Filed under Food

We’ll Listen to Our Scouts… Eventually

Apparently Girl Scout cookies have palm oil in their recipes. Palm oil is not only unhealthy but can cause substantial environmental damage if not produced correctly. Well good news! They’re going to change the recipes.

Girl Scouts of the USA isn’t eliminating the ingredient, but it says that beginning with the 2012-13 cookie season, each box will include a GreenPalm logo as a symbol of Girl Scouts’ commitment to address concerns about the deforestation of sensitive lands caused by production of palm oil.

Oh. Okay. So… they’re sticking a pretty logo on their boxes to say they care very, very much? That’s it?

In its announcement Wednesday, the Girl Scouts said it has directed its bakers to use as little palm oil as possible, and only in recipes where there is no alternative. It wants its bakers to move to a segregated, certified sustainable palm oil source by 2015.

2015?! Right, well, I suppose that’s a good first step, but why would there be recipes where there is no alternative? I think the truth here is that any alternative would create a cookie that is different from what consumers expect, and that would impact sales. Nevermind that palm oil isn’t a particularly good oil.

"Girl Scouts’ palm oil use is very small, but our voice is big," Amanda Hamaker, Girl Scouts manager of product sales, said in a press release. "The world’s food supply is intricately tied to the use of palm oil, so we believe promoting sustainable manufacturing principles is the most responsible approach for Girl Scouts."

… in four years.

Okay, so, taken literally this is good news. But the huge delay in making any meaningful changes, and a refusal to simply stop using palm oil altogether, points to an organization that would rather make themselves look good rather than making a difference.

I guess the girls that are part of the Girl Scouts will have to keep trying to teach their organization about health and protecting the environment. Wait… shouldn’t it be the other way around?

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Portion Control

A recent HuffPost Food article said the following:

And since we are at it , why do we have the "small" soft drinks at the soda fountain look like large pitchers who could serve 3 very thirsty giants? Why are we always served more than we need? Extra butter, more potatoes, super size me.[…] Time to portion control our appetite it’ll do us better than diet pills and miracle diets. I’m for one ready to take the challenge. Are you with me? Let’s portion control, America!

There is definitely a valid point here. Portions in America – and, increasingly, the rest of the Western world – are much too large. But have you ever noticed that the things that come in large portions are also the things that are most damaging in large quantities? Soda, bread, pasta, potatoes, ground meats – stuff that’s processed, and thus cheap. Perhaps one notable exception is the salad bar, but even that isn’t as cheap as the processed alternatives (if it’s a good salad bar, anyway).

In other words, no one would be complaining about portion control if we had a plate full of vegetables, providing us a wealth of vitamins, minerals and fiber relative to the calories we’d be taking in. But instead, our meals are so skewed toward empty calories that we have to take vitamin supplements.

Portion control is important, sure, and it’s a good first step. But portion balance is also key – or we may end up getting even less of the nutrients we need to stay healthy.

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An English Pub Burger

In certain parts of the United States (the parts that don’t know what “English” means, apparently), McDonalds is testing a new burger called the English Pub Burger. As could probably be surmised, the sandwich is anything but English.

According to marketing materials, the burger consists of “1/3 lb of 100 percent Angus beef, hickory-smoked bacon, white cheddar and American cheese, grilled onions, tangy steak sauce and smokey Dijon mustard sauce all housed on an artisan roll.”
Huffington Post Food

At least the beef is from a Scottish breed of cow, and Scotland is part of Great Britain. But American cheese? Dijon (french) mustard?

Okay, I probably shouldn’t pick on McDonalds. They’re not exactly known for upholding high culinary art. I’m sure this sandwich is very tasty, if you ignore the name. But I thought I’d take the opportunity to brainstorm a true English pub burger.

Coming up with a burger, or any dish that sums up a country, is difficult. Every country has different regions, which possess different culinary styles, and different local ingredients at their disposal. So lets narrow down the field a bit, and consider a burger with McDonalds’ original framework.
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How-To: Chili Fries with Beer Cheese Sauce

It probably sounds strange to have chili fries for dinner, but that’s only because restaurant culture says that chili fries are an appetizer or side dish. But really, a hearty chili paired with a side of fries is a satisfying meal in itself.

This is more of a how-to, because the components of this meal are pretty straightforward. I just had never thought of putting them together quite like this. The chili here is my usual go-to chili: Rachael Ray’s Turkey Chipotle Chili with Pepper Jack Cheese Corn Cake Toppers (without the corn cakes). It’s a relatively fancy chili, not something you’d use to top fries with. I also like that it’s a turkey-based chili – it’s slightly less fatty than beef, so it gives that extra wiggle room on the cheese sauce. The only change I made to the recipe was making the sauce slightly thicker – I used only a cup of the chicken stock. I figured this would work better when combined with the fries and cheese sauce.

Because I made the cheese sauce from scratch, I decided to take a shortcut on the fries, by just using frozen fries from the supermarket. (I also had a couple of half-bags leftover, so this was an excuse to use them up.) If you had the time, though, I think it would be excellent to oven-roast your own potato wedges for this.

And that leaves the cheese sauce. Normally for chili-cheese fries you get an over-processed, Velveeta-style cheese sauce that oozes over the chili like a fatty, yellow lava flow. Instead of that, I decided to make a cheese sauce from scratch, pulling elements from both chili (cumin, chili powder) and fondue (beer). The recipe for the sauce is after the break.

In assembling this, I put some fries on the bottom, drizzled a bit of the cheese sauce on top, then a healthy serving of the chili, and then a bit more cheese sauce on top of that. Eat with a knife and fork. It was awesome.

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Recipe: Swordfish with Spicy Tomato Salsa

When trying to be more healthy, the rolodex in my mind instantly turns to fish. Vegetarian is always goswordfishod, of course, but fish has additional nutritional benefits that always end up winning out.

I decided to try something that had its roots in some traditional flavors, but mixed up just enough to create something unique.

The recipe is very simple too.  It’s a swordfish steak, marinated in lime juice.  If you don’t like swordfish, you could probably use any firm, white fish such as haddock. If you don’t like fish, chicken would be your best alternative, but that also makes it a completely different dish. :) On a second run through of the recipe, I tried swapping the lime juice marinade for balsamic vinegar. The result was pretty good, but the lime juice imparted a better flavor.

Which makes sense, because the salsa on top of the fish has lime juice. I’m not sure if “salsa” is the best name for it – it carries implications that don’t match what this is. “Salad” doesn’t work either, for the same reason.  But, “salsa” was the closest, so I’m sticking with that.

It has both cooked red onion, and raw – cooked for sweetness, raw for the relatively mild but pungent onion flavor. I also used both a red and a green jalapeno – one with the seeds for spiciness, one with no seeds just for the flavor.

All of this is served on a bed of green beans. I picked up a bag of frozen haricots verts, dropped them in a saute pan with 1/4 cup water, let them steam for 4 minutes or so, then let the water evaporate.  Drizzling on some olive oil, I let the outsides crisp up and caramelize a bit, before sprinkling with salt and pepper.

The detailed recipe for the swordfish follows.

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The Trendy Food Cycle

Have you ever noticed how popular foods move in a predictable cycle?

It starts with a wonderful, tasty flash of inspiration from a chef. Experimenting in the kitchen, they come up with a new combination of flavors that works phenomenally well together. At this stage, the ingredients are fresh, sometimes hand picked by the chef. Each part of the dish is lovingly crafted to the artist’s strict specifications, using knowledge gained from preparing the same ingredients before.

Guests to the chef’s restaurant try the new dish on the specials menu, and immediately recognize the skill and effort that went into the innovative creation.  It seems so obvious, they’ll say. But they never thought to do it, and now that they’ve tasted it, it’s all they can think about! They tell their friends, and their friends tell their friends.

If this is sustained long enough, then it usually catches the attention of one of those food channel specials.  You know the ones.  The programs titled, “Amazing Foods that You’ll Never Get to Have” or “The Best Restaurants in the World that are too Exclusive for You”.  But, as a result of being on one of these shows, and exposed to mass amounts of people, there is at least one other cook who realizes the potential, and takes it a step further.

Now it moves into the next stage. Brave home cooks will seek out the ingredients needed to recreate the dish, given the information that they have.  It may not be a faithful representation, but they’ll either settle for what they’ve been able to cook, or keep iterating the recipe until it gets as close as possible.  At this point, higher end restaurants might catch on, and also add it to their specials menu, and will usually get pretty close to recreating the dish.

This stage is a gradual progression downward to respected, but not quite as high-end restaurants. This usually consists of smaller chain restaurants, where some of the quality of the original recipe is lost, but the integrity is still solid enough that the flavors, textures and sensations continue to amaze the diners.

But then, inevitably, it all falls apart.

Everyone realizes how popular and amazing this flavor sensation is, and folks trying to make a quick buck dumb it down to the simplest elements to attract the lowest common denominator.

Low cost, chain restaurants take whatever ingredients they have on hand that approximate the original idea, and add it to their menu.

Multinational companies create processed foods based on the original idea, but usually end up being only a salty approximation. In the case of potato chips, it usually ends up tasting like Sour Cream and Onion, Salt and Vinegar or Barbeque – regardless of what it actually says on the package.

At this point, it would probably be good to list some examples of once-great ideas dumbed down to oblivion. Do any of these sound familiar?

  • Anything with Roasted Garlic
  • Something Tex-Mex with Fire-Roasted Tomatoes
  • Italian food that has either Pesto, Sun-Dried Tomatoes or a specialty Mozzerella – often simply referred to as “Tuscan Style”
  • Buffalo-style flavoring, which strangely does not always involve chicken.
  • Chipotle-marinated meats, or Chipotle mayo.
  • Balsamic reduction over fruit or ice cream.
  • Loaded Baked Potato flavored anything
  • Anything on small buns, commonly referred to as “sliders”.

A lot of these are great if done right. But they’ve been iterated and overdone so much that they’re tired and exhausted, and it takes something truly unique and lovingly crafted for these ideas and flavors to make your mouth water again.

And that’s when a strange thing starts to happen – in an act of desperation, chefs will “re-discover” one of these overused flavor tropes, and reinvent it back to its original glory. Usually it’s too late to change any of the mass-market crap derivatives.  But if you’re lucky, you’ll find a chef who truly cares, and reminds us all what made the dish so popular in the first place.

And the cycle begins anew…

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Recipe: Chili Lime Shrimp with Fettuccine Alfredo

Last night I wanted to cook seafood. I was in the mood for it. And it started off simple enough: shrimp, in a cream sauce, with peas, maybe some ham or bacon, and tossed with fettuccine. As I thought about it, though, I decided I wanted something with a bit more kick. Something spicy would go great with something creamy, because the cream would cool off the spice.

And so I ended up with this idea. The shrimp are cooked scampi-style, and the fettuccine is your classic alfredo style, but tweaked a bit to cut out some fat and calories. It’s important that the pasta not be drenched in the sauce — you just want it lightly coated with the creamy sauce to give you that hint of cool, tangy balance against the hot shrimp. I ended up taking it too far the other way, and the pasta was a bit dry. So I will probably make more sauce next time.

But apart from that, I’m happy that the result was very close to what I had imagined.

This recipe serves 1.
Cook time, about 30 minutes.

4 raw shrimp, about 10-15 ct size, rinsed and shelled but with tails still on.
2 tbsp butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1 jalapeno, minced as finely as you can get it. If you want it spicy, keep the seeds and membranes.
1/4 red onion, minced as finely as you can get it
4 cloves garlic, minced as finely as you can get it
1 lime
8oz fresh fettuccine
1 cup 2% milk
2 tbsp low fat cream cheese
1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
salt & freshly ground black pepper

1. We want to do everything except cook the shrimp, so this is all basically prep leading up to that. So, first, put a large pot filled with water over high heat. Cover and bring up to a boil.
2. While you’re waiting for that, melt the butter in a 10 inch skillet over medium heat. Once the froth dies down a bit, add the olive oil, jalepeno and red onion. Stir occasionally, letting it saute gently.
3. While that’s cooking, place a small saucepan over low heat and add the milk and cream cheese. As it warms, stir so that the cream cheese dissolves. It will become rich and creamy as it does so. Once the sauce is smooth, stir in the parmesan cheese and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
4. By this point, your water is probably boiling. (If not, wait until it does so.) Drop the fresh pasta in the water — since it’s fresh, it will only take a couple of minutes to cook, so don’t wander off. When it’s done, turn off the heat, drain the pasta, and put it back into the pot. Pour the alfredo sauce over the pasta and toss to coat. Put the lid back on so that it will stay warm while you finish the shrimp.
5. Now all the prep is done, so we can turn our attention to the shrimp. Turn the heat up to high on the jalepeno and onions. Push them out to the edges of the pan so that you have a clean spot in the middle with just butter & olive oil to cook the shrimp.
6. Lightly salt and pepper one side of the shrimp, and lay that side down in the hot pan. Now lightly salt and pepper the other side. Cook for a minute. Add the finely chopped garlic, and turn the shrimp over. Cook for another couple of minutes until bright pink and opaque.
7. Finish it up by squirting the juice of the lime over the shrimp, using a fork to help you get all the juice out. Toss to mix the juice, shrimp, garlic and jalepeno-onion all together.
8. Put a small pile of the fettuccine on a plate (there will be a lot leftover), and rest the four shrimp against the pile. Sprinkle with some of the garlic-jalepeno mixture. Serve with bread if desired. Enjoy!