Know your Spuds

The Humble PotatoMmmm, man food, meat and potatoes. And yet this is a nutritional food blog, so can I still do man food? I know can do healthy meat (but that is another post) but can I do healthy potatoes?

Yes, yes I can.

But first, a primer on the humble spud.

Potato Primer

Potatoes are swollen stems, or tubers, of a vine in the nightshade family. They come in many varieties and can generally provide more calories per acre than almost any other crop, which makes them great as a starch staple.

There are many varieties of potatoes, but the three main ones are red skin, yellow, and russet. Russet and red skin potatoes have white flesh, yellow potatoes (also called gold or Yukon gold) are yellow inside and out.

Red skin potatoes are small waxy potatoes, they have lower starch content and can better hold up to liquids without falling apart. This makes them excellent in stews or cooked with roasts or in any application where you will be doing long wet cooking. The skin of red skins is also often left on, merely cleaned with a stiff brush before cooking. Of course red skin potatoes are also good mashed.

Yellow skin potatoes are medium, medium in size, medium in wax, medium in starch. They’re generally considered to make the best mashed potatoes and are also good in fried applications, and do alright in a stew. These are the ones I buy most often. You can leave the skin on or take it off with these ones.

Russet potatoes (the big brown ones) are large mealy potatoes and aren’t at all waxy, they’re good baked, and pretty much only baked. They aren’t as good mashed as yellow skin potatoes, they don’t hold up in stews or other slow cooking dishes like red potatoes. I only buy these if I’m baking them individually.

Potato Health

Alas spuds are much maligned as unhealthy, but when you get right down to it and look at the calories in a typical potato you’ll notice something odd, namely, there isn’t all that many calories. Indeed, the potato hardly has any more calories than an apple.

What gets you with potatoes is the butter, the sour cream, the actual cream, the gravy, and everything else that you add to them. They’re rather bland alone afterall and it is all those high fat (though, you can make healthy gravy) toppings that make the overall dish unhealthy.

So, don’t be afraid to cook potatoes, just make sure you don’t smother them in butter. In situations where you’re not going to add anything to them they can be quite healthy, in moderation of course, a pound of any food at dinner will pack on the pounds. The healthiest application for a potato would be baked plain, but barring that when you use them in stews they aren’t seasoned with anything other than the stew broth, so the overall calorie addition thanks to the potatoes should be relatively low.

On the flip side, potatoes really don’t offer that much in nutritional value, not a lot of fiber, vitamins, or minerals. So in that regard they’re not doing you any favors.

What about sweet potatoes? Well, botanically speaking they’re not at all related. Sweet potatoes are rhizomes, potatoes are tubers, however sweet potatoes are healthier than normal potatoes. Not because they have less calories, in fact they have slightly more. Sweet potatoes are healthier because they are full of vitamins and minerals, they’re considered a superfood like carrots and in fact the survival of early American colonists has been directly attributed to the nutrition stored sweet potatoes provided during the winters. Also, sweet potatoes taste great when just seasoned with something like cinnamon, which doesn’t add any calories to the final dish.

Garlic Mashed Potatoes

This recipe isn’t actually very straightforward, because first you have to make garlic oil.

First step, buy some nice crusty artisanal bread, from a bakery, not an aisle. Then get some fresh raw garlic and some olive oil, normal is fine, you don’t need extra virgin.

Peel the garlic bulb and separate the individual cloves, peel the cloves (try smashing them to assist the skin in letting go of the clove). Fill up a small glass baking dish, the smaller the better, with the cloves from 1 bulb. Then cover with the olive oil until the cloves are all submerged. Cover with aluminum foil and put in an oven at 350 (you did preheat the oven right?) for 50 minutes.

When your 50 minutes are up pour the entire thing through a strainer, with the oil falling into a dish (you’re saving the oil). Put the garlic cloves in a small container, add italian seasoning (rosemary, thyme, basil, parsley, or just get an “Italian Seasoning” product that is premixed) and a pinch of salt, and mash gently with a fork or spoon until you have a paste.

Next, grate some “parmesan” cheese (parmigiano reggiano, aged 1 year atleast, better yet 2 years, expect to pay $15-$20 a pound for it, but it is worth it. Don’t use that stuff in a can, tip… save the rind when you’re done with the wedge you buy and use it to flavor a soup or stew, just toss it right in during cooking and remove it before serving)… so grate the cheese. Then slice your bread, spread on the garlic paste you made, cover with the cheese, and place on a cookie rack under the broiler in your over until the cheese is bubbly and starting to turn brown (keep your eye on it! it’ll happen quickly). Remove from oven, and enjoy the best garlic cheese bread you’ve ever ate.

Meanwhile on the counter a dish of olive oil will be cooling, except since you cooked it in garlic for 50 minutes it is now garlic oil. Put this in a little container (they sell neat little glass oil flasks at stores like Bed Bath and Beyond for a buck or so) and save it for when you make potatoes (or otherwise want garlic flavored oil).

Oh… right… potatoes, this post is about potatoes not garlic. So, you have garlic oil, and you have your chopped up potatoes. Put your spuds in salted boiling water until they’re done (when you can easily stick a fork in). Remove them from the heat, drain them, add some more salt to taste (start with a teaspoon), add parsley (the seasoning, not the garnish, there are two different kinds, the seasoning is technically called “Italian flat leaf”), and a few tablespoons of your garlic oil. Mash and serve (or hit it with some of that awesome parmigiano cheese and then serve).

My Favorite Buns

Brownberry Whole Wheat BunsNo, this post isn’t about what Catherine Zeta-Jones did in Entrapment, it is actually about my favorite brand of hamburger or sandwich buns.

These buns are relatively hard to find. In the two grocery stores where I regularly shop, the smaller one (only slightly smaller, still a big honking store) doesn’t carry them, only the slightly larger one does. They’re worth the little extra drive though.

When you’re eating a sandwich you need a bread product, otherwise it is not a sandwich, and there is no way around the calories in bread. Even the healthiest breads have calories. So, as per my nutritional philosophy, your goal should be to make sure those calories provide as much nutritional value as possible, and aren’t just empty calories like you get from white bread.

So, for this application I like Brownberry Speciality Whole Grain Sandwich Buns. These aren’t the Brownberry Whole Wheat buns in the red bag, these are a different type of whole grain bun by the same company.

There is whole wheat flour and high protein soy flour in these buns. That gives them a whopping 10 grams of protein per bun. That is huge for a bread product. You could take one of these buns, put it in a toaster, spread a little butter on it, and have a healthier breakfast (or other meal) than what a protein bar can provide. Buttered toast is a healthy option is the bread is this fine product.

The protein also provides structure to the bun. I absolutely hate it when I make a burger and the store bought bun (which is soft and squishy and full of preservatives to keep it soft and squishy) crumbled under the weight of the burger. These buns are heavy, strong, and can stand up to whatever burger you throw at them. So not only is it better for you, but it makes an easier eating experience.

Each bun also contains 5g of fiber, which according to the USDA is 20% of your daily needs, so that’s not bad either. Calories are a very modest 170 per bun, which is pretty low for a bread product.

Then of course, with all the complex ingredients and protein in the buns they’ll keep your fuller longer, on less calories, and more nutrition. All around they’re just a better option.

It is just my wife and I at home, and at 8 buns to a package we can’t use them quickly enough before they go bad, so I keep them in the refridgerator, it makes them last a couple weeks.

So how do they taste? Fine, good, no complaints from me. I’m to the point though where I don’t necessary prefer white bread in taste to whole grain bread. My carb starved stomach likes them both, they’re just different from each other.

How to Make Carmelized Onions

Barilla Plus PastaOnions, like some other vegetables such as carrots, have a lot of sugar in them. This isn’t to mean they’re sweet like a candy bar, it isn’t the same type of sugar. These are complex sugars.

When you take a vegetable with complex sugars and expose it to heat those sugars carmelize. This makes them taste really really good.

Now, if you put uncooked onions on anything I eat, anything, I’ll pick around them. Why people like them I could never fathom. However when you cook the onions all the bitterness evaporates and they become very good. So, if you’re like me and dislike onions when they’re raw, don’t assume you’ll dislike this recipe as well. Give it a try.

That all being said, I always buy sweet vidalia onions (or spanish onions, or yellow onions). Red onions don’t carmelize like I want them too, and white ones just don’t seem as sweet. I also buy the big ones you pick out individually, not the little ones in the bags.

Figure on one of those large onions for every 2 people if you’re using these onions as a topping for a meat of some sort. Cut it up however you like, if you want a finely chopped topping, finely chop it, if you want larger rings, leave larger rings. I personally cut the onions in half, then I cut again every quarter inch or so, and finally cut them in half.

Put the onions in a pan with enough olive oil to just cover the bottom of the pan (oil goes a long way, try spreading what you have by moving the pan around before adding more). Never go over medium heat. I like to start at medium to get the ball rolling but then I turn it back to a more manageable medium-low. You don’t want the onions to burn or saute, this really is just a sweat. Gentle heat to get the water out.

Also helping to remove water is salt. Through osmosis when you put salt on something it draws out moisture (concentrating flavors). Always, always, always, sprinkle salt on a vegetable you’re sweating or sauteing. Meats as well normally unless they’re cured meats (already salted, such as ham). If I had to estimate I would say it is 1 teaspoon of salt for each onion, but I only ever just sprinkle the salt with a salt shaker over the pan, I never measure it. Pretend you’re spreading grass seed and just try for even coverage.

It will take 30 minutes or more, with somewhat frequent stirring, but eventually the onions will have shrunk and be a nice golden brown color. They are then done. Put them on a burger, a steak, a braut, or just eat them (I eat the leftovers just plain). You can also save them in the fridge for a couple days.

Neat trick, if you’re making a meat loaf or meat balls you normally add onions, try carmelizing them first if you have time, it’ll add more flavor.

For a good recipe using this technique try this one, I’ve found it to be suprisingly good. In my preperation I do not use olives or capers, and I throw in a dash of basalmic vinegar. If making it as a main dish instead of a side I add some chopped up lean cured turkey sausage to punch up the protein.

Healthy Pasta

Barilla Plus PastaPasta doesn’t need to be unhealthy. As I say in my nutritional philosophy if you get the right kind of pasta it can really have good nutritional value.

Whole wheat pasta has been around for a long time, but this fortified pasta is new. I first saw it in’s grocery section, but eventually found an equivalent product at the grocery store where I shop.

Basically, they make the pasta using a wide variety of grains, including legume grains. On the box of the barilla I’ve got pictured it says it includes lentils, chickpeas, egg whites, spelt (a really high fiber ancient relative of wheat), barley, flaxseed (great source of omega-3′s), oat fiber, and oats. Additionally it is vitamin fortified with niacin, iron, thiamin, and folic acid.

So, the end result is you’ve got this pasta with twice the fiber of normal pasta (good for many cancers, namely colon which is the second most common cancer in the US or something like that), omega-3 fatty acids (great for heart health, so-called good cholesterol), and protein, which helps you feel full longer and build or maintain muscle. One 56g serving has just 210 calories, but 10 grams of protein, and 4 grams of fiber, with only 2 grams of simple sugars. That is better than what you’ll get from a protein bar, and its pasta!

You can also find breads with the same great fortifications and made with legume flours/flaxseed meal, nuts, etc. But that is another post.

Pasta doesn’t have to be a guilty pleasure. Your grocery store might not have the same brand I do, but look for similar types of pasta. Or, try a health food store or just order from Amazon.

My Nutrition Philosophy (or Chris’s Magical Miracle Diet)

I’ve never been fat in my life. My brothers were all large at one point growing up (they’ve since yoyo’d, though one is skinny now), my Dad is, but I was always the skinny one. I have a few life experiences that have punctuated my nutritional beliefs. The first I recall is when my older brother, who was quite chubby in his early teen years, but a sports fanatic, keep harping on needing more carbs, how carbs were good for you, and you needed to eat carbs to be healthy. I always thought it was total calories myself. Anyways, someone should have told my brother that yes, Lance Armstrong needs carbs, but if you eat more than you burn those carbs will turn to fat.

Perhaps the way some other countries do it is better, they don’t list fat, they list lipids. See, here in the US so many people think if you eat fat it becomes fat, if you eat protein it becomes muscle, and if you eat carbs it becomes energy. This is of course not true. All three get metabolized and turned into compounds your body can use for energy, any extra left over gets stored as fat no matter how it started.

The other experience was my Dad trying Atkins and insisting that ring baloney was good for you because it was high in protein and low carb.

But back to me, I was always skinny, and then I went to college. Dorm food is evil. 3 meals a day (well, 2 most days) of a full 3 course meal, gravy, desert, juice. I felt I was poorly educated on nutrition at this point in my life, and I didn’t eat well. I gained 40 pounds in 6 months. I’m 6’5 though so its not like I was huge, it merely increased my waist from 32 to 36, but still.

I’ve lost the weight since and I’ve found that I developed a core nutrition philosophy over the years of doing it, and this philosophy was directly responsible for the weight loss. This philosophy is culled from varying diets, medical information, nutrition information, my own tastes, and good plain common sense.

There are a few key components to my diet:

1. Eat lean protein as much as possible.
2. Eat only complex carbohydrates.
3. Portion Control, Portion Control, Portion Control.
4. If still hungry, fill up on calorie sparse foods rather than calorie dense foods.
5. Make sure every calorie has nutritional value.

Eat Lean Protein
Most people do not get enough protein, especially men as we have high protein needs. They say you need 1 gram per day per pound of body weight, check your food, do you get near enough? This is doubly true for people who are trying to build muscle (and what guy isn’t?) they say you need 2 grams per pound of body weight if you’re trying to build muscle.

Protein is also one of the best food to eat. It is less calorie dense than fats or carbs, it is also complex and takes awhile to break down so you feel fuller, longer, and your blood sugar doesn’t spike.

You also need complete protein. The only places you can get complete protein are from dairy products or meat. Veggies and even eggs do not have complete protein (all amino acids present).

Now, when I say lean protein, I mean low in fat. Beef is a great source of protein, but it is too high in fat and cholesterol to be healthy. Instead, try buffalo, fish, chicken, turkey. You can get protein from beans, peas, legumes, nuts (but watch the fat with nuts), and milk. Milk is a great nutritional food. Personally I drink whey protein shakes every day for lunch.

Eat only complex carbohydrates.
Refined sugars are evil. This is sugar and refined “white” flour. Complex carbohydrates in whole grains (oats, etc) or in veggies are much better for you.

When you eat refined sugars you digest it quickly, your blood sugar spikes & crashes which encourages more binge eating, and you’re getting 0 nutritional benefit most of the time.

Complex carbohydrates stick with you longer, take longer to digest, and at the very least have fiber if not other nutritional value.

So, the lesson here is no white bread, and use sugar substitutes as much as possible when cooking. No sweetened fruit juice, no regular cola. Check the sugar content of everything you eat. Even so called healthy “protein” bars usually have as much as 30 grams of sugar. That is as much as a candy bar. Don’t rely on how something is marketed, check the label.

Portion Control, Portion Control, Portion Control.
This is the most important thing possible, the most helpful thing, and the hardest thing to accomplish. Good portion control is a change in behavior rather than merely grocery shopping.

You need to train yourself to eat less, do not eat until you’re full, eat until you’re no longer hungry.

Also, you need to limit your portions of calorie dense foods. For instance I will still eat beef, but I limit myself to 8 ounces at one meal. No more 14 ounce ribeyes for me. (I also try to get leaner cuts like tenderloin or sirloin). An 8 ounce sirloin steak is very calorie light, so you can eat it and maintain a healthy diet (except the cholesterol, which is another issue).

I also now only allow myself to go back for seconds on vegetables, not the meat course, but that falls more under…

If still hungry, fill up on calorie sparse foods rather than calorie dense foods.

You can eat your fill of certain products. Berries, especially strawberries, watermelon, green beans, zucchini, squash, eggplant, carrots, these are all calorie sparse foods. Learn what these foods are, buy these foods, and when you’re still hungry after finishing your portion, eat these foods. Many have nutritional value beyond merely filling you up, so you’re doing good on that level as well.

These can also make good deserts or late night snacks.

Make sure every calorie has nutritional value.
This one is extremely important to me. I don’t try to eat well just so I look good, I want to live a long time. I try to eat foods that don’t just keep me trim, but also ones that fight cancer, heart disease, and anything else that can happen.

I need to eat, and I need to limit how much I eat to maintain my weight, so I want to be darn sure that every calorie I take in benefits me in some way. So I seek out foods high in antioxidants (blueberries), I look for fortified foods, foods high in protein, foods high in fiber. Colorful vegetables filled with vitamins.

So, for instance, pasta. Pasta isn’t really that healthy being a starch product, but I don’t get plain refined starch pasta. I buy whole wheat protein & omega 3 fortified pasta. It tastes great, gives me fiber, protein, and omega 3 fatty acids (good cholesterol, the stuff in fish and nuts). So, it is still 250 calories or whatever a serving, but they’re all calories with nutritional value, so I consider it okay.

For desert sometimes I will make a blueberry cobbler sweetened with Splenda with a cinnamon and oat topping. This is just under 200 calories in total, which isn’t much less than a small candy bar (Reese’s Big Cup is 220 calories). But since I’m getting great nutrition from the food I don’t mind the calories.

So that’s it, that is my nutritional philosophy, and when I post about healthy cooking in this blog, it is in regards to this philosophy that I mean.

A Word on Stock & Broth

Chicken Stock
Stock & broth are very similar in taste, but they aren’t entirely the same. Broth is made from bits of meat and vegetables, stock always includes bones in the recipe. In both though you cook the ingredients a long time to get their essence out.

I like to make turkey stock after Thanksgiving, you end up with a very protein rich and extremely tasty liquid by boiling all the left over bones and bits all day. But that is another post.

Many recipes call for stock or broth as a component, and while you can make your own, you’ll almost always buy it at the store. Making it yourself is special occasions only in my book. So… when at the store, which type do you buy?

I recommend the stock in the cartons. Where I shop there is the pictured brand, but also an Emeril brand, they’re roughly the same. The kicker is the ingredient list.

Grab a can of broth, and grab the box of stock, then look at the ingredients. The stock will say things like vegetables, spices, herbs, chicken. The broth will say things best suited for a chemistry class. The stock also I think tastes better. Additionally the stock has more protein (good) and less salt (also good).

The stock is more expensive though, and it only comes in 1 quart cartons (where I shop). But the cartons are resealable and last a good week once opened & refridgerated.

So, when I mention stock in a recipe, always assume I mean this type of stock, it it just better for you.

Of course, if you have the time, making your own is best, and you can freeze it for long term storage. You’ll especially get more protein if you make it yourself, but most of us just don’t have the time.

How to Make Gravy with a Roux

Gravy is great, and it doesn’t have to be bad for you. Here is a quick and easy way to make relatively healthy gravy.

Start with your meat drippings, this can be from any type of meat, and make sure you run it through a fat seperator to get rid of the fat and keep the protein. If you don’t have enough drippings, add water, it’s okay, the dripping are concentrated anyways. You could also add a broth or stock product if you have one.

Decide how much finished gravy you want, and compare that to how much drippings you have. If you need to add more liquid (as mentioned above) do so.

For each cup of gravy you want to have add 1-2 TBSP of butter (more for thicker gravy, less for thinner gravy), per cup of gravy, to a saucepan and let it melt. Once it is melted add an equivalent amount of stone ground whole wheat flour (stone ground whole wheat flour is just about as healthy a wheat flour as you’ll get, so I recommend you use it). Stir while adding the flour and keep stirring (use a whisk). Until the mixture is a nice light golden brown. You could continue cooking it on low heat and eventually it’d darker, turn reddish, and the flavor would change. We’re not using it for flavor though so much as for thickening. So stop at light golden brown.

What you’ve just done is made a roux, a combination of equal parts fat & starch that is used for thickening. Starches like flour are great for thickening because when exposed to heat they burst and all their insides come out and thicken what they are in. However when adding them directly to water they clump and then must be stirred like crazy. If you add them to a fat instead they do not clump and by stirring you surround each starch molecule with fat, which will prevent them from clumping when they reach the liquid. So the cooked flour & butter combination is called a roux, and it is great for thickening anything that needs it.

Once your roux looks nice, add the meat drippings & water or broth or whatever you are using as filler liquid and bring it all to a boil while stirring. You’ll notice it thicken really quickly. Now you can add any seasonings you like, salt, pepper, thyme, rosemary, sage, parsley, whatever you like. I usually toss in a dash of balsamic vinegar no matter what kind of gravy it is. Worcestershire is a good idea for dark gravies as well.

When making a roux, remember dark ones have more flavor but less thickening power. If you cook it so long you see black specs you’ve burnt it, start over. When making a large batch try roasting it in the over ofer 300 degree heat until it reaches the color you like (less likely to burn it in the oven, trust me, although you aren’t likely to burn it when just making gravy, usually thats a soup thing where you want it to get dark).

In the end your gravy will be mostly protein (from the meat drippings) a little starch from the flour, and yes fat from the butter. You could use another form of fat such as olive oil or whatever you like, but butter makes the best gravy I think, and only a tablespoon or two in an entire pot isn’t a whole lot.

Buy a V-Slicer

So… who is impressed when you see professional cooks on TV go bananas on some vegetables, cutting them really thin with rapid precision? I know I am, I’ve tried, I just can’t compare. But screw it, I don’t have to.

V-slicers and mandolins are two easy to use tools that make cutting thin, uniform, slices of vegetables a snap. You can shred an onion or pepper in seconds. They also have attachments for doing other cuts, such as a french fry or julienne cut.

They aren’t that expensive really, especially when you consider how much use you will get out of it. I use mine all the time. So that means of course that I’ll be referencing it a lot on recipes on this site.

In many ways owning a v-slicer is enabling in that it takes the fear factor away from making a dish that involves precisely sliced vegetables. There is also a serious wow factor involved. Have a girl over for dinner and prepare here a dish with thinly sliced vegetables, she might just think you’re a professional.

Fat Seperator

Fat Seperator
Do you like gravy? I like gravy, meat juice gravy, Thanksgiving gravy. Gravy is awesome! But we’ve been told time and again that gravy is unhealthy. So can we still eat it? You bet!

So what is gravy? Well normally it is meat drippings combined with a thickening agent such as flour or another starch, or sometimes dairy (dairy is another post). You don’t really need much flour to thicken up a gravy so you don’t get a lot of calories there. In the end your calories will come from fat in the meat drippings. But isn’t the meat drippings all fat? No, they’re mostly protein. Collagen is a protein that makes much much of the flesh & bones of mammals, it is water soluble and when heated can join the moisture leaking out of a roast and end up as drippings (a non-soluble protein, elastin, stays in the meat and is what creates all those chewy tough bits). You can usually tell it is protein because if you put it in the fridge it turns into something that looks like jello (probably because it is gelatin, literally).

All the protein aside, there is fat in those drippings, and it adds calories & cholesterol to the equation. The solution is to use a fat seperator. This ingenious little device is just like a measuring cup except with the spout at the bottom. Since fat floats you can pour all your drippings into this pitcher and then slowly poor them back out until only fat is left inside. Nifty huh?

So now you have a delicious, finger licking, protein infused, fat free gravy. Cue Borat, “Very Niiiice.” Sure, there are still calories in it, but mostly they’re protein calories, and protein is good for you. Most people do not get enough protein daily.

Infrared Thermometer

IR ThermometerTemperature is extremely important in cooking, but most thermometers suck. How many do you need too? There are so many different types.

They are just so ungainly, for many that you’d stick in a pot (such as a pot of oil for deep frying) they get in the way of any lids or splatter screens. Also…how do you take the temperature of a millimeter of oil in the bottom of a frying pan? Often when I’m making up a recipe on this site I’ll tell you to put a little oil in a frying pan and wait for it to reach 350, but how do you know when it is 350? It is too shallow to stick a normal thermometer in. There are visual clues if you are an experienced cook, but those are hard to pick up on for the novice. And even for the experienced, nothing beats scientific accuracy.

The solution is to buy an infrared thermometer. It is a flipping laser! That has to appeal to the geek in you right? Also, it is a point and shoot instant read thermometer. Any surface you can point it at it’ll read, instantly. You can use it for far more than cooking (use that to justify the price).

Get one of these and you can throw all your other thermometers away, except for a good probe thermometer since afterall this laser one can’t read inside of meats, only the surface.