What is Whole Wheat?

I recently began reading Chef Dan Barber’s provocative book The Third Plate and it is already blowing my mind. The book postulates that the Farm-to-Table movement of seeking marquee locally-grown delicacies to feature on restaurant tables has not go far enough in changing the way we eat. By placing an economic burden on local farmers to produce one or two celebrated crops (or meats or cheeses or breads), chefs have not fully embraced a farmer’s role. Only by incorporating entire ecosystems into their cuisine can chefs make a meaningful change to eating habits and, hopefully, to modern agricultural practices. Eating local is eating the whole farm.

Barber also talks about how native grasses, so called weeds, tell a farmer the condition of his soil, how pests only attack sick plants and therefore pesticides are largely unnecessary, and how corn is one of the worst uses of farmable land. And this is just in the first 3 chapters!

Most interesting to me (so far) was his discussion of wheat, specifically whole wheat flour. A wheat kernel contains three parts: the vitamin-rich germ or seed, the starchy endosperm which provides food for the seed, and a husky, fibrous outer shell called the bran. Early stone milling crushed this entire kernel into what we now refer to as “whole” wheat flour. By the early 1800s, European wheat had been adapted to grow in New England and local varieties flourished in New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts.

There was one problem: because it contained oil from the kernel’s germ, whole wheat flour would go rancid quickly, usually within a week or two. Fluffy, white flour made from only the starchy endosperm did not have this problem and was often preferred for cooking due to lighter characteristics, but it was expensive to produce. That all changed with the invention of the roller mill. Suddenly, the carb-packed endosperm could be quickly separated from the germ. As Western expansion moved farms further away from the masses, the popularity of white flour exploded.

White flour has two major disadvantages: it does not contain the vitamins, fiber and healthy fats of whole wheat flour and it is mostly devoid of flavor. In fact, modern white flour is typically enriched, meaning some of the natural vitamins are artificially added back in. So you should run out and buy whole wheat flour and never look back, right? One complication is that modern whole wheat flour is still separated like normal white flour. The crushed germ and bran is added back afterward, but some of the healthy fats are lost. I’ll be checking out stone-ground whole wheat flour on my next trip to Whole Foods. I’m sure I’ll get sticker shock, but hopefully I’ll be able to taste the difference.

*All of this discussion does not consider the higher amount of gluten in whole wheat flour due to the increased amount of protein.

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Food Rules

As a health-concious eater in South Louisiana, my appetite is constantly pulled in two directions. On my desk now, I have a copy of the delightful Prudhomme Family Cookbook, which calls for household lard in several recipes. I am also surrounded by plate lunches.

But also on my desk is Michael Pollan’s Food Rules. This simple book can be read in about an hour and highlights 83 eating “rules” based on wives’ tales, popular sayings of our grandmothers, and common sense. The book reminds me of the great 80’s manual Dad’s Little Instruction Book which imparted so much common sense wisdom that just felt “right.” Leafing quickly through the pages of Food Rules, reading tip after tip in succession, each rings true and a simple narrative takes form: eat real food, mostly plants, and not too much.

Here are a few of my favorite eating rules from the book:

2. Don’t eat anything your Great Grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.

6. Avoid products that contain more than 5 ingredients.

7. Avoid products containing ingredients a third-grader can’t pronounce.

13. Shop the peripheries of the supermarket. Stay out of the middle.

28. Eat your colors.

39. Don’t eat breakfast cereal that changes the color of your milk.

52. Have a glass of wine with dinner.

56. Eat when you’re hungry, not when you’re bored.

59. Don’t let yourself get too hungry.

78. Eat with other people when you can.

79. Treat treats as treats.

Check out Food Rules: an eater’s manual by Michael Pollan. It’s also beautifully illustrated by Maira Kalman.

The Asian Market

The other night I went to the Asian Market to buy ingredients for Miso Soup, salad with Miso & Ginger dressing, and egg rolls. I was terrified. Despite living near San Francisco’s Chinatown for two years, I was still intimidated with actually buying the goods I’d need. However, once I figured some things out it is not too hard. Here are my recipes:

Miso Soup

1. Start with a broth. There are several kinds. I bought bonita (fish) flakes and soaked them in water to make a fish broth. About one-handful per cup water. Bring to a boil, then let soak until the flakes sink fully to the bottom. Strain out the flakes.

2. Next, heat the broth back up to a soft boil, add veggies if you want, tofu cubes, seafood, whatever.

3. Break out the Miso paste. They sell different kinds, the darker the richer in flavor. I bought mild. The stuff is very potent. Separately mix one TB of paste per 1 TB of water for each cup of the broth. I started with 4 cups water, figured I boiled some off to about 3 cups broth. So I mixed 3 TB of paste with 3 TB of water to make the miso.

4. Once you’ve prepared your miso, lower the heat on the broth and mix the two. Never bring to a boil after putting in the miso. I read this everywhere. I’m guessing it will burn. Add green onions to the top and you’re done. Turned out really good!

Miso & Ginger dressing

Blend a 1/4 cup of fresh ginger and two carrots. Mix up 1 serving of miso (Remember 1TB paste with 1TB water). Mix together with 1/4 cup of Rice vinegar and 1/4 cup oil. Add more oil if needed. Add salt and honey or juice to taste.

Egg Rolls

1. Buy the egg roll pastries. I have never seen any quite like this from the grocery store. They are awesome. They came frozen, about 25 12″ x 12″ sheets, very thin and super tough (never tore).

2. Cook up 1lb shrimp and 1/2 lb pork cubes. Mix in green onions, ginger, celophane noodles, whatever else.

3. Blend down to egg roll stuffing consistency. I think you know what I mean here. You’re making a filling.

4. Put 1-1.5 TB in the middle of a wrapper. Fold one side over and tuck it under the meat. Tuck the two sides in then roll it like a homemade cigarette. Put a little water on the seal to make it stick. This part is fun. Place them down on the seal so it will stay.

5. Put about 1/4 of oil in a pot or skillet. Bring up to medium heat. Let oil reach temperature, then put rolls in, fry one side, and roll them over. About halfway through you’ll prob need to add more oil and let it come back up to temp. Once your oil is to temp and you know how long to leave them in on each side it is very easy and fun.

Buy some fortune cookies for the kids. Your wife will think you’re a frickin’ genius.

Updated 2/28/2011

Eating Healthy

A friend of mine recently told me that for the first time in his life he really wanted to lose weight. We talked about eating healthy for a while and it dawned on me that eating well is a very simple philosophy. The trick is the follow through. Below is my personal philosophy I have pieced together over the years:

#1 Know what you’re eating. You have to start paying attention to what you’re eating so you can see what needs to change. Write down everything you eat for two weeks. After a couple days you will be amazed at the junk and unhealthy meals you’re eating. Writing all this down may be trying, but I put is as #1 because I believe if you only do this step alone, you’ll instinctively start eating better.

#2 Eat real food. There is a difference between things you can eat, a.k.a. edible, and things that are nutritious. Don’t eat fast food and don’t eat at a lot of chains like Chili’s, etc. Don’t eat out of the frozen food section. Avoid foods made up of nothing but chemicals or a bunch of things ending in -zine.

#3 Eat the right amount. Portion control is important. In fact, Weight Watchers is largely based on portion control. But the basics can be stated simply. Don’t eat just to be eating or because you’re bored. Only order as much food as you feel like eating. Don’t order the super combo just because it’s a good deal. Don’t feel like you have to finish your whole plate just because you paid for it. Eat only what you are hungry for and no more. At the same time, don’t skip meals because doing so leads you to make bad choices later. Always eat breakfast.

#4 Eat balanced meals. Remember to mix in the fruits and veggies. Meat is not a meal by itself. Be careful not to overdo the carbs. When planning a meal at home, swap out the carb side with a second vegetable side. You’ll get your carbs without really trying. Avoid a ton of soft drinks and beer because they are huge sources of hidden calories. Advanced: learn about foods with omega-3 and the other essential oils and try to incorporate these in your diet.

#5 Exercise. Do some cardio twice a week: running, jogging, riding a bike. This can be outdoors or at the gym, but it should be something that gets your heart rate up, above 100 bpm. Add in a workout if you have time, but the point is to get into the habit of doing something a couple times a week.

Do I do all these things all the time? Hell no, but this is the plan. If you are over-weight but consider yourself to have a good amount of self-control, you may just need an updated eating philosophy.