Archives for Nutrition & Diet

Questions for cooks: Meals that travel well without refrigeration

Reader Rose submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

I recently started a project that has me traveling to the other side of the state every other week. My flight leaves at 6:00 a.m. and arrives at 10:30 am. I then leave again at 4:40 p.m. and return home at 10:30 p.m.

I get a per diem to cover all three meals when I take these trips. But I really want to just pack my meals so I can pocket the per diem. Besides, the town I go to is very small and remote. There is a grocery store, but it’s selection is not good, and everything is expensive.

Anyway, I have to go through airport security and gelpack-type freezer packs are not allowed. I’ve heard things about using ice, but it seems to depend on the agent and the airport. So, I would like to avoid food that has to be refrigerated. To make matters worse, I have to strictly watch my salt intake, so most microwave and canned foods are not good options.

This is like a riddle or a word problem on a math test: “Rose needs 1,500 calories a day, but has to avoid refrigerated and preserved foods. How can it be done?”

Right off the bat, I know that fresh fruits and vegetables are going to be a good option for you. Apples, bananas, raw broccoli and cauliflower crudites, snap peas, and oranges shouldn’t cause a problem for you as you go through security. If the item is not refrigerated in your grocer’s produce section, you don’t need to refrigerate it in your lunch pail.

Bagels and bread should be fine. Same goes for almost all aged, hard cheeses. Cheese sandwiches aren’t usually exciting, but using a hearty bread and a wonderful cheese will be filling and enjoyable. I’m thinking something like a jalapeno cheddar bread with some pepper jack cheese, or a rustic Italian with a Parmesan or Manchengo.

Smoked salmon and cured meats travel well, too. I love a salumi that bites you back or causes you to take notice, like a Culatello di Zibello, a delicate prosciutto, a hot pepperoni, a crusted pancetta, or a spicy coppa. Don’t go overboard with the smoked and cured meats — just a little with crackers should be enough to give you some protein — because you don’t want to elevate your salt intake too wildly.

Cliff makes some wonderful granola bars that aren’t especially high in sodium or fat, and taste great. Talk to people who regularly go hiking, and they’ll also have great suggestions for you.

Thank you, Rose, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column. Check the comments for even more portable suggestions from our readers.

Do you have any unresolved questions about cooking styles, methods, ingredients, gadgets, meal planning, or anything even closely related to resolving stress or confusion in the kitchen? If so, send us your questions and we’ll find you an answer. If we don’t know the answer, we’ll send it out to a specialist who can, and we’ll all learn something! To submit your questions to Questions for Cooks, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Questions for Cooks.” Share as many details as possible — the more information we have about your specific question, the better.

Pork belly kale: Making a favorite recipe a little more healthful

We eat a ridiculous amount of hearty greens at our house — kale, collards, mustard greens, swiss chard, and spinach make regular appearances on our plates. They’re rich with vitamins (usually A, B6, C, E, and K) and minerals (like iron and magnesium), high in dietary fiber, and are often good sources of protein and sometimes calcium. Hearty greens are also extremely easy to make and very versatile.

I grew up cooking greens in things like bacon fat and butter. Occasionally, I’ll still do this — when you have a craving, you have a craving — but most days I opt for something more healthy(ish).

For example, one of my favorite ways to eat kale is wilted for a few minutes in bacon fat and with crumbled bacon as a topping. The fat and nitrates don’t erase the healthful aspects of the kale, but they definitely don’t keep the calories off the waistline or the vast amounts of cholesterol out of my system. Now, I make the same dish but modified a little to reduce some of the fat and nitrates (definitely not all the fat, but some). It tastes so similar that I don’t even miss all the yummy bacon grease:

Pork belly kale

  • 1/2 lb. uncured, skinless, Berkshire or Duroc pork belly
  • 1 to 2 Tbl. canola oil (enough to coat the bottom of your sautee pan)
  • 10 broad leaves of kale
  • Optional: 1 tsp of lemon juice and 1/2 tsp kosher salt or 2 Tbl. crumbled blue cheese to finish

In a cast iron pan on medium-high heat, sear the top and bottom of the pork belly, starting first with the fat side down. You’ll want a caramel brown color sear, which will take about 4 or 5 minutes to achieve on the fat side and about 2 or 3 minutes on the meat side. Once you have that wonderful brown, turn the heat down to medium-low and continue to cook the pork belly slowly until it is done all the way through (based on the thickness of your pork belly, this could take up to 20 or 30 more minutes). If you don’t want to stand at the stove flipping the pork belly over every 5 minutes for 20 minutes, you can cover the pan and put the seared pork belly in a 250ºF oven for a couple hours. Check on the pork every 30 minutes or so to make sure there is still some liquid in the bottom of the pan. You don’t want a grease fire (hence, the pan lid), but you also don’t want the meat to dry out.

When the pork belly is finished, transfer it to a cooling rack.

In a clean and cool pan, warm a tablespoon of canola oil over medium heat. Slowly add 10 broad leaves of kale that have been washed, dried, had the central vein cut out, and then torn into credit card size pieces (or smaller). Wilt the kale until it is a consistent dark green and it is tender (about 5 minutes). Remove from heat.

Dice the cooled pork belly into 1/2″ cubes and toss over the kale.

Based on the flavor intensity of the kale, you may choose to finish the kale with a teaspoon of lemon juice and 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt. Or, if you enjoy blue cheese, a tablespoon or two of it crumbled on the top is excellent. Just don’t use lemon juice and blue cheese — this makes for an unfortunate flavor combination.

As a side dish, this recipe serves 2 to 4 people.

Reducing stress associated with restricted diets

Special diets can add an extra level of stress to meal planning and preparation. As the mother of a child with a deathly peanut allergy, I’ve certainly experienced some frustrations as I’ve navigated the peanut-free world.

Even if someone in your home doesn’t have a food allergy, you might invite a guest into your home who does. Or, you may have a roommate or child who is a vegetarian or you may invite a vegan to dinner. No matter the reason for the restriction, it can be frustrating when the diagnosis is new or you’re not accustom to making a meal without a specific ingredient.

The following are tips that can help you to relieve some of the stress associated with preparing a special diet or meal:

  • Ask questions about the diet restriction to learn as much as you can. Whether you’re asking a doctor or the person with the food restriction, it’s best to be as prepared as possible before setting a/the menu. You don’t want to accidentally make your guest or family member or roommate sick, or offend him.
  • Ask for cookbook recommendations or sites with recipes that work with the special diet. Doctors often have handouts prepared for restrictive diets and people with the special diet will know where to turn. Asking for recommendations can save you a lot of time and worry.
  • Unless the diet is somehow not recommended for others, have everyone eat the special diet. If one member of your household can’t eat gluten, have a gluten-free home. If someone can’t eat tree nuts, have a tree nut-free home. The same goes for reduced sodium diets. My husband and I have stopped eating peanuts and foods produced in plants where peanuts are present, and neither of us have faced any consequences. If you’re just cooking a meal for a guest with a limitation, make the entire meal safe or respectful for all your guests.
  • Have empathy. It’s very likely the person with the diet restriction doesn’t wish she had the diet restriction. She probably wishes she could eat chocolate or pine nuts or whatever food she can’t have. Think about how frustrating every meal must be for this person.
  • Imagine you’re on Iron Chef and instead of an ingredient you have to include, you’re given an ingredient you can’t include. Thinking of the meal like a challenge can keep things light and feel less like a burden.
  • If the diet restriction is for you or someone who lives in your home, know that the first three months of following the new diet will be the most difficult. After three months have passed, the restricted diet will be an old habit and you’ll barely experience any stress because of it.

I have a good friend who follows strict Orthodox Kosher laws, and when it’s our turn to host her family we have found it easiest to go out to eat at observant restaurants instead of trying to produce a meal in our kitchen (we only have one set of plates, one stove, etc.). It works well because the burden isn’t always on her to cook for us if we want to get together for dinner, and it’s simple for us to eat at a Kosher restaurant. It’s stress-free for everyone involved.

Do you live with someone who has a restricted diet? What do you do to reduce the stress of meal planning and preparation? Share your advice in the comments.

Questions for cooks: Tips for reducing salt

Reader Rose submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

My doctor told me to cut back on my salt. This inspired me to start cooking more, and now I have a couple questions.

I see a lot of recipes call for salt. Initially I thought I would just leave the salt out and add in a dash at the end if I think it needs the flavor. But, I see it so often in recipes and in such quantities that I’m wondering if it does something more than just add flavor. And does it really matter if I add it at the end of a recipe or at the beginning?

Are there situations where I should not leave out the salt? (One recipe I’m specially concerned about is home-made bread.)

The easiest way to cut a large amount of salt out of your diet at home is to stop eating foods with complex ingredient lists on their packaging. Aim to eat foods that don’t come in packaging (fresh fruits and vegetables) or foods with only one or two ingredients (milk, salt-free frozen vegetables). Consider switching to kosher or dry-processed chicken and turkey that haven’t had salt water pumped into their skin at the meat processing plant.

Also, stay away from bitter foods that require a lot of salt to taste better — foods like brussels sprouts and mustard greens. Salt chemically reacts with the molecules in bitter foods to make them more palatable. Actually, salt makes almost all foods taste better, which is why humans use it.

Invest in some wonderful fleur de sel. Fleur de sel is a finishing salt that is only used immediately before eating. It has large crystals that give off a strong “salty” flavor, so you use less of it (barely any at all) and it can reduce or eliminate the need for using salt during the cooking process. If your doctor recommended you consume less than 1/2 a teaspoon or a teaspoon of salt a day, you can measure out the fleur de sel each morning and then limit yourself to only using that specific amount.

According to food scientist Harold McGee, adding salt to boiling water helps vegetables retain their flavors and nutritious substances. As a result, you may want to saute or roast your vegetables instead of boiling them. And, you can completely eliminate the salt when boiling water for grains and pastas. You can replace any lost flavor from these foods with herb-intense sauces and seasonings.

Addressing your question about bread, McGee also answers this question:

Salt contributes to a balanced taste and intensifies aroma in bread, but it also affects structure and texture. Salt makes a dough less sticky, the gluten more stretchy, and the finished loaf lighter. In sourdoughs, salt helps control the growth of acid-producing, gluten-weakening bacteria.

In short, you can probably reduce (but not eliminate) the amount of salt in homemade bread as long as you’re using a high gluten bread flour. Make some test loafs, adjusting the amount of salt in each one, and see where your lower limit lies. My bread recipe only requires 1-1/2 teaspoons for the entire loaf, containing only trace amounts of sodium chloride in each slice.

Substitute canola or olive oil as much as possible for butter, make your own salad dressings and soup stocks, and start using fresh herbs for alternate seasonings. Fresh herbs pack a greater punch than their dried brethren, so the stronger flavors won’t make you miss the salt. Oh, and avoid seasoning mixes unless they specifically say they are salt free (like Mrs. Dash). I’m not fond of fake salts because I think they have a bitter aftertaste.

Good luck on your new reduced salt adventure. Your eating experience doesn’t have to be bland from this point forward as long as you make good decisions about when to use salt. Thank you, Rose, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column.

Do you have any unresolved questions about cooking styles, methods, ingredients, gadgets, meal planning, or anything even closely related to resolving stress or confusion in the kitchen? If so, send us your questions and we’ll find you an answer. If we don’t know the answer, we’ll send it out to a specialist who can, and we’ll all learn something! To submit your questions to Questions for Cooks, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Questions for Cooks.” Share as many details as possible — the more information we have about your specific question, the better.

Hummus, on standby

If I can avoid it, I won’t call my mother in the evenings. She is retired, loves to cook, and each night is a culinary adventure in her home. I’ve had to call her twice in the past week after 5:00 p.m., and both times I’ve hung up the phone envious of her dinner plans. Monday night she made fried chicken with roasted potatoes, chicken gravy, and green beans with almonds — I don’t even like chicken very much, and I wanted to hop a plane to Kansas to get my hands on the leftovers.

This month has been overwhelmingly busy for my family. Mealtime has stopped being adventurous and has been nothing but tried-and-true standbys. When I was a kid and my mom worked three jobs, her cooking repertoire wasn’t all that varied, either. Monday night was taco night, Tuesdays we had ham and cheese casserole, Wednesdays were homemade pizzas, and so on and so forth throughout the rest of the week. We only had things like my mom’s famous fried chicken when stress levels lifted.

My family isn’t yet at the point where we have the same meal each Monday night, but we are only having things made from recipes I’ve committed to memory. I’m not trying anything new — I simply don’t have the mental energy right now.

One of our family’s standby recipe is hummus. We’ll have it as a side to an entree, an appetizer, or an afternoon snack. It doesn’t look incredibly appetizing (and I am far from being the world’s best photographer), but it’s yummy and nutritious. It’s rich in protein, dietary fiber, folate, copper, calcium, and iron. Best of all, it is incredibly easy to make.


  • 19 oz can of chickpeas (garbanzo beans), drained
  • 1/3 cup tahini
  • 1/3 cup lemon juice
  • 1 tsp Kosher salt
  • 2 cloves garlic — either raw, minced and sauteed, or not included if you use garlic salt instead of the previously listed Kosher salt
  • For finishing: 1/2 tsp extra virgin olive oil and an 1/8 tsp smoked or sweet paprika

Pour drained chickpeas, tahini, lemon juice, and salt into your blender. If you want a strong, almost stinging quality in your hummus, toss two raw cloves of garlic into the blender, too. If you want a mild garlic flavor, first mince and lightly saute the garlic in a teaspoon of olive oil, strain, and then add the garlic to the blender. If you want a hint of garlic, use garlic salt instead of Kosher salt.

Blend the ingredients together until smooth, it should have a similar appearance to a milkshake. If you don’t want to use your blender, you can also use a food processor or a hand blender.

When serving, garnish with 1/2 teaspoon of extra virgin olive oil and an 1/8 teaspoon smoked or sweet paprika. Use as a spread or a dip with pita or raw carrots. From start to finish, this recipe should take less than 5 minutes to prepare. This recipe makes approximately 2-1/2 cups of hummus.

Optional additions

  • Olive lovers might want to add 1/3 cup Kalamata olives, drained
  • Use cooked white beans instead of chickpeas for a white bean dip
  • Roast or grill a poblano or jalapeno pepper, remove the skin, and blend it in for a peppery kick
  • Add 2 teaspoons massaman curry powder for a Thai influence
  • Add 2 teaspoons Indian curry powder for an Indian influence

What are some of your standby recipes? Tell us your favorites in the comments.

Assorted links for February 23, 2011

Interesting and informative news relating to food and cooking:

  • The past month’s events in the Middle East and northern Africa are impacting the trading price of wheat, corn and soybeans. Expect to see lower prices on these goods in U.S. grocery stores in the coming months. However, conflict in the Ivory Coast is making the price of chocolate hit a 32-year high. Learn more: “Middle East turmoil fuels sell-off in some food prices.”
  • Coffee prices are rising, and you’re going to start noticing them at the grocery store and at coffee shops.
  • PBS Kids television has launched a new section of their website called Kitchen Explorers. The blog has specific advice for getting kids interested in cooking and child nutrition.
  • Ellen Tarlin at has recently published a fantastic series exploring why she doesn’t eat well: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

Share your favorite food-related news in the comments.

Deciphering nutrition recommendations

One of the unfortunate things about The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 released on Tuesday is that it doesn’t give many concrete examples of its dietary recommendations. This is actually a complaint I have of many nutrition guides. Telling readers to consume fewer than 2,300 mg of sodium a day is pointless if you don’t also explain what 2,300 mg of sodium actually looks like on a plate.

I’ve gone through a handful of items from the section of text that I quoted yesterday on the site, and put into common examples the advice. Feel welcome to look through The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 and add your translations of additional recommendations into the comment section of this post.

  • The guide says to reduce sodium (salt) intake to 2,300 mg a day. This means you need to consume less than 1 teaspoon of salt per day. Not only is this salt you might add to food once it has been served, but also salt used in the cooking process of all of the foods you eat. Baked goods and commercially canned soups and vegetables use very large amounts of salt in their preparations. Chefs in restaurants also add lots of salt to their meals because it reduces bitterness and enhances flavors. Cooking all of your meals at home, using salt-free ingredients, and diligently monitoring how much salt you use is the best way to keep your salt intake to less than 1 teaspoon per day.
  • The alternative 1,500 mg suggestion of sodium (salt) per day for “persons who are 51 and older and those of any age who are African American or have hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease” is about 1/2 teaspoon of salt per day. Truth be told, this number is extremely difficult to achieve unless you are vigilant at monitoring your intake.
  • Less than 300 mg per day of dietary cholesterol means you should be eating very little fats from animals. Dietary cholesterol is in red meats, lard, milk, cheese, butter, and egg yolks. It’s also present, but in lower amounts, in white meats (like pork loin and poultry). A single egg yolk contains a little more than 200 mg of cholesterol, so if you have two eggs for breakfast you’ve already exceeded the limit — before you’ve had lunch, dinner, or put some milk in your coffee. Since butter, milk, and eggs are prominent in baked goods, a slice of cake can put you over the 300 mg per day recommendation. Abstaining from egg yolks and red meats most every day, consuming only skim milk, and using canola oil instead of butter are good first steps to getting closer to the recommendation. Also, diligently read nutrition information levels to evaluate cholesterol in packaged products.
  • The suggestion to “use oils to replace solid fats” is a more specific suggestion than other ones in the report, but fails to mention that not all oils are created equally. Instead of using lard, butter, margarine, or a vegetable shortening (like Crisco), try to use instead a monounsaturated oil. The two monounsaturated oils easiest to find in your grocery store are canola oil (which doesn’t impart much flavor into your food) and olive oil (which gives your food a hint of nut or olive flavor). Polyunsaturated oils (like corn, sunflower, soy, and safflower oils), are better for you than solid fats, but should be used in moderation. Finally, you should AVOID partially hydrogenated oils, like vegetable oil. The advice should have been “use monounsaturated oils to replace solid fats and partially hydrogenated oils in your diet.”

A step in the right direction: The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010

Yesterday, the U.S. government released The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010. This document is produced every five years, and has a reputation for being vague and heavily influenced by agri-business. In my opinion, the 2010 guidelines — although lacking in some ways — have a more accurate view of the state of health in the U.S. and the recommendations promote better nutrition and dietary habits than in past years.

The document is full of charts, the language is simple and direct, and most pages include bright colors. It’s clear the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the departments that produce the document, wanted this report to be accessible to the public-at-large. However, with 98 pages of text and 16 appendices accounting for 22 of those pages, it’s not something the average American is going to read. Instead, it states, “The information in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans is used in developing educational materials and aiding policymakers in designing and carrying out nutrition-related programs, including Federal food, nutrition education, and information programs.”

If this is the case and the USDA uses the report for developing additional materials, the new Food Pyramid that is expected to be released in a few months might actually be more helpful than the current one. I don’t know about you, but I think a stick figure walking up a staircase doesn’t convey much information about good nutrition.

Back to the subject of this report, regarding nutrition in The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010, the report makes the following suggestions for healthy Americans between the ages of 2 and 50 who are not trying to get pregnant, are pregnant, or are breastfeeding. From the “Executive Summary”:

Foods and Food Components To Reduce

  • Reduce daily sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) and further reduce intake to 1,500 mg among persons who are 51 and older and those of any age who are African American or have hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease. The 1,500 mg recommendation applies to about half of the U.S. population, including children, and the majority of adults.
  • Consume less than 10 percent of calories from saturated fatty acids by replacing them with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids.
  • Consume less than 300 mg per day of dietary cholesterol.
  • Keep trans fatty acid consumption as low as possible by limiting foods that contain synthetic sources of trans fats, such as partially hydrogenated oils, and by limiting other solid fats.
  • Reduce the intake of calories from solid fats and added sugars.
  • Limit the consumption of foods that contain refined grains, especially refined grain foods that contain solid fats, added sugars, and sodium.
  • If alcohol is consumed, it should be consumed in moderation—up to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men—and only by adults of legal drinking age.

Foods and Nutrients To Increase
Individuals should meet the following recommendations as part of a healthy eating pattern while staying within their calorie needs.

  • Increase vegetable and fruit intake.
  • Eat a variety of vegetables, especially dark-green and red and orange vegetables and beans and peas.
  • Consume at least half of all grains as whole grains. Increase whole-grain intake by replacing refined grains with whole grains.
  • Increase intake of fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products, such as milk, yogurt, cheese, or fortified soy beverages.
  • Choose a variety of protein foods, which include seafood, lean meat and poultry, eggs, beans and peas, soy products, and unsalted nuts and seeds.
  • Increase the amount and variety of seafood consumed by choosing seafood in place of some meat and poultry.
  • Replace protein foods that are higher in solid fats with choices that are lower in solid fats and calories and/or are sources of oils.
  • Use oils to replace solid fats where possible.
  • Choose foods that provide more potassium, dietary fiber, calcium, and vitamin D, which are nutrients of concern in American diets. These foods include vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and milk and milk products.

The report also includes recommendations for children, vegetarians, vegans, the elderly, and people suffering from chronic health conditions. I believe it is certainly a step in the right direction, and the document is worth reading if you’re interested in diet and nutrition or U.S. food policy. If you read it, I’m interested in learning about your opinions of the document in our comment section of this post.

Assorted links for January 31, 2011

In case you missed them in the news, these are some wonderful articles from the past week about food, kitchens, and cooking:

  • The New York Times is doing a two-part series on food through their Freakonomics podcast. The first episode explores Nathan Myhrvold’s science of cooking, and Alice Waters’ response to it: “Waiter, There’s a Physicist In My Soup, Part I.”
  • In what has turned into a controversial article, the Los Angeles Times reports that “Eating bad food may make you sad.”
  • If your kitchen is also the place where everyone in your family dumps his or her stuff, you might be interested in The Washington Post’sIt’s a kitchen, not a chatchall.”
  • This article is a year old now, but I’m going to try following this technique the next time I season our cast-iron skillet. Sheryl Canter suggests in “Chemistry of Cast Iron Season: A Science-Based How-To” to use food-grade flaxseed oil instead of other oils. When I get around to it, I’ll definitely document the process and report back to you.

Have you spotted interesting food-related articles in the news recently? Share your findings in the comments.