Baked Eggs in Tomato Sauce: Good, cheap, and fast (yes you can have all three)

if you have bigger ramekins, you can bake 2 or even 4 per dish, though you may have to increase the cooking time  

Just another variation on baked eggs, which turns basic pantry staples into a main dish that works well for brunch and also makes for an easy weeknight meal. Perfect for the kind of day when you’re just too busy to make anything very elaborate (or write much of anything on your blog—although if you really want to read more about eggs, I got your eggs right here).

they were soft but not quite runny. also: no flash and forgot to correct for tungsten light.The key to getting the whites to set softly while the yolks stay runny is to let the eggs come to room temperature before baking them and then take them out of the oven a minute or two before they look “done” because they will continue to cook for a couple of minutes from the residual heat.

Of course, if you’re completely preoccupied or in a rush and forget to take the eggs out of the refrigerator before you make the tomato sauce and then forget to set an oven timer, both of which I did, the worst that can happen is you end up with cooked yolks. They’re still tasty, and the tomato sauce is almost as good for sopping up with bread alone as it would be muddled with warm, runny yolks.

Like most egg-based dishes, the possibilities are basically endless—you can certainly bake eggs without tomato sauce, which is often called “coddled” or “shirred” eggs, usually dotted with butter or cream and sprinkled with herbs before they go in the oven. I added some leftover spinach-artichoke dip to the tomato sauce, and that could have been a base for the eggs on its own if I’d had more of it. You can add some chopped up cooked meat (especially bacon or prosciutto), a smear of soft cheese, some cooked greens or pesto, or any kind of herbs you think sound tasty. I suspect that tarragon and gruyere would be a nice combination.

Toasted bread is almost compulsory, especially if you get the yolks right. If you have the time and ingredients, a green salad would be a nice accompaniment. But perhaps the best thing about baked eggs is that they basically feel like a complete meal all on their own. roughly 20 minutes after starting, all prepped and ready to go in the oven

Recipe: Baked Eggs in Tomato Sauce (adapted from Martha Stewart)

  • 3-4 cloves garlic
  • 1-2 T. oil or butter (plus a little more or some cream for dotting eggs before baking, if desired)
  • 15 oz. can diced or crushed tomato
  • 1 t. fresh thyme, rosemary, chives, parsley, and/or oregano
  • 4 eggs
  • a few pinches of salt
  • a few grinds of black pepper
  • 3-4 T. grated hard cheese like parmeggiano reggiano, romano or asiago
  • 1 shallot or ~1 T. minced onion (optional)
  • 1/4 cup leftover spinach artichoke dip or cooked greens or 1 T. tapenade or pesto (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 325 F.

2. Mince the garlic and shallot or onion, if using, and cook in the oil or butter until golden.   

3. Add the canned tomato and cook about 10 minutes until the liquid has reduced, breaking up the tomatoes a bit. Add the herbs and cooked greens and any other additions, if using.

just tomatoes and garlicplus the spinach artichoke dip and some herbs

4. Place the dishes on a baking sheet and divide the tomato sauce between them. For four 4-oz dishes: break one egg into each dish. 8-12 oz. dishes can hold 2 eggs each. Top with a sprinkle of salt, a little black pepper, more chopped herbs, and some grated cheese. Add a few dots of butter or dribble of cream, if desired.

a bed of savory, richly umami sauce and of course, while they're in the oven, you can tend to all the other things in your life that need tending

5. Bake for 14-18 minutes or until whites are just set. If doing 2 eggs/dish, they may take a few minutes longer.

almost like little individual savory custards, but without fussing with tempering or water baths or anything of that

Now in Season: Sour Cherry Pie (and the pursuit of the perfect crust)

so tart some people may find it off-putting and/or really need some whipped cream or ice cream to off-set the tartness--I love it just as it is.

Like much in life that is desirable, sour cherries are hard to come by, hard to keep and worth seeking out.Domenica Marchetti

The (Terminally Ill) Granny Smith of Cherries

Sour cherries, aka “pie cherries,” have basically the same relationship to sweet cherries that baking apples have to eating apples, magnified. They’re much more acidic than inky Bings or blushing pink-gold Raniers. Raw, sour cherries make your mouth pucker like a slice of fresh lime, which is way too tart for most American palates (some people in Europe and Asia enjoy them). Cooked, they have far more flavor and retain their shape better than their sweet cousins, which lose their brightness and fall apart when exposed to heat.  I have nothing against canned cherry pie filling (which I think is especially fantastic on cheesecake) or the typical roadside diner cherry pie (a la mode almost compulsory). But a sour cherry pie is just an entirely different creature altogether.

cooked, they remind me a little of umeboshi (pickled plums), which are definitely an aquired tasteWhere sour cherries differ from baking apples, which tend to be crisper and slightly more durable than eating apples, is that they’re softer and even more perishable than sweets. That’s also why they’re far less common. The ones grown in Michigan—home to the “cherry capital of the United States” are bright red and look almost translucent, perhaps because the flesh is paler pink or yellow. Hanging on the tree in the sunlight, they almost seem to glow. But they’re so delicate that they will begin to fade if you even let them sit in the sunlight for a few hours. If they aren’t cooked or dried within a day or two of being picked, they will begin to rot or mold. And their season is short—they begin to ripen in mid- to late June, and the trees are barren again by mid-July. 

My maternal grandmother had a sour cherry tree in her yard, and now and then when we were in town during the critical window, she would send me outside to pick some, always warning me not to eat any. She was of the generation that considered a flaky pie crust one of the most important tests of home cooking skill—seriously, in a 1953 Gallup national survey, both men and women named pie first in response to a question about the “real test of a woman’s ability to cook.” Second place went to roasts (men) and cake (women). My grandmother didn’t just pass the test, she obliterated it. I wish I could tell you this was a recipe I learned from her.

the kitchen was really hot so I struggled a little with the crust falling apart but managed to patch it together reasonably well, I think

It’s not that she didn’t cook with me—we made vinegar taffy every summer, and I remember learning to shape yaki mangu (Japanese cookies filled with adzuki bean paste) while watching grainy soap operas and game shows on the tiny television in her kitchen. But pie-making she mostly kept to herself. It was kind of a family joke that she could have three pies in the oven before anyone else was even awake—only “kind of” because it was true, a testament both to her skill and to the invisibility of much of the domestic labor she performed on top of working a full-time job and being active in her church and various social clubs and charitable causes.

My mom makes superb pies too, although less often because her familial and social obligations aren’t generally of the pie-requiring sort. I learned from her how to roll out a crust as thin as possible and get it into a pan in (mostly) one piece. The rest I’ve mostly figured out myself through trial and error and the advice of trusted sages like Alton Brown and Rose Levy Beranbaum. Regarding the crucible of the flaky pie crust, the variables that seem to matter most are what kind of fat you use and what you do with it.

Choosing Your Fat

The fat must be solid to create a flaky pastry (just like for any “short” bread, which I explain in the footnote here). Butter is probably the tastiest of the solid fats, but its high moisture content (~20%, depending on the brand) slightly compromises the texture—the water in the butter promotes gluten formation, however slight, before the fat can entirely coat the proteins in the flour. Ghee would theoretically be ideal because it would provide the buttery flavor without the extra moisture, but it’s expensive, clarifying your own is kind of a pain and—if you haven’t done it already—adds an extra step and chilling time. I usually compromise by using a 3:1 ratio of butter:shortening. I may be fooling myself, but I think I that makes the crust significantly flakier and crisper than using all butter.

0 g trans fat/serving may still contain up to .5 g/serving, which might be a non-trivial amountAs for the shortening, my grandmother was loyal to Crisco, but I avoid that because of the trans-fat issue,  which may be an unnecessary precaution since they’ve switched to a formula that’s mostly trans-fat free. Instead, I sometimes use an “organic” shortening made of 100% palm oil, and the rest of the time I use lard, which Alton Brown swears by. Taste and texture-wise, I can’t tell much of a difference between the palm oil shortening and lard. I suspect that flipping the ratio to 1:3 butter: shortening would produce an even flakier, crisper crust, although you might miss the butter flavor.

One final option: Rose Levy Beranbaum has a recipe that calls for cream cheese, which I tried a few years ago when I neurotically made four pecan pies in order to figure out which recipe to use for Thanksgiving (verdict: John Thorne’s recipe using Lyle’s Golden Syrup). The cream cheese crust was easier to work with than the butter/shortening crusts, but wasn’t as crisp as I like. I suspect that was because of the higher moisture content in the cream cheese. However, if you want an incredibly forgiving dough or a softer crust, give that a try.

Using Your Fat

You need the fat to do two things: 1) coat the proteins of the flour so they don’t form gluten strands when you add the water and 2) remain in large enough pieces to form solid layers of fat in the rolled-out pastry and melt during the baking process to leave thin pockets of air in the finished crust. Those are basically contradictory—on the one hand, you want to distribute the fat really well, which is best achieved by breaking it into small pieces. A liquid fat would actually work best. But you also need big pieces or undistributed chunks. I kind of wonder why there aren’t recipes that add the fat in two steps—the first half in liquid form and the second in small, well-chilled pieces (if you try that or know why it wouldn’t work, let me know). Instead, most pastry recipes include at least one or two, if not all, of the following steps designed to distribute the fat, but not too much:

all cut up and ready to freeze1) cut the fat into small pieces and chill it well (~15-20 minutes in a freezer; if you have to leave it for longer, let it warm up for 5 minutes or so before trying to cut it into the crust)

2) integrate the fat into the dough by “cutting” it with crisscrossing knives, a pastry cutter, several pulses of a food processor, or by rubbing it between your fingers—but only do the latter if your hands are cold enough that they won’t melt it

3) use ice-cold water, which will help keep the fat cold and prevent it from melting before you bake it

4) chill the dough before rolling it out, usually for ~30 minutes (you can leave it for up to 2 days and let it warm up for 5-10 minutes before rolling it out)

5) handle the dough as little as possible from the time you add butter or water until the point where you put it in a pan

There are other things that help but may be out of your control, like working in a cool kitchen (which is part of the reason my grandma always used to make her pies in the morning) and having cool hands. Fortunately, even a less-than-optimally flaky pie crust will generally still be delicious (see: pies at diners and grocery store bakeries across the country, which tend to be way better than the cakes in the same dessert cases). I’m not as good as grandma yet, but I’m getting there.

the bottom crust could have been crisper, though it wasn't fall-apart soggy; I'll reduce the juice even more next time

pitting is actually super fast and easy because the cherries are so soft; this took at most 15 minutesRecipe: Sour Cherry Pie (makes one 10” double-crust pie)

For the crust:

  • 12 T. butter
  • 4 T. lard or shortening (or more butter)
  • 2 1/2 cups (12 oz) all-purpose flour
  • 1 t. salt
  • 4 T. sugar
  • 4-6 T. ice water

For the filling (adapted from What’s Cooking America)

  • about 2 lbs (4 pint boxes with pits and stems; 5-6 cups unpitted) sour cherries 
  • sometimes the pit comes right out with the stem1 or 1 1/2 cups sugar (start with 1 cup and taste, add more if necessary)
  • 2-4 T. tapioca (see step 6)
  • 1 t. almond extract (optional, may be substituted with vanilla)
  • 1/4 t. grated nutmeg or 1/2 t. cinnamon + 2 T. sugar (optional)
  • 2 T. butter (optional)

1. Divide the butter and lard into 1/2” pieces and place in the freezer for 15-20 minutes.

2. Pit the cherries, and (optional thickening step 1:) toss them with the sugar, and let them sit while you prepare the crust

3. Whisk together the flour, sugar, and salt or pulse to combine in a food processor. Add the chilled butter and lard and cut them into the flour with a pastry cutter, two crisscrossing knives, your fingertips, or a few pulses of the food processor until the mixture is a coarse meal and the largest pieces of butter are about the size of small peas or capers.

fat added in pieces small pieces of fat remaining

4. Add the ice water, one tablespoon at a time, pulsing or stirring just until the mixture begins to form a dough. If you squeeze a handful of the crumbs and they hold together, you’ve added enough water. If not, add a bit more.

before you press it together, the mixture will still look basically like crumbs two discs ready to chill

5. Divide the dough into two equal portions on separate pieces of plastic wrap. Use the plastic wrap to press the dough into a flat, round disk about 1” thick. Chill for at least 30 minutes or up to 2 days.

6. Optional thickening step 2: drain the juice from the cherries into a saucepan and reduce the liquid by 1/2—Rose Levy Beranbaum’s tip for keeping the bottom crust from getting soggy.

 before reducing (I only added 1/4 cup sugar, so there wasn't as much juice as there would be if I'd added all of it--next time I will add all of it before draining and reducing after reducing

7. Combine the cherries, the reduced liquid and 2 T. tapioca if following the optional thickening steps or 4 T. tapioca if skipping them (if you reduce the amount of liquid in the filling, you need less of the thickening agent), the extract, and nutmeg if using.

8. Preheat the oven to 400F.

9. Using a rolling pin or empty wine bottle or other heavy-ish cylindrical item, roll out one of the pastry discs on a lightly-floured piece of parchment, wax paper or second piece of plastic wrap with the piece of plastic wrap you chilled it in spread on top. For even rolling, always start with the rolling item in the middle of the pastry and roll directly away from you, and then turn the parchment or plastic wrap 90 degrees and repeat, turning the dough in a circle. It’s like you’re making a plus sign or rolling only on an x & y axis. Towards the end, you may want to do a few 45 degree turns to create a more even circle (rolling towards the diagonals).

start in the middle roll away from you 

start in the middle roll away from you

10. Remove the plastic wrap, and center the pie dish, upside down, on the rolled out crust. Using the paper/plastic to help, flip it over so the crust is on top. Place in the refrigerator while you roll out the second disc of pastry

this is the one thing a lighter pie plate is better for; you can also gently fold the crust in half twice, place it in the dish, and unfold it, but I have more problems keeping it together that way remove the wax paper or plastic and voila: bottom crust;  

11. Repeat the rolling with the second disc. For a lattice-top, slice it into thin strips using a sharp knife or pizza cutter.

I aim for slightly under 1" thick ready for the first perpendicular strip

12. Pour the filling into the bottom crust. Dot with 2 T. butter, if desired (I always forget this step and have never felt like the finished pie was missing any richness, so consider it optional). Drape strips of crust over the top, parallel to each other.

13. Fold every other strip back halfway, and lay another strip of pastry perpendicular to the first strips.

ready for the 2nd perpendicular strip; this is like grade-school construction paper projects you can do many more, thinner strips if that's your thing, or do a tighter weave without any gaps--though you might need slightly more pastry for that, as it would basically be 2 layers of crust on top

14. Fold those strips back down and fold the strips that are now under the perpendicular strip back. Lay another pastry strip parallel to the perpendicular one. Repeat until all the strips are woven across the top of the pie.

15. Crimp the overhang from the bottom crust and the overhang from the strips, forming a fluted edge (or not—you probably do want to crimp the edges and remove the excess so it doesn’t burn, but there’s certainly no reason it has to be fluted).

I usually use one longer and one shorter piece of foil, both folded over lengthwise a few times. i wrap the longer piece around, and then put the smaller piece over it and crimp them together so they sort of "hug" the dish sprinkled with cinnamon sugar before returning to the oven

16. Bake for 55-75 minutes. If the edges begin to brown too much, which they probably will, create a little foil shield for them. At about that point, I also like to sprinkle some cinnamon sugar on the crust, which will form a crunchy candy topping. It’s “done” when the lattice top is as brown as you want it to be.

the juices will probably seep out and collect around the edges. I use that as an excuse to eat spoonfuls of the sweet-tart juice while it's still so hot it almost burns my tongue

When What I Want Isn’t What I Want: On Temptation and Disordered Thinking/Eating

Note: I try to avoid writing overly confessional, navel-gazing posts, but I’m making an exception today because I think personal narratives can be useful in attempting to understand the complexities and challenges of trying to eat “well.”  

I have never been diagnosed with an eating disorder, but I think it's hard for most people to reach this state--disordered or not. I thought I had reached it, but now I'm starting to think it's not a destination that I can "arrive" at but something that requires continuous work, like a balancing act or relationship.

All images in this entry from PostSecret 

When I work from home, I almost never eat out. That doesn’t mean I don’t eat prepared or processed foods—the freezer is almost always full of things from Trader Joes and the local Asian market (I know I could make tamales and pot stickers myself, and that that would probably be cheaper and perhaps better-tasting, but at least for now, other priorities win out over eating 100% cooked-from-scratch meals). But even if you don’t count TJ’s prepared foods and the occasional package of instant pho or ramen, I still eat mostly “homemade” food most of the time, even when I’m working under deadline pressure. A lot of that has to do with the fact that it’s usually quicker, easier, and cheaper to cook an egg, cut up some fruit or vegetables, or throw together a salad or sandwich than it is to go somewhere or get delivery.

Having to be at an office everyday, which I’ve been doing for the last six weeks due to a dissertation writing institute, has disrupted my eat-at-home habits. I’ve tried to pack lunches every night and keep “healthy” convenience foods like nuts and apples in my office to minimize the extent to which I end up eating out, but I haven’t been entirely successful. The availability of outside food has basically exposed me to a whole array of temptations that I don’t normally encounter, and I’ve found myself engaging in some of the patterns of impulsive or emotional eating, negative self-talk, and general anxiety about food that I thought I was mostly “over.”

"Disordered" eating (which may be a misnomer that implies there's such a thing as "ordered" eating) can manifest in many ways; starving and purging are only symptoms, the underlying "disorder" may exist or persist without those symptoms.

Bad Day Part 1: Pizza and Self-loathing

Here’s how last Friday went:

While getting ready in the morning in the bathroom, I weigh myself for the first time in about a week. I used to weigh myself multiple times a day, taking perverse pleasure in every decrease, no matter how small, even if it was clearly due to excretion or being dehydrated from drinking too much the night before. Now I’m not nearly as obsessive, but when I see that the number is over 110—the highest it’s been in at least two years—I feel disappointed and ashamed. I tell myself the number doesn’t matter, and even if it did matter, 110.4 is a perfectly acceptable number for my height and build. And even if it wasn’t a totally acceptable number, obsessing about it wouldn’t do any good. But the best I can do is repress the emotions. I can’t un-feel them. 

It's so hard to internalize the fact that restricting food actually represents a *lack* of control or self-restraint. Even when it takes the form of "restraint," it is unrestrained restraint. I mean, obviously, right, someone in control of their restraint doesn't let it kill them.  In the kitchen, I look at the last container of leftover nettle soup in the refrigerator and sigh. The factors in favor of taking it are many and obvious: it is tasty, relatively healthy, easy, and will prevent me from even having to think about leaving the office to get food. There was even a handful of oyster crackers left at my office from the day before, when I had made the “right” choice and taken the soup. But I tell myself I’m “sick” of it, since I had it yesterday. I briefly contemplate grabbing one of the packages of tamales from the freezer, but then I’d have to find something to transport salsa in. Also, I don’t really have the eating implements at the office for that, and it doesn’t even sound that good in the first place. I am conscious of and unhappy about the fact that I’m making excuses. I throw some cherries in a tupperware container to eat for breakfast, feeling like that’s a reasonably healthy “trade-off” for the potentially less-healthy lunch I’m setting myself up for.

It hasn’t been a good week for dissertation writing. I keep revising instead of adding new material—or, worse, writing blog entries and playing games online. I feel lazy and ashamed, and I know that what would make me feel better is to actually do the work. But I just keep not doing it—willpower failing on multiple fronts. However, this particular morning goes pretty well. I spend an hour or so on the egg post, but then I finish revising a section of the chapter that’s been frustrating me for a while. Around noon, when I start to get hungry and distracted, I decide that the best way to keep my momentum going is to take a break and go to lunch to try to circumvent the pit of despair that I seem to slip into around 1pm.

I wander outside contemplating my options and decide to get pizza. I know this is probably among the worst of the options available to me no matter what criteria you’re using—carbs, calories, fat, pizza has it all in abundance. My justification is that I have been vaguely wanting pizza for days, so perhaps if I just have it, I will stop thinking about it and possibly compensating for not having it by “splurging” on other foods.

It tastes good, but as with most foods I have ever craved or idealized, it’s not nearly good enough to warrant either “craving” or feeling guilty about. The idea that it’s a “bad” food only makes me want it more, it doesn’t make it taste better. I probably would have gotten more pleasure from the nettle soup. I make a note of this but endeavor not to mentally castigate myself. working to change my perceptions about what is pretty--on myself and other people--is a related challenge, and also one that takes continuous effort.

Perhaps because I can tell I’m on a sort of dangerous track, while I’m eating the pizza, I start thinking about a moment a few years ago that has become somewhat totemic for me as an example of my “disordered” past tendencies. I was looking at a friend’s stomach—she’s slender, but has a tiny rounded belly—and I thought something along the lines of: ugh, if my stomach ever looked like that, I’d start seriously starving myself. It was less…concrete than that because I didn’t put it into words, but it was something between that kind of thought and more general feeling of disgust and dread that seemed like it was directed outward (towards the friend) but was actually just a projected form of self-hatred. At the time, I took the comparative flatness of my stomach as evidence of my superior self-control. But I wasn’t in control—I was terrified of getting fat and ashamed of my hunger and hypercritical of my body. When I did feel beautiful back then, it was entirely dependent on feeling thin (not being thin, because it was entirely about perception, not reality) and it was a hollow, imperious sort of self-love that required other people to be fat and inferior. And most of the time, I didn’t feel beautiful at all.

Thinking about that moment and how completely insane I had to be to think this woman was fat seems to help. I say to myself: So I had pizza for lunch, so what? Eating two pieces of pizza is not some major “transgression.” It’s not going to make me fat or sick, it doesn’t make me morally weak, and it definitely does not make me less beautiful or deserving of love.

Bad Day Part 2: The Unscratchable Itch

After lunch, still feeling vaguely hungry but suspecting that I’m really just thirsty since I didn’t get a drink with my slices, I stop in a small market/deli and contemplate the bottled drinks. I know VitaminWater is basically just sugar-water—that the antioxidants and “superfruits” advertised on the label are classic appeals to what Michael Pollan calls “nutritionism,” that it is not going to make me healthier, that I won’t even like the taste that much. But for some reason, some part of me wants it—VitaminWater is now the thing I hope will scratch this itch I can’t seem to locate, which is probably the same itch I was trying to scratch with the pizza. Deciding not to agonize over it, I pick up a bottle of XXX vitaminwater ZERO (acai-blueberry-pomegranate flavored), without even checking to see what the “natural” zero-calorie sweetener is (it turns out to be stevia). I also grab an apple in case it turns out that I am actually still hungry or want a snack later that afternoon. And then, remembering that I have a 5 hr drive ahead of me that evening, and in anticipation of that or perhaps to offset the “virtue” of the apple and calorie-free vitamin water, I grab a bag of Werther’s Originals Chewy Caramels. Even though I clearly also have and succumb to cravings, I find myself being snarkily judgemental about people who talk about cravings, which I think results partially from popular representations of women as basically crave-beasts made utterly irrational by things like chocolate and low-fat/low-calorie yogurt.

As I put them on the counter at the register, I feel like this is unlike me. I feel like I ought to be above these things: eating “junk food” for lunch, impulse-buying VitaminWater and candy. I’m not even entirely sure why I’m doing it. It certainly doesn’t make me happy.

Back at the office, I look at the nutritional information for the caramels, even though I don’t want to care. I used to count calories obsessively. I don’t anymore, and not just because caloric algebra is imprecise and restricting calories just prevents you from having enough energy and slows your metabolism. What concerns me more are the psychological effects: it causes me to moralize my hunger and food choices, making calorie-dense foods “bad,” and that causes me to crave them. Even when I resist the cravings, I feel ashamed for having them, and become more inclined to indulge in other self-destructive behaviors, either to “treat” myself for being good (resisting cravings) or to punish myself for my unruly appetite. Basically, it makes me want to eat more and enjoy the food I do eat less. Even people who lose weight the "healthy" way through diet and exercise almost always gain it all back, or more. 60% within a year, 97% within three years. 23% gain back more than they lost. Attaching moral significance to weight is a recipe for self-loathing.

Also, it’s unsustainable. My pattern for years was basically: for 2-6 months, I’d restrict myself to 1100-1700 calories/day (usually trying to alternate low and high days). I’d lose a few pounds, feel superior in a hollow way and make pejorative judgments about the moral character of everyone fatter than me (and given that my BMI was between 17.2-18.0, almost everyone I knew or met was fatter than me). But eventually, I’d run out of steam and I’d start “cheating” more, although most of the “cheating” seems pretty ludicrous now—I remember considering a small skim latte a big indulgence. Eventually, I’d stop weighing everything I ate and looking up nutritional values online and for maybe 6 months, I’d eat basically whatever I wanted (although I was always still following some form of restricted diet that usually had ethical/medical rationalizations, i.e. veganism, but was also at least partially motivated by the desire to stay thin). At some point, I’d notice that I had gained a few lbs, and that would inspire me to start counting/restricting again. Many dieters know this cycle well.  Of course, not all vegans are disordered eaters, but I think part of the gender imbalance in vegetarianism/veganism is related to the same factors that cause the gender imbalance in diagnosed eating disorders. More women than men use/abuse food as a form of self-control. Because I really don't think women are generally more "ethical" than men.

Even though calorie counting or “dieting” is often difficult and unpleasant and takes a lot of mental energy, it’s also incredibly difficult to resist because of the short-term weight loss and the illusion of control. The thing I still can’t seem to shake, no matter how much I try and want to, is the desire to be thin—or at least, to not be fat. Given that I know how to be (temporarily, unhappily) very thin by restricting how many calories I eat, it’s hard not to see calories, especially in sugary or starchy foods, as a measure of how bad the “bad’ things I eat are. The caramels turn out to be approximately 40 calories/caramel bad, which I immediately compare to the 20-calorie sugar-free popsicles in our freezer at home (another sin against the Church of Real Food, like the VitaminWater). Each one of these caramels = two popsicles. I eat three of them and ignore the apple, and then struggle to tell myself that that’s okay and that letting this become a matter of guilt/desire will only make me want more and feel worse, etc.

People also derive a lot of pleasure from monitoring their diet, weight, and body shape, too. But if it causes you more anxiety than pleasure, try stopping for a while. I know that's easier said than done, but deciding you don't want to worry or obsess anymore is the first step.

Saying “Enough!” and Giving Myself Permission to Eat What I Want

The rest of that day was better and this week has been fine. I really can’t emphasize this enough: last Friday was an exception, not the norm. However, that kind of lapse—and I’m referring to the thought patterns I indulged in, not the act of eating the pizza or caramels—has been happening way more frequently since the institute started. It’s been an unpleasant reminder that the balance I thought I had achieved—where I generally don’t make impulsive, emotional decisions about what to eat, don’t count calories, don’t feel bad about what I want, and just plain don’t worry so much about getting fat (and by the way, don’t gain weight: I was stable at ~105 lbs for almost 3 years after breaking the calorie-counting cycle)—is still really fragile.

I try to speak up when people make pejorative comments about fatness, I try not to make or think complimentary things about thinness or congratulate people on weight loss. But the idealization of thinness is pretty pervasive. It's difficult to resist. At first—hell, even when I started writing this entry—I thought the problem was the sudden exposure to all kinds of temptations I normally don’t have to deal with. But that’s not quite right. The kind of food that I want when I’m on campus is not the kind of food I actually find all that desirable. The reason it’s not tempting when I work from home is not just because it’s far away, but because there’s nothing inherently tempting about it. I made it into a temptation by constructing “food from home” as the virtuous alternative, which inevitably made it seem boring and oppressive and made me desire restaurant food as the “bad” other. And then, rather than choosing restaurant food that might have been nutritionally equivalent to something I’d eat at home, I was looking for a “treat” so I chose things that violated my beliefs about what is “healthy”…and still felt dissatisfied. Thus the itch I couldn’t scratch.

What I should have done from the start of the institute, and what I will do if I’m ever in this kind of situation again, is reject the impulse to moralize my lunch. I hereby give myself permission to eat as much restaurant food as I want, from whatever restaurants I want. I will eat pizza every day for a week if I want to. And the funny thing is that already, just by giving myself permission to do it, I find that I don’t want to. I only want it when I think I shouldn’t.

That’s basically the same strategy that a lot of proponents of “intuitive eating” recommend to people who want to break patterns of emotional or compulsive eating. It’s hard to listen to the cues your body supplies about hunger and satiety if the reasons you’re eating have more to do with being sad or angry or feeling deprived or wanting to be comforted or thinking you deserve a “treat” than they do with whether you physically need food. If you reject the idea that some foods are virtuous and others “bad” but therefore very desirable and rewarding, you rob food of the moral and emotional significance it has acquired due largely to contemporary anxieties about fat (which are not medically justified—see Paul Campos The Obesity Myth, J. Eric Oliver Fat Politics, Glen Gaesser Big Fat Lies or Michael Gard and Jan Wright The Obesity Epidemic: Science, Morality, and Ideology).

If you decide that you are going to eat what you want without judging yourself—without feeling shame or guilt or self-hatred or the culturally-constructed fear of fatness—a crazy thing happens: you will probably eat mostly “healthy” things in moderate amounts. I don't think most people do have to pick, but if I ever do, I hope I have the strength to choose fat and then try to learn to be happy.Here’s how another Margot, who writes the blog ReelGirl describes her experience of learning to “eat when you’re hungry, eat whatever you want, stop when you are full” (basically the intuitive eating mantra):

I was ready to stop dieting. I’d had enough. It bored me to tears. I was sick of it and bulimia too and thinking about calories or fat grams. I read a book called Overcoming Overeating and When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies (both by Jane Hirschmann), and I did exactly what the books said. I filled my house with an abundance of every food I wanted, and if I binged, I’d go out the next day and buy lots more. That action helped me like nothing else.

Keeping my house stocked with all the food I loved no matter what showed me that I was sticking with myself no matter what, even if I gained 300 pounds, I didn’t care, dieting was over for me. I didn’t gain much weight, by the way, maybe five pounds– going from extreme dieting, calorie counting, and throwing up to eating whatever I wanted hardly made a physical difference. (from an interview she did with A Weight Lifted)

The hardest part is really convincing yourself it’s okay to eat what you want. I’m actually not sure if she—or I—would stick with it if we did gain weight. Despite the fact that I believe that fatness is not a moral or medical concern, despite the fact that I think the idealization of thinness is destructive—especially to women, who are subject to far more scrutiny of their bodies and food choices and held to a much more restrictive standard—the desire to be thin is hard to shake. And as long as I care about being thin, I will probably still sometimes feel ashamed of my body or my desires or my food choices. I feel better and happier about my body and food choices than I did three years ago, in part because giving myself permission to eat what I want broke the negative thought patterns that used to really dominate how I thought about food. But it’s clearly still—and may always be—a work in progress. 

Most days, I am. All is probably too much to ask for.

Cream of Nettle Soup: Introducing the 2010 CSA Files

about 1/2 lb; perhaps 3-4 cups of leaves

CSA 2010: Needle Lane Farms

For the uninitiated, Community Supported Agriculture programs (CSAs) are like subscription plans for local food—usually vegetables, but in some regions, you can get CSAs for meat, seafood, dairy, frozen produce, or even prepared foods. Generally, you pay for the whole year or growing season before it begins and then every week, you pick up a pre-packed box that contains a selection of whatever’s in season. After an extraordinarily helpful consultation with Kim Bayer of The Farmer’s Marketer (which I highly recommended to anyone in the Ann Arbor area who’s interested in exploring their options for buying locally-produced food; for $25, she will distill her vast knowledge about the dizzying number of options and all their idiosyncrasies into an hour-long “matchmaking” session tailored to your wants and needs—it probably saved me 15+ hours of research), I decided to get a “single” share from Needle Lane Farms for the 2010 growing season.

The evidence about the environmental impact and health benefits of local, organic agriculture vs. industrial-scale conventional is mixed, so I’m not subscribing to a CSA because it’s morally or nutritionally superior. And I’m not convinced the stuff tastes better either—I’m still learning how to get all the grit out of the lettuce and acclimate myself to the occasional worms and bugs that are inevitable in unsprayed produce. My main motives are 1) to try things I can’t get from a normal grocery store and 2) to be forced to eat a lot of fresh vegetables while they’re in season, which improves my well-being whether or not the veggies are healthier than their conventional analogs. Kim recommended Needle Lane because they grow a lot of novel things, unlike farms that focus more on producing mostly familiar, popular crops. True to form, the first box of the season included the package of stinging nettles and handy warning/info sheet pictured above.  a simpler preparation would be to simply shock them in an ice bath after blanching and then dress them with a simple vinaigrette or some soy sauce or tamari and sesame seeds or butter and parmesan cheese

Plant Bigotry

Nettles are often considered a “weed,” but that’s a troublesome term. Like “dirt,’” it refers less to any inherent properties of the object than to the context where it appears. If dirt is “matter out of place,” meaning what might be dirt in one context (sand in your clothes) is totally appropriate in another (sand on the beach), weeds are essentially plants out of place—e.g. grass may be the only thing many people want growing in their lawns, but when it shows up in their flower beds, it’s a weed, and often an especially tricky one to remove. But there are also things—like soil—that count as “dirt”  no matter where they are, and nettles are that kind of weed, along with plants like thistles and dandelions. Even when the New York Botanical Garden deliberately grew dandelions for their recent tribute to Emily Dickinson, NPR reported that they had to “keep the staff gardeners from uprooting the tiny yellow flowering weeds.”

It’s not an issue of the usefulness or prettiness of the plant—many “weeds” are edible and beautiful, like the flowering “invasive species” that park services staff and volunteers do battle with. And it can’t just be an issue of thorniness, because obviously: roses. The main thing that seems to make something inherently weedy rather than contingently weedy seems to be whether it’s cultivated. Not the specific plant—many people welcome volunteer plants in their yards or gardens as long as they’re a species someone cultivates somewhere, but if the plan qua plant—i.e. not a nettle, but Nettle—isn’t deliberately grown anywhere, it seems to be a “weed” even if you eat it or sell it just like a “crop.” Nettles have been harvested for human consumption for centuries, but as far as I can tell, it’s almost always foraged instead of farmed. People don’t plant it or encourage it, it just grows… well, “like a weed.”

Sour Salty Bitter Sweet is brought to you today by Needle Lane Farms and the letter Q.  

According to an article in the Telegraph about last year’s Stinging Nettle Eating competition in Dorset, where people eat the leaves raw, even people who consider the plants edible tend think of them as an “infestation”:

The contest began more than 20 years ago when two customers at Marshwood’s 16th century Bottle Inn argued over who had the worst infestation of stinging nettles. "One of them said, ‘I’ll eat any nettle of yours that’s longer than mine"’ said Rory Macleod, 34, the pub landlord. "And so they had a competition. They’re both dead now.”

Making Them Edible

The Telegraph article goes on to explain why eating them raw has turned into such a big macho contest:

The plant properly known as urtica docia is a nutritional powerhouse, rich in iron, potassium, calcium and abundant vitamins. They have been used in traditional English stews, teas and beers for centuries, while the Italians cherish them for pesto and the Scandinavians make a knockout nettle soup called Nasselsoppa. The complications come with eating the things raw. Urtica is covered in thousands of microscopic hypodermic needles each filled with boric acid. On contact the needles break, causing the acid to flood over and burn the skin.

Wikipedia contests that explanation, claiming the nature of the toxins is still a matter of debate and may vary between species, but likely includes formic acid, serotonin, and histamines. So the “stinging” effect is either an acid burn, serotonin-induced dermatitis, an allergic reaction, or some combination of the three. Whatever the cause, cooking eliminates it. Most of the I think I let this steep a little too long--the part I drained immediately was pleasant, but I combined that with the part that sat for hours and it was sort of bitter and weirdly buttery. But initially, it was sort of reminiscent of barley tea.recipes I encountered called for blanching them in boiling water for a minute or two and then removing the leaves from the stems. At that point, they’re basically like any other hearty cooking green. The blanching liquid can be reserved and used in soup, consumed on its own as a hot or cold tea, or used to water plants. Some people even harvest nettles specifically to make tea and throw out the greens.

I decided to make a soup, and the first few recipes I found were all basically starch-thickened pureed cream soups—one using potato, one using oats, and one using rice. I didn’t have any potatoes or oats and didn’t feel like waiting for rice to cook, so I decided to improvise a flour-thickened version starting with a basic roux infused with a couple of shallots and a bunch of spring onions that also came in that week’s share. I also added a parcel of cooking greens because 1/2 lb nettles doesn’t actually yield all that much edible material (according to the CSA newsletter, the greens were a mix of Kale, Tat Soi, Bok Choy, Swiss Chard, Chinese Cabbage, and Lambsquarter). You could use more nettles, or substitute spinach, or use any combination of cooking greens. The recipe also works with other vegetables. I’ve made similar soups with a few cups of shredded zucchini or broccoli florets with great results, and I bet it would also be good with cauliflower or mushrooms or corn or maybe even root vegetables. It’s basically a nice way to turn a vegetable into something hearty and satisfying enough to serve as a meal, and the precise amount of vegetable matter—and most of the other ingredients—isn’t that important.

The msg and nutmeg are both optional. I tasted it without them, and it was good, but I felt like it needed a little extra boost. If you’re wary about msg (though I explain here why there’s no real reason to be), you could substitute nutritional yeast or parmesan cheese, or just leave it out.

Recipe: Cream of Nettle Soup

Ingredients:

  • a couple quarts of water or stock for blanching nettles (reserve the liquid)
  • 4-6 T. butter
  • 4-6 T. flour
  • a few handfuls of chopped alliums—shallots, onion, garlic, whatever you like
  • 1/2 lb stinging nettles (weight includes the stems)
  • an additional ~3 cups of hearty greens (kale, chard, spinach, mustard greens, or more nettles)
  • 4 cups reserved nettle-blanching liquid
  • if using water instead of stock for nettles, 4 t. bouillon
  • 1 cup milk (or cream)
  • a pinch of msg (optional, or sub. 1 T.+ nutritional yeast or 1 oz finely grated parmesan instead)
  • 1/2 t. grated nutmeg
  • salt and pepper to taste

Method:

1. Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add the nettles, using gloves or tongs or the container they came in to protect yourself from the needles. Blanche for 1-2 minutes, and then drain and remove to a cutting board (no need to shock them with ice water since they’re just going in a soup). Filter the blanching liquid through a coffee filter or paper towel and reserve.

like most cooking greens, they cook down considerably I initially used a knife but then found it was easier just to pull the leaves off by hand

2. Remove the leaves from the stems, which are tough and fibrous.

two shallots and a bunch of spring onions the blanched nettels and chopped mixed cooking greens

3. Melt the butter and sweat the shallots/onions/garlic until they’re golden. Add the flour, stir well to make a thick paste and cook until it begins to brown slightly. This should smell pretty amazing.

the onion roux after the first addition of the blanching liquid; it will get paler

4. Gradually add about 4 cups of the nettle-blanching water, which should still be pretty hot, stirring continuously. At first, the liquid will incorporate into the roux as the starches expand, creating growing mass of paste, but after about a cup, it should start to loosen into a creamy broth.

5. Add the greens, or whatever vegetable you’re using and simmer until tender (10 minutes for spinach, 15 minutes for heartier greens, up to 20-25 minutes for broccoli florets).

the broth, before adding the greens: just butter, flour, onions, and nettle water at this point after adding the greens 

6. Puree—I used an immersion blender, but a regular blender or food processor would work just as well.

pureeing; again if just using a softer green like the nettles or spinach, you might not have flecks of darker green left after pureeing stirring in the milk

7. Stir in the milk and season, heat for another minute or two or just until almost boiling, and then remove from heat. Season to taste.

You’re All Good Eggs: New research shows that specialty eggs aren’t any better for the environment or more delicious

Next year, I will decorate Easter eggs and they will have faces. See 39 other pictures of egg face dioramas at The Design Inspiration by clicking on image

Two articles about eggs published last week have rocked my commitment to paying the specialty egg surcharge. I’m still tentatively on the organic, cage-free, local egg bandwagon for animal welfare and health concerns, but I have to admit that even those reasons may be a little flimsy. The four main reasons given for the superiority of specialty eggs are:

1. They’re better for the environment
2. They taste better
3. They’re produced in a more humane way
4. They’re healthier

There may also be an argument for supporting local producers who might employ less exploitative or abusive labor practices, although that’s not guaranteed. In order to help offset the increased labor requirements of non-conventional practices, small and local farms often rely on unpaid interns and family members, including children. Not that I think it’s a major ethical abuse to have your kids gather eggs, but I often feel at least a little pang of sympathy for the kids—often Amish, sometimes very young-looking—manning farmer’s market booths alone. So I’m deliberately tabling the labor issue because 1) I suspect that the issue of labor conditions at small, local farms vs. big, industrial ones is, like so many things related to the food industry, complicated and 2) it’s nowhere near the top of the list of most consumers’ concerns about eggs.

1. Green Eggs vs. Ham

On June 1, Slate’s Green Lantern reported that specialty eggs (cage-free, free range, and organic) have a greater environmental impact than conventional based on land use, greenhouse gas emissions, and feed efficiency (measured by kg eggs laid/kg feed). The article also noted that according to life-cycle analysis, a recent review article by two Dutch researchers found no consistent or conclusive difference between the environmental impact of pork, chicken, milk, and eggs. Beef requires more land, water, and feed, but pound for pound (or kilogram for kilogram—most life-cycle analyses are European), the review, “did not show consistent differences in environmental impact per kg protein in milk, pork, chicken and eggs.”

The Lantern didn’t evaluate the transportation costs “since the majority of the impacts associated with chicken-rearing comes from producing their feed.” For local eggs, the reduced transportation costs might help balance out the increased feed requirement, but that’s just speculation. For cage-free, free-range, organic, or vegetarian eggs, transportation costs probably further increase the relative impact because not only do they travel just as far or farther than conventional eggs to get to the market, there are probably costs associated with transporting the additional feed they require.

I don't remember where I first heard the story about the egg yolk-inspired label, but it's documented in multiple places, including Red, White, and Drunk All Over and the biography of The Widow Cliquot by Tilar MazzeoMy initial response was basically:

Well, that’s too bad, but efficiency be damned, if it takes more feed and produces higher ammonia emissions to treat chickens humanely and produce healthy eggs with yolks the vibrant orange-yellow of a Veuve Cliquot label, so be it. I know specialty eggs are better, I can see and taste the difference.

2. Golden Eggs

Not so much, apparently. The very next day, The Washington Post published the results of a blind taste test of “ordinary supermarket-brand eggs, organic supermarket eggs, high-end organic Country Hen brand eggs and [eggs from the author’s own backyard chickens].” Blindfolded and spoon-fed, the tasters—two food professionals and six “avocationally culinary” folks with “highly critical palates”—struggled to find differences between the eggs, which were soft cooked to ensure firm whites and runny yolks.

And apparently, this isn’t a new finding. It replicates the results of years of research by food scientists:

Had Pat Curtis, a poultry scientist at Auburn University, been at the tasting, she wouldn’t have been at all surprised. "People’s perception of egg flavor is mostly psychological," she told me in a phone interview. "If you ask them what tastes best, they’ll choose whatever they grew up with, whatever they buy at the market. When you have them actually taste, there’s not enough difference to tell."

The egg industry has been conducting blind tastings for years. The only difference is that they don’t use dish-towel blindfolds; they have special lights that mask the color of the yolks. "If people can see the difference in the eggs, they also find flavor differences," Curtis says. "But if they have no visual cues, they don’t."

Freshness can affect the moisture content, and thus the performance of eggs for some applications, especially recipes that rely heavily on beaten egg whites like meringues or angel food cake. But probably not enough for most people to notice. The author also tested a simple spice cake with super-fresh eggs from her backyard versus regular supermarket eggs. The batters looked different, but once the cakes were baked and cooled, they were indistinguishable.

3. Do They Suffer?

Given how self-evidently cruel battery cage poultry production seems, I’m not entirely sure that “free-range” is as meaningless as people like Jonathan Safran Foer have argued. Sure, “cage free” chickens might never see daylight, and the range available to “free range” chickens might be a dubious privilege at best—a crowded concrete lot exposed to some minimal sunlight would fulfill the USDA requirements. But I don’t think it’s entirely marketing gimmickry, either. For one thing, if there were really no difference, the specialty eggs wouldn’t have a larger carbon footprint.

The animal welfare argument relies on the assumption that either chickens have a right not to experience pain or discomfort or that humans have a moral obligation not to cause them pain, or at least wanton, unnecessary or excessive pain. The debate about animal rights/humans’ moral obligations to animals is too big and complicated for me to cover in any real depth here, but I tend to believe that we ought to try to minimize the pain and discomfort of anything that seems capable of suffering. I used to draw the line at the limbic system—i.e. fish and invertebrates might respond to pain but don’t process it in a way that rises to the level of suffering, whereas birds and mammals can suffer and it’s often pretty apparent when they do. However, as it turns out, the boundaries of the limbic system are “grounded more in tradition than in facts,” and there are unsettled questions in my mind about what constitutes suffering and how to evaluate it. 

Even renowned animal rights theorist Peter Singer has gone back and forth about oysters over the years. I suspect that David Foster Wallace was right when he concluded that what guides our behavior in these matters has more to do with historically and culturally-variable forms of moral intuition than any objective criterion for “suffering”:

The scientific and philosophical arguments on either side of the animal-suffering issue are involved, abstruse, technical, often informed by self-interest or ideology, and in the end so totally inconclusive that as a practical matter, in the kitchen or restaurant, it all still seems to come down to individual conscience, going with (no pun) your gut” ("Consider the Lobster” footnote 19).

I hate relying on “I know it when I see it” standards, because I suspect we’re all inclined to see what we want to, but I don’t have a better answer. My gut says that chickens can suffer and that being able to flap around a concrete lot is better than never getting to move at all. However, my gut also says that chickens are pretty stupid creatures, and it might be an entirely reasonable thing to care more about the environmental impact of egg production than the happiness and well-being of the chickens.

4. Eggs Good For You This Week

Health is the issue that matters most to most consumers (see: The Jungle), and unfortunately, the available research on conventional vs. specialty eggs is frustratingly inconclusive. The most common assertion re: the health of specialty eggs concerns omega-3 fatty acids. I’ve mentioned this in passing and will try to devote some more time to it soon, but for now, I’m tentatively convinced that omega-3s are healthful and low ratios of omega-6:omega-3 are optimal.

Some studies have suggested that chickens raised on pasture—i.e. who get at least some of their nutrients from plants, especially clover or alfalfa—produce eggs with more omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins A and E (and less cholesterol and saturated fat, not that that probably matters). However, specialty labels like “cage free,” “free range,” and “organic” don’t mean pastured and the results of the nutritional analysis of eggs bearing those labels don’t provide very clear guidelines about what to purchase.

A 2002 comparison between five different kinds of specialty eggs and conventional eggs found differences between them, but none that lead to a simple characterization of specialty eggs as healthier:

From Cherian et al in Poultry Science 81: 30-33 (2002)

The "animal fat free and high in omega-3” eggs (SP1) had the highest percentage of omega-3 fatty acids and lowest ratio of omega 6: omega 3, and the cage-free, unmedicated brown eggs were also significantly better by that measure. However, the Organic-certified free-range (SP2) and cage-free all-vegetarian-feed eggs (SP4) had similar omega-3 content to the regular eggs. While some of the differences might be due to the feed, the authors note that the age, size, and breed of the hen can also affect the composition of fats and nutrients.

The study also showed that the shells of some of the specialty eggs were weaker, which supports other research showing more breakage and leaking in specialty eggs than conventional and my anecdotal experience of typically having to set aside the first few cartons I pick up because they contain cracked eggs.

Additionally, a 2010 USDA survey of traditional, cage-free, free-range, pasteurized, nutritionally enhanced (omega-3), and fertile eggs also concluded that:

Although significant differences were found between white and brown shell eggs and production methods, average values for quality attributes varied without one egg type consistently maintaining the highest or lowest values. (Abstract here, no free full text available)

In sum, if you can get pastured eggs (either from your own backyard or a farmer whose practices you can interrogate or even observe), they might be a little better for you than conventional. But after reading all this, I still found myself thinking: But what about the color difference? Doesn’t a darker yellow yolk mean the egg itself is healthier? Apparently not:

Yolk colour varies. It is almost completely dependent upon the feed the hen eats. Birds that have access to green plants or have yellow corn or alfalfa in their feed tend to produce dark yolks, due to the higher concentration of yellow pigments (mainly carotenoids) in their diet. Since commercial laying hens are confined, lighter and more uniformly coloured yolks are being produced. Yolk colour does not affect nutritive value or cooking characteristics. Egg yolks are a rich source of vitamin A regardless of colour. (from Wageningen University)

The record on other health concerns like salmonella and dioxin and PCB content is mixed:

4A: Can you eat raw cookie dough if it’s organic?

The salmonella thing is reminiscent of the e coli in grass-fed beef thing: some people actually claim organic chickens have no risk of salmonella. One UK study allegedly found salmonella levels over five times higher in conventional caged hens than in birds raised according to Soil Association organic standards (which are comparable to USDA Organic certification). 23.4% of farms with caged hens tested positive for salmonella compared to 4.4% of farms with organic flocks and 6.5% with free-range flocks. The explanation proffered is that the spread of the disease is inversely related to flock size and density. No link or citation for the study itself.

A 2007 UK study that tested 74 flocks (59 caged and 15 free range) from 8 farms, all of which had been vaccinated against salmonella, found a smaller but still significant difference: 19.4% of cage chicken house samples and 10.2% of free-range chicken house samples taken over a 12-month period tested positive for salmonella. However, they also noted a high degree of variation between flocks, and that the longest continuously-occupied houses were typically the most heavily contaminated. It’s possible that some of the results of other studies can be attributed to the fact that free-range or organic hen operations are likely to be newer and differences between them and conventional may diminish as time goes on.

On this side of the Atlantic, the results seem to show the opposite. A 2005 USDA study that tested free-range, all-natural antibiotic-free, and organic chicken meat (and contamination in chickens themselves has been linked to salmonella in eggs) found salmonella in all three groups at higher rates than in past years’ surveys of commercial chicken meat:

A total of 135 processed free-range chickens from four different commercial free-range chicken producers were sampled in 14 different lots for the presence of Salmonella. Overall, 9 (64%) of 14 lots and 42 (31%) of 135 of the carcasses were positive for Salmonella. No Salmonella were detected in 5 of the 14 lots, and in one lot 100% of the chickens were positive for Salmonella. An additional 53 all-natural (no meat or poultry meal or antibiotics in the feed) processed chickens from eight lots were tested; 25% of the individual chickens from 37% of these lots tested positive for Salmonella. Three lots of chickens from a single organic free-range producer were tested, and all three of the lots and 60% of the individual chickens were positive for Salmonella. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service reported that commercial chickens processed from 2000 to 2003 had a Salmonella prevalence rate of 9.1 to 12.8%. Consumers should not assume that free-range or organic conditions will have anything to do with the Salmonella status of the chicken.

Additionally, a 2007 analysis of fresh, whole broiler chickens by Consumer Reports found that 83% tested positive for campylobacter or salmonella, and that chickens labeled organic or raised without antibiotics were more likely to harbor salmonella than conventionally-produced broilers:

We tested 525 fresh, whole broilers bought at supermarkets, mass merchandisers, gourmet shops, and ­natural-food stores in 23 states last spring. Represented in our tests were four leading brands (Foster Farms, Perdue, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Tyson) and 10 organic and 12 nonorganic no-antibiotics brands, including three that are “air chilled” in a newer slaughterhouse process designed to re­duce contamination. Among our findings:

  • Campylobacter was present in 81 percent of the chickens, salmonella in 15 percent; both bacteria in 13 percent. Only 17 percent had neither pathogen. That’s the lowest percentage of clean birds in all four of our tests since 1998, and far less than the 51 percent of clean birds we found for our 2003 report.
  • No major brand fared better than others overall. Foster Farms, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Tyson chickens were lower in salmonella incidence than Perdue, but they were higher in campylobacter.

Ultimately, salmonella is a always a risk when dealing with chicken or eggs and it’s not clear that specialty eggs are any better than conventional. If you’re concerned about salmonella, cook your food to 165F or stick to vegan options. You know, like peanut butter.

4B: What’s in the grass?

One final concern: a 2006 Dutch study found that free-range eggs in Europe have increased levels of dioxins and PCBs (which fall under the category of dioxin-like compounds), apparently because they are present in the soil in both residential and agricultural areas. “Dioxins” refer to a wide variety of compounds and they vary in toxicity; the term is basically just shorthand for environmental pollutants. On the one hand, they’re everywhere and we probably can’t avoid them so who cares? On the other, many are fat soluble so eggs are of greater concern than, say, apples.

There’s not really enough research on this to draw any conclusions. Which just pains me to type for what feels like the umpteenth time, because, seriously, is there ever conclusive research? Can we ever really know anything about anything? I like to think we can, but I’ll be damned if I don’t feel like every time I try to find more information about any kind of nutritional claim, the answer turns out to be “well, that’s complicated” or “well, the research on that isn’t conclusive.” Sometimes I really just want to see a chart that says YES! THIS IS THE RIGHT ANSWER! IT IS RELIABLE AND ACCURATE AND CONTROLLED FOR ALL POSSIBLE VARIABLES.

So just in case you might be wondering if I’m trying to be deliberately indecisive or vague in service of whatever ideological position that would even promote: I’m not. When I find conclusive results, I will share them with you in very excited caps lock. 

So Here’s The Deal

If you care more about climate change and efficient resource allocation than chicken welfare, buy conventional eggs; if you care more about chicken welfare, buy cage-free, free-range, Organic, or perhaps ideally, local. Taste and health-wise, there’s no clear difference, although I know that won’t prevent some of you from believing there is (remember the chocolate yogurt with “good strawberry flavor”?) Perhaps the biggest lesson is that, once again, the foods some people think are objectively superior for all kinds of reasons  may not be, and attempting to eat “better” is way more complicated than simply choosing the “green” alternative.

A Sourdough-risen Challah Trinity: Braid, Loaf, Knot

If you're wondering, yes, the juxtaposition of a traditionally Jewish bread and the "trinity" is meant to be ironical. Also, I somehow failed to get a decent picture of all three shapes after baking--the loaf is just visible in the upper right corner here. 

A friend of mine is catering a 150-guest wedding reception in June and has asked me to make the bread. It’s a paying gig, which is cool, but the primary reason I’m doing it is because it sounds like fun to make a brigade of baguettes and a mess of challah.* I did a test run this weekend to see how sour the bread would turn out using approximately the same schedule of starter-refreshing, rising, and baking that I had worked out for the weekend of the wedding—my sourdough starter is one of the main reasons my friend asked me to handle the bread, but she didn’t necessarily want a pronounced sourdough flavor. As I’ve mentioned before, sourdough starters don’t actually make sour-tasting bread unless you want them to. However, especially when it’s warm and humid out, the yeast activity speeds up, so a baking timetable that wouldn’t produce any discernable tang in February might produce something quite sour in June.

There were some other things I needed to figure out too—making sure my estimates for how many slices we’d get out of each loaf were correct, figuring out what shape of challah would work best for pulled pork sandwiches. Oh, and learning how to make challah in the first place before attempting to manufacture it in quantities better measured by the gallon than by the cup. You know, minor details.

The Knots, the Loaf, and the Wonky Braid: They are risen (They are risen indeed!)

I was only planning on auditioning two shapes: a traditional six-stranded braid and a loaf baked in a standard bread pan. But I had a little extra dough because the pan won’t quite hold as much as a recipe for a braid calls for (well, technically it would, but the dough would rise over the edge, creating the mushroom shape characteristic of many commercial loaves, which I didn’t want), so I turned 1/4 of one batch into three knots about the size of hamburger buns. And the knots won. The braid might be prettier, even if it’s imperfect, but it’s way less impressive once it’s sliced. Plus, even a perfect braid wouldn’t produce perfectly consistent slices. However, the main reason the knots seem like they will work better is that challah is so soft and absorbent that with a warm, moist sandwich filling like pulled pork, it might get soggy and start to fall apart. At home or even at a restaurant, that might be fine—preferable, even, like the classic spongy white bread you get at Texas bbq joints. However, a big, formal event where the sandwiches might take a while to get from the kitchen to the table and the table to the guest seems to call for a little more structural integrity.

 Braid LoafKnot 

It struck me as I was looking up challah recipes that traditional Jewish breads seem to be all about extremes. Matza or matzoh is like the ur-bread, or bread pared down to its most basic form: grain ground in to a flour moistened and then heated until the starch sets. No leavening, by definition; no fat, by tradition. You can even make it without salt, although that would taste horrible. The bagel is the chewiest roll possible—the shape provides the maximum possible surface area for a non-flat bread and boiling causes the starch on the outside to gelatinize more than just baking, which is what makes them harder, shinier, and chewier than other breads. Then there’s challah, which is so rich with egg and fat and sugar that it’s about as close to pastry as a yeast bread can be.

Traditionally, challah is parve—meaning it doesn’t contain milk or butter. However, since we’re using it as a vehicle for pork, trying to accommodate guests with religious or ethical objections to animal products is already moot (there will be plenty of other options for them) so I decided to use butter instead of oil because I prefer the flavor. That makes the recipe a little more like brioche, but I’m still calling it challah because it doesn’t contain quite as much fat. If you imagine a continuum between croissant (lots of fat, very little water, not crusty) and baguette (no fat, lots of water, very crusty), brioche is nearly touching croissant and challah is one or two steps closer to baguette. However, like brioche, challah is incredibly soft and spongy—almost cake-like. They resemble genoise in their ability to take on additional moisture. That’s one of the reasons they’re often used for french toast and bread puddingtype applications—not only are they already eggy and rich, but they absorb much more batter than even the stalest baguette.

Although this recipe does call for a little more sugar than most yeast breads, it’s not too sweet to use as an accompaniment to savory dishes. It would be perfect for mopping up runny egg yolks, stews, or gravies. But it’s also rich, sweet, and flavorful enough to enjoy plain. It’s a celebration kind of bread, and it’s easy to see why Jews in southern Germany adopted it and incorporated it into their religious traditions.  

Challah and the different braids have acquired many overlapping, competing, and sometimes conflicting meanings. the strands represent truth, peace, and justice. or the way they are entertwined looks like arms embracing and represents love. or they represent the six days of the week that are not Shabbat. or they represent the words Zachor "to remember," Shamor "to safeguard" and B'Dibbur Echad "with one utterance." 12 lumps represent the 12 tribes of Israel. 2 loaves represent the Exodus manna portions.

*As far as I know, there are no official terms of bread venery, although perhaps there should be, in which case I’m sure we can come up with better ones—A snobbery of baguettes? A gordian of challah?

You can shape the dough however you want, but there’s a reason most people associate “challah” with braided loaves. The word “challah” originally referred to the portion of dough that was given to the temple, like the Catholic tithe. Kosher practice still requires that a small portion of the dough be removed before baking, although now instead of hunting down a Rabbi to feed it to, people generally just burn it and say a blessing. The word came to refer to “special” bread in general, defined in contrast to the Hebrew word lechem, which refers to everyday bread (according to Joan Nathan’s Jewish Cooking in America via food timeline). Sometime after the middle ages, when Jews in the region that’s now southern Germany and Austria adopted the local tradition of eating decorative, braided breads called “berches” with the Sunday meal for Shabbat, the word came to refer primarily to only that one kind of “special” bread, at least for most European Jews and the English-speaking world (according to Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York via MyJewishLearning).

There are dozens of styles of challah braiding—some people just make a single three-stranded braid. I found a diagram for a four-stranded braid, and at least one attempt to make one that didn’t quite work out. It also seems pretty common to make two braids—one larger and one smaller and set the smaller loaf on top of the bigger one to give it more height (if you want to try that, just divide the dough into 4 equal parts, use one for each strand of the large braid and divide one into 3 parts for the smaller braid). Sometimes the braid is twisted into a round or braided in a circle from the middle. Or made into a crazy six-legged braid beast.

The stacked braids seem designed to mimic the six-stranded braid, but it turns out that making a six-stranded braid isn’t really that much more difficult than making a three-stranded braid. Instead of alternating pulling the outside strands into the middle, you alternate between pulling the second-to-outside strand to the far outside and then the far outside strand to the middle. Video here. If you number the strands 1-6 from right to left here’s one full cycle (I didn’t use letters like the diagram because that’s a different method so what you have below are two options): click on diagram for link to site with more on the religious significance of challah and different braiding methods

if you want more of a football shape, taper the ends more; I wanted it to be more oblong to have as many sandwich-eligible slices as possible

Start:
1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6

Step 1: Pull the right strands to the left/middle

Pull strand 5 to the far left:
5 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 6

Pull strand 6 to the middle:
5 – 1 – 2 – 6 – 3 – 4

Step 2: Pull the left strands to the right/middle

Pull strand 1 to the far right:
5 – 2 – 6 – 3 – 4 – 1

Pull strand 5 to the middle:
2 – 6 – 5 – 3 – 4 – 1

this is midway through step 2, so the next move is pulling the furthest left strand (5) into the gap in the middle

Repeat

my dough was so sticky that I braided it on parchment paper, which wrinkled a bit but made it easier to maneuver

Presumably you could do the same thing to any kind of dough you can shape into ropes. But here’s one recipe that definitely works, with a note on how to adapt it for commercial yeast if you don’t have an active starter:

Recipe: Sourdough-risen Challah (adapted from Sourdough Home)
Makes 1 large braid, or 12 burger bun-sized knots (~90 g dough), or 20-24 smaller “slider” sized knots (45-55g dough), or 1 standard  loaf + 3 burger/5-6 slider knots, or 2 smaller braids or freeform loaves

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup sourdough starter (100% hydration, refreshed)*
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 3 2/3 cups flour (I used bread flour; the amount will depend a bit on your starter and the humidity)
  • 2 t. salt
  • 1/4 cup sugar or 3 T. honey
  • 1/4 cup melted butter or vegetable oil
  • 1 egg and 2 yolks, lightly beaten, plus 1 egg to coat the crust
  • optional: 1/2 cup raisins for the dough and/or 2 T. sesame and/or poppy seeds to coat

*If you want to substitute commercial yeast for the sourdough starter, increase the water to 1 cup and increase flour to 4 1/3 cups and add 1 package of regular or fast-rising active dry yeast. If the resulting dough is dry and difficult to knead, add more water; if it’s too sticky to knead, add more flour. Baking is not a science.

Method:

1. Combine everything but ~1 cup of flour and the extra egg and optional seed toppings in a large bowl. Stir well to combine—it should be thick and sticky.

a double-batch tested the limits of my large mixing bowl dough should be almost satiny

2. Gradually add just as much of the remaining cup of flour as necessary to create a dough that sticks to itself more than it sticks to you.

3. Scrape the dough onto a lightly-floured surface and knead ~15 minutes or until very smooth. Sometimes I let a dough rest on the kneading surface under the upturned bowl for 10-15 minutes while I go do something else to give the flour a chance to absorb the moisture, which makes it a little less sticky and easier to work with.

4. Cover and allow to rise until tripled in volume (probably a minimum of 4 hours, or up to 18-20, depending on your sourdough starter, the ambient temperature, and how sour you want it to be. I left it overnight for 8 hrs; it was probably ready after 5-6 hours).

I've been asked why I use plastic instead of a towel; I think that's just how the first sourdough recipe I used told me to do it. Many commercial yeast recipes use a towel, and that's how my mom always did it and how I did it before baking with a starter. I suspect that with the longer rising times of sourdough breads, there's a greater risk of the dough drying out and the surface cracking 8 hrs later; I don't clean the workspace before going to bed because I'm just going to get it messy again in the morning anyhow

5. Shape as desired, cover with oiled plastic wrap, and let rise an additional 2-4 hours or until doubled in volume. If you want to make something with even ropes like braids or knots, you might want to weigh the dough and then use the scale to divide the dough into equal portions. Roll each portion out with a rolling pin or empty wine bottle and then roll the flat piece up lengthwise using the palms of your hands (this technique is also demonstrated in the six strand braid video linked above).

the silicone rolling mat is kind of pricey, but I make bread enough that it's one of my most cherished kitchen tools the seam disappears with a little more rolling

6. Preheat the oven to 350 F a half an hour before you want to bake. Beat the last egg with 1 T. water and brush the surface of the dough with the mixture—for optimal color, do this twice: once when you start preheating the oven and once just before putting it in the oven.

7. Slash if making a slash-able style of bread and bake for 40-45 min (braid), 35-40 min (loaf), or 20-30 min (knots) or until the top is a deep golden brown and the bottom sounds hollow when tapped.

the slash helps the bread rise evenly and generally looks neater than whatever cracking would happen otherwise; 1/2"-1" with a sharp knife right down the middle works for most pan-risen loaves the seam shows you roughly what the color would be like without the egg wash