Wednesday, January 30, 2008

living color

Much has been written about the effects of color on the perception of flavor. Much more has been written on the superiority of pastured meat versus feedlot meat. I'm going to say a bit about both, now.

Couple weeks ago we had a gift card to the organic grocery store in our town. We buy our produce and dairy there regularly, but not usually the meat because it's awfully expensive. A pastured chicken--which is to say, one that grew up scratching in the grass and eating bugs and seeds--costs two to three times as much as one that spent its life crammed a cage in a barn with its beak cut off, choking down a slurry made of soybeans and its own kin. I try to buy minimally processed chickens, so mine aren't shot full of saline and "flavor-enhancing solution," but they still grew up on a vegetarian diet, which is not what chickens are meant to eat. Their meat is acceptable but certainly not premium.

Since I had the gift card, I could afford to splurge. I bought a locally-reared fryer. It was cleaned and prepped just like any bird you'd buy in a chain store. In fact it was cleaner than many; there were no bits of kidneys clinging to its ribs, there were no stubs of feathers in the creases. I thought at first it hadn't been properly drained, because it seemed to be very red.

As I cut it up, however, I saw this was not the case. It was very well drained; there was a little bit of congealed blood in the veins under the wings, but that's common and easily washed away. The meat just had a lot of color. The flesh was pink to salmon-toned at the joints; the fat was butter-yellow. There was a blue and brown undertone to the bone like I'd never seen before. There was rather a lot of fat, too, especially under the wishbone--so much so that I cut part of it off. It tends to not fry cleanly and can get soggy.

I remember now, being a kid and cutting that fat off the underside of the wishbone, because the wishbone was always my piece and I didn't like that chewy lump of fat under there. I haven't had to do that in years; most commercial chickens just don't have that much fat anymore. They've been bred to be lean with a lot of breast tissue.

This bird was well-proportioned, with well-developed thighs, and very moist. We didn't bite into it and say to each other, "Oh my God, this is the best chicken I've ever had!" but it was very very good, and I suspect that if I fried a supermarket chicken tomorrow, we'd be disappointed. It was certainly the best chicken I've had in years.

Fifteen bucks is a lot to pay for a single bird, when you compare the seven or eight dollars I usually pay for a Smart Chicken. But fifteen bucks is not bad at all for a bird that feeds me and the SP for at least two meals apiece. And when you throw in the flavor and the knowing that the bird probably doesn't have salmonella or pesticides in its system, I'd pay fifteen dollars for another one. I know that puts me in a priviledged position, that I can do that, but what better do I have to spend it on? Besides, if the demand gets great enough, perhaps the price will drop. It's worth it to me for two meals a week.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

insulin, aging, frying and baking

There is an excellent article over at titled, Insulin, Leptin, Diabetes, and Aging: Not So Strange Bedfellows. It squares up with some things I already knew, and it expands on some things I was curious about.

One sad thing, though, is the precise reason why fried chicken is something you shouldn't eat every day:

In a process called glycation, glucose reacts with protein, resulting in sticky, sugar-damaged proteins called advanced glycated end products (AGEs). When protein is damaged, it cannot function properly or communicate properly with other cells. AGEs also promote inflammation and free radical oxidation throughout the body. AGEs cause skin to wrinkle, and wrinkling and damage to the lining of arteries contributes to plaque and heart attacks. It can promote the formation of cataracts, macular degeneration, and eventual blindness.

The glycation process has also been linked to the destruction of protein and nerve cells that can lead to Alzheimer's disease, memory loss and various neuropathies. Heating of starches (especially frying them, like french fries and chips) can produce a type of glycated protein called acrilamides, which are potent carcinogens.

See? I told you it was the breading, not the oil. Granted, the author says heating starches "can" cause this reaction, but not under what circumstances, i.e. how high a temperature. Oh well. I put out a fryer to thaw this morning, and I'm going to enjoy it.

On an amusing side note, my sister and I finally convinced my mother to switch from Parkay to butter, partly as a result of a little health scare my Dad had in December. He's fine, but I took the opportunity to brow-beat her about all the Crisco and margarine they eat. Finally, at Christmas, my sister added her "yucks!" to the makeup of margarine and Mom caved. Yesterday on the phone, she was asking me how I stored my butter, how fast it would go rancid at room temperature, and so on.

"I tried making a batch of oatmeal cookies with butter," she told me in a hushed voice, as if she were doing something subversive (which in a way, she was; I feel that way myself sometimes).

"Oh? How'd that work out?" I said casually, because I already knew the answer.

"Y'know, I just wasn't really happy with my baking this year," she said. Mom is the champion baker of the family. Her dinner and cinnamon rolls are legend, and I have to admit I prefer her pie crust to mine but I still think I can beat it. "Nothing was really bad, it just wasn't up to my standards."

"You said something about texture," I remembered.

"Right! They were... not as light. Kind of doughy. So I looked at the back of the Parkay box and saw that it was made with soybean oil. I could've sworn it used to be corn oil."

"Yes, that's what I remember, too."

"But these oatmeal cookies turned out really good. They got browner on the tops and they had a nice crispy rim around the bottoms that your dad really liked, but they were still moist on the inside."

"You don't say."

"Of course that was your great-grandma Rella's recipe, so it was originally intended to be made with butter."

"That's true."

"And you know that she used to make all her pie crusts with lard." Sigh. "I guess I'll have to try that next."

She's half-kidding. She's following the same path of logic I went down a few years ago. Even those of us who pride ourselves on being open-minded and open-eyed and logical fall into traps of convenience and the so-called "common knowledge" of our age. I could make a point about how everybody living in single-family homes, isolated from the wisdom and method of our grandparents, is having an effect, but I think it's more sinister than that. My grandparents are the worst of the processed-food consumptors. They eat Lite this and Diet that, and probably haven't seen a non-trans-fat in ten years. Meanwhile my grandmother is having all these nerve problems and chronic back pain. I really want to get some butter and olive oil into the woman, but that's a battle I don't expect to win. Unfortunately she's always been a little too eager to believe what authority figures tell her--authority being doctors and the talking heads on TV.

But, I've about got my mom swung around. Now if I can just get her to use olive oil to fry instead of Crisco. I know she knows I'm doing it; I've mentioned it several times, but she claims Dad likes the taste of Crisco. I'd bet a hundred bucks that if he quit eating it his heartburn would go away.

Friday, January 25, 2008

about eating fresh and local

There is a really excellent post over at Culinate that gives an overview of the health and environment issues inherent in big farming and industrial non-food products.

Here's a real eye-opener:
Did you know that many of today’s crops are genetically engineered with a “suicide gene,” a gene that won’t let the crop reproduce? Did you know that, for many food plants like wheat and tomatoes and apples, only 20 percent of the known varieties remain in existence? One in five? Did you know that your average carrot has one-third of the nutritional content as did a carrot in the 1930s? Did you know that crab is sent from the West Coast to China to be removed from its shells, and then back again to our supermarkets? Did you know that industrial farms are systematically stripping the topsoil from our arable land until nothing at all can grow? Did you know that most of America’s bees are sent to California every spring to pollinate the almond crop, that the resulting bitter honey is thrown away, that the bees eat high-fructose corn syrup and many of them just die from the stress?

I had heard rumors about much of that, but didn't know all the specifics. I hate to sound like a Luddite, but this is what happens when both parents work outside of the home, and commute such great distances to spend a day in busiwork that makes nothing, accomplishes nothing, teaches nothing. I was thinking on my way into work today, that obesity is brought on by eating starchy foods with no real nutritional value. Gary Taubes' sources implicate insulin as the primary trigger, but there is still a gap in our knowledge as to what causes insulin resistance, and the breakdown of the body's ability to use its fat stores. I wonder if the answer is simple lack of nutrients? For instance, many vitamins are fat soluable. If we don't eat enough digestible (read: natural, as in partly-saturated) fats to process the necessary vitamins, perhaps the lack of fats actually prevents the body from utilizing its own fat stores? That's a nice homeopathic concept for you.

If you go read the post, check out the comments, as well. The discussion after the post is even better. I'm especially keen on the bit about allergies. I've suspected for several years that my body does not like corn products, but I love Mexican food, and last night I caved and we ordered a Special Dinner from El Mezcal. It tasted great, and I ate relatively little, but this morning my face is inflamed and my guts feel full of concrete. I made myself some nice pastured scrambled eggs for breakfast.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

subversive marketing

So... End of the Line is coming out next month. Remember End of the Line? Yeah, I'd forgotten, too.

Anyway, I got a wild hair and decided maybe I should do some promoting. Do readings around town, that kind of thing. Since it was close to work, I went over to Borders at lunchtime and asked who I had to bribe to do a reading in their store.

Long story short, they only schedule readings for authors/artists who have a product they can stock on their shelves. Since mine is electronic, I'm SOL.

I can kinda see the logic for this, but it also seems to me that any warm bodies in their store would be a good thing, plus while my book may not be in print, Baen publishes plenty of other authors who ARE on their shelves. I pointed this out to the marketing manager, politely, but she was unimpressed.

So now I'm considering subversive ways of putting myself in their store, anyway. Go hang out in the coffeeshop, wearing a bustle dress and hat, sit and write and hand out cards to the curious. I wonder if they could kick me out for doing that. I suppose they could, but only if they noticed. I could always say I was a seamstress and gave a business card to the nice lady who admired my dress. Which would be true.

I hate territorialism. Anyway, I plan to chat up the local bookstores, and the comic book stores, too, I think. The geeks might be more receptive. And I met a guy who teaches at the art institute who offered to put me in touch with some marketing people there, who might have space/publicity I could use.

It's exciting, but it's tiring, too. I have the soul of a cat; I can be deadly for the few moments when my attention is engaged, but most of the time I'm committed to eating, preening, and lounging.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

an important bulletin about fried chicken

I started frying chicken again after I went to live with the SP. We both like it a lot, it's virtually impossible to buy anywhere (other than a fast-food grease pit), and I finally have had the leisure to experiment and get it the way I wanted it. I think I've got it mastered now. (Recipe is here--you know you want it.)

This led to the SP taking leftovers to lunch, which led to his co-worker asking for the recipe, which led to many discussions among the menfolk about diet and what is supposedly good for you, with the SP passing along all my reading about fats and oils and proteins and tofu and processed crap.

I may have started a little mini-cult. Heh Heh. (Seriously. The Recipe is here. Go try it.)

But he asked me a question I couldn't answer this morning, having to do with olive oil. See, I've heard for years that you couldn't use olive oil for frying, because of olive oil's supposedly low smoke point, but over the past year I'd been using more and more olive oil in my frying mixture, and now I am using it exclusively, and I have not had a single problem with it smoking or overheating at 375°.

So I went looking for an answer to this olive oil problem. And it seems--as I suspected--the idea that olive oil can't be used for cooking is so much propaganda. I shouldn't be at all surprised if it originated with the Crisco manufacturers, back in the 1920's.

From the Olive Oil source:
If you go to the internet or the market to look for smoke points you will see something interesting. Every oil claims to have the highest smoke point. One website for macadamia nut oil puts their oil at the top of the list with a smoke point of 410 degrees F. On their chart, olive oil comes in at a measly 190 degrees F. This is below the temperature of a hot cup of tea!

The Olive Oil Source claims that extra virgin olive oil smokes from 400 to 365 degrees F, according to it's free fatty acid content. But the macadamia nut folk say that olive oil smokes at the temperature of hot water out of the tap; 190 degrees. When I suggested to the macadamia people that it seemed unlikely that olive oil smokes at a temperature lower than boiling water and that maybe they were confusing centigrade with Fahrenheit they insisted they were right.

So who do you trust for the real smoke point? Here is what some research yielded:

The International Olive Oil Council: 410˚
Institute of Shortening and Edible Oils: 420˚

Or why not get some olive oil off the shelf and heat it up in a saucepan with a frying thermometer? This is properly done in a lab with special lighting which shows the first hint of smoke. My stovetop experiment yielded 350 degrees for a jug of discount store oil which had been sitting open in the garage for a few years and 380 for a premium fresh extra virgin oil. Olive oil is fine for frying.

And if that's too random for you, here's the skinny from Food Network:
The filtration process for this light-style oil also gives it a higher smoke point than regular olive oil. Light olive oils can therefore be used for high-heat frying, whereas regular olive oil is better suited for low- to medium-heat cooking, as well as for many uncooked foods such as salad dressings and marinades. The International Olive Oil Institute recommends using pure olive oil for frying, since the flavor of extra virgin olive oil tends to break down at frying temperatures, making the added expense a waste.

I like the olive oil. Since I'm using the Pomace, or third-press, oil, it's relatively inexpensive, it has little or no taste of its own (at least compared to canola or peanut oil) and it doesn't give me heartburn or bowel discomfort the way Crisco does.

Of course you can use whatever oil you like. I just enjoy bursting other people's absurd balloons. Now go forth and fry!

Monday, January 07, 2008

things accomplished

go to writer's meeting
alter blue silk blouse (in progress)
hem navy pants
hem gray pants
cuff the SP's overalls
wash sheets
wash shower curtain
turn the mattress
finish Feng Shui
hem new black skirt
read AJ's MS (in progress)
put fasteners on black pants
close up lining/pocket in tweed vest
start on the SP's sword bag
cut out the SP's coat

I got a few things done. Mostly I cleared away several little things that had been getting in my way. I would've had my blue silk blouse finished, too, but I made a mistake while taking in the sleeves, I didn't leave enough seam allowance to account for the armseye riding higher on my shoulder, so now I have to take the seam out all over again and put in a gusset. Very annoying.

I skipped tai chi Saturday morning, my self-punishment for not writing during the week, and knocked out an ending to Death by Feng Shui. Not the ending it will ultimately have, perhaps, but an ending. My writing compadres said it wasn't satisfying as it now sits. I haven't read it myself (this is to say, I remember what I wrote, but I have no distance from it), so I can't diagnose yet.

Mostly they just shrugged and said, "So when do we get more Trace?"


Thursday, January 03, 2008

cause and consequence

I don't make resolutions any more. They doom you to failure. I figured out a few years back that the only way to make change is to change habits, and that can only be done one step at a time, with each decision you make during the day:

--How is your stomach going to feel if you eat cocoa and cookies instead of a real dinner?

--Do you want to hit the snooze button twice more, or do you want to get up and make yourself some breakfast so you won't be starving at 10 am?

--Won't you sleep better, and be less restless tomorrow, if you do your standing meditation tonight?

--You know Sit's going to review that sword move tomorrow, don't you think you better practice it?

And so it goes. I can't claim I've been dedicated to my tai chi practice, but I've been more focused while I am doing it, and finding reasons to do it more regularly. It keeps my body warm and loose in this cold weather, and keeps my mind calmed and makes me feel prepared in class. We've been working on the "kicks" form for a few weeks; that's the form we use for competition. A couple of the newer students were ready for it, and I welcome the review. Sit's been refining my form and technique a good bit, and I'm being more conscious of the correction and trying to apply it universally. I'm already thinking ahead to competition in the summer, and we have a paid gig at a Chinese New Year party in February.

Doing a little tai chi every night is relatively easy. It's picking up my other projects that's difficult. I'm working on the "go" button--conditioning myself to just pick something up and work on it, rather than spinning in circles because I can't decide what to do first. I have had some success. New Year's Eve day I cut out and assembled a skirt that's been in my to-do pile for at least three years. It's hanging up now, needing only to be hemmed. Tuesday afternoon I started taking apart a blouse that I bought back in 1992. It's a beautiful blue-gray silk that I love, but I bought it when fashion was oversized and it's big enough for two of me. I finally ripped it apart. I'm looking forward to wearing it again.

The only thing I can't find motivation for is writing. It's not a matter of "inspiration"--I know by now that if I put my fingers on the keys, the words will come. It's just I've gotten tired of spending hours on something that has earned me little recognition and less money. Sewing is easier and more lucrative, and unlike fiction, most people have the sense to realize when they can't do it.

But--sigh--I only have two more scenes to write on Feng Shui, and my writer's group meets Saturday. Feng Shui should be a very salable little story--good length, contemporary tone. I'll try to wring some interest out of myself over lunchtime for the next two days.

P.S. I found a blog called Danger Gal Friday. It's devoted to kick-ass female characters in fiction. I put it on the sidebar so I can visit it regularly; you may want to check it out, as well. It's not militantly feminist, it's just a guidepost for those who gravitate toward such things.