Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Sweet Life: Home Chocolate Making

We saw a commercial for Hershey's several months ago, and the tagline was something like "the taste of life" (my apologies to the Hershey's corporation if I have misquoted them). And Lauren and I were like "Life tastes waxy?" (No apologies to Hershey's for calling it like I taste it).

For quite a while now, I've been low-carb and/or Paleo, which means that if I'm going to do chocolate, it has to be dark and it has to be high-quality stuff, without a lot of junk. I've said this before, but when I say "dark chocolate," I'm talking "is there any sugar at all in this, holy cow it's more bitter than my last ex" dark chocolate (that's 85-90%, if you weren't sure). And if it isn't already clear, we're not talking Hershey's "Special Dark" (which is more like 45%--don't ask what the rest is).

Back in October, thanks to this post on Primally Inspired, I started playing around with making my own dark chocolate. This post is the culmination of months of playing around with chocolate.

There are certainly decent dark chocolates out there that are pretty high quality, but you tend to pay like it's high-quality. And anyway, if you're making it yourself, then there's no doubt about the quality ingredients you're putting in. At its heart, making chocolate is pretty darned easy. It's also flexible: you just need some kind of fat, cocoa powder, a sweetener, vanilla, and a bit of salt. And if you forget the vanilla or the salt, or don't have any on hand, that's probably okay too.

Fats: The original recipe called for coconut oil, which is pretty good. But if you go in for grass-fed butter (or clarified grass-fed butter), you can do that. I have, but it wasn't my favorite. My favorite fat source has become lard. There's the high vitamin D content and the great combination of monounsaturated and saturated fats, but the real selling point is the fantastically creamy chocolate it produces (also, lard seems like it's super-cheap: I made my own from fat that would have otherwise been thrown away when I got a half hog, but even if I hadn't, there's an Amish farmer who sells this stuff way cheaper than he sells his grass-fed butter).

Sweeteners: When it comes to sweeteners, honey is the obvious Paleo choice. Even though it's not technically Paleo, I prefer maple syrup. We buy it by the gallon each year, for $45, which is pretty much an unbeatable price. Plus I feel like it mixes in better.

According to Kelly at Primally Inspired, you can approximate various levels of chocolate darkness with sweetener amounts as below:
  • 1 T. = 85% dark
  • 1 1/2 T. = 73% dark
  • 2 T. = 60% dark
I don't know how accurate this is, though when I calculated the nutrition facts of the chocolate I made with 1 T. of sweetener, it came out about the same as 85% dark, so at least that one seems legit. 

Variations: I've experimented with this chocolate in a lot of different ways. I tried out an all-fruit jelly as my sweetener, but the consistency was lousy and the taste wasn't anything special (I think that the consistency could be because of water in the jelly--I'm told that water and cocoa powder don't mix). My wife likes it with craisins and almonds in it. But it's my newest variation that has become my favorite, at least for the time being. The secret: cinnamon. For whatever reason, adding a bit of cinnamon seems to make it better even when the sweetness is lowered to something darker than 85%.

Also, it's no bad thing to double the recipe, except that the temptation to eat more chocolate than you should grows proportionately to how much chocolate you have on hand.

Shaping the chocolate: I recommend getting some kind of silicone cupcake mold--it's a pretty handy way to make a bunch of little bars, and if you can combine that with a food scale, you can easily get perfectly equal bars (and, in my case, perfectly equal bears):

Bear on the bottom right knows what's coming,  which is why he had an accident.
But if you don't have those and don't want to get them, you can pretty much do anything... spread it out on wax paper, put it in those cheap plastic storage containers (I think you'll want something that's flexible enough that you can pop them out).

Here's the recipe for 85% dark chocolate--adjust the sweetness up or down as you prefer:

1/4 c. fat (I like either all-lard or a mixture of lard, clarified butter, and coconut oil)
1 T. (maybe even less) maple syrup
1 tsp (or less) vanilla
a pinch of salt
1 tsp cinnamon (optional)
1/2 c. cocoa powder

Melt the fat gradually in the microwave. Stir in maple syrup, vanilla, and salt. Stir in cinnamon, if using. Gradually add the cocoa powder, stirring thoroughly. I like to make 20g-30g bars. Put in the freezer for at least 30 minutes. Store in freezer or fridge.

Variations: add dried fruit and/or nuts. Non-paleo variation: use PB2 instead of the cocoa to make something like peanut butter fudge. Using ground up nuts instead of cocoa will give you something similar that could be, technically, Paleo, if you want that kind of thing. 

Tips: 1) If you have a glass measuring cup (like Pyrex), melt the fat in there, so you can easily see how much you have, plus you have one less thing to clean up. 2) It's really easy to make a big mess with your cocoa powder. I like to have 2 spoons: 1 to stir the mixture and one to move the cocoa powder from the measuring cup to the mixing bowl (or Pyrex measuring cup). 3) Seriously, just go ahead and double it.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Recipe: Paleo Irish Bacon and Cabbage

Perhaps you didn't know this, but the "traditional" corned beef and cabbage of St. Patrick's Day is not actually all that big of an Irish tradition. From what I understand, they pretty much just bring it out for the tourists. Traditionally, beef was expensive, so pork or bacon was the more commonly-used meat.

And that was convenient, since neither Lauren nor I particularly care for corned beef. We'll leave aside, for the moment, the fact that Lauren doesn't particularly care for cabbage, either.

This simple recipe isn't exactly traditional, but it's a good balance between tradition and a Paleo approach to food. I absolutely loved this, and I think Lauren would have, too, if she didn't hate cabbage.

One nice thing about this recipe is that once you get the sweet potatoes going, the other prep work of cutting and cooking all fit nicely into the time allotted. 

1 large sweet potato, peeled and diced
2-3 T. cooking oil (I used butter and bacon grease), melted
10 oz (or more) bacon, diced
1 can diced tomatoes
1 c. chicken stock (or other stock)
2 c. thinly sliced cabbage
salt and pepper, to taste

Pre-heat oven to 400. Peel and dice the sweet potatoes and melt your cooking fat. Toss the diced sweet potato in the fat and place on an aluminum-foil-lined baking sheet. Bake for 20 minutes, stirring halfway through.

Meanwhile, dice the bacon and cook it in a large pot, stirring regularly. When cooked, drain off excess fat and add tomatoes and chicken stock. About this time, the sweet potatoes should be done. Add them to the pot. Cook for 5-10 minutes or longer. Add the cabbage and cook for a couple minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Michael Pollan explains what's wrong with the Paleo Diet?!

A recent article on Mother Jones made the rounds: "Michael Pollan explains what's wrong with the Paleo Diet." The article is, itself, based on almost an hour of podcast interview. I haven't listened to the interview, which I suppose makes me about as guilty of ignorant pontificating as Michael Pollan and Mother Jones's Cynthia Graber are when it comes to Paleo. But what the heck--they started it, so I'll offer a first reaction, which is that this article says almost nothing important about Paleo, because neither Pollan nor Graber seem to understand Paleo in any detail. Unfortunately, getting only the basic gist of something really only qualifies you to tell us what's wrong with the strawman you've created for the purpose of criticism.

First, I think it's important to note that most of the most prominent proponents of Paleo have some reservations about the term "Paleo Diet." Partially, the term is problematic because it puts too great an emphasis on Paleo as a list of rules: eat this, not that, period. And to be fair, a lot of people who are practicing Paleo do view Paleo that way. That's why we have recipes for "Paleo" foods that aren't particularly healthy but that adhere to the letter of the "law" of "The Paleo Diet." But the people who are propagating Paleo at the highest levels (by which I mean the people who have done the most to define and refine it in the years when it's become popular) view it more as a set of principles for figuring out what a person should eat for optimal health. Listen to what Robb Wolf has to say about Paleo--he's about as far from dogmatic as you can be, and he's widely considered to be one of the most prominent proponents of "Paleo." Chris Kresser's ultra-recent Your Personal Paleo Code makes this explicit, the idea that it's less a one-size-fits-all dietary prescription and more a framework for figuring out what's best for any particular person (while I'm linking to books, I would say that Jason Seib's The Paleo Coach also does a great job of laying out the principles rather than prescribing rules). Although early on in the Paleo movement, there were a lot more absolute statements along the lines of "this is what ancient hunter-gatherers ate" or cut-and-dried food prohibitions, this just isn't true of the current versions of Paleo that are central to the movement.

So, with that out of the way, let's see "what's wrong with the Paleo Diet." After talking about how much humans love meat, and basically saying that early humans probably would have eaten as much meat as they could get, we get the "criticism" of Paleo:
In any case, says Pollan, today's meat is nothing like that of the hunter-gatherer.
One problem with the paleo diet is that "they're assuming that the options available to our caveman ancestors are still there," he argues. But "unless you're willing to hunt your food, they're not." 
As Pollan explains, the animals bred by modern agriculture—which are fed artificial diets of corn and grains, and beefed up with hormones and antibiotics—have nutritional profiles far from wild game.

Pastured animals, raised on diets of grass and grubs, are closer to their wild relatives; even these, however, are nothing like the lean animals our ancestors ate.
First, is there any Paleo advocate who isn't aware that factory farmed animals are terrible for our health? Is there any Paleo advocate who isn't favoring pastured animals? Second: really? They're "nothing like the lean animals our ancestors ate"? Really? Sure, they're not mastodons, and cattle have certainly evolved through human selection over the centuries and millennia, but just as Paleo practitioners are looking for the diet that's healthiest for human beings, pasturing ruminants like cows is giving them the diet that's healthiest for them, which makes the meat of those animals the healthiest it can be for us. And, I should add, more like what our ancestors would have eaten.

Oh, and let's add one more caveat to the whole Paleo thing: as several Paleo proponents have noted, "Paleo is a logical framework applied to modern humans, not a historical reenactment." To say "we don't really know what Paleolithic people ate," or "Paleolithic people ate different things in different places," or "the foods that Paleolithic people ate have changed so much that they don't really exist any more" all miss the point. They're all true, but so what? The answer isn't "I might as well have bagels and doughnuts for breakfast."

Which kind of leads to the second point in the article: "Humans can live on bread alone." Well, okay, you can "survive" on bread alone. But you're not going to be all that healthy. And if you're going to eat bread, you're definitely better off eating sourdough bread, because the fermentation process breaks down quite a few of the problematic constituents of bread. But the fact is that gluten is still problematic to a lot of people, even beyond the portion of the population that has celiac disease. Some of us tolerate it better than others, but there's still a legitimate critique of grains coming from the Paleo folks. And most people who are still eating bread and grains are not eating sourdough anyway.

"3. Eat more microbes." There is absolutely nothing in here that most Paleo advocates would argue against. Sort of. I mean, Paleo generally advocates fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi, as well as pickles, for the same reason: beneficial microbes for our gut health. Although Paleo starts from a position of skepticism about dairy, proponents often suggest adding in dairy if you tolerate it and seeing how you look, feel and perform when consuming it--and when they do, they generally recommend starting with fermented dairy like yogurt and cheese (preferably from grass-fed animals).

"4. Raw food is for the birds (too much of it, anyway)." Okay, this point really has nothing to do with Paleo. Paleo is certainly distinct from raw-food vegan as a dietary strategy, and Paleo advocates have nothing against cooking food. In fact, a good understanding of Paleo principles (which derive from an understanding of evolution) actually feeds into the importance of cooking certain vegetables that can cause problems if they're not cooked. And why do they cause problems? Because those veggies have evolved defense mechanisms that make them hard on the digestive system, particularly when consumed raw. So yeah, this point has nothing to do with Paleo (and everything to do with Pollan selling his book on cooking). Which is also true of his fifth point.

So, in the end, here's what this article looks like to me: Pollan gives an interview to push his latest book. He makes a few under-informed comments about Paleo, and because Paleo is very popular now, Cynthia Graber cobbles together an article that pits Michael Pollan against the Paleo diet, to drive traffic. And I suppose it worked, but as a critique of Paleo, it's critically flawed.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Praise to the Lard, the Almighty

Saturday, when I wasn't making sauerkraut out of cabbages, spiced with shavings of my thumb--and we're talking after the thumb, here--I made lard.

Earlier in the day, I took the girls and went to pick up our half-hog from the butcher's. It was 2:00, and apparently they closed at noon, as the guy there grudgingly informed me. Every word seemed grudging. He was pretty surly about the 2 minutes I cost him to bring my meat out to my car, but I'm sure glad he did, since it took me, like, an hour and a half to get there. As requested, they also gave me a bag of fat from our pasture-raised pig (or maybe more than one, but I wasn't asking Surly McSlaughterhouse for details).

I was actually inspired by this post from Mack Hill Farm back in December to give lard another try, and Lisa's advice was very helpful. I made lard before (I recommend reading/re-reading that post--it amused me),  but it came out with a bit of a porky taste. This time, I hoped to do better. Nay, I resolved to do better.

I made sure to start making the lard well before Lauren got home, since I knew she would not be thrilled with me rendering pork fat in the house. Following Lisa's advice, I cut the fat into chunks and ran it through the food processor before putting it into the crock pot. I added water and let the teamwork of crock pot, pork fat and water do its collective thing. And then I added more water, so I could let it go overnight.

I wasn't really sure how to know when the water had all boiled off. I mean, it sank to the bottom (right?), because water is more dense than fat. So... yeah, no idea. But I just went ahead and started ladling it out, straining it through a coffee filter, and putting it into pint jars.

I have to say, it turned out great. It was the most beautiful, creamy white color when it cooled (as opposed to the stuff I made three years ago, that had a bit of a brown tinge to it), and it had none of the pork-ish flavor. I ended up with a little over 4 1/2 pints of lard, but that was from only about half of the fat, which means I've got some more rendering in my future.

It's a little crazy to me that I can end up with something like 18 cups of high-quality cooking fat just for the cost of some time. And yes, lard--especially from pastured pigs--is a high-quality fat. It's gotten a bad rep, but it's all kinds of good-for-you. Chris Kresser names it one of the five fats you should be cooking with, but probably aren't. Need I say more? How about The Washington Post? I found several mainstream media outlets that gave lard at least a gentleman's C for health, and the Post article came closest, but most of them miss the point, which is that the evidence for saturated fat being bad for us, the evidence for saturated fat causing heart disease, is extremely weak. So some will say that it has high levels of monounsaturated fat, like olive oil, and less saturated fat than butter, but will caution that it still has quite a bit of saturated fat, which misses the point. It's also the second-most dense source of dietary vitamin D. If it's from pastured pigs--as opposed to feedlot pigs eating corn, soy, and other junk--it has a favorable omega-3 to omega-6 ratio.

All this and it makes things taste better. All in favor, say oink!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

A Series of Unfortunate Moments

Yesterday:

That moment while running cabbage through the mandolin to make sauerkraut when the assessment that I was being "pretty careful" had to be revised to "not quite careful enough."

That moment, moments later, considering how I might manage a trip to the ER to stitch up the tip of my thumb, either getting someone to watch the girls or bundling them into car seats and taking them along. See if our amazing nanny is available on a Saturday? In the midst of a bit of a snowstorm? Our teenaged babysitter? In the snow? The neighbor guy who mows our lawn? Seriously?

That moment where the fact that I'm only halfway through the first of four cabbages is at least as important to me as what I should do about my thumb.

So I staunch the bleeding with a paper towel, douse with hydrogen peroxide, secure some gauze with duct tape, and carry on slicing cabbage. The thumb's probably going to be fine, and there's stuff to do.

Stuff like half-filling this 10-liter crock.
Then there's that moment as I go to sleep when I wonder if the burning sensation in my thumb is just because I tried to shred it into kraut or because I have an infection working its way from my thumb to the rest of my body. I consider that if I die in my sleep, I won't get the chance to blog about the way that I stupidly sliced the tip of my thumb nearly off. There's a moment where that seems like a relevant consideration.

Today:

That moment when I bang my injured thumb into a hard surface, and I realize that I haven't look at it yet today to see how it's doing, and now that I may have reopened it... but what am I really going to learn by looking now?
But okay, here it is, just over 24 hours post-mandolin-ing.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Year's Eve 2: The Eve Strikes Back

As noted Monday, our guests and we rang in the new year with the residents of King Edward Point (all 30 or so of them, not counting seals and penguins). We had no doubt it would be an epic celebration.
I'm pretty sure this guy is singing "Auld Lang Syne."

Here in Indiana, meanwhile, 10 adults and 6 children gathered in our house to share fondue (a veggie broth and chicken broth fondue to cook steak, chicken, broccoli, cauliflower, and mushrooms; a cheese fondue to smother anything and everything in Gruyere-and-Emmenthaler goodness; and a chocolate fondue for marshmallows, cake balls, and anything else that got in its way), Mesir Wat (Ethiopian lentils) with pita bread, salad, brownies, and homemade ice cream (our friends made honey-cinnamon and chocolate ice creams). We had a wide variety of drinks, including make-your-own Italian soda (and make your own whatever else you wanted--it's not like we have a bartender on staff!).

Things were going smashingly well until I started making the chocolate fondue for the dessert course, when the lights went out. I'm presuming there's no causal link there, despite the darkness of the chocolate. Fortunately, the gas stove kept melting chocolate and we were able to locate our camping lantern and a bunch of candles (and, of course, it's 2013-going-on-2014, so everyone has a phone or two that can double as a flashlight).

So the fun continued with chocolate fondue and ice cream cones, and even if we couldn't pull up the video countdown that Lauren spent roughly three hours yesterday tracking down and selecting, that was okay. One of our friends brought a variety of noisemakers to distribute among the children and adults, and I myself grabbed a suitable pot and an equally suitable wooden spoon to do my share of the annual making of the noise.

It brought to mind the years in high school when a friend of mine would have a massive New Year's Eve party, and as midnight approached we would line up from oldest to youngest and then spill out into the neighborhood banging pots and pans to ring in the new year and scare away the old.

After "midnight," which our neighbors might have referred to as "t-minus three hours and counting," our guests filtered out and left us to our dark house. Since our upstairs is underheated in the best of times (even with electric heaters up there), we made arrangements to sleep downstairs.
We have one of these downstairs--during the day, it's basically a couch in our kids' playroom, but at times like these it pulls out and we slap another mattress on it and it's basically a king-sized bed. The unfortunate circumstance here is that we only own one decent twin-sized mattress, which I dragged downstairs for our use--we basically slept with our upper bodies on the good mattress and our lower bodies on the lousy one--overall, it was fine, though I did seem to wake up a lot during the night.

Starting with about five minutes after we lay down, when the lights came on. We had turned off a number of the lights in the house, but--of course--not the overhead light in the room where we were "sleeping." After a bit of running around the house turning off lights, I turned in for the  night.

The night that will always be "the New Year's Eve the lights went out."

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Polygamy, the law, and brain-washing

Earlier this month, a federal judge declared Utah laws criminalizing polygamy (note: not the same as bigamy--they're still only allowed to legally marry one person, but people can cohabit in "spiritual marriages"). Yesterday, I was listening to NPR's On Point program from a week ago discussing this, and one of the guests was Kristyn Decker, a former wife in a polygamous family and the author of the recent book Fifty Years in Polygamy: Big Secrets and Little White Lies. She took a passionate stand against polygamy, even among consenting adults. Her essential point was that the women involved in plural marriages have been brain-washed to believe that they have to participate in and defend the institution in order to go to heaven.

Boy, that's a tough argument to make.

Not because they haven't been "brain-washed." It's probably fair to say that they have, though the word is obviously prejudicial. The problem is, where do we draw the line? In a sense, we could all be said to have been "brain-washed," in that our parents raised us to believe certain things which may or may not be true. While we do tend to pass ideas from one generation to the next, it's also pretty common for children to reject at least some ideas of their parents, and in some cases a whole lot of what they were raised to believe. We can't necessarily say that one is right and the other wrong: each is doing what he or she believes is right. Decker is basically saying, from her vantage point as someone who "got out," that anyone still inside this system of belief that includes plural marriage is not competent to make a decision because they haven't seen the light the way that she has.

By the same logic, a former Christian who has become an atheist could argue that Christians, because they are deluded by their belief in God and everything that goes with it, are not competent to make political decisions about what's right and wrong, what should be legal or illegal. Or believers might turn that around on atheists: if you have been led astray into disbelieving in God, you have clearly had your mind twisted in such a way that everything you believe is suspect. To be fair, there are almost certainly believers and disbelievers who feel this way, at least to the extent of distrusting their opponents' beliefs, but most of us take a more tolerant viewpoint, allowing people to do and believe things that we think are wrong or stupid. We can argue against them, trying to convince them of the error of their beliefs, we can campaign against their politics, but that's about as far as we take it.

I think there's an argument to be made that decriminalizing polygamy could be a good thing for women who are "trapped" in these relationships: by bringing them out of hiding, abuses of wives or children might be easier to detect and for law enforcement and other groups to step in and help those who are harmed by polygamous marriages. And at the same time, consenting adults would be free to make their own choices, deluded by stupid ideas though they may be.