Jul 25, 2013

Sit, Stand, Move, and Everything in Between

More and more research is showing how bad it is to spend a large amount of time sitting in one place. A sedentary lifestyle has been linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, sleep apnea, diabetes,  a big butt (yes, separate from weight gain itself) as well as all of the musculoskeletal issues that it can contribute to (carpal tunnel syndrome, headaches, and back problems just to name a few). And more and more research is showing that just going to the gym doesn't quite cut it.  Our metabolism has had a "power save" mode much longer than our electronic devices.

I have heard some people argue that, as humans, we are not designed to sit at all.  I find this assertion ridiculous. We did not create chairs, and then decide that sitting seemed like a good idea.  What is unnatural is spending eight to twelve hours a day sitting.
Yup, totally unnatural to sit. You would never see sitting behavior in nature.
Many people, reasonably, would think to just opt for a standing desk.  If a person is standing for 8 hours a day, then obviously they would be moving, fidgeting, and being less of a couch potato. There are pluses and minuses to this.  People tend to report interacting with co-workers more, having more energy, and being more ready to get up and go whenever necessary (it might help that they are already up...). Some of the downsides are pretty easy to see: just look at the issues that people who stand all day at a "desk" already have. Poor posture standing can lead to the same issues as if you have poor posture when sitting, aching feet, the stress on the circulatory system contributes to arteriosclerosis and varicose veins. Also, your choice of shoes becomes a lot more important.  Personally, I have a hard time standing in heels for two hours for an event.  A standing desk would mean that they would never be worn to the office.  Of course, some offices are not conducive to setting up a standing desk to begin with (let alone a walking desk).

Unsurprisingly, many studies opt for moderation.  Don't spend too much time sitting, don't spend too much time standing.  Moving, on the other hand, is something that we should do a lot more of. One of the reasons that our ancient ancestors were such successful hunters was that they could injure their prey and just follow it, relentlessly, until it died. So that means that we should spend more time at the gym, trying to tack on a whole lot of extra exercise into an already packed schedule?  Nope. Those hours of being sedentary have already put stress on the muscles, and vigorous workouts can lead to muscle or joint injury. Also, studies demonstrate that an increased amount of aerobic exercise (in professional level athletes) can lead to increased instances of arrhythmia. Conveniently enough, recent studies have started proving the efficiency of a shorter duration, higher intensity workout, making the most of interval training, which means less time spent actively exercising.

On a practical level, what does all of this mean? Consider the metabolism like a computer. Without activity, it will go into power save mode. But even just periodically doing a little work will help keep it going at a higher rate (great for anyone who is also looking to burn some extra calories). To put it in technical terms, the goal is to increase the non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT, that we do. This is all the energy that we use that isn't sleeping, eating, or exercising. Considering that, in order to prevent OOS maladies (Occupational Overuse Syndrome), we should be taking a break from our computers, crafts, or anything else that has us repeating motions repeatedly at least once an hour to stretch and move, this gives us a plenty of opportunities to increase our NEAT.

I am notoriously bad at paying attention to things around me once I am engrossed in a project.  Because of that, I have set an alarm on my calendar to remind me to stretch.  I've had carpal tunnel syndrome once, and I'd rather keep it from coming back.  Most of the "recommendations" I've seen on other sites for how to increase NEAT included things like use the restroom that is the farthest away from your desk, go out to pick up lunch instead of having it delivered, have walking meetings, and things like that.While I'm sure that these are all good ideas, they just strike me as... unfulfilling (not to mention that I'm not even going to try to convince anyone in my office to have a "walking meeting").

I have, however, figured out how to work more NEAT into my day where I do feel like I'm getting something out of it.  My office building became involved in Climb Corps, which means that the stairways are open. Now, going up stairs sucks.  Even when I was a distance runner, I hated hills. But, with the stairs right there, I can't make excuses about having to get up early to go to the gym, or forgetting to bring my gym bag to work, or anything else (all right, the day that I tripped and fell outside, and had a bloodied knee, I skipped the stairs.  But I think that's fair). Every time I come or go from my office, I go up/down (or a combination of the two) some stairs. I started by taking the stairs down on my way home (12 flights from my office to the lobby).  Then, I added in a few flights every time I went to the rest room.  I'd go down a couple of flights, and then back up. Next, I'd take the elevator in the morning six floors, and walk the rest. Currently I am walking up all 12 flights on my way into work, I do sets of 4 flights 2-3 times a day, and I try to go down all 12 flights and back up just before lunch, and walk down all 12 flights on my way home.  Each time I do this, it takes 1-5 minutes.
See! Less than 5 minutes to go down and back up 12 flights of stairs.

So, what can you do to increase your NEAT?

References (my apologies for not citing in the blog post itself) :
"ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal." HIGH-INTENSITY CIRCUIT TRAINING USING BODY WEIGHT: Maximum R... :. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 July 2013. <http://journals.lww.com/acsm-healthfitness/Fulltext/2013/05000/HIGH_INTENSITY_CIRCUIT_TRAINING_USING_BODY_WEIGHT_.5.aspx>.
"American Physiological SocietyAmerican Journal of Physiology - Cell Physiology." Static Mechanical Stretching Accelerates Lipid Production in 3T3-L1 Adipocytes by Activating the MEK Signaling Pathway. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 July 2013. <http://ajpcell.physiology.org/content/early/2011/10/17/ajpcell.00167.2011.abstract>.
"ClimbCorps - Brigham and Women's Hospital." ClimbCorps - Brigham and Women's Hospital. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 July 2013. <http://giving.brighamandwomens.org/climbcorps>.
"CUergo: Sitting and Standing." CUergo: Sitting and Standing. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 July 2013. <http://ergo.human.cornell.edu/CUESitStand.html>.
"Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews." Too Much Sitting: The Population Health Science of Sedentary... :. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 July 2013. <http://journals.lww.com/acsm-essr/Abstract/2010/07000/Too_Much_Sitting__The_Population_Health_Science_of.3.aspx>.
"Prolonged TV Viewing Linked to Increased Risk of Type 2 Diabetes, Cardiovascular Disease." Prolonged TV Viewing Linked to Increased Risk of Type 2 Diabetes, Cardiovascular Disease. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 July 2013. <http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-06/hsop-ptv061011.php>.
"Result Filters." National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, n.d. Web. 25 July 2013. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12468415>.
"Result Filters." National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, n.d. Web. 25 July 2013. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18001322>.
"Result Filters." National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, n.d. Web. 25 July 2013. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21330616>.
"SEDENTARY LIFESTYLE." Womenshealthmag.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 July 2013. <http://www.womenshealthmag.com/health/sedentary-lifestyle-hazards?fullpage=1>.
"STANDING DESK." Womenshealthmag.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 July 2013. <http://www.womenshealthmag.com/health/standing-desk>.
"Television Viewing Time and Reduced Life Expectancy: A Life Table Analysis." -- Veerman Et Al. 46 (13): 927. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 July 2013. <http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/46/13/927.abstract>.

Jul 23, 2013

The Pains of Pinterest

I have a... complicated relationship with Pinterest. My favorite categories to browse recently are the craft/DIY, and the Home Decor boards.  The good thing is that it stimulates the same love I have for scrounging through thrift shops, antique markets, craft fairs, museums, and a farmer's almanac all in one (and all during down time at work!).  I've found craft inspiration, design ideas, stain removers, recipes, hacks, and the occasional delightful animal photo. Want to see the happiest sloth in the world?  Just click here.  Or do you have sheets that have gotten dingy with use, or shirts with pit stains?  You can make a pretreater with 1 part dish soap, 2 parts peroxide, and 1/2 part baking soda that works amazingly well.  You really never know quite what you're going to find.

The down side of Pinterest really just ends up being every other problem with the internet, the people.  It is not, as you would think, the level of tacky that starts to get to me.  I've gotten really used to the fact that there are a lot of people out there with no taste and a lot of time on their hands. Maybe I'm unique or dull, but I do not need to cover everything in glitter, I do not redecorate my house every season, I do not need to bedazzle everything I own, or make fake flowers out of every material known to man (I also don't have children, which helps).  I am not judging these people (well, sometimes I judge their taste levels, but you really can't help that), they are always going to make up a certain percentage of the population.  Without them, we wouldn't have sites like regretsy.com.

What starts to annoy me are the people who create web pages just so that they can get hits from Pinterest.  There have been multiple times where I see something which promises a walk-through of how to do something impressive looking.  Therefore, I am intrigued at how they did that thing. I click on the link, and there is a page with the photo that was pinned along with a whole lot of ads, but no walk-through.  Occasionally, there is a link to the original site, but often there is not.  If I am motivated enough, I might go and do a Google search for the original tip, but I still feel conned into providing web traffic to whoever did it.

To make this post not just a complete rant, I figured that I would share something useful that I found on Pinterest (although seriously, the pretreater listed above? Do it.).  The University of Illinois has an entire site dedicated to stains.  You can find it here.  Just look up what caused the stain, and it gives you information on how to get it out.

Jul 21, 2013

The Best way to Cook in the Summer? Not in the Kitchen

I don't like cold weather. I can, and have, dealt with it. As a child, I could tell if it was above or below zero degrees Fahrenheit by going outside and inhaling (ah, the tricks of living in northern Maine...), but I am still not a fan. Therefore, I try to not complain about hot weather, and reserve my ire for the cold. But even I have to admit that it has been hot in Boston this week. Hot enough that I've left the air conditioner on for my cats when I went to work. Hot enough that I've been drinking my morning juice in Popsicle form. And hot enough that spending time in the kitchen cooking or baking sounds like an awful plan.

Instead of eating out, going hungry, or living completely off of my CSA veggies (which, at least for this week, are not that conducive for eating raw), I broke out my crock pot. I let it do my cooking for me for the day while I was at work, and provide me with meat that can be eaten cold for the rest of the week. The other reason that I love letting my crock pot cook for me while I'm at work is that as soon as I walk in the door after work, my apartment smells amazing. 

Now, I know some people who balk at the idea of leaving the crock pot on while they are not home. I am, obviously, not one of these people. I see it as an appliance that was built for this sort of a purpose. If you feel at all reticent about leaving your crock pot on while you are not home (or question the likelihood of an electrical fire from the wiring in your home), then don't do it.

One of my favorite recipes to do in the crock pot is a recipe from Ghille Basan's Modern Moroccan. It's chicken tagine with preserved lemons and olives. To quote from the book, "A tagine is a highly flavored stew, usually meat based, cooked slowly over charcoal in a special earthenware dish with a conical lid, which is also called a tagine, designed to let the food cook in its own steam." Conveniently, I have a tagine, which fits on top of my cast iron skillet and also on top of my crock pot. But, especially using the crock pot, it's not a necessity. Also, the crock pot allows me to be lazy in preparation as well. Instead of "crushing" the garlic, "grating" the onion, or "finely chopping" the cilantro, I can just do a rough chop on it all before stuffing it into the cavity of the chicken, or just throwing it all in together...

The one potential downside of making this in the crock pot as opposed to the oven is that it does lose more structural integrity. Of course, as I'm making it while I'm at work, I am cooking it a f more hours than I would otherwise. The pictures below show it just as it starts cooking, and when I get home from work.

A couple of notes on ingredients: 

You don't need saffron.  Its price far outweighs the benefits it brings to this dish. Saffron is THE most expensive spice in the world. Turmeric is just as good in this application, and much more affordable.

Don't just get the cheapest olives you can find. The olives in this dish are one of the fundamental flavors.  If the olives aren't meaty and flavorful, the entire dish will suffer. If the olives are not a good enough flavor that you would eat them on their own, get better olives.

A word on preserved lemons. It is possible to make them yourself, although they won't be ready for about 6 weeks. I have actually found them at whole foods, in the same section as the olives. You don't want to leave them out altogether. That said, I have a confession to make. The first time I tried this in the crock pot, I bought some preserved lemons, and for the olives I used a lemon garlic mix (which included chunks of lemon). It turned out a little too lemony, but the chunks of lemon that were in with the olives were rather tasty. So the next time I did it, I only used the lemon garlic olives, and skipped the preserved lemons altogether. This is how I've been doing it ever since. So if you can't find preserved lemons where you are, don't fret.

For the first night I just put it over some couscous. After that (as the meat just falls apart), it is good hot or cold, and it can be great in a sandwich, on a salad, on its own... 

Jul 16, 2013

CSA Greens

This year, for the first time, I'm doing a CSA. For those of you who aren't urban hipster types, CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. I opted to join Silverbrook Farms, because not only do they provide a half share, but I can pick it up in Copley Square, which is a 10 minute walk from my office.  For those of you who have no experience with a CSA and are too lazy to click on links, it's almost like a produce based Christmas. At the beginning of the growing season, I paid for my "share".  Therefore, during the summer, every week I get a box with fruits, veggies, flowers, cheese, eggs, or whatever the farm has produced.  My half share provides me with enough veggies for the week, with a few extra perks. It may be more expensive than shopping at a grocery store, but I'm supporting local small business, everything is super fresh, and it forces me to try things that I may not have even thought to otherwise. Trying new things? Yeah, you can see why I get excited about this.

I never ate much in the way of "greens" growing up, with the exception of the occasional dandelion greens or fiddle-heads that my friend's family would gather.  I've always been much more familiar with the peas, beans, lettuce, brussels sprouts, broccoli side of the spectrum.  So the fact that I've had kale, mustard greens, chard, chinese cabbage, kohlrabi, pea tendrils, and "saute greens" in my CSA share are all kind exciting, as they've been new to me.

Pea Tendrils
Thank you google image  for giving me a link to a picture of pea tendrils. The original site this came from was http://veganyumyum.com/2007/05/pea-tendril-and-daikon-noodle-salad/ which, amusingly enough, also seems to be from Boston.

These are the tips of the pea plant.  They taste like peapods, and can be eaten in a lot of different ways. The second week of my CSA I put them into a salad with some lettuce, spring onions, fresh strawberries, and Hannah Bells cheese.  All the ingredients came from that week's CSA, except for the blueberry balsamic vinegar and olive oil I used to dress it. It was an absolutely amazing salad.  They're super tasty when sauteed, and worked equally well in a risotto with chicken, sage, mushrooms, onion, garlic, and Parmesan cheese.


I may be sticking my foot in my mouth here, but I'm going to lump kale, chard, and the mixed "saute greens" all together. I'm sure that, with more exposure, I will come to learn that this is blasphemous, and that they should all be appreciated on their own merits.  But for now, I will admit to being a greens racist.  They all look alike to me.

For anyone who has had the same exposure to greens that I did up until a few weeks ago, there's no reason to be skeptical towards something that looks like a kind of lettuce that you have to cook.  My first attempt at making kale was this recipe from the Food Network site.  The one change that I made, though, was to add bacon, and use that grease instead of the olive oil. It was fast, easy, and super tasty.  I've done the same thing with some of the mustard greens that I've received as well.

Cabbage and Radish and Slaw, Oh My!
The week that I got the kohlrabi and the chinese cabbage (along with some other greens of whose genealogy I was unaware) I was fairly busy, and not home a good chunk of the week.  Wanting to make sure that nothing was wasted, I thought of doing a slaw as a way of preserving things for a little longer.

Whenever possible, I like to try to give links to where my ideas come from.  I figure that it is only fair.  In this case, I have to admit that I have no idea where to find the recipe for the dressing that I used.  I've looked.  It included mayonnaise, rice wine vinegar, sesame oil (including a little chili sesame oil), ginger, and probably a few other things.  For the veggies, I took all of the less delicate greens (mustard greens, chinese cabbage, anything that wasn't lettuce or pea tendrils essentially), washed them thoroughly,  and tore them into reasonably small pieces.  

Tear?  Why didn't I just use a knife, or a mandolin, or one of they many other cutting implements that I have in my kitchen? Because I wasn't going to be eating it right away. Some say that when you cut lettuce with a knife, the metal in the knife will react with the lettuce, causing it to brown. This is not true.  This episode of Good Eats goes into it in detail.  Think of lettuce like a piece of bubble wrap.  If you cut the bubble wrap with scissors, then any bubbles in the way will get popped.  If you tear it, the tear will often follow the path of least resistance, and rip along the thinner plastic where the bubbles are not. In lettuce, the "bubbles" are the cells that have the chemicals that will cause lettuce to brown.  So by tearing it, the pieces are not as evenly sized, but the cells do not get as damaged, and don't brown as fast. Of course, as I was using thicker, more robust greens, they probably could have stood up to a knife without too many ill effects. So, in this case, there probably was no reason to do so, other than the fun of ripping things up with my hands (and to educate you against your will on the cellular mechanics of edible plants) .

I peeled and sliced the kohlrabi, and sliced the spring onions to throw in.  All of the descriptions of kohlrabi I found describe it as being similar to a radish. I find that is not true, but maybe this is because I grew up in broccoli country.  If you ever eat the raw stems of broccoli, the flavor of kohlrabi is kind of like that, but a little crunchier. I tossed it all with the dressing, and then let it sit to let the flavors meld. What I ended up with was slightly spicy, slightly crunchy, and had a much more varied flavor profile than what I had figured.  Because all the greens looked very similar going in, and looked the same in the slaw, I never knew quite what I was going to get with each bite.

Jul 15, 2013

It's too Expensive to Eat Healthy!

Recently I got into one of those discussions that I tend to classify as a "someone is wrong on the internet" discussion. It started from a complaint that eating healthy costs way too much more than eating crap. I hate it when people use that as an excuse to eat poorly.

The first point/question would be what they consider "healthy". If you take as a starting point "Everything must be organic, locally sourced, free range, antibiotic/pesticide free, completely unprocessed, and not genetically modified by Monsanto", You're definitely not going to be able to do that on $3 a day.  If your goal, on the other hand, is to eat foods that recognizably came from a plant or animal, and you're willing to put in a little bit of work, it can definitely be done.

I won't mince words.  For a fair chunk of time growing up, we were poor, and therefore I learned some of what I know based on that.  My parents, for a while, were the king and queen of the raincheck. For a while, I ate more pasta and foods that ended in "Helper" than I care to remember.  I may have had a nervous tick at the thought of a can of tuna for many years after.  There's also a traumatizing event involving spaghetti O's and wheat germ that someday, with therapy, I might be able to talk about. Don't get me wrong, my parents did well with what we had, but past the "required for life" angle, food was not that important.

Once I started living alone (as opposed to having family support me), I had to find my own ways to eat cheaply. During the school year I was spoiled.  Not only did I have a meal plan, but I also worked in the dining hall, which provided me with a lot of access to free food.  On occasion I may have taken the idea of eating free whenever I worked to a bit of an extreme, but no one seemed to mind.  Over the summer was a different story, however.  The first summer I lived on my own finances were exceptionally tight.  I had to pay for rent, utilities, my own food, and save up money for tuition.  That entire summer I spent about $10 a week on groceries.

So here are some of the things that I've learned over the years about eating cheaply, in no particular order.

1. Legumes are your friends: Not only are they high in protein and fiber (high in fiber= you feel full faster and longer) but you can often buy a bag of dried beans for under $1, which will last several meals.  Black beans are really tasty in a lot of things, including salads, salsa, burritos, etc.  With chickpeas you can make your own hummus (SUPER SIMPLE) or falafel.  I recently discovered how tasty great northern beans are, especially in turkey chili.

2. Look for where the immigrants shop: The brightly lit, well arranged markets will have everything you're looking for, sure, but there's a cost for that.  If you're in an urban area, check out the local ethnic supermarkets.  It may not be cheaper, but often it can be.  In Boston, I love Haymarket. It's an open air market that is only on Fridays and Saturdays.  It's not a farmer's market, it's more like an old fashioned bazaar.  This is not a place where the customer is always right; for the most part, you don't even get to pick your own produce.  But when you're getting multiple pounds of fruits and veggies for $1, it can be worth it.  Also, if you're willing to be friendly, and smile at the people working in the stands, they give you better stuff.

3. Know your prices: One of the biggest scams large supermarket chains pull is that they will mark up the price of a product a week or so before putting it on sale.  People are lured in by the sale sign, but they're not actually saving as much as they think they are.  During tight financial times, I would keep a list of the things I'd normally try to have on hand, and what/where the cheapest price is normally.  If what I was looking for was lower than that, it would be a time to buy.  Some people I know swear by Costco or BJ's.  Often times, their prices can be better than local stores.  But before you shell out for a membership, think about how much you personally will save over the course of the year.  Remember that that membership fee will cut into savings.  Also, buying in bulk has its drawbacks.  Know what you're getting, how to store it, and that you will, in fact, use that much.  Otherwise, if you are paying for things that will be thrown out, you're not saving money.

4. Think Traditional: A lot of traditional cuisines developed because they were eating what they had.  Things like quiche, casseroles, and lasagna can be little more than refrigerator velcro.  You have a small amount of meat?  Mix it with more veggies and put it over rice (like most of asia).  Or use herbs/spices to add more flavor to it (spicy food helps make you feel full faster).  Left over rice?  Use it for fried rice, or aranchini before it dries out.

5. Be Flexible:  What's in season? What's on sale?  During tight times I will not pay more than $.99 a pound for meat.  But if there are things that are cheap, don't be afraid to try something new.  You can plan a week's worth of meals around one large cut of meat.  Roast a chicken one night, use it in sandwiches, on a salad, in a burrito, meat pies, a casserole, etc. and when you get to the end of it, you can make stock from the bones.  Cabbage, potatoes, you know, staples, are that for a reason.  They are usually cheap, and plentiful.

6. Plan Ahead: There are some days when you will not want to cook.  We all have them.  With proper planning, you can have instant food on the cheap.  I will often try to make food in bulk and then pack it away, so I can have plenty of things to just grab and go later.  Recently I made a bunch of pizza dough and threw together individual sized calzones.  Used a bag of spinach, 2 red peppers, an onion, a small container of mushrooms, a bag of shredded cheese, 2 tomatoes, and a little pizza sauce.  Because I did several at once, I didn't have to worry about leftover ingredients, and I just stuck them in the freezer.  In the morning on my way to work I can just grab one out of the freezer, and pop it into the toaster oven for lunch.

7. Learn to Love your Freezer: Proper preserving of food makes buying in bulk a reasonable idea.  If you buy a bunch of something because it's super cheap, it becomes more expensive the more that you have to throw out.  Figure out what you use, and portion appropriately.  Often with meat, the less work the butcher has to do, the less you have to pay them for it.  But not only is a pork shoulder unwieldy to try to fit into a small apartment freezer, I know that I would never use the whole thing at once.  I will portion out pieces for what I would usually cook.  This means that I'm not thawing out more than I am planning to use at a time, and minimizing waste.  With a pork loin, I will cut it up into servings, wrap each in plastic wrap, then in tinfoil, and store it in the freezer in a labeled plastic bag.  If you want to learn more about freezing, Alton Brown has an episode of Good Eats on the topic.

8. Learn a Little Science: Food science is kind of an amazing thing, and I would recommend that anyone who likes to cook understand how/why the things that they cook do what they do.  If you understand your food, that's when you can start making useful substitutions.  I recently decided that I don't want to buy brown sugar anymore.  Inevitably it dries out on me (no, I probably don't store it properly, thanks for pointing that out), and on the occasions when I need to use it, I end up smashing the bag against the counter, trying to break it up into small enough chunks to use properly (and yes, I know the different ways that you can do that without the percussive maintenance, but sometimes hitting things is fun).  One afternoon I discovered that I was out, but needed some for a recipe.  Do you know how you can make brown sugar?  Add a tablespoon of molasses to a cup of white sugar and stir.  That's it.  Considering how often I use molasses, I'm not going to run out of it, and can always have fresh brown sugar if and when I need it. And making it in exactly the same way that factories do.

9. It is ALMOST always cheaper to make things yourself: This would go along with knowing a little bit of very basic economics, and being pragmatic about what you will and won't use. Personally I really like understanding what goes into a meal that I will get at a restaurant.  Not just ingredients, but how difficult is it really to make, versus what I'm paying for it? Because sometimes, it really is cheaper to just buy the finished product. Indian food is a wonderful example.  The most expensive hurdle in making a lot of Indian food is the spices.  For a restaurant, buying in bulk, this ends up being fairly cheap, because they also have a lot of turnover, and use those spices constantly.  But unless you are also going to be making those dishes a lot at home, you've just spent a lot of money on things that will most likely just take up space.  Or if you decide to try making your own cheese.  A fair amount of time goes into it, you would pay more for the milk and rennet than a commercial producer, and the product may or may not be better than something you can buy for cheaper at a store.

As with everything, there is always a balance between time, money, and quality.  Personally, I like making things.  Even more, I like making things that I've never made before. So the fact that I am spending more time on something counts as a positive.  Other people are willing to spend more money to be able to spend less time in the kitchen. Also, quality will always weigh into the equation. Generics brands can be great, but there are some things that I have learned that I want a named brand.  If I were to get the generic, it is different enough that I will not enjoy it, and not eat it, and therefore it is a waste of money.  For other things, it may be cheaper and faster to buy, but the quality of making it myself outweighs both of those.  Quality does not always equal flavor, also.  Because I can now afford to, I am getting my vegetables this summer through a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture).  The fact that everything is local, fresh, sometimes novel (I've cooked several things for the first time recently because of it), and I'm supporting small businesses makes me willing to pay a little more for it.

If anyone else has suggestions to add to the list, I'd be happy to hear them. Please note that I really didn't speak to coupons.  I've tried doing things with food coupons periodically over the years, and kept coming back to one big problem.  Most coupons are for brand name, more processed foods than I tend to buy, and therefore spending the time to look through them even is not worth any pittance of a savings that I would receive. 

Jul 8, 2013

Baking by the Numbers

I learned how to bake when I was little. In my "Tweens" (before that was even a demographic), I spent a couple of years baking bread for Christmas presents. I even came up with a vile concoction as part of a fifth grade marketing project. It was a soft pretzel stuffed with toothpaste, with the idea of having your breakfast and brushing your teeth at the same time. There may be a very good reason why it didn't catch on.

After college I spent many years doing very little cooking. In Japan, even when you could find ingredients, having access to recipes (especially in English) was even more of a challenge. When I moved to Hawaii, I ran into a completely different problem. The humidity made most recipes impossible. I once tried making naan, and finally ended up with about twice the flour, just to make it kneadable.  And by that point, the flavor was awful.

I got back into baking in earnest when I moved back to Boston. So it has only been over the past few years that I've come to appreciate a well written cookbook. Over that time, I have come to one conclusion. All baking books should be written by scientists. Baking is the tastiest kind of chemistry, and relies on precise ratios to be successful.

My first experience with this came from Joanne Chang's book Flour. I learned about Joanne from an episode of Booby Flay's Throwdown, where she beat Bobby with her sticky bun recipe. So we made a pilgrimage to her bakery to try these. They are very good. But on that trip I was introduced to her cupcakes, or more importantly her frosting. This stuff was buttercrack, not buttercream. It was addictive. When I found out that she was publishing her first cookbook, I bought it for the "Magic Frosting" recipe alone. What does this have to do with science? Joanne Chang started out at Harvard in the applied mathematics department, and made extra money selling chocolate chip cookies to the dining hall. All of her recipes are in weight and volumetric measurements. She also has an entire section where she talks about the importance of the temperature of the butter when used in certain applications. Because of the attention to detail and her clear instructions, I have now made several things from this book, and every one of them has come out perfectly.

The cookbook that blew my mind, however, was Shirley Corriher's Bakewise. Shirley was a chemist at Vanderbilt before she got into food science. And while you may not recognize her name, if you watch the Food Network at all, you probably know one of her students, Alton Brown. If you are a Good Eats fan, then you may have even seen her on an episode or two. She has written two cookbooks, Cookwise and Bakewise. I must admit, I have been so enamored with Bakwise that I haven't even had a chance to work through Cookwise yet. 

For the scientifically inclined, the book starts out talking about your oven, and how it heats, or more importantly why it has a fairly broad spectrum of temperatures throughout the heating cycle. Complete with graphs and charts. There are sections talking about the chemistry of baking, protein structure, the ratios of protein to fats, how leavening works, the effect of acidic ingredients on your baked goods, how you can read the label on your baking powder to know when in the baking cycle it will activate, and how you can use math to look at a recipe and figure out right off the bat if it will be a dismal failure, and what shape of pan to use. If you are not a science person, and that looks a bit daunting, there are also plenty of recipes throughout the book that just have a "what this recipe shows" section at the front. So even if you really don't care about the math, the recipes themselves will still turn out great, and possibly give you something to think about. It is the first cookbook that I will sit down and read like a novel or textbook.

Both of these books really appeal to me because they address the why of baking in addition to the how. It has also made me look at all recipes a little bit differently. Now, I think I might even be able to try baking in Hawaii again.

Jul 1, 2013

Quid sit futurum cras, fuge quaerere, et quem fors dierum cumque dabit,lucro appone

On Thursday of last week I got a phone call from a woman I work with, asking if I'd be able to do a favor for her daughter. She needed a die cake for a Latin club event Monday morning, and any of the bakeries they'd talked to said it was too short notice.  My thoughts at the time included:

1. RPG geek: dice? I kind of have to do that.
2. Mmm, cake.
3. To do it properly, since there was going to be a lot of text, it should be covered in fondant. I've never actually done that for a full sized cake before.
4. Ooh, this sounds like a blog post in the making!
5. Mmm, cake.
6. I have no prior commitments, and I'm always up for a challenge.

So after doing some math for the amount of cake required for 30 people, and then contemplating the difficulty of partitioning out cake from a cube that tall without having cake boards, I finally opted for 2 cakes, 3 layers each.  So Saturday night I made one yellow cake, one white cake, and one chocolate cake (all from scratch. Nothing against boxed mixes, but if I'm being paid for this, Betty Crocker is just not going to cut it). Due to the short time line, I wasn't able to make it out to Michaels to buy fondant to cover the cake with, and despite the fact that I didn't have glycerine, I decided to try to make it from scratch. I hadn't promised fondant, so worst case scenario I had just wasted some butter, corn syrup, and a bunch of powdered sugar. And one other suggestion that I was given was that, if it came down to it, I could cover the whole thing in coconut and say that they were fuzzy dice.  Lucky for me it didn't come down to that.

All the cake layers cooling, with the giant ball of fondant

I let everything cool/set overnight, and get up Sunday ready to start stacking and decorating.  One of my favorite simple buttercream recipes is this one from Giada deLaurentis.  After slathering frosting on to stack the cakes, and putting a good amount on the top and sides as the mortar that it is acting like, I put the cakes to the side to see how much of a disaster my fondant would be.

I will admit, I was slightly daunted by the idea of the fondant. I have watched too much Food Network Challenge, and learned to recognize the mistakes that "Hall of fame sugar artist Kerry Vincent" would tend to jump on the pros about. So I automatically assumed that many of those mistakes would be a baseline for me, with the unfortunateness of me seeing every one of them.

My fondant turned out better than I had feared, so I can't really tell you how much of a difference the glycerine makes, especially if you are using the fondant right away.  When it came to rolling out the fondant, I figure that there are a few factors that work in my favor.  I am very comfortable with dough and clay, I use my rolling pin quite a bit when making croissants (which can also stick to the table), and my massage training has contributed to me being very good with my hands.  When balanced against the fact that I had never done this before, and that I was doing it for someone else, and for money, and without all the "proper" equipment, all it meant was that I avoided it being an absolute disaster.

The tops of both cakes were actually very nice and smooth. Three out of the 4 sides of the first cake were rather rough, with a bunch of patching and such to be done.  For the second cake I made a slightly bigger piece, which cleaned up nicer. The dots for the die I also made out of fondant, and secured with a touch of buttercream.  I was quite pleased with those.

The biggest challenge for me was the same problem that plagued me throughout elementary school. There was supposed to be a fair amount of writing on the cake. To say that my handwriting is bad is an understatement. My father loves to joke that my handwriting is one of the ways that he knows that I'm his daughter. Of course, to be fair, the Rosetta Stone may have been easier to decipher than any of his handwriting. Mine isn't that bad, but it is not good.

The large letters I was able to roll from purple and yellow fondant.  As a note, I'm quite familiar with the color wheel, and how blue and red make purple.  Somehow this did not translate well into fondant. When I finally ended up with a light violet, I said it was good enough, and let it be.  Yellow at least was much easier.  So those letters I was all right with, and considered them respectable for an amateur.  

The piped letters on the other hand...  I will admit, I tend to be my harshest critic. But these were not great.  I managed to make some nice black royal icing, but everything from my pastry tips not working right to my handwriting conspired against me.  So it was a little bit of a mess. For the last words that needed to be on the cake, Quid sit futurum cras, fuge quaerere, et quem fors dierum cumque dabit, lucro appone, I finally threw in the towel and grabbed a tube of decorating gel.  The one thing on the whole cake that was not made from scratch.  It actually fit quite nicely around the two cakes.  With someone who had writing skills doing it, I think it would have been pretty good.

The thing that I'm kicking myself about after the fact is that I didn't even remember the best trick for doing piped icing.  Print out the words, cover it with waxed paper, pipe onto the waxed paper, and then transfer to the cake.  That would have been a MUCH better idea for me.  Oh well, I guess this is one of those live and learn moments.

I'm sure that by now you really want to see how good/bad (depending on whether you are supportive or cheering for a car crash) the final product was. Well, here it is.

The finished cakes
When I dropped it off, the woman I work with was there, but the daughter wasn't. This means that I will be obsessing the entire time between now and Monday, worrying that it isn't good enough.  At least I know that the cake will taste good. So keep your fingers crossed for me that all this has a happy ending.

P.S. So the writing on the ends (as it scrolls the whole way around) got smudged in transit.  So I was told this morning that they took the cake over to the local grocery store to get it fixed.  Apparently the guy there also added some white frosting to clean it up a bit.  This leaves me both happy that they seemed to get it to work, and a little sad that they had to bring in someone else.  Of course, I tend to panic about any imperfections when I'm getting paid for something.  All I can do is hope that they think that it still tasted amazing.