Doing the dishes

Suboptimal
Suboptimal.

Dishes seem like such a petty thing to complain about but in a college kitchen, they can easily become a major barrier to cooking.

Back home, when one person in my family cooks, another cleans up after. It’s a great way of spreading out the work and making cooking on weeknights a little more feasible for a busy family.

Now that I’m in college, my roommates and I all cook for ourselves. Sometimes we try to cook together but with our crazy schedules, it’s definitely not a regular occurrence. This means we all do our own dishes too, and with four girls cooking the dishes can definitely pile up.

As silly as it sounds, I’ve found that I’m more likely to cook if I use less dishes and spend less time cleaning. You can call it being lazy (and it certainly is!) but convenience is a major factor in the food choices we make.

You can see this on a larger, historical scale as well. TV dinners and fast food are partly credited with helping women get into the workforce. Women were typically the cooks in the family and with the invention of packaged foods, they were able to spend less time in the kitchen and instead, start working outside of the house. Clearly, the power of convenience is not something to be underestimated.

Anyway, back to the dishes. Here’s how I deal with mine mine so cooking, and cleaning, is more convenient:

  • Clean as you cook. There is nothing worse than spending an hour cooking and turning around to see a sink piled high with dirty dishes. When I clean as I go, I’m left with just a few things to wash up at the end. Most recipes have steps where you have to wait for things to cook and this is a great time to wash the dishes that you’re not going to use anymore.
  • Do your dishes right after you eat. I like to follow the two-minute rule I mentioned here – if it is going to take me less than two minutes to do, I try to do it right away. This is an especially good rule with dishes. It’s so much easier to quickly rinse out a bowl than to scrape out the crusty oatmeal that has been sitting in it all day (ick).
  • Plan ahead. Before cooking, I read the recipe and see if I can reduce the number of dishes they use. For example, if I need 1/4 cup of one thing and 1/2 cup of another, I’ll use a 1/4 cup measuring cup to measure both.
  • Use the same things more than once. This works for both cooking and eating. If you’re cooking multiple dishes at the same time, you can use the same cutting boards, knives, and serving spoons. I usually use the same water glass for a day or two before tossing it in the dishwasher. At our house, we have coasters with our names on them so we don’t get our glasses mixed up. Of course, you don’t want to take this one to an extreme. Using the same unwashed bowl to eat all of your meals in a day would be gross and you definitely want to be careful to avoid cross contamination when handling raw meat.
  • Keep it simple. I avoid getting extra dishes dirty whenever possible – you can do most things with a spoon, knife, and bowl. For instance, instead of lugging out our food processor to make salad dressing, I shake it up in the jar I’m going to store it in.

What are some tricks you use to making cooking or cleaning more convenient?

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Hedonism

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So I noticed something interesting during my informal survey of my friends’ food values the other day. Almost every person (my baseball friend was the exception) listed taste as one of their top food values.

This fit in nicely with an idea that we have come back to several times in my class. One of the great achievements of 21st century food science was to effectively eliminate nutrient deficiency diseases in the developed world. Think about it – not many people in the United States are worrying about getting scurvy while they’re doing their grocery shopping. Now that deficiency diseases are no longer a problem, we are free to make the majority of our food choices based on taste.

Manufacturers take advantage of this and compete with each other to make the most appetizing new products, and therefore the most profit. Consumers are left with a vast array of tasty options to choose from. Today, our food choices are largely hedonistic. However, with this explosion of tasty foods we are starting to see an increase in health problems related to overnutrition.

Sadly, there are many products out there that taste good but are unhealthy, as well as foods that are healthy but taste awful. Whenever I can, I like to reach a happy compromise and pick healthy foods that still satisfy my own hedonistic tastes. Food is something that I take a lot of pleasure in, and I strongly believe it is possible to enjoy it and still be healthy.

The banana bread recipe below is a de-veganized version of Katie Levans’ veganized version of Mark Bittman’s banana bread (whew!). The vegan recipe is awesome and I highly recommend making it.

This recipe is incredibly flexible. I usually keep extra canned pumpkin in my freezer and accidentally used frozen butternut squash soup instead of pumpkin once. Whoops. The bread still turned out great though, so it’s pretty hard to mess this one up.

The other day, I tested it out on a friend who claims to be good at detecting “healthy food”. He ate three muffins, and took a few more to go. I wouldn’t call this health food but it’s definitely a much healthier version of banana bread, and one that I think tastes delicious – a win/win in my book.

Whole Wheat Banana Bread

Adapted from SweetTater Blog

If you want to make muffins instead, bake for about 25 minutes. 

Feel free to use different nuts, add dried fruit, or leave the nuts and chocolate out all together. 

Yield: 1 loaf

Time: 1 hour (15 minutes prep, 45 minutes baking)

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups whole wheat flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1.5 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 Tablespoons ground flax seed
  • 1 egg
  • 3 ripe bananas
  • 1/4 cup oil (any kind, I usually use canola or coconut)
  • 1/4 cup pumpkin puree
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1/2 cup chocolate chips/chopped chocolate

Instructions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. In a large bowl, mix dry ingredients (flour, salt, baking powder, and flax).
  3. In a smaller bowl, beat egg. Add bananas and mash. Add in remaining wet ingredients (oil, pumpkin, sugar, vanilla) and mix.
  4. Add wet into dry ingredients and mix until just combined.
  5. Fold in nuts and chocolate.
  6. Grease a loaf pan and pour batter in. Bake for 45 minutes or until a skewer poked in the middle comes out mostly dry

What’s the deal with gluten?

Six dollars for a teeny tiny little loaf of bread
Six dollars for a teeny tiny little loaf of bread

Gluten-free food seems to be everywhere right now. I’m seeing it on grocery store shelves, marked on restaurant menus, and in the diets of many of my friends and family. But what does all this really mean? Why are so many people avoiding gluten now? Is gluten bad for you? Should we all avoid it?

First of all, what is gluten? Gluten is part of a protein in wheat that helps make bread chewy and delicious. It is also in rye and barley and though it is not naturally in oats, they are often contaminated during processing.

There are three major medical reasons why people avoid gluten: celiac disease, wheat allergies, and gluten intolerance/sensitivity.

  1. Celiac disease is when someone has an immune reaction to gluten, which causes their small intestine to become inflamed. When they eat foods with gluten, they can experience abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea, and constipation.
  2. Wheat allergies are when someone has an allergic reaction to wheat. Food allergies are immune responses, like we talked about the other day, so both wheat allergies and Celiac disease involve an immune response but the response and triggers are different. Celiac disease is specific to gluten and is characterized by inflammation of the small intestine, while a wheat allergy is to wheat and causes a more typical allergic response (hives, itching, difficulty breathing, etc.).
  3. Gluten intolerance/sensitivity is when someone has similar symptoms to Celiac disease but do not test positive for Celiac. Generally, it is less severe and lacks the characteristic intestinal inflammation that accompanies Celiac.

So should you eat gluten-free? That depends.

If you have a medical reason and your doctor has told you to avoid gluten, then YES, you definitely should eat gluten-free.

If you don’t have a medical reason to eliminate gluten, there is no reason to do so – there is nothing inherently “bad” or unhealthy about gluten as long as your body can tolerate it.

However, if you find that cutting out gluten makes you feel better, for whatever reason, I’m certainly not going to tell you to eat it.

I do want to caution against avoiding gluten just because it is trendy (Miley Cyrus and Gwyneth Paltrow have both advocated a gluten free diet). Gluten is just a protein – unless you have a medical reason to do so, eating gluten-free will not make you any healthier, and may even have negative effects.

One reason many people feel better eating a gluten-free diet is that they cut down on many of the refined carbohydrates that contain gluten (cookies, cake, white bread, etc.) and add more whole grains, fruit, and vegetables to their diet to compensate. The benefits aren’t from eliminating gluten but from eating a healthier diet in general.

Another thing to consider about eating gluten-free is that many gluten-free breads, cakes, and cookies are highly processed, low in nutrients, and extremely expensive. Again, if you have a medical necessity to eat a gluten free diet, this is money well spent.

However, if you can tolerate gluten, it is a lot of money to spend on something that isn’t necessary and won’t do you any good (especially on a college budget). If you’re trying to eat a healthier diet and do fine with gluten, I would suggest focusing on whole grains (including wheat) instead of gluten-free products.

Sources/More Info:

  1. Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity
  2. Wheat Allergies 
  3. A really awesome article from Jezebel on gluten-free becoming trendy

Irradiation, risk, and food values

Fun fact: all mangos are irradiated before entering the US to kill any bugs tagging along that could potentially cause an infestation.
Fun fact: all mangos are irradiated before entering the US to kill any bugs tagging along that could potentially cause an infestation.

Photo information: Mangga aneka by W.A. Djatmiko (CC BY-SA)

We had a guest lecturer the other week who came in to talk to us about food irradiation, a topic that I honestly had never really heard of.

Basically, food irradiation is when food is exposed to low levels of radioactive energy in order to kill pathogens. It does not make the food itself radioactive and is generally thought to be safe by the scientific community.

Our guest speaker and my professor were both highly in support of food irradiation, which they believe would save lives if it was widely adopted. However, they said that is not likely to happen in this country (with a few exceptions, like the mangos above) because people are so frightened by the idea of irradiating their food.

Personally, I’m not sure how I feel about food irradiation – our professors provided strong data showing that it is safe but because I know so little about it, I would like to learn more before making up my mind.

However, the topic got me thinking about two things: perceived risk and food values.

Perceived risk 

The topic of perceived risk was first introduced to me by a backpacking guide a few years ago. He had just pointed to the mountain (cliff, really) that we were going to climb next and I clearly looked skeptical.

He laughed and told me that there are many times in life where our perceived risk of a situation does not match the actual risk. Yes, it looked like there was a 200 foot vertical drop inches away from my boots but as long as we were careful, he assured me that the actual risk was very low. And he was right – we all made it to the top in one piece (despite one of us accidentally knocking a boulder off the trail, which narrowly missed hitting the boy in front of me). The view, by the way, was spectacular.

Compare that to driving a car. We do it every day and often without a second though, even though car accidents are frequent and can be deadly. We take stupid risks while driving too – racing other cars, texting, or even shaving our faces. The perceived risk may be low, but the actual risk is very real.

Screen shot 2014-03-03 at 9.31.42 AM
Image from Dr. Bruce German, UC Davis, Food Safety lecture, Feb. 3 2014

The same concept applies to food. Sometimes, our perceived risk doesn’t quite match up to the actual risk. In the example my professor gave above, we tend to worry a lot about food additives and not too much about microbiological contamination when in reality, food borne illness kills many more people than food additives (this is not to say I’m necessarily in support of food additives–that is another issue for another time).

Food values

There are various reasons why people choose to eat what they eat. Fear of food irradiation could definitely be one factor that would shape a person’s food choices. Others might be taste, cost, nutrition, availability, convenience, and ethics. We are all different and the factors that shape our food choices reflect this. Our food values can also change as our lives change – being diagnosed with diabetes or moving out of the dorms and having to cook for ourselves could radically shift the way we eat.

I’ve always been curious about the social aspect of food and why people eat what they eat, so I thought it would be fun to ask a couple of friends what their top food values are. I asked them list 3-5 main principles that guide the way they eat and although is in no way a representative sample or a good scientific survey, I found the results interesting.

Roommate:

  1. Not poison (except alcohol but that isn’t food)
  2. Yummy
  3. Vaguely local/seasonal/fresh
  4. Has ingredients that I know

Italian friend:

  1. I’ll put anything in my mouth as long as it tastes good but I have slightly more selective taste than most people.
  2. I like to make the most of what I eat. Whenever possible, I sit down and actually enjoy my food.
  3. A glass of wine or a beer with a meal is always nice.
  4. I try to avoid artificially flavored stuff. That sh*t tastes like chemicals. It’s gross.

Sister:

  1. Ethics
  2. Health
  3. Cost
  4. Taste
  5. Portability

Baseball friend (note: the quantities listed here are very specific to someone who is 6′ 7″ and a college athlete – definitely not general recommendations):

  1. 225 grams of protein a day
  2. 12 servings of fruit and vegetables a day
  3. Never go to bed hungry
  4. Lots of whole grains with dinner

Another roommate:

  1. Tastiness
  2. Ease of making
  3. Balanced nutrients

Food allergies

February in California
February in California

I’m writing this from the quad, where I’m surrounded by students lounging in the sun. It’s February and spring is already starting (one of the many reasons why I love California). As the weather warms up and the trees begin to bloom, many of us will start to cough and sneeze. As annoying as hay fever is, it is nothing compared to food allergies.

Food allergies are immune responses to chemicals in foods. When people with allergies consume a food that they are allergic to, their immune system falsely sees it as something dangerous and responds accordingly.

Our immune system is designed to protect us by killing things that could harm us. When there is nothing there to protect us from, an immune response can hurt instead of help us. This is the case with allergic reactions – your body is attacking something that isn’t actually there (think Don Quixote fencing with windmills).

For people with moderate allergies, this can mean itching, swelling, and hives but for people with severe allergies, their airways can close up and they can die. One of the scary things about allergies is that your immune system is always learning. Every time it is re-exposed to an allergen, it gets a little smarter, and the next reaction is stronger.

In allergenic foods, the foods contain what are known as endogenous toxins. This means that the toxins are made naturally and as part of the food. For this reason, you can’t just remove the allergens from foods – people have to be very careful not to eat foods that they are allergic to.

This makes food allergies especially difficult to regulate from a food safety perspective. The same food might be fine for one person and deadly for another. My high school stopped serving peanut butter in order to protect several students with severe peanut allergies and there was an uproar. It would be unreasonable to ban all common allergens on a large scale but it’s also important to keep those with food allergies safe.

For this reason, we have settled on an educational model. Foods with common allergens, such as peanuts, are clearly labeled and people with food allergies have to be careful to make sure they don’t consume anything that would be dangerous to them.

We don’t know exactly why some people have allergies and others don’t. Part of it is genetic, but part of it is also based on exposure. There is a lot of research going on about the cause of allergies, especially looking at infant exposure and the link between allergies and the bacteria in our gut. It will definitely be interesting to see where the research goes and hopefully, we will be able to prevent food allergies in the future.

So for those of you with food allergies, please be careful! It’s a pain to be paranoid about ingredients, especially when eating out with friends, but it’s so important. If your doctor has prescribed you an EpiPen, make sure you carry it with you and know how to use it. For those of you without allergies, I highly recommend taking a first aid class and learning how to use one anyway – it could save someone’s life.

The best food is safe food, so be careful and enjoy!

Cookie dough, the safe way

Me and my sister. I'm on the left, she's the one with the cheeks
Me and my sister. I’m on the left, she’s the one with the cheeks

Growing up, people always thought my little sister and I were twins. In many ways, we are the same – our core values and the ways that we see the world are almost identical. We also have a million tiny habits that set us very much apart.

As a little girl, I used to love baking with my mother while Tanya would rather read. As soon as the dough was mixed though, she would scurry into the kitchen and sneak as many bites as possible before Mom could shoo her away. I would roll my eyes, preferring to wait until the cookies were out to the oven to try one.

My ambivalence about raw cookie dough was largely due to taste preferences but the more I’ve learned about food safety, the more I’ve realized that it is smarter to wait than to put myself at risk of food borne illness.

When bacteria gets into commercial cookie dough, the results can be disastrous. In 2009, Nestle found that some of their popular Toll House Cookie Dough was contaminated with E. coli (you can check out a news article about it here).

If the dough was baked into cookies, as intended, the bacteria would be killed and it would be perfectly safe to eat. But so many people eat cookie dough raw that Nestle issued a voluntary recall. This is a perfect example of how food producer play a role in food safety. Nestle chose to protect their brand and ensure that it was associated with safety instead of food borne disease. Check out other ways of regulating food safety here.

For those of you who love your cookie dough, it is still possible to enjoy it without getting sick – vegan cookie dough is perfectly safe to eat raw. I have a couple of vegan cookie recipes that I love but the following Carrot Oat Cookies are really something special.

One of my favorite things about these cookies is that the dough and cookie taste totally different but equally delicious – it’s like getting two treats in one. The dough is slightly oily and has a sharp ginger taste, while the cookies are soft and fluffy. And of course, since they have no eggs it is safe to sneak as many bites of the dough as you want.

photo (2)

Carrot Oat Cookies

If you don’t have coconut oil, olive or canola oil works well too. 

Adapted from 101 Cookbooks Carrot Oatmeal Cookies 

Time: 30 minutes (20 minutes prep, 10 minutes baking)

Yield: about 2 dozen

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 cup oats
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup walnuts
  • 1 cup finely grated carrots (about 3 medium carrots)
  • 1/2 cup maple syrup, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup coconut oil, melted
  • 1 teaspoon grated ginger

Instructions:

  1. Preheat oven to 375° Fahrenheit and grease a baking sheet with oil or butter.
  2. Mix the dry ingredients (flour, oats, baking powder, and salt) in a large bowl.
  3. Add nuts and carrots.
  4. Mix wet ingredients (syrup, oil, and ginger) in a small bowl.
  5. Add wet ingredients to dry and mix until just combined.
  6. Use a tablespoon to drop spoonfuls of dough onto the baking sheet.
  7. Bake for about 10-12 minutes. Cookies should be golden brown on top.

Kitchen safety

Making sure the food you eat is safe is one of the most important parts of cooking, and of eating. We don’t tend to pay too much attention to food safety – it’s not pretty or tasty or even remotely trendy, but it is so important.

Food borne illness is a major issue, both in America and around the world. We tend to think of it casually – you get food poisoning, throw up once or twice, and you’re better the next day. But food borne illness can cause life long damage and even kill.

Food safety is managed at three main levels: government, producers, and consumers.

Government

Starting with the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, our government has made an effort to keep the American food system safe.

Food safety is a difficult thing to regulate. After all, the government must constantly evaluate the risks and benefits of certain foods for a very diverse population. It’s easy when the risks are clear and the benefits are small but if the scale is a little closer to the middle or if there are only risks for certain groups, the issue becomes murkier.

The USDA, FDA, CDC, FSIS, USPHS, and EPA are all government organizations that play a role in food safety. They work to ensure that food is safe through all levels, including production, processing, preparation, and consumption.

Since there are multiple agencies responsible for food safety, it can be difficult to fully regulate all foods and make sure nothing falls through the cracks. It takes careful communication to ensure that the government is working together to keep food safe.

Producers

Producers play a vital role in keeping our food safe. After all, it’s beneficial for them too – no one wants to buy food from a company that has the reputation of getting their consumers sick. Many major brands are extremely dedicated to maintaing the safety of their product, and their reputation as a safe company.

Consumers

Finally, consumers also control how safe their food is. This can be especially difficult in a college kitchen. Money and time are both tight and as inexperienced cooks, it is easy to make mistakes but difficult to throw away potentially good food. I know I’ve definitely used food that is a little over the expiration date. Whenever I do this, I tell myself it will probably be fine and in all likelihood, it will be, but it really isn’t worth the risk of getting sick. As my professor succinctly put it, “When in doubt, throw it out”.

Here are a couple basic tips to make sure you’re keeping your kitchen as safe as possible. Most are obvious but some (such as thawing food on the counter) took me by surprise. Read more here if you’re interested.

  • Wash your hands. Wash your hands a lot. Use soap. (Note: One of my biggest pet peeves is going into a public restroom and watching someone walk out without washing their hands. It’s disgusting and gets bacteria everywhere. Don’t do it. Wash your hands.)
  • Keep your kitchen clean.
  • Pay attention to expiration dates. I keep a Sharpie by the fridge so I can write the date when I open things on them.
  • Don’t use dented cans.
  • Don’t wash meat/poultry. This just spreads bacteria around your kitchen and if the meat is cooked to the correct temperature, it will kill all the bacteria anyway.
  • Don’t thaw food on counter. Bacteria love room temperature. Instead, use a microwave, leave it in the fridge, or place it in warm water.
  • Wash fruit and veggies, even if you’re going to peel them. It’s easy to get contaminants from the outside onto the peeled surface.
  • Make sure your food is properly cooked. A meat thermometer is a good investment.
  • Put leftovers away within an hour or two – again, bacteria love room temperature.
  • If you’ve made too much food and don’t think you will be able to eat the leftovers within a day or two, give them away or freeze them.

Cooking and eating good food is wonderful. Food borne illness is not. Make sure you’re taking the necessary steps to keep yourself well fed, happy, and healthy.