I think I’m pretty much recovered from the holidays (and my birthday). 2011 is well on its way, and I’m finding my groove. I’m also finding myself making some compromises. “Maybe it’s OK to eat Orowheat buns. They’re HFCS-free, high fiber, and low calorie. And darn if they aren’t the right shape for burgers.” “Come to think of it, salmon burgers from CostCo are pretty healthy, on the whole.” “That recipe looks like it would hit the spot, even if it does call for a roll of croissants.” And so on. Still going whole-grain where I can, still going for unprocessed, homemade, and organic foods where it makes sense. Still going CAFO-free on meat, organic on milk, and cage-free+organic on eggs. But I’m approaching it all with a little bit more of a sense of balance.

And you know what? I’m happier.

So may it go with the “no sugar until the end of February” thing, too. I’ve had ketchup in restaurants (regular Heinz has HFCS), and I even had a hot buttered rum with a little bit of whipped cream, on Saturday. (The scandal!) I can’t make myself feel too guilty for that. I think “I’ll mostly avoid processed sugar” would have been a better rule. In fact, I hadn’t really thought about it until now, but the fruit salad I’m eating (with plain Greek yogurt! yum!) has a few canned fruits “in light syrup” in it, so it’s totally not allowed. But it’s fruit–at least, mostly fruit. I drained off the syrup and put in as many “canned in juice,” “canned in water” (bleh!), and frozen fruits as I could. If I were to follow the rule to the letter, I would not be eating fruit and yogurt right now. And what could I possibly be eating, instead, that would be healthier?

Anyway, as far as the Challenge goes, I find that if I don’t have some easy things around, I fail. I am trying to eat homemade every day, not spend every day cooking. So I spent Sunday cooking up a storm. I now have a bunch of black bean burgers (do follow the commenters’ suggestions about draining everything REALLY WELL; also, I use oats instead of bread crumbs, to good effect) joining those salmon burgers in the freezer, plus those sandwich buns on hand to eat them with. There’s also a batch of pineapple carrot muffins (I can post the recipe if anyone wants it—they’re super easy!) in the freezer for quick breakfasts/snacks. I cooked up a package of chicken for some chicken tetrazzini (I used whole wheat spaghetti, regular parmesan, nonfat evaporated milk, fewer mushrooms, and some peas, but otherwise followed the recipe as is–it’s quite good) and put the extra in the freezer, to grab and throw into sesame noodles (add a couple of handfuls of chicken and broccoli, and split that recipe in half for a tasty one-pot entree for two) or maybe chicken noodle soup, in the future.

I also made the brunch bake I linked to in the first paragraph, roll of low-fat croissants and all–I used 5 largish strips of bacon, instead of the sausage, and I think I need to add an egg or two to make up for the smaller mass of meat-product; as it was, the crust made up about half of the bulk. But it was good! We enjoyed it on Sunday, and I’ll eat the remaining four servings over the next few days, for breakfasts. It can’t be an every week thing, but it is definitely going in the rotation!

You’d be amazed at how much calmer I feel with all of this stuff in my freezer, to be pulled out and warmed up with minimal difficulty (or waiting!) on low-energy evenings. I have more than a week’s worth of meals planned and ready, and that feels good. I mean, yes, it’s fine and healthy to do this Challenge, for its own sake. But I’m glad to be gaining some strategies and figuring out what compromises I need to make with myself so I can continue these good habits past October, too.

Since last week’s bacon experience, I decided to read up a bit on nitrates in relation to bacon.  The resources I found converged on a few conclusions.  I used McGee’s 2004 edition of On Food and Cooking, the Junk Food Science blog, a paper from the University of Minnesota, and a Chowhound forum thread.  Here’s the scoop:

  • Nitrates and nitrites are not bad for you, as far as anyone can tell.  They exist in huge proportions in vegetables and our bodies, and very tiny proportions in cured meats.
  • In meat, nitrates gradually turn into nitrites, which is desired because nitrites fight off botulism bacteria.  Botulism is bad.  For meats that are not cured for long, nitrites are added directly instead of nitrates.
  • Nitrites also help our meats taste good.
  • The scary things that damage our DNA are nitrosamines.  Nitrosamines are made when nitrites meet amino acids (meat) at high temperatures, ~400 F and up.  Do not overcook or burn bacon.  Microwaving produces fewer nitrosamines than frying.  McGee mentions two other toxic byproducts: heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which form in any meat at high temperatures (so, even without nitrites), and which can be thwarted in our digestive tracts by fruit, vegetables, and yogurt; and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which form when organic material (but not pure coal or gas) burns.  If you’re worried about these things, go ahead and eat bacon, but avoid meats cooked at high temperatures or smoked.  Adding citrus juice and/or Rosemary to your meats may help.
  • You are more likely to have health problems due to your sodium and saturated fat intake or obesity, or some unclear factor that connects meat-eating to cancer and early death.

In the Chowhound thread, many people mentioned that bacon marketed as “No Nitrates or Nitrites Added” is still full of nitrites from celery juice or powder.  I checked the packages at Trader Joe’s, and every package with the claim had an asterisk about celery and included celery.  What a scam.  Celery has a very high proportion of nitrites, so these bacons may have just as much as the much cheaper bacon from the supermarket that doesn’t try to take advantage of people’s fears.  At least the suckers won’t get botulism.

So, I am comfortable again with my bacon habits.  I almost always use the microwave.  I used my cast iron lately to better collect and use the fat for seasoning, and also on my high-carbon steel skillet.  I don’t eat a lot, and my diet in general is low in sodium and saturated fat, and high in unsaturated fats.  Yay bacon!

I bought “free-range, vegetarian-diet” eggs at Trader Joe’s along with some regular eggs to see if I could detect differences.  So far I’ve cooked one of each sunny-side-up and one of each over-easy.  Both had very strong yolks, especially since they were relatively fresh.  The FRVD eggs had slightly darker yolks, but barely, and had whites that cohered better.  The regular eggs’ whites tore a bit when I moved the cooking eggs in the skillet, and the FRVD eggs did not.  There was no flavor difference that I could notice.  The FRVD eggs are supposed to be higher in Omega-3s, but there are other ways to get Omega-3s, and it’s not clear to me that the FRVD eggs are worth the extra cost.

I roasted another 22 lb turkey.  I was better with Alton Brown’s directions this time, and it turned out incredibly juicy and flavorful.  I baked more bread for turkey and PB&J sandwiches.  I made a pureed greenbean soup, but I may never make it again.  I use turkey stock to make whole rice.  I had some more yeast waffles (page 234) for breakfast this morning.  I’m really digging the Tupelo honey.

Leading up to Thanksgiving, we were still eating turkey soup with cheese and tortilla chips.  We compared a raw milk, 6+ month aged sharp cheddar from New Zealand to the supermarket brand extra sharp cheddar, and we preferred the supermarket stuff.  We preferred it because we like powerful flavor, and the extra sharp was strong.  The sharp import was more subtle, but still very good.  It just required attention and a lack of distraction, so we ate it alone instead of in the soup.

My contribution to Thanksgiving included homemade whole wheat crackers with flax seeds and hummus.  I used my pasta machine to roll out the cracker dough, which was a huge help, but the edges were still thinner than the rest and darkened quickly.  Nothing burned, though, and everything was great.  I made a plain hummus for my mother-in-law, and jalapeno-garlic hummus for the rest of us.  I used peanut butter instead of tahini and it worked fine!  The combo was such that we got a long, moderate burning finish from the jalepenos without it being overpowering.  I also made  a pumpkin-ricotta pie, but I experimented a bit by replacing most of the ricotta with cream cheese and yogurt.  I thought the cream cheese would improve the flavor, but I did not like the flavor at all.  It also drastically increased the baking time to have the yogurt in.

I made a batch of yeast waffles using the recipe from Cooking for Geeks.  I let the batter rise overnight.  This made for a perfectly textured waffle, light and airy inside with a crisp shell, but the yeasty flavor was a slight turn off.

The cerviche I made was pretty bad.  I followed the Cooking for Geeks recipe (except for cilantro), and the onion and lime were way overpowering.  It was nowhere near as good as what I had in California.  I did some math, and I figure that the recipe called for six times as much acid as necessary to ensure the deaths of all bacteria.
I made my first souffle, which was a neat experience, but I didn’t do very well.  I also made some ricotta fritters using a What Einstein Told His Cook recipe, and served them with Tupelo honey.  Those were a hit.

I had an interesting bacon experience, and I need some help interpreting it.  I cooked some bacon in my cast iron skillet on low heat to get the fat out without overcooking the meat (I supposed).  Normally I microwave bacon because it’s fast and gives me even, flat, crisp strips.  Bacon in a skillet without a meat press wrinkles up.  To help me with this, I sliced the larger fat strips off of the meat.  As the meat finished cooking, I removed it and left all the fat pieces in the skillet to render.  Our experience was that this bacon tasted a lot like ham instead of the bacon we’re used to.  Some pieces of fat were in over an hour, and were a little browned and shrunken, but all were generally translucent.  I was short on time, so I turned up the heat, and at some unknown magic temperature the bacon fat spontaneously made a pfsht sound and turned solid white.  The resulting white crisps were DELICIOUS!  I had trouble stopping myself from eating them all immediately.  I really wish that I knew what happened there and what the temperature was, in no small part because of the increase in nitrosamines in bacon at high temperatures.

I had some leftover T-day mashed potatoes today, and added a little garlic powder and yogurt to make them awesome.

My local produce place had some great seconds yesterday.  I got 12 ripe avocados for $1, and made a really spiffy batch of guacamole.  I just would not use cumin in it again, and I never use cilantro. I used some canned diced tomato, and lime juice from concentrate.  I got a half-peck of Jonagold apples for $4, and they are so crisp and sweet that I don’t understand why they were discounted.  I also got a few pounds of green beans for $1 that will go in a soup, and four squash for $1 that will go in another soup.  My fridge is packed.  I also bought another 22 lb turkey for $8.50 that is thawing and will get roasted on Wednesday.  It’s been a pretty good week.

I did go out to eat for lunch yesterday at Victory Brewing Company.  They have a very scientifically educational tour, which is a nice change from the more historical tours of other places.  We shared a Gorgonzola burger and some sweet potato fries with leek.  The dry-aged beef was delicious, and is local and fed spent grain from the brewery, but the bun was lame and there was not enough Gorgonzola.  The fries were excellent.  As far as the beers go, we recommend the Yakima Glory.