Label reading — It’s just self-defense these days

I read an interesting article on AlterNet the other day on advertising buzzwords in the food biz. Over the past couple of years, I’ve become a vigilant label reader. My husband has developed a non-celiac gluten allergy and so I’m very careful about avoiding anything with wheat and the other gluten containing grains. What I’ve also come to appreciate is that when I flip over the package and read the contents BEFORE I buy, it’s made me a lot more aware of the added ingredients. Just how much salt and sugar is hidden in my every day food purchases? It turns out to be a lot and in a lot of cases, I’ve read this lengthy list of ingredients and thought “No, I don’t think so….” and back on the shelf it goes.

I think it’s easy to get fooled into thinking that foods in the “organic” or “health food” section are not as processed as the “commercially processed foods”. Wrong — the word “natural” has no legally enforceable definition. Simple foods, like yogurt, get loaded down with additives over additives over additives — for preservation, taste, colour, you name it.

It’s been said before but it bears saying again — your food is supposed to be able to rot. Yogurt does not need sugar in it — it’s supposed to be tangy.

One of the big problems I’ve found over the past few years is how the commercial food processing/manufacturing industry has trained our tastebuds to be entirely responsive to two tastes and two alone: sugar and salt. And why not? These are cheap ingredients which help preserve food. This is fabulous if you’re a food manufacturer and your aim going into the kitchen is to develop a product that is shelf stable for 18-24 months, salt and sugar are your friend.

On the other hand, when I go into the kitchen to feed my family, I have somewhat different aims. I want tasty food that nourishes people and that is going to be eaten inside the next few hours. It doesn’t need to be rot-proof for the next decade.

The point I’m trying to make is don’t pay any attention to the slogans on the FRONT of the package … LOCAL!! ORGANIC!! NATURAL!! WHOLE GRAINS!! Flip the package over and read the ingredient list … for your own health and pocketbook, keep the ingredient lists short and pronounceable. Food you can pronounce costs less than stuff you need to look up on Wikipedia.

Keep cooking, and we’ll talk later.



Screw ups are a basic part of cooking.

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Last week I had been involved in a joint cooking project and one of the other participants referred to me as fearless in the kitchen. Point taken — I am. That comes from the fact I’ve made so many cooking screw ups over the years, I’ve lost track of them. So my advice to any budding cook or anyone who wants to improve their cooking skills is simple: Get over it. You’re going to make mistakes. No matter how long you’re at this game, you’re going to mess something up.

Sometimes, it’ll be your own lack of attention — oh crap, that said 3 teaspoons, not tablespoons. Sometimes, it’ll be an ambiguously written recipe. And sometimes, it’ll just be plain ignoring your own common sense.

Which brings us nicely up to this week’s kitchen failure. I decided to try out a new recipe from an online site that I subscribe to. I’m keeping their name out of this because this one is totally my screw up and not theirs. It was a recipe for a cider brined pork roast and, as usual, I didn’t have the exact list of ingredients they called for in their directions. For starters, I had a smaller piece of pork.

Even as I was making up the brining solution, I thought to myself “That’s too much salt” but throwing both caution and common sense to the wind, I carried on.  I also left said pork roast in the brining solution longer than the recipe called for. Surprise, surprise — when I cooked it, the meat was too salty. And when I say too salty, I’m not whistling “Dixie”. .

Now some cooking screwups have to be binned immediately. There is no recovery or re-purposing them. It’s a wreck. Get rid of it. Order out. This one, however, I think has some hope of salvation. Today, I’m cooking some black beans and will see if I can make a pork black bean soup. Recipe will be posted if it works. Lamentations will be posted if it doesn’t.

Defrosting Things …. in the Fridge please

DSCN1273Just a reminder with the Thanksgiving weekend fast approaching that there’s really only ONE safe way to defrost frozen meat and that’s in the refrigerator. It takes 24 hours per 5 lbs (2 kg)  of bird … so if you have a 20 lb (9 kg) frozen turkey that you want to cook on Monday, it needs to go into the fridge today. Put it into a leak proof container (like a large bowl or 9 x13″ casserole dish) and defrost on the lowest shelf of the refrigerator.

And the old “in the sink of cold water” method that my mother and grandmother and great Aunt Matilda used? It’s not the safest choice, for sure. As the water in the sink warms up, the outside of the turkey gets warm enough to let the bacteria multiply while the inside is still frozen solid. The cold water method meets food safety guidelines ONLY if the water is continuously running . You have to put the bird in a container inside the sink and let the cold water run until it’s defrosted . The other route is to make sure that you completely change out the water for fresh cold water every 30 minutes. Either way, that’s a huge waste of potable water.

So think ahead and take that bird out to defrost today!

Food, Food, Glorious Food …

I’m a truly fortunate and blessed individual. My refrigerator is full. My cupboards are full. My freezers are full. Food insecurity is not something I have ever directly experienced. I have never looked at a rapidly emptying larder and wondered how I was going to feed my kids for the rest of the week or the month.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for everyone in my community. I volunteered for two years at Our Greener Village Community Food Centre and I know for a fact that over 900 families a MONTH need assistance in keeping groceries on the table. I know that there are children in my city who go to school without adequate nutrition.

The big question is why? When I take a drive out of town, the highway winds through some of the most beautiful and productive farm land you could ask for. New Brunswick has a rich agricultural heritage yet we have hunger in our communities.

Collectively, we also have lousy diets. Nearly 2/3s of NB adults are overweight or obese. Childhood obesity rates in this province are through the roof. We have a population that suffers a great deal from diabetes, heart disease and other ailment which if they aren’t directly caused by poor diets are certainly aggrevated by unhealthy food choices.

So what’s my goal with this blog? First of all, it’s a continuation of the work I started at Our Greener Village Community Food Centre where I taught cooking. Cooking is a skill that is declining throughout the Western world. More and more we’re seduced by the easy call of take out, fast food, over processed things that are sold to us as food stuff. I’m working towards changing the idea that home cooked nutritious food is expensive and or too time consuming for “real people”.

With the rise of the “celebrity chef”, there’s this notion that cooking is hard, requires too much equipment or is the rare preserve of select talented individuals. This is nonsense. Cooking is the birthright of every human being. This blog intends to focus on bringing that point home.

Cook on!