Author Archives: Mark Petruska

About Mark Petruska

I'm a writer in love with the Pacific Northwest. A "foodie." A wannabe rock 'n roll star. A ghost hunter. An amateur photographer. An aficionado of thrift stores and cocktails and cheap matinees and farmer's markets. I believe in peace, love and happiness. Oh...and I've got a book for sale!

String Cheese: Which is Most A-peeling?

In 1976, Frank Baker had an idea. A cheese baron from Wisconsin (naturally), Frank’s family had been selling cheese since 1916. Introduced to America in the 1940s, mozzarella became a hit in the U.S. after World War II with the proliferation of pizza joints, and Baker Cheese switched gears, ditching cheddar for mozzarella in order to meet the craze. Consumers were looking for individual servings they could eat as snacks rather than the 20-lb. blocks Frank’s family made, so he started playing around with the manufacturing process and started cutting blocks of mozzarella into strips that he would then braid them into 3-5″ ropes. Frank discovered that by soaking these mozzarella strips in a salt brine they would take on a stringy characteristic. Boom! In 1976, string cheese was born.

Interestingly, Frank originally marketed his string cheese to bars throughout Wisconsin. Patrons loved them and he eventually settled on a smaller, thinner cheese stick that people could hold more easily. The real stroke of genius was in the packaging: Frank opted for individually wrapped tubes that were vacuum packed, making his string cheese portable. It started finding its way into kids’ lunch boxes, and the rest is history.

Team Eat My Words (and we really have expanded to include a few of my coworkers, who have taken to these food tastings like post-war Americans took to pizza) wondered how different brands of string cheese tasted and set out on a journey of discovery. The rules were simple: string cheese only (there are lookalike cylindrical tubes of harder cheddars, but they go by the moniker “stick cheese” and were excluded due to an inability to peel them into stringy strips). We ended up with a face-off between four competitors: Frigo, Galbani, Kroger, and Horizon. All were mozzarella except the Galbani, which was a provolone. We looked at two key factors in our test: taste and peel-ability.

Frigo is probably the best-known brand. Their “Cheese Heads” in the familiar green packaging have been around for eons, and there is a good reason: they were the unanimous favorite among all four testers. We found the Frigo pleasantly cheesy, with a creamy yet pliable texture that was easy to peel. One person remarked that Frigo “tastes like childhood,” and I’m inclined to agree.

Surprisingly, we liked the Kroger brand second best. It was the softest of the four we tried and one taster declared it the “fakest” of the group – but this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Its flavor was a tad milder, but all in all it stood up on its own and makes a viable fill-in for those looking to save a few extra pennies.

Gearing up for the big string cheese taste-off.

Galbani touts itself as “Italy’s favorite cheese brand” and seems to be popping up in more and more stores lately. In retrospect we probably should have stuck with the mozzarella to ensure the competition was as evenly matched as possible, but I was intrigued over the prospect of a different type of string cheese and wanted to give the provolone a shot. We felt it had a more pronounced cheesiness than the others and was saltier, no doubt a result of the different flavor profile. Provolone is harder than mozzarella and this resulted in a string cheese that was more difficult to peel. It wasn’t bad by any means; some of us chose it as our runner-up. I’m curious to try their mozzarella version next.

Horizon was both the most expensive brand we tried, and our least favorite. This just goes to show that price doesn’t always translate to quality. Horizon’s string cheese is all organic, and there’s a lot to like about this brand – they did, after all, do very well in our boxed mac ‘n cheese challenge – but when it comes to string cheese, they fell just short of the mark. The Horizon tasted the most “authentically cheesy” out of all four brands, but was firmer than the others and more difficult to peel. In the end, it just didn’t have the “wow” factor the others had. We do not think Horizon is worth the extra money, especially compared to the far cheaper Kroger brand.

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Baked Mashed Potatoes

I would like to thank my colleague, Deb Rosenthal, for the following guest post. Deb is a fellow food aficionado and recently heard about a new technique for making mashed potatoes, so she stepped up to the plate and offered to write about her experience. Turns out the results were mixed.

My Quest for Perfect Mashed Potatoes

Ever since I moved 3,000 miles away from my family it became clear that if I wanted Thanksgiving dinner I would have to make it for myself. Last year I made the basics and it turned out fine. This year, I was cocky. Last year went so well, I need to outdo it! I thought to myself. Started out simple enough, brine the turkey, two different from-scratch stuffings, balsamic glazed brussel sprouts and the list goes on. I was stumped when I got to the mashed potatoes. What more could be done to the simple potato?

The answer came to me through the help of the internet: baking the potatoes instead of boiling. This method allows you to make creamier mashed potatoes; since there is no addition of water in the cooking process you can add more milk and butter. I wasn’t sure about this so I did a test potato a few nights before the big day. It worked out great! I baked the potato in my toaster oven for 40 minutes, scooped the insides out (leaving the unwashed skins behind) and easily mashed it with milk and butter. It was delicious. The next day at work I told everyone about my new discovery, claiming it was going to lead to better mashed potatoes in a fraction of the time.

Finally, Turkey Day arrived. I was riding high on my horse, I had even volunteered to write about this experience for Mark’s blog, as I knew I wanted to share the discovery with others. I started out, happily documenting my experience along the way.

Pre heat over, wash the potatoes, place on a baking sheet and pierce with fork – check! Everything is going great so far.

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Bake for 45 minutes, take out of oven and cut in half – check!

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This is when things went downhill. I had laid out the whole day, giving myself ample time to cook everything in order to have dinner on the table by 4. I was not supposed to start the potatoes until noon but I had woken up early and figured I might as well get a jump on the day. After I took the potatoes out of the oven I thought to myself (and please note – this is the moment I look back on as the start of the train wreck) I’m in no rush, might as well hold off on dealing with the potatoes until after coffee. Several cups of coffee later I returned to the kitchen to start scooping potatoes.

Turns out, once potatoes are cooled they are not as soft as when they are piping hot from the oven. I ended up having to peel all the peels with the back of a spoon, instead of simply scooping the potato out of the skins.

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It gets worse. Have you ever tried to mash a hard potato? Of course not; that’s a stupid thing to do. Well, yours truly got a 45-minute lesson on that. When baked potatoes cool they get hard. Mashing cold potatoes is the worst. Legit. The. Worst. It was throw-the-bowl-of-potatoes-out-the-window-and-cancel-the-rest-of-Thanksgiving hard. This is also the point where I stopped documenting my journey.

Once the potatoes were finally sort of all mashed up I added in a warmed mixture of butter and milk. My original thoughts were correct, baked potatoes were able to absorb more liquid than boiled ones. To add more flavor, I decided to then roast a whole head of garlic and mash that into a paste to fold into the potatoes. This yielded some really good, and really garlicy mashed potatoes. Just for the record, this final step only occurred to me after I took a 45-minute break to drink some tea and read a book.

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In case anyone is wondering, the rest of the dinner turned out great. Everything went sort-of according to plan. Yes, the turkey came out of the oven an hour and a half later than scheduled and the gravy took what felt like a year and a half to reach a boil, but all in all I will say it was a success.

While the potatoes did turn out great, do I think they were any better than simple boiled potatoes? No. I think peeling the potatoes, throwing them into a pot of boiling water and then draining and mashing them is easier. And really, at the end of the day, it all tastes the same covered in gravy and cranberry sauce.

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Thank you once again for being a guinea pig, Deb. Remember: it’s all in the name of science! If you have an idea for a food-related post and would like to be a guest contributor to Eat My Words, just drop me a line or leave a comment below!

Categories: Vegetables | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

National Vodka Day

October 4 is National Vodka Day! It’s also National Taco Day, but you won’t lose if you choose the booze. Really, there’s room for both around the dining room table!

Vodka comes from the Slavic word voda, which means “water.” Appropriate, given that many dismiss vodka for its lack of flavor. True, it doesn’t taste like a Christmas tree like some alcoholic beverages we know (I’m talking to you, gin!), but it sure does pack a punch. And really, isn’t that the point of a good spirit?! By definition, vodka is a combination of mostly water and ethanol, so if you’re out drinking in the middle of nowhere and run out of gas, fear not! Chances are good you’ll still make it home without having to call AAA.

There is some debate over the origin of vodka, with both Poland and Russia laying claim to its invention. The word first appeared in writing in a Polish court document in 1405, but Russians claim to have been distilling vodka since the 9th century. Not to be outdone, the Poles say they were producing vodka in the 8th century; this was called gorzalka and was used for medicinal purposes. Which just goes to show that getting sick back in the dark ages wasn’t an entirely unpleasant experience. Both Russia and Poland have named vodka as their national drink, so it appears even centuries later this alcoholic cold war rages on with no clear winner.

Regardless of who actually invented vodka, it is one of the most popular alcoholic beverages around the world, praised for its universal ability to be used as a base for mixed drinks and cocktails. Or, you know, guzzled straight from the bottle if that’s your preference. We won’t judge! Vodka is usually made from either fermented cereal grains or potatoes, and in recent years, a wide variety of flavored vodkas have popped up. These range from the simple (cranberry, grapefruit, blueberry) to the unusual (whipped cream, cucumber, cola) to the what-were-they-thinking?! (gummy bear, peanut butter and jelly, bacon). It seems like everybody is trying to outdo everybody else in the crazy flavor department. 13620780_10209747854202031_7343375134862711107_n

After being diagnosed with diabetes, I was in search of “healthy” cocktails, and discovered a simple vodka and soda isn’t too terribly bad, relatively speaking. It’s got no sugar or carbs and only 96 calories per 1.5 mL, the standard “pour.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t have much flavor, either. But last year I discovered a local Portland vodka distiller named Wild Roots. Their vodkas are infused with flavor, and they have some rather delicious varieties available. Their Northwest Red Raspberry infused vodka is my favorite, and this evening, that’s how I chose to celebrate the holiday. On the rocks with a splash of club soda, though really, this one is perfectly drinkable straight up.

 

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It’s All Greek (Yogurt) to Me

My love affair with yogurt dates back many years.

I’d always considered the creamy delicacy a fairly healthy choice. Unbeknownst to me, those weekly cups of yogurt were a dietitian’s nightmare; they packed a whopping 27-33 grams of sugar and 30+ grams of carbohydrates per serving, in exchange for maybe 6g of protein and nearly 200 calories. Yet I was fooled into thinking they were good for me for two reasons: they were labeled “lowfat” and I never paid much attention to labels, anyway. Despite Tara’s warnings.

Nowadays, I’m much more health conscious, severely limiting my sugar and carb intake. Following my diabetes diagnosis I learned that “regular” yogurt was off-limits, but Greek yogurt was a perfectly acceptable substitute. The only downside? I found the sour flavor off-putting. But a funny thing happened on the road to a healthy recovery: I grew to like Greek yogurt. A lot, as a matter of fact. I consider myself somewhat of an expert, especially after the past month.

Greek yogurt differs from regular yogurt in that the liquid whey is strained off, resulting in a thicker, richer, and creamier texture and consistency (this also explains the extra tartness). The straining process removes some of the lactose, making Greek yogurt much lower in sugar than the regular stuff; in addition, it’s got double the protein, half the carbs, and half the sodium of regular yogurt. For the uninitiated, the more protein a food has, the more “full” you feel after eating it. This is good for weight loss; the longer you feel satiated, the less likely you are to indulge in between-meal snacks. Other benefits of Greek yogurt: it’s chock full of probiotics, which aid in digestion and boost the immune system; it’s high in calcium, important for strong muscles and bones; and is a great source of potassium and vitamin B-12. Greek yogurt is an excellent substitute for mayonnaise, sour cream, butter, oil, and cream cheese. Pretty much the perfect food, no?

Well…as long as you choose wisely. Go for plain yogurt with few and simple ingredients, avoid added sugars and artificial ingredients, and remember: the more protein, the better. So that artificially flavored Strawberry Cheesecake Greek yogurt might taste indulgent, but it’s hardly a healthy choice. And despite past recommendations to the contrary, a little fat is good. It keeps you feeling fuller longer and can actually help you lose weight in the long run. Crazy concept for many to grasp, I know.

With all this in mind, I set out to find the perfect Greek yogurt. Dannon Light ‘n Fit was my gateway Greek yogurt drug, if you will, until I looked at the label and learned it wasn’t so good for you. A little bit of research pointed me in the right direction, and for the past month I have been eating a lot of Greek yogurt. All in the name of science, kids! To keep the playing field level, I stuck with plain, though I did try different variations that included fat-free, low-fat, and full-fat options. The brands I tried were: Dannon, Fage, Zoi, Wallaby Organic, Stonyfield Farms, Maple Hill Creamery, Blue Isle, Siggi’s, and Trader Joe’s. There were wide variations in flavor and texture between them all – much more so than I’d initially anticipated. Narrowing down my favorites, in order, was a daunting task, especially when it came to choosing an overall winner. In fact, I ended up soliciting the input of four coworkers, all of whom attacked the challenge with gusto. While no brand was the unanimous victor, there was enough of a general consensus to help me rank them. Without further ado, here are my Top 5 choices for Best Greek* Yogurt, taking into account both taste and nutrition.

Actually, there will be a little ado before I get to the best. First off, a couple I didn’t care for.

  • Zoi Nonfat Plain Greek Yogurt A coworker recommended this one, but I was not impressed. Though I wasn’t looking at sodium content, this brand was incredibly salty and the consistency was thin and watery. I did not care for it at all.
  • Maple Hill Creamery Plain Greek Yogurt. I had high hopes for this one because of the fact that it’s made with 100% grass-fed cow’s milk. It’s a whole milk so it’s pretty rich and decadent, but all I tasted was grass.

These were decent, but not my favorites. We’ll call them honorable mentions.

And now…showtime!

5. Stonyfield Organic Whole Milk Plain Greek Yogurt. As a general rule, the whole milk yogurts we tried were the most flavorful and decadent of the bunch. Stonyfield’s Greek yogurts are certified USDA organic and made from pasture-raised cows. They are non-GMO, gluten-free, and kosher certified, so your conscience can certainly rest at ease. One container has 120 calories, 5g of sugar, and 14g of protein. Tangy and rich, but in our blind taste test, this one finished behind the others.

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4. Blue Isle Whole Milk Plain Greek Yogurt. Blue Isle is best known for their award-winning Greek yogurt spreads, having only recently expanded into actual Greek yogurt. This one was creamy and smooth and the flavor was a little less tangier than others, which may explain why two of us chose it as our favorite in the blind portion of our taste test. It’s got 110 calories and 4g of sugar, very impressive for a whole milk yogurt, but unfortunately contains only 7g of protein. It also is made with whey protein concentrate and pectin – odd additions, considering most of the others we tasted consisted only of milk (and cream in some cases) and live cultures.

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3. Wallaby Organic Whole Milk Plain Greek Yogurt. This variety is only available in a 32-ounce container, but you can get around that by buying one of the Purely Unsweetened options and leaving out the fruit, which is what we did for our test. It’s worth the effort, too – this flavor received the most votes in the blind portion of our taste test. We found it to be rich, creamy, and smooth, with just the right note of sourness. At 120 calories and 5g of sugar it compares favorably with the others, but its protein content (10g) is a little less impressive than the top two. Regardless, this is a very good yogurt made with cultured pasteurized organic milk and cream, and with only 5g of fat is worth the splurge over the 2% version.

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2. Fage Total 2% Plain Greek Yogurt. Fage is one of the best-known and most popular Greek yogurt brands in the U.S., and with good reason: their yogurt is very good, bordering on decadent. It hits all the right flavor notes –  creamy, smooth, and rich, with a tanginess that makes you take notice but does not overwhelm – and has probably the best consistency and texture out of the group, thick but not overly so. It’s a great general-purpose Greek yogurt that is delicious on its own and as a topping. The container is a little larger than the other varieties (7 oz. versus the standard 5.3 oz.) so the calories (150) and sugar content (8g) are a little higher, but so is the protein (20 g). Its ingredients list is impressively short and simple: Grade A pasteurized skim milk and cream and live active cultures. Because it’s a 2% yogurt it’s lower in fat (4g) but proof that you don’t have to sacrifice taste. The only drawback? The fact that it’s not organic. This could very well have been my #1 choice, but in a tight race, that distinction goes to…

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1. Siggi’s Icelandic style Skyr Plain Strained Non-fat Yogurt. How can a non-Greek yogurt finish first in a sampling of Greek yogurts? Simple: what we call Greek yogurt in the U.S., the rest of the world calls strained yogurt. Icelandic-style Skyr is, for all intents and purposes, as “Greek” as most of the others on our list. I’ll admit I did not realize this myself when first embarking upon my quest, and while I have been a fan of Siggi’s for awhile now, did not initially include it in my testing. Until I discovered that loophole. What’s to love about Siggi’s? Pretty much everything. The whole product line is very low in sugar, making even the flavored varieties surprisingly nutritious choices (they contain only 9-11g of sugar and are flavored with natural fruit and agave nectar or cane sugar). There are nonfat, low-fat and whole milk varieties, in unique flavors including strawberry and rhubarb, mixed berries and acai, and pumpkin spice, and all are reasonably healthy. Our plain nonfat variety has a mere 100 calories and 3g of sugar, and packs in 17g of protein, making it the clear nutritional powerhouse of the group. The yogurt itself is also thicker than the others (you’ll have no problem standing a spoon straight up in it) and has a distinctively sharp bite, but is very creamy and feels more like a treat than the other brands. This all-natural yogurt is made of milk from grass-fed cows and boasts no aspartame or sucralose, no gelatin, no artificial colorings, no preservatives, no high fructose corn syrup. And it’s verified non-GMO. All these factors combine to make it the best of the best.

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“Healthy” Cocktails: No Oxymoron Intended

When I was diagnosed with diabetes, one of my first thoughts was so long, alcohol! Fortunately, I was jumping the gun just a bit. While booze will never top the food pyramid even if you don’t have a debilitating condition, there are ways to enjoy your liquor without completely sabotaging your health or diet.

Yes, moderation is key. This much is obvious: the less you drink, the fewer calories you will consume. But when you’re out for a night on the town, it can be difficult to stop at just one beverage. Or four. You can still make relatively healthy choices, though. Keep this in mind: all alcohol has the same amount of calories, 7 per gram, which translates to 96 calories in a standard 1.5-liter serving. Doesn’t matter if you’re drinking gin, vodka, rum, or tequila. A straight shot is just shy of 100 calories. It’s the mixers that can get you in trouble. Calories pile up once you start adding syrups, sugared rims, sodas, and more. A typical margarita can easily top 500 calories a glass; just a few will put you over your daily calorie allotment (and chances are, you’re enjoying those with a plate of nachos or some other heavy food). In addition to the margarita, some other notorious offenders include the Long Island Iced Tea, Mai Tai, Pina Colada, and Mudslide. All average 500-600 calories or more per glass (sometimes much more, depending on the size of that glass and how heavy handed the bartender is).

Avoiding the mixers, or limiting them, will “lighten up” your drinking and can save you a significant number of calories. Your best bet is to order a drink neat, straight up, or on the rocks – that is, without a mixer of any kind. That way, your only calories come from the liquor itself. Order a bourbon on the rocks, for instance, and you’re looking at about 100 calories per glass. Or if you’re in the mood for a margarita, opt for tequila with club soda and a squeeze of lime and orange. I promise your bartender won’t look at you funny, and you’ll save hundreds of calories per glass. Bottoms up!vodka-soda1

Here are some cocktails you can enjoy with a minimum of guilt.

  1. Vodka Soda. The soda refers to club soda, which is calorie-free, versus soda pop such as 7-Up. Club soda and seltzer are excellent options for mixed drinks, and the vodka soda is a classic. Liquor aficionados might scoff over such a “boring” drink, but you’ll have the last laugh when stepping on the scale the next morning. Besides, choose a quality, smooth vodka (or even a flavored version – most infusions add no extra calories) and a couple of freshly squeezed lemon and lime slices, and you’ve got a crisp, refreshing drink that will give you a nice buzz.
  2. Rum and Diet Coke. Diet soda has no calories, making it a guilt-free mixer. And with a good quality rum, you won’t even miss the “regular” stuff! You could also order a vodka and Diet 7-Up/Diet Sprite, gin and Diet Tonic, etc. (Watch out for regular tonic water, which is loaded with sugar).
  3. Bloody Mary. Hands down, my favorite alcoholic beverage. Vodka is mixed with tomato juice, tabasco, worcestershire, and sometimes horseradish for a tasty drink that only contains about 125 calories per 6-oz. serving. Bonus: the addition of celery, olives, cocktail onions, and other accompaniments can turn your drink into a “salad in a glass.”
  4. Manhattan. This classic blend of bourbon, vermouth, and Angostura bitters averages just 145 calories and is manly as hell.
  5. Sea Breeze. This blend of vodka, cranberry juice and grapefruit juice can be a fairly healthy choice so long as you get the ratios right. You’ll want about a 3-to-1 ratio of grapefruit juice to cranberry juice; don’t be afraid to let your bartender know and you’ll end up with a refreshing, tasty beverage that averages just 180 calories.

Honorable mentions: Mojito, Sangria, Mimosa.

Categories: Alcohol, Healthy Eating | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

National Grab Some Nuts Day

Hold onto your privates. Your private stash of nuts, that is! August 3 is National Grab Some Nuts Day, and we’d hate for you to come up short.

Humans have been grabbing nuts for about as long as nuts have been around to grab. Archaeologists unearthed evidence of this fascination with nuts at a site in Israel, where seven different varieties of nuts were discovered, along with the stone tools needed to crack them open. The site was estimated to be 780,000 years old, and included almonds, water chestnuts, acorns, and pistachios. Nuts were also popular closer to home; Native Americans frequently used “hammer stones” to crack open beech nuts, chestnuts, walnuts, pecans, and hickory nuts, which were either eaten whole or ground up into a nut butter. Other folks around the world prized nuts for their oil, or turned them into a powder used for thickening foods. Nuts pack a nutritional punch, making them a great source of energy and protein.

Nuts also have a very strict definition, which means that some of the nuts you think are nuts aren’t really nuts. That’s nuts! By definition, a nut is a fruit composed of a hard shell and a seed. So far, so good…but read the fine print: that shell must not open to release the seed. So, from a botanical standpoint, hazelnuts, chestnuts, and acorns are all true nuts. Peanuts, almonds, cashews, walnuts, and pistachios? They’re nuttin’ but wannabes. Though technically incorrect, any large, oily kernel found within a shell and used as a food source is considered a nut. So Planters, you’re off the hook.

One reason nuts are such a popular snack is due to their health properties. They are considered a “superfood” high in healthy monounsaturated fat and other good-for-you nutrients including vitamins E and B2, folate, fiber, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, copper, and selenium. They tend to be high in calories though, so a handful at a time is plenty.

A day rarely goes by where I don’t grab some nuts, so today’s food holiday was easy to conquer. I’m particularly fond of Blue Diamond’s lineup of bold flavored almonds, so I indulged in some Sriracha and Jalapeño Smokehouse nuts. For dessert, I added a few Planters Salted Caramel peanuts.

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There’s a Hummus Among Us

If you’re like me, you are fond of hummus. And you’re hardly alone: this dip, which originated in the Middle East, dates back to the 13th century; its popularity has spread around the globe, especially with health-conscious consumers who love the taste of, say, ranch dressing-but eschew the fat and calories.

The word “hummus” is Arabic for chickpeas. In addition to chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans), hummus generally contains tahini (a type of sesame paste), garlic, and lemon. The earliest known hummus recipe appeared in a cookbook published in Cairo in the 13th century. Apparently, pyramid building helps you work up quite the appetite. This version was made with vinegar, pickled lemons, olive oil, and herbs, but did not contain garlic or tahini. Hummus was an ideal food for this region, as it was both nutritious and filling, and packed with flavor. Its reputation as a health food is well deserved: hummus is high in fiber and protein, low in saturated fat, contains good-for-you complex carbohydrates, and is chock full of nutrients including vitamins B6 and C, manganese, folate, iron, zinc, and potassium. Its main ingredient, chickpeas, is considered one of the world’s healthiest foods.

Hummus can be served many different ways. It is enjoyed as a dip or spread and scooped up with pita bread, crackers, tortilla chips, and vegetables; as an accompaniment to falafel, grilled chicken, fish, and eggplant; and can even be smeared onto a sandwich. Subway, in fact, has recently been test-marketing hummus as an option for its sandwiches. This is no surprise, considering its surge in popularity: in 2006, only 12% of U.S. households purchased hummus; that number is currently at 20% and continuing to rise, based on Americans’ growing embrace of exotic foods and desire for healthier diet options. This has prompted some experts to declare 2015 the “Year of Hummus” in America. The rest of the world is like, DUH. ‘Bout time you caught on, ‘Merica. 

I’ve enjoyed hummus for years – and with my recent health woes, it has become a regular staple in our household. I usually use it as a dip for vegetables – especially carrot and celery sticks, and snap peas. I also like to make a “hummus boat” by slicing a cucumber in half lengthwise, scooping out the innards, filling with hummus and topping with feta or goat cheese. This is a simple, nutritious – and best of all, delicious – snack.

Nowadays, there are more varieties of hummus available in the grocery store than ever before. Sabra may be the nation’s most popular brand, but some smaller manufacturers are getting in on the action, too. Here are my favorite varieties:

  1. Wildwood/Emerald Valley Kitchen Organic Greek Olive & Garlic Hummus. This smooth and creamy hummus is my top choice. It contains just the right ratio of kalamata olives to garlic, with each flavor harmoniously complementing the other, and is the perfect consistency for dipping and spreading onto your favorite cracker or veggie. At only 50 calories, it’s one of the healthier options, too.
  2. Hope Spicy Avocado Hummus. Love guacamole but shy away from its calories and fat? This hummus makes a great, guilt-free substitute that will help ease your separation anxieties. Its green color certainly resembles guac; in addition to avocados, it contains jalapeno peppers that provide a generous, spicy kick. This one is great spread in a wrap or on a sandwich, and scooped up with tortilla chips. It also contains 50 calories per serving.
  3. Athenos Spicy Three Pepper Hummus. Athenos separates itself from the competition by making its hummus with 100% pure olive oil, giving it a light and creamy texture. Red pepper hummus is very popular, but I find it a tad one-dimensional; Athenos packs in three varieties – red and green bell peppers, and jalapenos – for a little more depth of flavor. Yes, it’s got a little jolt of spice, but is more subtle than Hope’s. I like it with vegetables.
  4. Open Nature Tuscan White Bean Hummus. Hummus doesn’t always have to be made with garbanzo beans; this variety – a Safeway brand – uses lima beans instead. The flavor is a little more mellow than traditional hummus and the consistency slightly thicker, but it’s a delicious alternative to traditional hummus and can be enjoyed with anything.

Of course, hummus is easy to make at home and allows you to be creative with your ingredients! All you need are chickpeas, tahini, lemon, garlic, and a blender. Go crazy!

The best of the best.

The best of the best.

Categories: Condiments, Snacks | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

5 Foods You Should Make a Regular Part of Your Diet*

* (if you want to be healthy).

There’s nothing new about the adage to “eat healthy.” But what does that entail, exactly? In simple terms, it involves eating the right balance of foods in order to achieve optimum nutrition. If asked to elaborate, you would probably sum it up like this: vegetables and fruits are good, sweets are bad, proteins should be lean and consumed in moderation. And that’s a great general rule of thumb…but awfully vague. If you’re like me, you thrive on specifics! I like things spelled out for me.

T.E.L.L. M.E. W.H.A.T. T.O. E.A.T.

Like that.

So, I’m doing you all a solid and giving you 5 “power” foods you can incorporate into your diet immediately. All have proven health benefits – and all taste great! Each food is a regular part of my nutritional rotation, as well. Of course, there are more than merely five “superfoods” (overused term alert!) out there, but I’m avoiding some of the trendier ones, like chia seeds and kefir. Those can be intimidating; start with this list and slowly work your way up the (hemp) ladder.

  1. Almonds. Nuts get a bad rap sometimes because they are high in fats, but keep in mind those are good fats. Almonds have an abundance of monounsaturated fats (the same type found in olive oil), which help lower LDL cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease. Their potassium helps regulate blood pressure, and magnesium improves the flow of blood. Almonds are rich in Vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant that helps boost the immune system. Studies show that people who ingest high amounts of Vitamin E decrease their risk of heart disease by 30-40%. Almonds increase your energy, speed up your metabolism, promote weight loss,help protect against cancer, prevent the blood sugar of diabetics from spiking, and even make your skin look healthy. A handful a day is one of the best steps you can take to improve your overall health! I’m a big fan of Blue Diamond’s roasted, salted almonds. A one-ounce serving (28 nuts) is 170 calories, has 5 grams of carbs and 3 grams of dietary fiber. I’ve also recently discovered almond milk, which adds a subtle, nutty flavor and makes a delicious substitute for cow’s milk. I could write a separate blog post on almond milk. almond chart
  2. Blueberries. Don’t let their tiny size fool you – blueberries have huge health benefits! They contain more antioxidants than any other fruit; these chemicals help neutralize free radicals, groups of atoms that damage the body’s cells and are associated with the development of cancer, heart disease, and other age-related diseases. Blueberries are low in fat and calories, high in fiber, and contain plenty of Vitamin C (25% of your recommended daily allowance in one serving), manganese (helps convert carbohydrates and fats into energy), and anthocyanins (helps reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer). They help promote a healthy urinary tract, improve brain health, and even help preserve your vision. Plus, they taste great! I’ll top cottage cheese with 1/4 cup of blueberries for a nutritious snack, or toss a handful into a salad. I also enjoy a homemade blueberry vinaigrette (I’ll post the recipe soon). blueberries
  3. Black beans. Good for the heart? Definitely! Black beans are high in fiber (15 grams per cup) and potassium, which help lower cholesterol levels, maintain blood glucose levels (making them an excellent choice for diabetics), promote a healthy digestive tract, and aid in weight loss as they make you feel fuller longer. They are also packed full of protein and have no saturated fat or cholesterol. In addition, black beans are another excellent source of antioxidants, containing more than any other type of bean. They help prevent heart disease and cancer, lower blood pressure, and strengthen bones. I love adding black beans to a healthy wrap, mixing with quinoa for a nutritionally balanced side dish, or serving in place of refried beans when making Mexican food. Want a great tasting, healthy breakfast? Heat up black beans and add to scrambled eggs. Top with salsa and a few slices of our next food, and you’ll have a great start to your day!
  4. Avocados. Some people shy away from avocados for the same reason they avoid nuts: they are afraid of the high fat content. But like almonds, the fats in avocados are healthy ones; 15 of the 22 grams of fat monounsaturated. This creamy, buttery fruit is nutritionally dense, containing lots of Vitamins C, E, K, and B6, in addition to potassium (packing more per serving than a banana), riboflavin, niacin, folate, pantothenic acid, magnesium, beta-carotene and omega-3 fatty acids. A medium avocado contains about 250 calories, so it’s best to portion that out – I rarely eat more than 1/2 in one sitting, and in fact, the official serving size is 1/5. Avocados are high in fiber, low in saturated fat, contain no cholesterol or sodium, and can significantly reduce cholesterol and triglyceride levels. They improve digestion and help prevent heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. People who eat avocados on a regular basis weigh less (thanks to the low carbs/high fiber combination), have a lower overall Body Mass Index, and less belly fat. Avocados help promote healthy vision and even lower your risk of depression. Turning them into guacamole is a given (I have another great recipe to post); I will also slice them and add them to wraps, sandwiches, and salads.
  5. Quinoa. Quinoa is an “ancient grain” that is enjoying a modern surge in popularity thanks to its many health benefits. The Incas called it “the mother of all grains” and believed it improved the stamina of their warriors. This gluten-free superfood contains all nine essential amino acids and is chock full of protein, fiber, iron, magnesium, and B vitamins. Its antioxidant properties help ward off heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and cancer, while its high fiber content helps fill you up longer, helping to prevent obesity. Whole grains are significantly healthier than refined grains such as white rice, white bread, and pasta, which have been stripped of their fiber and nutrients during the milling process. Plus, I think they taste better. Brown rice is another nice whole grain substitute, but honestly, it’s a bitch to cook – I have yet to master its idiosyncrasies. Quinoa, on the other hand? Simple. Add one cup of uncooked quinoa to a pot, 1/2 cup of liquid (water works fine, but I like the flavor that chicken or vegetable broth brings), bring to a boil, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes. Be sure to season with salt and pepper. Quinoa is incredibly versatile, as well; add sauteed mushrooms and garlic to the pot for a burst of flavor and textural contrast, or make this delicious one-pan Mexican quinoa when making tacos or enchiladas – it’s a great replacement for Spanish rice. black-and-white-quinoa-grains

I’ve also got some honorable mentions that would easily have made the list if I’d expanded it beyond five items. These include salmon, green tea, feta cheese, spices like curry and turmeric, and garbanzo beans. Even dark chocolate and wine have surprising health properties.

Good luck, and eat up!

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National California Strawberry Day

March 21st is a day for all you Golden Staters to show your pride. It’s National California Strawberry Day!

I’m surprised we didn’t celebrate any strawberry-themed holidays during our yearlong food challenge in 2013, especially considering the widespread popularity of this fruit. Wild strawberries have been around for eons. The ancient Romans used them for medicinal purposes, no doubt to help heal gladiatorial wounds. The French developed a fondness for them in the 1300s, transplanting the wild berries from forests to their gardens; King Charles V had some 1,200 strawberry plants in his royal garden alone. Demand grew over the following two hundred years, as strawberries were seen as a kind of wonder cure for treating depression, in addition to a variety of physical ailments. The “modern” strawberry is native to Eastern North America, and was brought to Europe by explorers in the 1600s. Just think: if it weren’t for some brave adventurer who crossed the Atlantic – twice – the world might never know Strawberry Quik, and that would be a sad thing.

Strawberries are prized for their sweetness, fragrance, and complex flavors. They are made into jellies and jams, ice cream, yogurt, smoothies, pies, shortcake, perfumes, and cosmetics. Hint: those last two not edible. (Well, they probably are, but I’d stick with dipping them in chocolate or cherishing them with a glass of champagne myself).

California is the nation’s leading strawberry producer; in 2014, 2.3 billion pounds were harvested – about 88% of the country’s fresh and frozen berries. Which is pretty impressive! However…

The best strawberries in the world are grown right here in the Pacific Northwest. I suppose I’m biased, but our berries are much more succulent and juicy, and pack a lot more flavor than California strawberries. Unfortunately, our growing season is a lot shorter, limited pretty much to the month of June. But that’s okay – I don’t mean to hog the spotlight from our neighbors to the south.

I picked up some California strawberries in a nearby produce store and ate them plain. And I have to say, they weren’t too bad!

CAstrawberries

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“Natural Flavors” are Anything But

I was drinking a seltzer water this afternoon, and noticed there were only two ingredients listed: carbonated water and “natural flavors.” Since this particular seltzer was lemon flavored, I assumed this meant the natural flavors were lemon juice, of course.

Sadly, I was wrong. natural flavors

“Natural flavors,” it turns out, are anything but natural. The legal definition, according to the Code of Federal Regulations, is as follows:

The essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.

Like artificial flavors, “natural flavors” (I can’t not use those quotation marks) are usually concocted in a laboratory. The only difference is, “natural flavors” are derived from natural sources, while artificial flavors are manmade. Which means my lemon flavored seltzer water was likely made with a chemical found in lemons, rather than actual lemons themselves. “Natural flavors” might actually contain as many as 100 individual ingredients, including solvents and preservatives. As much as it saves valuable packaging real estate, it seems like a cop out to lump everything together under such a deceptive label anyway – even if companies are perfectly within their rights to do so.

naturalflavorsstarbucksWorse, “natural flavors” may actually cause consumers to crave the food or beverage even more. Those pharmacists in the food labs are attempting to make short, intense bursts of flavor that dissipate quickly, tricking you into coming back for more. And more. Of course, this benefits the manufacturing companies who put out the product in the first place. While “natural flavors” have never been associated with health issues, they can definitely make your wallet thinner, and trick your palate into believing a real lemon pales in comparison to a “naturally flavored” lemon.

Buyer – or in this case, taster – beware.

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