup aside for a quick pasta dish that night.
Penne with Spinach and Ricotta
Serves 4
1 lb penne pasta
1 bunch organic spinach
1 cup Mario Batali’s Red Sauce (link)
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1/3 cup of fresh ricotta

1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon olive oil
grated Parmesan Regianno
Cook pasta per instructions.
While pasta is cooking, cook garlic clove in olive oil in a saute pan over medium heat for about 2 minutes to lightly brown garlic.  Add spinach and toss with garlic and olive oil. Add a dash of salt and pepper and cook spinach until it starts wilting. Remove spinach and garlic from pan.
In the same saute pan, pour in the red sauce, add balsamic vinegar, and cook on low heat while pasta finishes cooking.  Add spinach to red sauce and then add drained pasta to saute pan. Toss together and add a little pasta water if you need some more liquid.Add ricotta in small pieces and combine with pasta and sauce.
Serve with grated Parmesan Regianno.