CSA 2010 Files: Kale Chips, Chard Chips, Kohlrabi Top Chips

Green Chip Trifecta, clockwise from the bottom left: kale, kolhrabi greens, chard Another victory in the war against greens fatigue

Every week, we get more and more non-leafy vegetables in our subscription share from Needle Lane Farms—now we’re getting cucumbers and string beans and lots of summer squash along with things like cabbage and fennel that might be technically leafy vegetables but aren’t in the interchangeable-cooking-greens category. However, we still get at least one bunch of cooking greens every week too. Left to my own devices, I would probably buy non-spinach cooking greens once or twice a year. And after 9 straight weeks of eating cooking greens every week, I kind of hit a wall. It turns out there’s only so much kale I can take, even if it’s cooked in bacon fat or a cheese-infused béchamel.

And then, I remembered the kale “chips” that I started seeing on blogs last winter. They all alleged that if  you just toss kale with some oil and coarse salt and maybe some vinegar, and then you bake it, it crisps up and becomes crunchy and delicious. It sounded a little too good to be true. After trying it, I’m declaring it half-true.

before baking after about 12 minutes in the oven

Greens treated this way do get crisp—you could easily crumble them to dust if you wanted to—and they taste mostly like the oil and salt you coat them with. But they do still have a lingering bitterness, which could be either a positive or a negative depending on your palate. I like them enough to eat them, and if I had a bowl within arms’ reach, I’d probably snack on them idly until they were gone. I might even pick at the crumbles at the bottom of the bowl. Brian, who is not generally a fan of kale, has eaten them willingly and says they seem like something he’d expect Japanese people to like, probably because they’re a bit reminiscent of dried seaweed. In general, I feel like this a good thing to do with cooking greens if you’re sick of eating them wilted and dressed or stuffed into every frittata or soup or casserole you make, but you’re compelled for some reason to keep eating them anyway.

However, they’re not so good that I’d encourage anyone to run out and buy some greens just to try it. I definitely wouldn’t expect kids to enjoy them, and if you really just don’t like the taste of kale, this probably won’t redeem it for you. 

Working on the assumption that most cooking greens are basically interchangeable, I also tried it with a bunch of kohlrabi greens and a bunch of rainbow chard, and indeed, they all turn out pretty much the same. The kohlrabi tops are a little more bitter and retain a tiny bit more chew, and the chard is a little more delicate, but I wouldn’t want to have to distinguish between the three in a blind taste test. In the future, I’ll try adding a little vinegar or lemon juice or zest along with the oil to counteract/complement the bitterness, and perhaps some chili powder or garlic powder and nutritional yeast or msg. This actually seems like a perfect nootch vehicle and I’m annoyed with myself that I didn’t think of that sooner.

Since this counts as a “win” (if not a complete trouncing), I think the official record for Me vs. Greens is 9-1-0 in my favor. I’m counting one mediocre batch of bacon kale as a “tie.” Ten more weeks to go.

not to imply that I'm looking forward to the CSA being done; I'm really enjoying it, and one of the main reasons I joined was to be forced to eat vegetables I wouldn't otherwise eat. I'm just...done with kale for a while. if we get more next week, I'll probably blanche it and freeze it.

Recipe: Kale Chips (originally from Dan Barber on Bon Appetit, via about a million other food blogs many of which are listed on Kalyn’s Kitchen)

clockwise from the bottom right: a bag full of kohlrabi greens, a bunch of kale, and a bunch of rainbow chardIngredients:

  • 1 bunch cooking greens (kale, chard, kohlrabi tops, etc)
  • 1-2 T. olive oil
  • 1-2 t. coarse or flaked salt (I used kosher)
  • 1t.-1 T. vinegar or lemon juice (optional)
  • chili powder, garlic powder, nutritional yeast, msg, or other spices (optional)

Method:

1. Pre-heat the oven to 300F and line several baking sheets with foil.

2. Strip the greens off their stems—I do this by holding the stem in one hand, and making a circle just below where the leaf starts with the thumb and index finger of my other hand and pulling up. The leaf naturally breaks off right about where the stem gets small enough to eat.

3. Tear the leaves into pieces, roughly 2”-3”.  kohlrabi greens and chard on deck, waiting for the kale to get out of the oven

4. Rinse and dry well. I dunked them in a big bowl of water, spun them in a salad spinner, and then sort of patted them down and scrunched them a few times with a paper towel.

5. Sprinkle with olive oil, salt and the vinegar and spices if using. Toss to coat.

6. Spread in a single layer on the prepared baking sheets.

7. Bake for 15-25 minutes, or until very crisp and just browning in the thinnest spots. 15-18 minutes was about right for the kale and chard in my oven, and the kohlrabi greens took about 20 minutes.

The CSA 2010 Files: Kohlrabi and Summer Squash with Almonds

I can't get over how pretty the kohrabi we've been getting is, even though they'e been a little woodier than would be totally ideal

Needle Lane gave us our first summer squash of the season last week, and I decided to try the simple sauté with sliced almonds that the Amateur Gourmet had raved about, originally from Smitten Kitchen, who adapted it from a restaurant called Red Cat. More of an idea than a recipe: toast some sliced almonds in a pan and then add some summer squash cut into very thin pieces and cook for no more than a minute. I like toasted almonds and tender-crisp zucchini well enough, but it probably wouldn’t have gotten my attention if Deb from SK hadn’t called it “My Favorite Side Dish.” Anytime someone lays a superlative down like that, especially for something that doesn’t involve garlic, cheese, or bacon, I’m intrigued.

I used about 2 oz. almonds for the amount of vegetable shown above

I fussed with it a bit—I added garlic because I reflexively chopped some while I was heating the fat in the pan, and I added a kohlrabi bulb diced into matchsticks and steamed for a few minutes in the microwave because I felt like I needed to use that up at the same time. I didn’t cut the squash into matchsticks because I don’t have a mandoline and didn’t want to take the time. But I could still kind of see where Deb was coming from. It was simultaneously exactly what I should have expected from sautéed almonds and summer squash, and somehow better than I could have expected. I won’t go as far as “favorite side dish” but it is a delicious and dead simple way to use the squash that’s just about to become so excessive that some people have  designated August 8 official Sneak Some Zucchini Onto Your Neighbor’s Porch Night.

The kohlrabi is definitely optional—it added a little cabbagey bite, but I don’t melted butter--foam still subsiding, milk solids beginning to brownthink I would have missed it. I used butter instead of olive oil and let it brown a little, by accident not by design. It may have enhanced the nuttiness. Or maybe what puts Deb’s version over the top is the whatever olive flavor survives the cooking process intact. My suspicion is that any kind of fat will work and that it would be a waste of really expensive olive oil, but expectations probably come into play here: if you want to use a pricey oil and you think you can taste the difference, then you will.

Conversely, the browned butter and almonds might have been a lovely way to finish steamed kohlrabi matchsticks on their own. The kohlrabi greens are edible, too. I threw some in cupboard-clearing bean soup, and they worked just like spinach but a little chewier. The ones from this bulb are still sitting in the fridge, waiting to be cooked in some bacon fat or baked until crisp like kale chips.

Recipe: Kohlrabi and Summer Squash with Almonds

  • 2 small-medium summer squash
  • 1-3 oz. sliced almonds
  • 1 T. butter or olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 medium-large kohlrabi bulb (optional)
  • 2-3 cloves garlic (optional)

1. Remove the leaves from the kohlrabi (if using), and peel away the tough outer layer. Dice into matchsticks, place in a bowl with 2-3 T. water and cook on high for 3-4 minutes or until tender. Alternatively, boil/steam the matchsticks in a small saucepan.

I halve the bulb, cut it into thin slices, and then cut the slices into thin strips. not a perfect matchstick, but close enough ready to steam in the microwave

2. Heat the butter or oil in a large pan. Mince the garlic, if using, and add the almonds and garlic to the fat.

3. While the almonds are toasting—or before, if you’re a stickler about having your mise en place—slice the squash into thin pieces. Matchsticks if you want to, or little half-moons like I did. You want them to be thin enough to just cook through in about a minute in the pan.

4. When the almonds are turning brown, add the squash. Toss gently to coat in the fat. After about a minute, remove from the heat.

served alongside brined and broiled shrimp with drawn garlic-butter; a perfect summer meal

Why Posting Calorie Counts Will Fail, Part II: Most People Don’t Know How Many Calories They Burn

Introduction and Part I of this series.

click for USA Today article

Few stories that begin, “Many Americans clueless…” can really be called “news.” Nonetheless, a recent study made headlines earlier this month by confirming what research has shown time and again: most people don’t know how many calories they supposedly burn. The 2010 Food & Health Survey by Cogent Research asked respondents (1,024 adults “nationally representative of the US population based on the Census”) to estimate how many calories someone of their age, height, weight, and activity levels “should consume” per day. Only 12% got within 100 calories +/- their Estimated Energy Requirement (or EER, the formula currently used by the USDA) and 25% wouldn’t even venture a guess. The remaining 63% were just wrong. This seems to pose a problem for the claim that publishing calorie counts on menus will improve public health. Logically, if people don’t know if they burn 10 or 10,000 calories in a day, which is the range of estimates collected in another survey, conducted in 2006 at the University of Vermont (full text with UMich login), knowing how many calories a particular menu item contains probably isn’t going to do them much good. The campaign is called "Read 'em before you eat 'em" (the slogan in the little purple circle. Image from nyc.gov

The new calorie publishing policy actually includes a provision to help address this problem—in addition to the calorie counts of all menu items, menus will also have to publish the average daily calorie requirement for adults (2,000 Kcal). New York City also attempted to address the problem of calorie ignorance when it instituted its calorie count requirement by launching an ad campaign aimed at drilling the 2000/day calorie requirement into people’s heads.

But that’s not the kind of calorie ignorance I’m concerned about. For one, I don’t think the success of calorie counts in reducing obesity or improving public health depends on people keeping strict caloric budgets. Enough people have internalized the belief they ought to eat fewer calories that the numbers could be useful as a point of comparison regardless of how many people can accurately estimate how many calories they supposedly burn based on their age, height, weight, and activity level. Even if you’re under the mistaken impression that you’re Michael Phelps, if your goal is to consume less energy, choosing between the 250-calorie sandwich and the 350-calorie one is a simple matter of figuring out which number is smaller. IF calorie counts were accurate, and they inspired at least some people to consistently chose lower-calorie items, and at least some of those people didn’t compensate for those choices by eating more later or being less active, and some of them continued to burn the same number of calories despite eating fewer of them, then the counts would actually have the intended effect. The magnitude of the effect might be small, but it would be in the right direction.

Of course, that’s a big “if.” I already addressed the first condition (calorie counts are often wrong), and will be looking at the next two (people don’t order fewer calories but if they think they have they are likely to compensate later) in more detail in later entries. The problem of most people not knowing how many calories they burn is related to the third condition—the mistaken assumption that people will continue to burn the same number of calories even if they reduce the number of calories they eat.

In other words, the problem isn’t that too few people know that the average adult probably burns something in the vicinity of 2000 calories per day. The problem is that metabolism varies. It doesn’t stick to the formula based on height, weight, age, and activity levels. Most people don’t know how many calories they burn because they can’t know, because it’s dependent on lots of factors that formulas don’t and can’t account for. And one of the things that usually causes people to burn fewer calories per day is eating fewer of them. This starts to get at one of the other reasons I don’t think posting calorie counts will have the desired effect: it’s true that eating fewer calories often leads to short-term weight loss, but the vast majority of people either get hungry and can’t sustain the energy deficit or their bodies adjust to burning fewer calories and erases the deficit. Either way, almost all of them regain all of the weight they lost, and often more.

The Rise, Fall and Return of the Calories-in/Calories-out Myth

The idea that weight gain and loss is simple matter of calories in versus calories out also dates back to William Atwater (the turn of the 20th C. USDA scientist who was into burning food and excrement). Before Atwater, most people believed that the major nutrients in food were used in entirely different ways—proteins were thought to be “plastic” and used exclusively for tissue repair and growth, like little band-aids that the body could extract from food and simply insert where necessary; fats were similarly thought to be extracted from food and stored basically intact; only carbohydrates were thought to be transformed by digestion as they were burned for fuel. The discoveries that protein could be converted to glucose by the liver and that carbohydrates could be transformed into body fat were both seen as wildly counterintuitive and controversial. Some physicians continued to give advice based on the earlier principles as late as 1910. RMR = resting metabolism, which should probably be shaped more like a big empty question mark

However, in the last few decades of the 20th C., Atwater and others managed to convince an increasing number of people that a calorie was a calorie was a calorie—that all of the major nutrients could be burned for fuel and that any fuel not immediately consumed in heat or motion would be stored as fat. The idea of seeking an equilibrium between calories ingested and calories used was first advocated by Irving Fischer, a Yale economist who drew a parallel between Atwater’s new measure of food energy and the laws of thermodynamic equilibrium and market equilibrium. This theory had widespread appeal in the age of Taylorism and scientific management, which coincided with the first major national trend of weight-loss dieting and the aesthetic ideal of thinness represented by the Gibson Girl and the flapper.* Caloric equilibrium was a way to apply the same universal, rational logic thought to govern the laws of chemistry and the market to the body. From the 1890s through the 1920s, the calorie reigned supreme. As historian Hillel Schwartz says:

The calorie promised precision and essence in the same breath. It should have been as easy to put the body in order as it was to put the books in order for a factory” (Never Satisfied: A Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies, and Fat 1986, 135).

That human bodies don’t reliably obey this logic in practice didn’t matter then any more than it seems to matter to most contemporary advocates of caloric algebra. Skeptics noted, even then, that many fat people seemed to eat much smaller meals than thin people, and that some people could reduce their intake to practically nothing without losing weight while others seemed to eat constantly without gaining weight. But the theory of caloric equilibrium is powerfully seductive, not just because of its simple, elegant logic, but also because it seems to “work,” at least in the short term. People who reduce the number of calories they eat do tend to lose weight initially, often at approximately the predicted rate of 1 lb/3500 calories. That offers a kind of intermittent reinforcement. When it doesn’t work or stops working, people scramble to come up with excuses—either the dieter’s estimates of how much they were eating must have been wrong, or they were “cheating” and eating too much (more on this in the entry on why calorie-cutting diets fail).

However, caloric math hasn’t always been the dominant nutritional theory (despite what many people claim). In thefrom Atlas of Men, Sheldon's most popular book 1930s and 1940s, as weight-loss dieting became less popular and feminine ideals got a little plumper again, nutrition science became more concerned with the psychology of appetite—often relying on Freudian-influenced theories about how traumatic childhood experiences and sexual dysfunction might manifest as insatiable hunger—and a new theory of body types.

The theory of somatotypes was initially developed by William Sheldon in the 1940s as part of an attempt to use measurements of the body to predict personality types and behaviors, like criminality. He proposed a sort of three-part continuum between three extremes: the thin ectomorph, the fat endomorph, and the muscular mesomorph, based on the three layers of tissue observed in mammalian embryos. It was similar to the medieval medical theory of different physical constitutions based on the balance of humors (blood, phelgm, bile, etc.) but with a new sciencey gloss and some nationalist overtones—Sheldon noted, for example, that Christ had traditionally been portrayed as an ectomorph (supposed to be cerebral and introspective), and suggested that therefore Christian America would have a military advantage over the mesomorphic Nazis (supposed to be constitutionally bold and arrogant). Somatotypes were later used to customize diet and exercise plans, but at the time, they were primarily embraced as a way to describe and justify the apparent differences in peoples’ ability to be thin. Unlike the algebra of calories in/calories out, somatotyping suggested that no matter what they did, endomorphs could never become ectomorphs. They simply did not burn calories at the same rate, and their bodies would cling stubbornly to fat, especially in the abdominal region.

Sheldon’s theory, like many projects with eugenicist overtones, fell out of favor somewhat after WWII, especially after the embryonic tissue theory was discredited. However, his somatotypes live on, primarily among bodybuilders and competitive weightlifters, perhaps because they still need some way to explain individual differences in outcomes for identical (and rigorously-monitored) inputs. There are also subtler echoes in the idea that people have individual “set points” or genetic predispositions towards certain body types, which isn’t meant to imply that there’s no validity to those theories—I think it seems far more likely that there are genetic components to body size than that all family resemblances are environmental. However, as the new calorie labeling policy exemplifies, the universalizing logic of calories in/calories out is back with a vengeance. Almost every popular diet plan today, with the exception of paleo/low-carb/grain-free diets, is based on creating a calorie deficit (and in practice, many low-carb diets also “work” to the extent that they do at least partially by reducing caloric intake).

The point of this little history lesson is that the extent to which people ascribe to either the theory of calories in/calories out or the theory of intransigent body types seems to have more to do with what they want to believe than the available evidence. Calories-in/calories-out may appeal to Americans today for different reasons than it appealed to the enlightenment rationalist seeking to find and apply universal laws to everything. I suspect that it has a lot to do with normative egalitarianism and faith in meritocracy, e.g. anyone can be thin if they eat right and exercise. The idea of predetermined body types, on the other hand, appealed to mid-century Americans eager to identify and justify differences and hierarchies of difference. But in every case, the evidence is either cherry-picked or gathered specifically to support the theory rather than the theory emerging from the evidence, which is complicated and contradictory.

*Before the 1880s, the  practice of “dieting” and various regimens like Grahmism (inspired by Sylvester Graham), the water cure, and temperance were concerned more with spiritual purity or alleviating the discomforts of indigestion and constipation than achieving a particular body shape or size. Graham’s followers actually weighed themselves to prove that they weren’t losing weight, because thinness was associated with poor health.

So What?

Even if most people can estimate how many calories they burn on an average day now with some degree of accuracy, and the calorie counts help them eat fewer calories than they did before or would have otherwise, there’s no guarantee that they’ll continue burning the same number of calories if they continue to eat fewer calories, which they would have to do for the policy to have long-term effects. In fact, given >6 months of calorie restriction, most people appear to burn fewer calories or start eating more and any weight lost is regained. So either the calorie counts will change nothing about how people order at restaurants and there will be no effect on their weight or health. Or they will have the desired change on how people order… but there still won’t be any effect on their weight or health.

But boy am I glad we have easier access to that critical information.

Buttermilk Biscuits and Vegetarian Gravy

a vegetarian dish even an omnivore could loveWhen I first became a vegetarian, one of the few things I missed was my mother’s fried chicken dinner. And it wasn’t so much the star of the meal I longed for—although her chicken was great. What I craved was the milk gravy she’d make from the pan drippings to ladle over the mashed potatoes and biscuits she always made to accompany the chicken. I could have called it "onion and nutritional yeast pudding" but somehow I wasn't sure that'd have the same appeal

This vegetarian version of her gravy is one of the first recipes I figured out mostly on my own. Instead of relying on the pan drippings and scrapings from some kind of cooked meat, I start by frying some cracker crumbs and spices, roughly based on what my mom used to bread chicken. That provides a flavorful base for the gravy and a little bit of texture, just like pan scrapings. I add milk and simmer for a few minutes, and then thicken it with a corn starch slurry. It’s essentially just a savory milk pudding, and you can flavor it however you like. The only constants in mine are nutritional yeast, black pepper, and onion powder (or crushed fried shallots), but I often add a pinch of sage and rosemary, a little bit of bouillon, and just a shake or two of paprika and cayenne.

When I was vegan, I found that it adapted to vegan fats and milks quite well. Since returning to an omnivorous diet, I’ve made a number of gravies and pan sauces with actual pan drippings or sausage—Mexican chorizo in particular seems designed to be a gravy base—but honestly, I still like this version better. The combination of onion and nutritional yeast is so savory and umami and the gravy itself is creamy and satisfying, but just not as overwhelming as meat-based gravies. As far as I’m concerned, chorizo gravy, as delicious as it is, can only ever be a side dish. This gravy, I can eat as a meal. Also, it’s simple and quick enough to be thrown together in the 10-12 minutes it takes to bake a batch of biscuits, which makes it perfect for an easy weekend brunch. No fried chicken required.

the sharper the cutter, the better the biscuits will rise notice that the one in the bottom right didn't rise as much because it was hand formed from the scraps rather than cut

Recipe: Buttermilk Biscuits (adapted from The Joy of Cooking)

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour (or 2 1/4 cups cake flour)
  • 2 1/2 t. baking powder
  • 1/2 t. baking soda
  • 1 t. salt
  • 6 T. butter (or lard or shortening)
  • 3/4 cup buttermilk (or milk soured with 2 t. lemon juice)*

*If you want to substitute a non-sour milk, leave out the baking soda and increase the baking powder to 3 t. Baking soda is alkaline so you need an acid to counter it. The baking powder-only version may be a tiny bit less fluffy because baking soda has more rising power than baking powder, but it shouldn’t be noticeably so.

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 450F.

2. Whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt together.

3. Cut the butter or other solid fat into the dry ingredients with a pastry cutter, two crisscrossing knives, or a few pulses in a food processor, just until the largest pieces of fat are the size of peas.

pure butter, no lard this time. lard/shortening will make a flakier biscuit because it doesn't have the water content of butter/margarine butter like peas

4. Add the buttermilk and stir just until most of the flour is moistened and it begins to come together and form a dough.

5. Press the floury scraps together with your hands a few times—like a cursory kneading, just to make it coherent, you don’t want a lot of gluten to form—and then scrape it onto a lightly-floured surface. Press into a disc between 3/4” and 1” thick, and cut into squares or triangles with a knife or into rounds with a cookie-cutter or the mouth of an empty jar or drinking glass about 2” in diameter.

6. Place the biscuits on an ungreased pan. If you want the tops to brown more, brush with milk or beaten egg.

ready to bake just out of the oven, and out of focus

7. Bake for 10-12 minutes or until browning on the top and bottom.

Recipe: Vegetarian Milk Gravy (adapted from my mom)

  • 2 T. butter
  • 6-8 saltine crackers
  • 1 (heaping) T. fried shallot, crumbled slightly or 2 t. onion powder
  • 1/2 t. black pepper, ground
  • 2-3 T. nutritional yeast (optional, but delicious)
  • 1/2 t. paprika—sweet, hot, or smoked, or chili powder or cayenne (optional)
  • a pinch or two of ground sage, dried rosemary, thyme, and/or parsley (optional)
  • 2 cups + 2 T. milk
  • 1/2 cube or 1 t. vegetable bouillon (optional)
  • 2-3 T. cornstarch
  • salt to taste

Method:

1. Melt the butter in a large skillet. 

2. Crumble the saltines (or other crackers) into the pan and stir to coat in the fat.cracker crumbsbrowning with the spices

3. Add the shallot or onion powder, pepper, and any other spices you’re using. Stir until golden and fragrant.

4. Add the milk (except for the 2 T.) and the bouillon if using and stir well, scraping up the cracker crumbs and spices into the liquid. Simmer for a few minutes, stirring constantly to prevent it from burning to the bottom of the pan.

I found the hippiest jar possible to store my nootch in. You can get this at any "natural foods" store, often in the bulk section. It's also great as a popcorn topping. Do not substitute brewer's yeast, which is also nutrient-rich, but is horribly bitter-tasting.  just after adding the milk, alraedy close to a simmer--bubbling at the edges

5. Make a slurry of the cornstarch and the remaining 2 T. milk. Make sure the mixture is smooth and then add to the gravy, stirring constantly. It will immediately begin to thicken. Cook for another 1-2 minutes and then remove from heat.

 cornstarch, amount eyeballeddissolved in milk--if you don't do this, it will form lumps when you add it to the gravy thickened

6. Salt and taste for seasoning.

spoon the gravy over hot, split biscuits and serve

Why Posting Calorie Counts Will Fail, Part I: The Number Posted is Often Wrong

Introduction to this series here.

image stolen from some article about the new policy that I lost track of because I had 70 tabs open  When you see 450 posted, that might really mean 530. Or more.

Publishing caloric values right on the menu seems straightforward and transparent. The numbers offer what appears to be a simple way to compare items no matter how different they are based on what many people believe is, as Margo Wootan said, the “most critical piece of nutrition information.”  But even setting aside for a moment the issue of whether the number of calories should be the most important factor governing food choices or all calories are equal, there are problems with the numbers themselves.

Give or take 20%…but almost always give

According to a recent study at Tufts where a team of nutrition scientists led by Susan Roberts used a calorimeter to measure the actual caloric value of 39 prepared meals purchased at supermarkets and restaurant chains:

Measured energy values of 29 quick-serve and sit-down restaurant foods averaged 18% more than stated values, and measured energy values of 10 frozen meals purchased from supermarkets averaged 8% more than originally stated. Some individual restaurant items contained up to 200% of stated values and, in addition, free side dishes increased provided energy to an average of 245% of stated values for the entrees they accompanied. (Journal of the American Dietetic Association; full-text is subscription only—here if you have UM library permission)

As Roberts told Time, she decided to do the study because when she was trying to follow the diet advice in her own book, substituting prepared or restaurant meals, “the pounds stopped dropping off. Just as suspiciously, she always felt full” (more on the idea the fullness means a diet must be failing when I get to the issue of why calorie-restriction doesn’t work for long-term weight loss).

It’s worth noting that the results of the study didn’t reach statistical significance “due to considerable variability in the degree of underreporting.” However, they “substantially exceeded laboratory measurement error” and—as noted above—the average discrepancy was 8% or 18% higher, it didn’t even out. However, the average is actually within the Federal regulations—from the same Time article:

Federal regulations are strict about the accuracy of the net weight of a package of prepared food, which must be at least 99% of the advertised weight. When it comes to calories, the count can be a far bigger 20% off. The Federal Government plays no role in checking the calorie claims in restaurants, which means it’s up to the states to handle the job — with the predictable patchwork results.

What Roberts’ research suggests is that calorie counts aren’t just wrong, they’re wrong in one direction. As anyone who’s ever tried to count calories knows, a difference of +18% could be devastating to a diet. Say, for example, you think you burn 2000 calories/day, like the supposed average American adult, and you’re trying to generate a ~250 calorie/day deficit through your diet. Assuming you continue to burn 2000 calories/day, that diet should make you lose about 1/2 lb per week or 26 lbs in a year. However, if you were actually eating 18% more calories than the 1750 you’ve budgeted, or 2065 calories/day, and the caloric algebra worked perfectly, you’d gain 6.8 lbs in a year instead.

Even if you’re being reductive, food is more than the sum of its parts

One factor that may work in the opposite direction: the method used to determine the caloric  content of food may systematically overestimate how much energy most people get from some foods. A quick primer on the calorie (most people who are reading this probably already know this, but since lots of people don’t): a nutritional calorie is a measure of the energy contained in food. The base unit, a gram calorie, is the amount of energy required to heat 1 gram of water 1 degree Celsius. A nutritional calorie is a kilocalorie (kcal) or “large calorie” (C), the amount of energy required to heat a 1 kg water 1 degree.

William Olin Atwater c. 1900 from the USDA via the Wikimedia CommonsHere’s the part a lot of people don’t know: the caloric value on labels is calculated according to the “Atwater system” named after the USDA chemist William Atwater, who spent his career burning food and excrement (cue Bevis & Buthead laughter). Based on the formula Metabolizable Energy = Gross Energy in Food – Energy Lost in Secretions, Atwater came up with average energy values for each macronutrient: 9 Kcal/g for fat, 4 Kcal/g for protein, 4 Kcal/g for carbohydrates, and 7 Kcal/g for alcohol. For the purposes of nutrition labeling, even though fiber is technically a carbohydrate, it’s subtracted from the total carb weight before the calories are calculated since it’s not digested.

However, there appears to be considerable variation within macronutrients. Sucrose burns at a lower temperature than starch and isolated amino acids vary in their heat of combustion. Additionally, the Atwater system doesn’t account for differences in how macronutrients behave in when combined—for example, fiber seems to change the amount of fat and nitrogen that turn up in feces, which suggests that its effect on caloric value might not be entirely accounted for by simply subtracting fiber grams from the total carbohydrates. And, as you might expect, “variations in individuals are seen in all human studies” (Wikipedia).

The differences between estimated calories and the actual caloric value (as measured by a bomb calorimeter like the one Roberts’ team used in their study, which still might not correspond exactly to how food is turned to energy in the human digestive tract–I’m not entirely sure how calorimeters account for fiber given that fiber is combustible even though it isn’t digestible) might not be very large—but perhaps more importantly, the discrepancies probably aren’t consistent. The Atwater system is probably more accurate for some foods than others, and seems especially likely to overestimate the energy value of high-fiber foods and distort the differences between starchy and sugary foods.

That might help to explain the discrepancy seen in studies on nuts: in controlled nut-feeding trials, people eating more calories in the form of nuts don’t gain the weight that they should based on their greater energy intake. Additionally, they excrete more fat in their feces (Sabate 2003, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition). This is similar to another issue I mentioned in the introduction—not all calories are the same—but it’s not actually the same problem. Non-random variance in the reliability of caloric estimation means that even if all calories were the same, the numbers on the menus might not be accurate, i.e. the way we estimate calories might not correspond reliably to the amount of energy people actually derive from the food they eat.

So what?

Well, this means that there are (at least) two possible ways that providing consumers with “more information” in the form of calorie counts might actually lead to worse decision-making:

1) Even if people do base their decisions about what to order on the posted calorie counts, they might end up getting many more calories than they want and eating more than think they are.

2) Certain kinds of foods—including high-fiber foods and nuts, which might be “healthier” than items with lower posted calorie counts according to more holistic metrics—might have misleadingly high calorie counts based on the Atwater system. That could dissuade customers from ordering them or restaurants from offering them in favor of less “healthy” foods that may  have lower counts based on the Atwater system but actually provide more energy.

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Why Posting Calorie Counts Will Fail: Introduction

Calories on menus are already a fact of life in New York City and were set to appear in a handful of states like California and Oregon in 2011. Instead, thanks to a provision in the health care legislation Obama signed in March, they’ll be required nationwide. The policy calls for all restaurant chains with 20 or more locations to publish calorie counts for all items on all menus. The policy also applies to vending machines, buffets, and bars. McDonalds menu with calorie counts from the website for the film Fat Head, click for info. I'm surprised to see that the fries actually aren't the best Kcal/$ bargain--the burgers and even the McChicken give you slightly more bang--or burn--for your buck. The profit margin on fries must be astounding.

The policy’s advocates and authors claim that it will reduce obesity rates and improve public health. In a press release from The Center for Science in the Public Interest, Margo Wootan, a nutritionist who helped write the calorie count part of the bill said:

"Congress is giving Americans easy access to the most critical piece of nutrition information they need when eating out…. It’s just one of dozens of things we will need to do to reduce rates of obesity and diet-related disease in this country…. Menu labeling at restaurants will help make First Lady Michelle Obama’s mission to reduce childhood obesity just a little bit easier.” (CSPI press release)

In an interview with the LA Times, she expanded on the logic of the claim: 

"People will be able to see that the order of chili cheese fries they are considering will be 3,000 calories.”

Well, probably more like 400500. But how could she be expected to know that before the law goes into effect?

Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale told the NYTimes that even if some consumers ignore the information, it will affect enough people to create a public health benefit. However, he also hedged his bet—saying that even if it doesn’t make people eat better, it’s an issue of rights as much as an issue of health:

“You don’t need a study that proves anything,” Mr. Brownell said. “You just have a right to know.”

Proof? Who needs proof? His disclaimer is savvy, because now in 5 or 10 years if obesity rates are still the same* or higher and there’s been no significant decrease in cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, or any of the other conditions correlated (albeit often weakly) with obesity, Brownell can claim we’re still better off knowing than not knowing.

I’m not so sure. While I don’t think posting the number of calories is likely to have a significant, negative impact on public health, nutrition is one realm where more information isn’t always better. The usefulness of information always depends on its reliability, relevance, and people’s ability to place it in meaningful context. Calorie counts fail on all three measures, which is why I suspect the new policy isn’t going to have the desired effect on obesity rates or public health.**

Here are a few of the problems with calorie counts I’ll address in this series:

1) The number posted is often wrong (a problem for reliability)

2) Most people don’t know how many calories they burn (a problem for meaningful context)

3) Even though calorie restriction is a highly effective short-term weight loss strategy, it doesn’t work long-term (at least for 90% of dieters) (a problem for relevance)

4) Not all calories are equal (another problem for relevance)

Furthermore, the limited evidence available so far about how calorie counts on menus affect purchasing decisions based on the New York City law is mixed. That calls into question the mechanism by which the policy is supposed to improve public health. Apparently, knowing the calorie content of menu items doesn’t necessarily reduce the number of calories people purchase. And that’s before even beginning to try to measure whether purchasing fewer calories on single visits to restaurants actually leads to weight loss or if people just compensate by eating more on other occasions or eating more often.

One response might be: well, it can’t hurt. I’m also not so sure about that. While I don’t think it’s likely to make public health worse, by reinforcing the idea that your health (or your weight) is based on the number of calories you eat, it may prevent people from taking steps that would actually improve their health, which the preponderance of evidence suggests that calorie-restriction dieting will not.

Part I in this series, on why the number posted is often wrong, coming later today.

*The rate of increase in obesity has already been slowing down so even if it plateaus, that’s not necessarily evidence this or anything else is “working,” it may simply mean that obesity rates have reached an upper limit.

**Two separate issues which are often unjustly conflated. For more on that, see Paul Campos’ The Obesity Myth, J. Eric Oliver’s Fat Politics, Glen Gaesser’s Big Fat Lies, or Michael Gard and Jan Wright’s The Obesity Epidemic: Science, Morality, and Ideology—if you feel like I’ve said that before, it’s because I have. The reason I bring them up again and again is that they completely changed my thinking about nutrition, fatness, and health. The authors of those books all—independently—examined the evidence for the argument that obesity is dangerous and all reached the same conclusion: it’s not, and the belief that it is is based on some shockingly bad science. They also argue convincingly that the actual increases in Americans’ weight in the last few decades are actually quite modest (it’s the rate of people being defined as obese that’s trumpeted, not the amount of weight people have gained on average and some of the increase is based on changes in the definition of “normal” or “healthy” with no medical justification); that the correlations between obesity and disease or early mortality—many of which are quite weak—can be entirely explained by other factors that also happen to be correlated with BMI like differences in physical activity, income, and insurance status; and that weight-loss dieting, especially low-fat and calorie-restrictive dieting, do more harm than good. You don’t have to take my word for it. Substantial portions of the books are available for free online, as are many of the studies they cite (including the CDC study that revised the widely-cited statistic that overweight and obesity causes 300,000 deaths per year in the U.S. and said, effectively, “Actually make that 26,000 and by causes we mean correlates with.”)

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The CSA 2010 Files: Swiss Chard Gratin

This is kind of "greens for people who hate greens."

Greens Fatigue

Since greens are one of the first crops you can harvest, the first weeks of most CSAs involve lots of them. In addition to the nettles, we’ve had lambsquarter (another “weed”), collards, chard, a variety of chois, and 1-2 bunches of kale every week.

I usually just sauté them with some garlic (and sometimes ginger or onion or a hot pepper) until they’re wilted and then I dress them with something acidic (lemon, white wine vinegar, rice vinegar) and something umami (tamari, crumbled bacon, grated parmesan). Salt and pepper to taste. That varies from great to mediocre. Sometimes the mild bitterness of the greens marries perfectly with the salty, rich, bright, savory accompaniments and it seems like exactly the kind of fresh, simple, delicious, nutrient-rich food that I joined a CSA to enjoy. Other times, it doesn’t matter if the greens are cooked in rendered bacon fat and topped with msg, it just tastes virtuous, and I mean that in the pejorative sense. I think chard definitely wins for "prettiest" of the cooking greens.

So this week, faced with two bunches of chard—one we didn’t manage to eat last week and another from the new box, I decided to try a classic preparation I’d heard of but never tasted.

Nothing Garlic, Butter and Cheese can’t fix

A gratin is just a casserole. It usually involves vegetables, pasta or meat tossed in a classic béchamel or flour-thickened milk sauce and topped with breadcrumbs and grated cheese. According to Wikipedia, the name comes from the French verb “gratter” meaning “to scrape,” which refers to the scrapings or gratings of bread or cheese that form the upper crust. Fun food idiom trivia: le gratin has the same metaphorical significance as “upper crust” in English. 

Baked mac & cheese is a gratin. So is the classic green bean casserole people make for Thanksgiving, even though most people let Campbell’s make the white sauce (which is basically what any flour-thickened cream soup is). But ironically, potatoes au gratin isn’t—or at least not the ones I’ve had, which are basically just potato slices in white sauce, or like a gratin without le gratin.

Chard gratin is about what you’d expect if you substituted the pasta in baked macaroni and cheese or the green beans in green bean casserole with cooked leafy greens—it’s creamy and savory and rich. It seems like a winter dish, especially because it requires that you turn on the oven, which I admit is sort of a drag in July, but it turned out to be exactly the sort of thing I was looking for to mix up my summer greens routine.leftovers for breakfast the next morning. daytime lighting is just so much nicer, even though it's less gooey and oozing because it's cold here

You could use any cooking green you like (epicurious has a nice visual guide to some of the more common ones). I can’t tell much of a difference between them after they’ve been wilted. Sure, some of them are a little more or less bitter and some stay chewier after cooking, but I wouldn’t want to have to identify them in a blind taste test. I assume the reason chard gratin is so much more common than spinach gratin (798000 google results compared to 164000) even though the latter is the more popular green by far is because casseroles are a handy way to use the stems as well as the leaves, and that’s just not an issue for spinach. Sadly, the stems don’t retain much of their spectacular color after cooking, but they are tender and mildly-flavored so it’s a shame to throw them away. They melt right into the casserole along with the softened onion and leaves.

I scanned a few recipes and then basically improvised based on what I had on hand. Precise instructions available below the jump, but here’s the short version you should feel free to adapt/improvise on at will: Blanche 2-3 bunches of chopped greens in boiling water, stems first for 2 minutes if using and leaves for another 1-3 depending on how hearty they are (spinach only needs a minute, kale or chard will take 3 to soften fully). Drain well. Then, sauté a fistful of chopped onions and/or garlic in some kind of fat, stir in a couple of tablespoons of flour and then gradually whisk in about a cup of milk. Season with salt and pepper and a little grated nutmeg, stir in some grated cheese if you want it, and add the well-drained greens. Spoon the mixture into a buttered baking dish, top with buttered breadcrumbs mixed with some herbs and grated parmesan, and bake (350-400F) until golden and bubbling (about 20 minutes).

To make it more like a main than a side, add some cooked pasta or a protein like leftover cooked meat, diced seitan, reconstituted tvp, or canned crab or tuna along with the cooked greens. You could also throw in some other vegetables, steamed or blanched unless they’re tender enough to eat raw. Following from the Thanksgiving classic, you could make a semi-homemade version by using a can or two of cream soup (probably onion and/or mushroom) instead of making a white sauce. Actually, with the green bean casserole in mind, I might try adding some crispy fried shallots to the topping the next time I make this. Which, if the CSA keeps up the current pace of the greens, will probably be very soon. 

Recipe: Swiss Chard Gratin

Ingredients:

  • 2 bunches Swiss Chard, leaves and stems (or another hearty green)
  • 2 cups water
  • 4 T. fat, divided plus more for greasing pan (butter, lard, or your preferred oil will all work fine)
  • 1 large onion
  • 3 garlic scapes (seasonally-available green curly garlic tops) or 1-2 cloves garlic
  • 1 cup milk (may sub oat milk or another vegan milk if desired—per Chocolate & Zucchini)
  • 1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 cup (2 oz) shredded cheddar (or gruyere or fontina or emmenthaler)
  • 1/4 cup grated parmesan, divided
  • 3/4 cup breadcrumbs
  • 2 T. chopped flat-leaf parsley (or another herb or combination of herbs)
  • salt and pepper to taste

Method:

1. Preheat the oven to 400 F. Put the water in a large pot with a pinch of salt, set over high heat, and cover.

2. Remove the leaves from the stems of the chard by holding the stem in one hand and stripping the leaves upwards with the other. The stem should naturally break off where it’s small enough to include with the leaves.

check out how much vegetable matter you have to toss if you don't cook the stems 

3. Chop and rinse the stems well and add to the water, which should be boiling (if not, either you’re speedy or your stove is slow and either way, wait ‘til it is boiling before putting the leaves in). Cook the stems for about 2 minutes before adding the leaves. Then, boil/steam the leaves for about 3 minutes more (less if using a softer green like spinach—you just want it to just wilt, not dissolve). Drain the greens well.

4. Heat 2 Tablespoons of fat over medium heat in a large skillet or pot while you dice the onion and mince the garlic. Sweat the alliums until translucent and beginning to brown (5-10 minutes).

scapes! browned onion and garlic

5. Meanwhile, melt the remaining 2 T. fat if solid and combine with the breadcrumbs, 2 T. parmesan, the parsley, and salt and pepper to taste.

flat-leaf (Italian) parsley breadcrumbs, butter, parsley, parmesan, salt and pepper

6. Sprinkle 2 T. flour over the onions and stir. Cook for 1-2 minutes or until golden brown.

onions sprinkled with flour after the first addition of milk--stir well after each addition to make sure the flour blends in smoothly so the sauce isn't lumpy

7. Add the milk a few tablespoons at a time, stirring well after each addition. This should form a very thick, creamy sauce.

8. Grate some nutmeg over the mixture (or add pre-grated nutmeg), and add the cheddar, 2 T. parmesan, and salt and pepper to taste.

basically a condensed version of onion soup; with cheeses and greens

9. Add the drained greens to the white sauce and stir well to combine.

10. Grease a medium-sized baking dish. Spread the greens evenly in the dish and top with the breadcrumb mixture.

11. Bake 20-25 minutes or until the dish is bubbling and the breadcrumbs are beginning to brown.

I started with 1 cup breadcrumbs and that was too much--I put 3/4 cup above, but 1/2 cup would probably be plenty hot out of the oven, still bubbling at the edges

Sourdough English Muffins: Of nooks and crannies and double-entendres

hot, buttered muffins

“Oh, no, my muffin hasn’t had a cherry since 1939.”
Betty White on SNL

Not to belabor the SNL references too much, but the “English muffin” presents us with a quintessential Coffee Talk paradox: the “English muffin” is neither English nor a muffin. (Discuss! By gum, I think I will…)

Do you know the muffin man?

The words “English muffin” appeared in print for the first time in 1842 in Great Western Magazine, a publication of a British railway company:

"In the deep well of a blue-edged plate..is disclosed that dream of farinaceous enjoyment, the *English muffin.” (from the OED, which does not explain the asterisk)

The fact that it shows up for the first time in a railway magazine may suggest that no one thought to specify its national origin until they were taking it outside of its supposed “home” country. But the only place outside of England that the Great Western Railway went was Wales, which is, coincidentally, where the type of bread represented by the “English muffin” probably originated sometime in the 10th C. Perhaps the increasing continental interconnectedness represented by the railway prompted a bit of mistaken culinary nationalism?

when you place them on the hot griddle, you can actually watch them rise up as the yeast frantically pump out gasthen you flip them, they deflate a little, like you've crushed their little yeasty ambitions. I must have some kind of bread schadenfreude--I really love watching them poof and then fall.

From Punch, or the London Charivari, Volume 103, December 24, 1892 ed. Sir Francis Cowley Burnand via WikipediaAside from that one instance, yeast-risen rolls griddled on both sides to create two flat, browned sides and a pale band about the waist were generally just referred to as “muffins” on both sides of the Atlantic until the end of the 19th C. The word derived either from the Middle Low German word “muffe” (pl. “muffen”) meaning “little cake” or the Old French “moufflet” meaning a soft or tender bread. It was probably the kind of bread peddled by the “muffin man” of nursery rhyme fame and along with its close relatives, the crumpet and cross-bun, was  customarily served with butter and jam at mid-day tea, a tradition that began in the 17th C. and reached its height in the Victorian Era.

Hannah Glasse included a recipe for small, griddled yeast breads in The Art of Cookery (1747) titled “Muffings [sic] and Oat-Cakes” which instructed that they be split with a fork rather than a knife so “they will be like a Honey-Comb” instead of “heavy as Lead.” Thomas Jefferson’s granddaughter recorded a similar recipe for “Monticello Muffins” in her unpublished cookbook manuscript. It calls for a dough of flour, water, and yeast to be shaped in “little cakes like biscuit” and baked on a griddle “before the fire” rather than inside the stove. Those were probably the same muffins Jefferson was referring to when he wrote to his daughter Martha from the White House:

"Pray enable yourself to direct us here how to make muffins in Peter’s method [referring to Peter Hemings, the head cook at Monticello]. My cook here cannot succeed at all in them, and they are a great luxury to me.”

One of Jefferson’s great-granddaughters recorded an anecdote regarding their proper consumption echoing Glasse’s warning not to cut them with a knife. The Benjamin Franklin in the story is one of Jefferson’s grandsons, not the bespectacled founding father, and Mrs. M is Dolley Madison, the fourth First Lady:

"On one occasion little Benjamin Franklin  . . . seated next to Mrs. M. found himself unequal to the management of his muffin. Mrs. Madison’s aid being invoked, she took the knife to cut it, but a little hand was laid on hers, and an earnest voice exclaimed, ‘No! No! That is not the way!’ ‘Well, how then Master Ben?’ ‘Why, you must tear him open, and put butter inside and stick holes in his back! And then pat him and squeeze him and the juice will run out!’ Mrs. Madison, much amused, followed his directions. Any lover of the English muffin will appreciate their wisdom!"

Notably, the story also seems to mark the transition from “muffin” to “English muffin.” What for the late 18th C. or early 19th C. Master Ben was just a “muffin,” was for Jefferson’s great-granddaughter, Ellen Wayles Harrison, who lived from 1823-1897, an “English muffin.”

American Muffin

The need for a distinction was probably prompted by the growing popularity of quick breads, which was facilitated by the increasing availability of chemical leaveners. The New World turned out to be a great source of potash, which could be refined into pearlash, an alkaline salt used in some bread and cake recipes in Andrea Simmons’s 1796 American Cookery. Chemically-leavened breads really took off after the first factory to produce baking soda was established by two New York bakers in 1846. A 1879 domestic handbook titled Housekeeping in Olde Virginia includes two recipes for “muffins,” the first of which would have produced something like an English muffin, and then:

“Another recipe for muffins…make the batter the consistency of pound cake, and bake in snow-ball cups as soon as made” (foodtimeline.org).

Although a butter and egg-rich cake called “pound cake” was also made in England, the one that’s traditional to the American South is lighter specifically because of the inclusion of baking soda. As quick breads became more common, especially in the American South, the older, yeast-risen style of “muffin” may have been associated with the Old World. It was apparently sold as a distinctively “English” bread at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. A recipe in Richard Baxter’s Receipt Book for Bakers (1896) claimed: “These are the genuine English Muffins that were introduced into Chicago during the World’s Fair.” Furthermore, the first person to mass-produce them was an honest-to-God Englishman. 1950s Thomas' ad--before "nooks and crannies" were their slogan--the small print describes the "wonderful texture of ridges and valleys that toast to a golden perfection...eagerly soak up butter, jam or marmalade"

Samuel Bath Thomas emigrated from Plymouth, England to New York in 1875 and began selling yeasted, griddled rolls at his Ninth Avenue bakery in 1880. An article on Wolferman’s website claims that Thomas invented the “English muffin” and the fork-splitting technique that preserved their “nook & crannies” better than knife-slicing, which seems to confuse Thomas’s advertising campaigns with history—the phrase “nooks and crannies” actually comes from 1970s Thomas English muffin ads. But Wolferman’s does have the essential Americanness of the term right—when Unilever bought the S.B. Thomas brand in the 1990s and began exporting “English muffins” to the UK, consumers there were totally bemused by the name.

So the “English muffin” is essentially American—or, traditionally, Welsh—and it’s completely different from the other kind of bread Americans typically call “muffins.”

Just bluffin’ with my muffin

Lamenting the substitution of “English muffin” for “crumpet” in the American versions of the Harry Potter books, Michael Quinion of World Wide Words argues that “crumpet” has unique cultural associations, even though young Americans might not know them. In particular, he mentions the crumpet’s slang connotations:

In the 1930s, the word became British English slang for a woman regarded as an object of sexual desire. No doubt men remembered their schooldays and associated female pulchritude with something tasty….

is "muffin" really not a slang term in the UK? is this cheeky smile really just for the American audience? or does Michael Quinion live under some kind of rock where women can be crumpets but not muffins?But of course, “muffin” has a similar connotation in America. It can refer to attractive people of both genders, usually preceded by “stud” for men, and is also used to refer to female genitalia—although as a primary rather than secondary sex organ, it’s a matter of some dispute whether that counts as “an object of sexual desire” (see Civilization and Its Discontents p. 63). In any case, it’s probably the perfect substitution for “crumpet” for American readers.

The usual explanation for the slang use of “muffin” has less to do with the tastiness of muffins or “female pulchitrude” than the phonetic similarity between muffin and “muff,” as in the winter accessory made of fur. “Muff” was adopted as a slang term for vagina in the late 17th or early 18th C. for anatomical reasons highlighted by this lyric from the 1707 Merry Songs & Ballads: “The Muff between her Haunches, Resembl’d..a Mag-Pye’s Nest” (OED).

By way of unfortunate synecdoche, it eventually became a slang term for a woman or girl, especially if considered promiscuous or a prostitute. According to Cassell’s, the extension to “muffin” as slang for either woman or vagina in the U.S. happened in the 1960s, at which point its primary culinary referent would have been the quick bread baked in a instead of the griddled, yeast-risen roll.

That just makes it all the more curious that “crumpet” would have acquired the same slang meaning overseas without the phonetic tie to “muff.” Is it just the fact that that both crumpets and muffins—both English and American—are round? I guess the words bun, pie, tart, cupcake, and dumpling all have similar slang meanings. Even biscuit is apparently a slang term for a young woman—who, if unappealing, is a “cold biscuit.” Not so for the toroidal bagel, twisted or rod-shaped pretzels, square petit fours, crackers, and brownies,* or flatbreads—there are no entries in Cassell’s for pita or naan, and pizza’s associations are primarily dermatological. I’m left, somewhat uneasily, with the conclusion that round breads and pastries are just inherently yonic. A question for you, dear readers: Are there any round baked goods that haven’t become slang terms for women and/or their genitalia?

*The Girl Scout level is taken from the mythical fairy-like creature known in Scotland and parts of England as a brùnaidh popularized by Canadian author Palmer Cox not the name of the baked good, which refers to the color of the chocolate bar cookie-cake. And even when deployed colloquially it refers primarily to someone being naive, not necessarily female.

What are you waiting for stupid? Eat it!

Even if all round breads are yonic, I guess I’m just more sensitive to the slang meanings of “muffin” than I am to biscuits or pie. It seems ridiculous, for example, to tell you how much I think you will delight in eating these muffins. Or, worse, how much I like eating these muffins. Or to exhort the delights of yeasty muffins.

But it’s the truth. These are some tasty muffins. (See? It’s terrible!)

A few notes on the recipe:

My starter alone doesn’t have enough rising power to create “nooks & crannies” in 10 minutes of baking time, which is why I use a recipe that calls for active dry yeast on top of the starter. If your starter will rise a loaf in less than 2 hrs, feel free to leave the packaged yeast out.

The sourdough flavor will depend on your starter and how long you let the dough rise. If you want a pronounced sourdough flavor, let the dough rise 8+ hrs. If you’re just trying to use up some starter, 2 hrs for the first rise should be plenty. If you don’t have a sourdough starter, double the amount of yeast and add 2/3 cup water and 2/3 cup flour.

When I make larger muffins, I sometimes bake them for 10-15 minutes after griddling them because otherwise they’ll remain doughy inside. To test them for doneness, you can try tapping the browned edges—if they sound hollow, they should be done all the way through; if they sound dense, they may be better if they’re baked. My preferred “testing” method is just to rip one open while it’s still warm off the griddle. If it’s doughy inside, I toast it. If not, I just butter it and go to town.

Recipe: Sourdough English Muffins
makes 12 smaller muffins (~68 g or 2.4 oz) or 8 larger ones (~100 g or 3.5 oz)

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup sourdough starter (100% hydration)* 
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose or bread flour
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat flour (or more white flour)
  • 1 t. active dry yeast (or about 1/2 packet)
  • 2 t. salt
  • 2 T. softened butter or oil
  • 1 T. sugar or honey
  • 2/3 cup lukewarm milk
  • 2-3 T. cornmeal for dusting the pan

*If not using starter, double the amount of yeast and add 2/3 cup water and 2/3 cup flour.

Method: 

1. Make a “sponge” with the instant yeast by combining it with a pinch of sugar, 1/4 cup flour, and 1/4 cup milk warmed to 110-120 F (or 1/4 cup flour and 1/4 cup warm water). Let sit for 5-10 minutes—it should get bubbly and increase in volume.

a "sponge" tests to make sure the yeast is aliveit's not strictly necessary--if you know your yeast is active, you can just mix all the ingredients together after 5 minutes: bubbling up nicely

2. Add the rest of the ingredients, except for the cornmeal, and mix until it starts to pull away from the bowl and form a dough. After I’ve heated the milk for the sponge, I add the butter so it will melt while the sponge is blooming.

this makes it softer and richer than dough made with just flour and water, although based on the Jefferson stories, you could try that too  all the ingredients together--I doubled the recipe, which is why this looks like so much more than the recipe above would make.

2. Scrape the mixture onto a lightly floured surface and knead around until it’s a well-defined ball that’s tacky but not truly sticky, adding more flour if necessary. I love the way the Jefferson daughter’s cookbook manuscript describes this step, and the process of making bread by feel rather than measured amounts: “Mix . . . the flour up with water so thin that the dough will stick to the table. Our cook takes it up and throws it down until it will no longer stick.”

 in-process kneading pictures are complicated by the sticky, floury hands problem ready to rise

3. Lightly oil a bowl—I usually just use the same bowl I mixed the ingredients in with as much of the dough scraped out as possible. Place the dough in the bowl, turn to coat with oil and cover with plastic wrap or a towel.

4. Let rise until doubled in size, about 2 hrs (or more if you want a more pronounced sourdough flavor).

more than doubled is fine--even leaving it overnight isn't going to hurt anything deflated for the first time: foreshadowing

5. Punch the dough to deflate, remove to a clean table and knead gently until most of the air pockets have been released.

the first four--I weigh the dough to make sure they're even, which isn't necessary but does make for perfectly equal muffins16: again, a double batch

6. Divide into 8-12 pieces and form each one into an even ball by rolling between your hands or on the table. If they’re sticky, dust with a little flour. Cover them as you make them and set a timer for 30 minutes after you finish the first four (they’ll be ready first, so they’re the first ones you’ll two batches of 4 done and cooling, one on the stove, the last 4 on deckgriddle).

7. If making only 8-10 muffins, preheat the oven to 350 F because you’ll probably need to bake them. If making 12, I’d skip this—griddling will probably be sufficient.

8. With about 5 minutes left on the timer, preheat a skillet over medium to medium-high heat. Just before adding the first four muffins, sprinkle it with cornmeal.

9. Starting with the first balls you made, gently put them in the skillet. They should puff up visibly. After about 5 min, flip them and cook them for about 5 min more on the other side. Adjust the heat if necessary—if they’re not browning much after 5 minutes in the pan, turn the heat up. If they’re browning too quickly, turn the heat down. If the “on deck” balls start to rise too much, you can pat them down a little bit.

10. Option: if they’re not done after being griddled, transfer them to a baking sheet and put in a 350 F oven for 10-15 min.

11. To serve: perforate the edge with a fork and gently tear open. Toast (or don’t, your loss).

split with a genuine fork light as honeycomb instead of heavy as lead

Jell-O Jiggler Shots Part II: Star-spangled Photo-tutorial

This is how you say "America, Fuck Yeah!" in Jell-O shots

For this year’s patriotic, alcoholic Jell-O Jigglers, I decided to cut stars out of the bottom layer of Jell-O, fill the holes with a white gelatin mixture, and then replace the stars on the top layer and pour white gelatin around them. So the top and bottom layers both have blue and white stars and they sandwich a layer of red. Here’s the bottom, before I inverted it:

it was actually a little prettier this way--I accidentally dissolved it a little too much in the process of unmolding.

By the numbers:

  • 2 small (3 oz) or 1 large (6 oz) box Berry Blue Jell-Othe lime Jell-O ended up in a separate pan, infused with limoncello
  • 2 small (3 oz) or 1 large (6 oz) box red Jell-O (I used Strawberry)
  • 8 packages (7 g each, about 2 oz total) plain gelatin
  • 14 oz. (1 can) sweetened condensed milk
  • 4 2/3 cups water (about 37 oz)
  • 2 2/3 cups vodka (about 21 oz or 630 ml)
  • 1 cup (8 oz) blue curacao
  • 1 cup (8 oz) raspberry pucker
  • 2/3 cup (5.3 oz) triple sec

That means it’s 11-12% alcohol or ~23 proof (107.3 oz total, 12.4 oz of which are alcohol—21 oz vodka @ 40% + 16 oz liqueur @ 15% + 5.3 oz liqueur @ 30%). So it’s roughly comparable to most wine or mixed drinks and approximately 18-27 servings of alcohol.

Layer #1: BLUE

Jell-O and gelatin combined like a blue, boozy reflecting pool: behold my kitchen shelves!

Whisk together the first color of Jell-O (6 oz.) with 2 packages of plain gelatin. Add 2 cups boiling water and stir to dissolve. Cool slightly (10-15 min) and add 1 cup vodka and 1 cup clear or matching liqueur up to 40-proof (I only had 2/3 cup blue curacao so I added a little of the red pucker, which gave it a slightly midnight hue, and some triple sec). Chill until set—at least 30 minutes.

If your refrigerator isn’t level—mine isn’t, you can stick flat things under the corners to try to get the Jell-O to set in an even layer. I used pieces of individually-wrapped American cheese. 

i know, it's "fake" cheese or "plastic" cheese or what have you; I still think it melts better than anything else I've found

Layer #2: WHITE

 gelatin mixed with cold water after a few minutes, "bloomed" meaning the gelatin has absorbed the water and softened

Empty two packages of plain gelatin into a bowl and add 6 Tablespoons of cold water. Let it “bloom” for 5 minutes.

Then add 2/3 cup boiling water, 1/3 cup vodka, 1/3 cup triple sec (or other clear liqueur), and 6-7 oz. sweetened condensed milk (about 1/2 a can). Let it cool.

Meanwhile, cut shapes out of the first layer and return them to cold storage.

I used a cookie cutter dipped in water to make the shapes and then lifted them out gently by easing each corner out one by one with a butter knife

Pour the white gelatin into the star-holes and then in a thin layer across the top of the entire blue layer. Chill until set, at least 30 min.

or just fill the stars i wanted a thin white layer separating the blue from the red

Layer #3: RED

Repeat step one with the second color. This time it really has to be cool so it doesn’t melt the other layers when you pour it on top. So, combine 6oz. Jell-O mix with 2 packages gelatin, add 2 cups boiling water, let cool 25-30 min, add 1 cup vodka and 1 cup liqueur.

Pour gently (I pour over the back of a spoon to distribute the impact a little more) over the set layers. Chill until set—at least 30 min.

red Jell-O and gelatin dissolved in water I thought about making the red into 2 thinner layers separated by white layers...y'know, like stripes on a flag. but that seemed like too much fuss, even for me.

Layer #4: WHITE

Repeat step two: “bloom” 2 packages gelatin in 6 T. cool water for 5 min, add 2/3 cup boiling water, add 1/3 cup vodka and 1/3 cup triple sec or other clear liqueur. If you want a thin white layer separating the colors, pour 4-6 oz of the white mixture over the set layers, tilting to get it to cover the surface of the colored layer, and chill that until set before preceding.

you can still see the red through the white the return of the stars

Then, place the cut pieces on top of the set layers and gently pour the rest of the white mixture around them. Chill until set.

I am completely unenthused about how Jell-O tastes, but I really love how it looks. I suppose I could improve the flavor by making my own with fruit purees or juices and gelatin, but I haven't gotten that ambitious yet. 

Cut and serve directly from the pan. Or, to invert and see the opposite side, immerse the pan in warm water for a few seconds (5-10 should be plenty). Not too hot or too long, because it will start to melt quickly—10 seconds in near-boiling water was too much. Place a serving platter upside down over the pan and flip. Immediately return to the refrigerator to re-firm.

Dipping the knife in hot water before cutting helps make cleaner cuts, but ultimately it’s still Jell-O. It wants to be wiggly and a little uneven, clearly “homemade” even if it comes from a box.  happy birthday, america, bottoms up!

Happy Birthday America Jell-O Jiggler Shots

grainy cameraphone pictures from a year ago, hooray! the red was strawberry + raspberry pucker and vodka, the blue was some kind of berry + blue curacao and vodka, the white had triple sec and vodka

Jell-O shots are often prepared in individual molds, which is handy for portion control and ease of consumption, but (obviously) requires that you have individual molds. You can, of course, make alcoholic Jell-O in one big sheet just like people generally do with non-alcoholic Jell-O, but the alcohol interferes with how the gelatin sets, which can make un-molded Jell-O shots a real mess to serve. If you really want to make alcoholic Jell-O that you can cut into pieces and serve as finger-food (or finger-drinks?), you need to add more gelatin.

I worked out ratios of Jell-O mix, plain gelatin, liquor, and liqueur last year for a 4th of July party, and now I don’t remember all the sources I consulted or factors I weighed. But I did record the recipe I settled on: 1 package of plain gelatin per 3 oz. Jell-O mix (a small box) combined with 1 cup boiling water, 1/2 cup liquor (80 proof) and 1/2 cup liqueur (40 proof). That yields a significantly higher-proof Jell-O shot than the traditional recipe, which calls for 5 oz. liquor per 3 oz. package, but it still sets up firmly enough to cut cleanly and eat with your hands.

blue curacao and vodka in the berry layers, limoncello and vodka in the lemon layers, triple sec and vodka in the condensed milk layers Flavor and design-wise, the possibilities are virtually endless. You can create the patriotic “stained glass” effect pictured above by making red and blue Jell-O in separate pans, chilling them well, cutting them into cubes and then pouring a mixture of sweetened condensed milk, gelatin, water, and alcohol over them (recipe below). That obviously also lends itself well to things like team colors or other holiday combinations.

You can create a layered effect by making small batches and letting each one set before you add the next one—a technique that lends itself well to rainbow pride shots. The Michigan-themed cubes on the right that look vaguely like expensive MOMA paperweights (ht: Ryan Hennessey) were created by alternating small batches of berry and lemon Jell-O with the sweetened condensed gelatin shot recipe in a 9×13 pan in 30 min. intervals. Other potentially-helpful tips: I made the mixture for each layer right after putting the previous one in the refrigerator so it could cool to room temp before I poured it on top, and I poured the new layers over the back of a spoon to soften their impact on the “set” layers.

If you had the time and inclination, you could make layers within “stained glass” pieces or cover “stained glass” pieces with different colored layers. But if that all seems like too much fuss, you can also just make single colors. And if you like, you can cut them into whimsical shapes. I’m going to make them again for a 4th of July picnic this year, although I haven’t decided what colors or styles, except that it will have to involve the seasonally-inappropriate box of lime that’s been in the cupboard for ages and the bottle of Raspberry Pucker we’ll never use for anything else. I may put pictures up after they’re done, but thought for once I’d try to post a holiday-appropriate recipe before the holiday in case any one else’s 4th of July might be enhanced by alcoholic gel-food. they do bend and wobble a bit, they're still just gelatin, but they will stay together well enough to transport them and you can leave them at room temp for hours without them melting into unappealing goo

Happy 4th of July to all who celebrate it. I wish you exactly as much grilled tube meat, sparkly exploding stuff, and patriotic kitsch as you desire (even if that’s none).

Recipe: Jello Jiggler Shots

Colored Jell-O Jiggler Shots:

  • 1 3oz box Jell-O
  • 1 envelope plain gelatin
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • 1/2 cup 80-proof liquor
  • 1/2 cup 40-proof liqueur

1. Whisk together the Jell-O powder and plain gelatin.

2. Add the cup of boiling water and stir until dissolved. Cool to lukewarm, stirring occasionally.

3. Add liquor and liqueur

Makes a 1/2” layer in an 8×8 pan or a 1/4” layer in a 9×13 pan. Double if desired–can use 6 oz. box of Jell-O.

White Gelatin Shots:

  • 1 envelope plain gelatin
  • 3 T. cold water
  • 1/3 cup boiling water
  • 1/3 cup liquor/liqueur (I used half vodka and half triple-sec)
  • 100 ml (~3 oz) sweetened condensed milk

1. Sprinkle gelatin on cold water and allow to soak for 5 min.

2. Add boiling water and stir well. Cool, stirring occasionally.

3. Add liquor/liqueur and stir, add sweetened condensed milk and stir.

Use one recipe for thin layer in 9×13 pan. Double to cover 2 batches of colored Jell-O cut in “stained glass” pieces in an 8×8 pan. Triple to cover 4 batches of “stained glass” Jell-O in a 9×13 pan.

Non-alcoholic White Gelatin:

  • 1/2 cup cold water
  • 2 envelopes gelatin
  • 1 1/2 cups boiling water
  • 1 can (14 oz) sweetened condensed milk

1. Sprinkle gelatin on cold water and allow to soak for 5 min.

2. Add boiling water and stir well. Let cool to lukewarm, stirring occasionally.

3. Add sweetened condensed milk.

Makes enough to cover 4 batches “stained glass” Jell-O in 9×13. Halve for 8×8. Make 1/3 or 1/4 for thin layer in 9×13.

For non-alcoholic colored Jell-O, follow the instructions on box.

so this is 2 small-box (3 oz) batches of blue, 2 small-box batches of lemon, and 3 single batches of white. Feeds...or intoxicates a crowd.