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Tuesday, June 4, 2019

A Perfect Recipe: Roast Potatoes

Delicious recipes often sacrifice health for flavor. And "healthy" recipes often sacrifice flavor for perceived health benefits. Can you maximize flavor and health? I believe so. The "perfect" recipe series explores the recipes I've developed over twenty years as a passionate home cook, personal caterer, and recipe developer. 

The perfect roast potato begins with baking soda. As far as I know, Cook's Illustrated introduced this idea in 2012, in its home fries recipe, which follows a simple premise: parboiling peeled and cut russet potatoes in water with baking soda creates the necessary alkaline conditions to break down the surface area of the potato. The more surface area, the more oil can later adhere to the potato; when cooked at a high temperature, the abundant oiled surface area creates a crispy exterior.

Kenji of Serious Eats also suggests baking soda (though he originally suggested vinegar, which produced sketchy results) in his "crispy roast potatoes" recipe.

The recipe below, for perfect roast potatoes, is essentially an amalgam of the Cooks Illustrated and Serious Eats recipes with my own (somewhat healthy) tweaks.

Simple ingredients: organic russet potatoes, baking soda, and Celtic sea salt. We cut our potatoes in wedges to make the best oven-roasted potatoes you've ever tasted.

The Best High Heat Cooking Oil?

To make a truly excellent, crispy home fry, roasted potato, or oven-baked French fry recipe, you need abundant fat and high heat. Many of my recipes try to reduce the impact of high heat on fats--especially extra virgin olive oil or butter. But there's no getting around the need for high heat in this recipe.

Heat oxidizes fats, creating harmful free radicals, and conventional wisdom associates an oil's "smoke point" with the production of harmful free radicals. When a fat is heated past its smoke point, the wisdom goes, the fat will become unstable, releasing free radicals into your food.

Conventional wisdom has also classified the best "high heat" oils based on the oil's composition. Saturated fats, like coconut oil, are thought to be more stable than polyunsaturated fats, like sunflower oil, or monounsaturated fats, like extra virgin olive oil.

EVOO, especially, has been classified as a poor high heat oil due to its low smoke point. As the Bulletproof Blog notes:

"Saturated fats are super stable because their tails don’t have an opening where a free radical can grab an electron and oxidize the fat – the tails are already filled up (“saturated”). That’s not to say that monounsaturated (MUFA; one opening) and polyunsaturated (PUFA; many openings) fats are bad for you. These fats can be a great addition to your cooking arsenal too. Just be gentler with them so you don’t oxidize the more fragile MUFAs and PUFAs."

This "conventional wisdom" is not supported by science.

A recent study out of Australia, for example, found that smoke point "does not predict oil performance," and that extra virgin olive oil yielded  the lowest levels of harmful compounds when heated and compared to other common oils, like canola, grapeseed, and even coconut oil. The study posits that extra virgin olive oil is stable due to its high levels of antioxidants and polyphenols.

To this last point, too, conventional wisdom states that extra virgin olive oil loses its antioxidants and polyphenols when heated to high temperatures. But this myth was dispelled by another, older study, which found "that despite the heating conditions, [EVOO] maintained most of its minor compounds and, therefore, most of its nutritional properties."

I remember reading this study when I worked at Whole Foods, during a time when I was experimenting with coconut oil for high heat. Unfortunately, unlike coconut milk (which I use in my mashed potatoes and mashed sweet potato recipes), coconut oil can appreciably (and negatively, I think) influence the taste of a dish. So I decided on the spot: No more. I'll only use extra virgin olive oil.

My recommendation today: Use extra virgin olive oil for high heat cooking.

In the recipe below, I use grassfed butter and extra virgin olive oil. Again, since smoke point does not necessarily determine fat degradation, I think extra virgin olive oil and grassfed butter make the best one-two punch for cooking.

Acrylamides and the Maillard Rection

Is this a "healthy" recipe? Not necessarily. Eating traditional high heat cooked potato recipes (like French fries) may double the risk of early death. And any starchy food cooked at high heat--in pursuit of the cook's beloved "Maillard reaction"--creates acrylamides, a known human nuerotoxin linked to cancer.

However, although people like Dr. Mercola talk about acrylamides in French fries as if they're a veritable poison, the evidence so far has failed to find a link between acrylamide exposure in food and cancer.

I do try to reduce my family's exposure to acrylamides by cooking most recipes low and slow, or by simply minimizing cooking, when possible. That said, the point of this recipe is to eat a healthier version of high-heat cooked potatoes. Make this recipe once or twice a month, on days that you exercise very hard--and enjoy it.

Perfect Roasted Potatoes

Pre-heating the baking sheet in the oven is a crucial step hereAnd don't crowd the potatoes on the pan. If necessary (and possible) use two pans (adding additional oil to the second pan, as necessary)The timing of this recipe can be dramatically different, depending on your oven. In my oven, the recipe takes about 25 minutes from start to finish. You may need to adjust the timing for your oven. 

3.5 pounds organic russet potatoes, peeled and cut into quarters or eighths, depending on size
Celtic Sea Salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
3 tablespoons grassfed butter
2-3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (to coat pan)

Adjust oven rack to lowest position and preheat oven to 450°F (or 400-425°F for convection, depending on your oven's convection settings). Place a large rimmed baking sheet on the rack.

Combine peeled and cut potatoes, baking soda, 1/2 teaspoon Celtic sea salt, and 2 quarts water in a large pot. Heat over high until simmering. (Warning: the baking soda may cause the water to overflow, so watch the pot). Simmer for two minutes. Drain potatoes carefully in the pot (by straining water through the lid).

Place the potatoes in the pot back on the stove over low heat. Add the butter and 1/2 teaspoon Celtic sea salt. Stir until the butter is melted and the potatoes develop a thick mashed-like paste.

Carefully remove pre-heated baking sheet from oven. Add oil to coat the pan (make sure entire surface area is coated with oil). Add potatoes to pan, spreading evenly without overcrowding.

Transfer to oven and roast, without moving, for 10 (or more) minutes. With tongs or a fine metal spatula, check to see if potatoes are browned and can easily be flipped. When you can easily dislodge the potatoes, flip, and place the pan back in the oven, roasting until all potatoes are golden brown, 10-20 additional minutes (or more).

Keep the potatoes on the pan, and sprinkle with more sea salt to taste. Serve immediately.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Nietzsche: "Madness, that I may only at last believe in myself!"

I came across the following quote in Sue Prideaux's wonderful new Nietzsche biography, I am Dynamite! It's a selection from Nietzsche's book Daybreak, which Prideaux presents as the beginning of his mature philosophy.

It reads to me like a credo (from a man who has already experienced too much pain).

"All superior men who were irresistibly drawn to throw off the yoke of any kind of morality and to frame new laws had, if they were not actually mad, no alternative but to make themselves or pretend to be mad...How can one make oneself mad when one is not mad and does not dare to appear so?...Ah, give me madness, you heavenly powers! Madness, that I may only at last believe in myself! Give deliriums and convulsions, sudden lights and darkness, terrify me with frost and fire such as no mortal has ever felt, with deafening din and prowling figures, make me howl and whine and crawl like a beast: so that I may come to believe myself! I am consumed by doubt, I have killed the law, the law anguishes me as a corpse does a living man; if I am not more than the law I am the vilest of all men."


Friday, August 17, 2018

Knausgård: "The easy life is nothing to aspire to."

Two companionable quotes from Karl Ove Knausgård's wonderful book, Spring, which I've read three times this summer--twice in succession, and one more time a month later.

I'm only now emerging from a two-year Knausgård binge, when I read the first five books of his My Struggle series each at least twice, and some three or four times. I'll officially end the binge this September, around my birthday, when I read book six.

The following quote is a good example of what I like about Knausgård, comma splices and all. He is honest and vulnerable, I think, and I can easily share his sentiment--I've had these same thoughts without precisely articulating them to myself.

That said, I don't need to post another picture of Knausgård on the Internet. So I'll post a picture of the kids.

This passage, in essence, is written for Knausgård's own children, and specifically to his youngest daughter, who he addresses directly throughout Spring.


"But maybe these were just excuses, something I said to comfort myself. For that’s how it is, we cover up our mistakes and failings, we invent stories that put ourselves in a more favorable light. Self-deception is perhaps the most human thing of all."

*

"Self-deception isn’t a lie, it’s a survival mechanism. You too will deceive yourself, it’s just a question of to what degree, and the only advice I can give you is to try to remember that others may see and experience the same things as you in an entirely different way, and that they have as much right to their viewpoint as you do.

"But it is difficult. It may be the most difficult thing of all. Because it is just as important to be true to yourself, to hold on to your beliefs and think your own thoughts, not other people’s. It’s so easy to walk into one picture of reality and then let that picture sway you, even though on certain points it goes against what you really feel, experience, and believe. What do you do then? The easiest thing is to adjust your feelings, experiences, and thoughts, for a picture of reality is both simpler and more pleasant to relate to than reality itself. This brings us back to self deception, the most human thing of all.

"And perhaps the following is nothing but self deception: the easy life is nothing to aspire to, the easy choice is never the worthiest solution, only the difficult life is worth living. I don’t know. But I think that’s how it is. What would seem to contradict this, is that I wish you and your siblings simple, easy, long and happy lives."

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Bad Boy

This Saturday we returned from Sea Isle, the Jersey beach town where we vacation each year with Karen's family. We stayed on 48th Street, steps away from the boardwalk, which stretches north to south from 57th street to 29th street, a span I ran, up and back, a mile and a half each way, every other day.

On our final morning in town, a hot Friday, I walked with Owen and Ella and their cousin Katherine to the Island Breeze Casino, on 37th Street, where the kids spent quarter after quarter on the claw machines and various other games with impossible-to-master directives, which all issued strips of five, ten, or possibly twenty tickets as a sort of consolation for defeat.

This pittance of tickets, of course, could later be traded for the mementos one expects from these places: Whoopie cushions, plastic green army men, or the Pinky Hi-Bounce Balls I remember from my childhood vacations in Stone Harbor, when my brother and I tossed the balls back in forth in the water, crashing ourselves into the waves, making the easiest of catches seem impossible.

We got all of these mementos and more, for we won, incredibly, thousands of tickets.

On a whim, to assuage my growing impatience, I put a quarter in Owen's favored game: a truck game, whose purpose was to shoot a quarter down a slot into one of three truck's trailers, each overflowing with quarters. If you hit the trailer, you won some tickets. I aimed at the trailer, but I hit a lever which forced one of the trucks to dump its load.

The game issued an alarm. Lights flashed. Owen looked at me, confused.

"Uh oh," I said, smiling. 

When the tickets came, a seemingly endless train, Katherine and Ella came running from a nearby game. We stood watching, laughing, gathering the tickets in our hands.

Owen jumped in place, excited, his fists balled at his sides, but I sensed his confusion, even alarm, when I said, "When will it end?"

He looked at me, then, and I realized he was worried.

Had we done something bad? Had we broke the machine?

At least since he could speak, Owen has expressed a fascination with the distinction between good and bad. When playing any sort of imaginary game, he assumes the part of the bad guy. Darth Vader. Ultron. Sinestro. He relishes the war, the mayhem and destruction--I've taught him to associate all of this with "bad guys."

Yet I recall more than a few seminal moments from his early youth, when I shouted, in frustration, "bad boy."

And now, I think, he has internalized those accusations and my attendant anger, for he clearly wants to be a good boy. He often feels compelled to say, "Daddy, I'm good." And he often asks me, "Daddy, am I being good?"

So it was at the arcade. I could see Owen trying to interpret my mood, placing himself in a holding pattern until he knew, for sure, my emotional state. Had something bad happened? Was I angry?

I realized, then, that he'd been doing this for some time, looking at me at opportune moments, and that I had likely clouded many moments for him, for I am so often a melancholy, rueful person, and I can not help but reveal my emotions.


This moment at the arcade returned to me on Saturday night, our first night home, when I sat with Owen on the couch watching his"videos" about the heroes and villains of America's superhero culture, all enacted with the little Imaginext and Play Skool figurines he collects. Marvel. Star Wars. D.C. Comics. This video happened to be about Batman and Mr. Freeze.

I have been a vocal opponent of these videos. "They make you crazy," I have told Owen. I usually forbid him to watch them, but vacation with his doting extended family had normalized the devices, for the time being, and now Owen was experiencing an unprecedented moment: He was welcoming his father into his own world. 

As we watched, he continued to glance at me, searching my eyes, gauging my reaction moment-by-moment. The sincerity of his probing expression. The hope he seemed to hold, which battled his fear, which I guessed to be of my disapproval, or worse, my outright dismissal.

It was almost too much to bear: this awesome responsibility I had assumed, and largely ignored, as the father of a son, to allay his fears--and not to be his fear.

"Look," I said to him, finally, my eyes widening. "That's so cool."

"So cool," he said, burrowing his body close to mine.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Perfect Diet

In America views on healthful eating fall on a spectrum defined by two opposing ideologies. On one side, people like Dr. Mercola, Sally Fallon (founder of the Weston A. Price Foundation) and Professor Loren Cordain (founder of the "Paleo Diet") recommend the consumption of high quality animal-based foods, such as grass-fed beef, wild salmon, or raw grassfed butter. This side also typically advocates abundant raw vegetables and fermented foods. Excessive fruit consumption and grains, on the other hand, are discouraged. (The Weston A. Price foundation advocates soaked and cooked grains.)

On the other side, people like T. Colin Campbell, the author of The China Study, Dr. Dean Ornish, and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn argue that animal-based products create disease, that there are virtually no nutrients in animal-based foods that are not better provided by plants, and that the best health-promoting diet is a low-fat, vegetable and grain-based diet--a vegan diet.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Art of Not Eating

A few years ago, my good friend Kevin started a cleanse. He bought a cleansing kit. He took the cleansing pills and fiber for ten days. He refined his diet. For breakfast, he ate berries. For lunch, he ate salad. For dinner, he ate baked salmon and steamed broccoli. More importantly (for him at least), he did not drink his micro-brews, and he did not eat his favored hard pretzels.

Kevin felt light and optimistic. He also felt insatiably hungry. So he called me.

"I need to eat more food," he said.

"So eat more food," I said.

"Like what?"

"A sweet potato?"

"But that sounds good."

"So?"

"Shouldn't I be suffering?"

The Faces of Fasting: Kevin
Kevin's attitude is not unique. Most people, I believe, equate cleansing and fasting with suffering. We look at a cleanse as a Great Giving Up. We give up our favored foods and drinks, our preferred ways of eating. Why do we do  perform this fanatical act? We think it will make us feel better.

"That's it," we say, "I'm never eating wheat again."

Then we wake up, have a bagel.

Sometimes, though, we just stop eating.

If you're like my friend Kevin, though, you go out and buy a cleansing kit. You give up carbohydrates. You give up bread, ice cream, red meat, beer--everything you love. You willfully suffer.

To many, this is a cleanse: Suffering. To many, a cleanse is penance. For eating too much. For drinking too much.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Trust Thy Gut: Healing in the Age of the Microbiome

I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in May, 2002. On the day of my diagnosis, I refused my doctor's prognosis, as well as the drugs, and commenced a journey to heal—a twelve-month experiment, absent any conventional medical guidance whatsoever, that ended midway through my honeymoon, when my new wife admitted me to the ER.

For twelve months, I devoted my life to an obsessive and fastidious investigation. Hunched over my desk, I spent day after day Googling. For a phrase like “ulcerative colitis natural cure,” I'd click twenty pages deep, reading every word on every site—every blog, every forum. Certain opportune comments led to new searches in new windows, fresh rounds of clicking.

When I risked leaving the house, I’d visit the book store, where I’d scan the indexes of books, seeking the slightest reference to "colitis," or "autoimmune." Inevitably, though, turning from my screen, or trudging from the store briefly lifted by some tidbit, I’d come to think of the only definitive cure: death.

I do not believe my obsessive investigation, nor my despair, were unique. In my experience, most people who experience illness--from colds to colitis--engage in some form of this fanaticism. And many, discovering confusing or contradictory advice, have yielded to despair. My search led to life.

I've learned to heal my symptoms--without drugs.

And yet, each year for many years, around March or April, just as the weather warms, I would suffer a relapse, or "flair." The severity of these flairs varied--yet I knew how to recover.

In May 2013, however, I suffered a particularly bad flair. My go-to remedies--a horridly wine-free lifestyle, VSL#3, and Metagenics--seemed to fail. Worse, the severity of the symptoms transported me back in time, to 2002, when I felt my despair most acutely.

My wife, who witnessed my behavior over the years, acclimated herself to my eccentricities. But even she was startled, that year, when I walked into our infant daughter's nursery, and pointed to the dirty diaper laying on the changing table.

"Save that," I said.

"What?" she asked.

"Save that," I said, and to state the case plainly, I added, with conviction, "I'm doing a fecal transplant enema."

Nearly all DNA in our bodies belongs to microorganisms: they outnumber our cells nine to one.

- Burkhard Bilger, writing in The New Yorker