Sunday, April 25, 2010

Internet-based Recipe Sharing: Berry Bran Muffin Inspiration

As I try to stay current on the foods newly considered good for my health, and had been recently looking at functional foods, when, on the way out to the cottage, I stopped at a Tim Hortons for a coffee and a snack.  Usually, I would opt for something wholesome-looking, but experience – and research – had taught me that appearances can be deceiving – especially when it comes to fast food chains.  The Cranberry Blueberry Bran Muffins – promoted, unofficially, as the healthiest of the bunch – is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. 
Cranberries, blueberries and bran are all recognized functional food ingredients, but cannot make up for the negatives associated with the excess sugar and fat in the Tim Hortons muffin recipe.  I was inspired:  my mission was to make the most healthy “super” muffin possible, to go where no muffin had gone before.  Unfortunately, as baking is a matter of chemical reactions as well as flavour combinations, I needed a base recipe with active ingredient quantities and dry / wet proportions that I could then change to accommodate the ingredients I deemed worthy of inclusion.
Though I have shelves full of recipe books, in the last few years I have turned to the internet as my primary source for recipe ideas.  When I used to pull down books, one-by-one, and search indexes for mention of certain ingredients or types of cuisine, I now google my recipe requirement and browse the results online.  I have favourite recipe-sharing websites that I gravitate to – websites I find more comprehensive than others, with more healthy dishes and more filtering options to narrow my search results. 
The base recipe for my Berry Bran Muffins came from Recipezaar, a user-friendly recipe database that allows people to browse or search by course, ingredient, cuisine, diet, occasion and preparation.  I used Recipezaar’s nutrition filters to set additional recipe parameters – in this case low-fat, low sugar and high fibre – and after scanning the recipes for potential, starting at the highest rated and working my way down, I decided on the Healthy Wheat Bran and Flax Meal Muffin recipe, posted by chef #508256, on June 11, 2007.  It used natural wheat bran – as opposed to All Bran cereal – incorporated flax seed and some Splenda already, and used ingredients that I had substituted for healthier options in muffin recipes before.

Nutrition Labels: Inspiration for Cilantro Lime Tilapia

I love going to the grocery store.  When I’m stressed and need to unwind, I stroll through the aisles, browsing and brainstorming, examining random items whose dietary claims (only allowed in Canada in 2003[1]) peak my interest that day.  I pick up bags and boxes, check ingredients, and look at the nutritional labels.
Nutrition labels became mandatory on most pre-packaged foods in the U.S. in 1990, but in Canada only in 2005 (following a 2003 ruling).[2][3]  Enforced, in Canada, by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the labeling regulations are

“…designed to provide a system for conveying information about the nutrient content of food in a standardized format, which allows for comparison among foods at the point of purchase. [The] clear, uniform information should support consumers . . . by permit[ting] dietary management of chronic diseases of public health significance, and [by] help[ing] them make food choices that may reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases.”

Labeling requirements in the United States are based upon the same principles as those in Canada, exposing key factors in the healthiness of a product that may otherwise be unapparent to the consumer.  Guidelines govern label contents, placement, size and font, and specify if additional ingredient information must be listed on the package.  Neither country mandates labels for most raw, unprocessed and unwrapped produce, meat and fish, but encourages companies to give nutritional information when packaging allows.  Even on products that are processed only in ways that don’t change their ingredients, the little white and black labels are helpful for those wishing to learn about new foods.  They are easy to find and read, even relative to researching with an iphone application, and I frequently find myself thus inspired to try foods shown to be good for my health.
            I was in the frozen fish aisle at Trader Joe’s, my favourite grocery store in Boston, when I first discovered Tilapia.  Vacuum-sealed in clear plastic, it had no other packaging save a nutrition label and price tag on the back – which first caught my attention.  The price per weight was low compared to the fish I usually bought (sole or salmon), and so I grabbed a small package and tried it that night for dinner.  Tilapia, I concluded, is not only extremely lean, but has a pleasant texture that is firm yet flaky, and a mild – almost bland – flavour, that beseeches and accommodates a variety of flavours.  Though best eaten fresh, I found that Tilapia freezes well and thaws quickly – making it perfect to have on hand for a quick, healthy dinner.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Pizza Inspiration: Forno la Renella

It was mid September, just after noon, I was hungry, and it was hot in the studio.  I’d been sketching all morning in a third floor room in the school’s building in Trastevere (Rome) and was restless to get out and enjoy the beautiful weather.  I grabbed my keys and purse, jogged down the cool, dark, stone stairwell, and emerged from the large wooden doors into the Piazza di Sant’Apollonia and the brilliant mid-day sun.  I set off down Via del Moro to my favourite Forno (bakery) to see what fresh daily pizzas they were serving.           
The Forno la Renella was always a hub of activity around lunch time – an anomaly on the winding, sleepy street – as it was a well-known local favourite.  Though they baked cookies and breads there as well, they were famous for their pizza.  They commonly had half a dozen different kinds of pizza ready to eat and even served pizza bianca (simply dressed in olive oil and salt) as the based for sandwiches.
The daily pizza was something I’d never seen before, but had heard was a seasonal specialty – Fiori di zuca with anchovies.  Though I’d made a habit of trying a different kind of pizza every time I visited the forno, and desperately wanted to try this new pizza, I could not bring myself to eat anchovies – one of the few foods I absolutely can’t stand.  I ordered the potatoe pizza instead, as my friend – a real potatoe lover – had had strongly recommended it to me.
A few weeks had passed and I returned to the forno, after conceding to try the any pizza at least once before passing judgment.  After surveying the pizzas of the day, I disappointedly asked why they were not serving the fiori di zuca pizza.  My question was met with a shrug and a quick response in broken English - “No more. Next Year.”  The season had passed.  What flowers still remained were now on their way to becoming squash.
I left the forno empty handed that day, frustrated with myself for not seizing the opportunity to taste the pizza earlier.  Eating a sandwich by the fountain infront of the studio, I thought about how different food was in Italy compared to back home in Canada.  I couldn’t remember the last time a restaurant didn’t serve a dish because it was out of season:  they would have just bought the ingredients at a grocery store or had it shipped in from the US and served it year-round – regardless of its freshness.
The next day I walked back to the Forno la Renella with a new appreciation for what they make there.  Though I was still sad that I’d missed trying the pizza, I knew it meant that there would be new pizzas to try – with new seasonal, fresh toppings.  To eat the ingredients out of season wouldn’t have done them justice, wouldn’t have shown them off in all their glory.  The season had changed, the menu had changed, and that became the first day I tasted pizza with pears – my new favourite.

Seasonal sales and paying for quality (Pizza, Cost)

Though my first experience with thin-crust pizza was buying it from a Forno in Italy, at a time when I didn’t have the time or resources to make something so delicious for myself, I recognize – even more now that I make my own pizza – that their margin of profit was enormous.  The crust – mostly white flour with a bit of egg and salt – costs mere pennies per serving, and the toppings – sourced from local producers when possible – avoid most shipping and import fees.  The cheese and meat components contribute most to the cost, but as Cheese Shops (Formaggi) and Delis (Salumeria) are more plentiful in Italy than anywhere else in the world, even those costs were significantly less than in Canada.
In Canada, and specifically in Ontario, where I was born, good quality locally-made cheeses and meats are scarce.   In Niagara, Pingue’s Proscuitto (also known as Niagara Specialty Foods) is the only – and fortunately Ontario’s best – producer of cured meats.  Though the business is local, the Pingue brothers’ growing popularity and near monopoly allow them to charge high prices typically reserved for specialty imported products – starting at $5.90 and $8.90 per 100 grams for prosciutto and bresaola beef, respectively. That said, the meats produced by Pingue exude such flavour impact that less is required for substantial effect on a pizza.  The quality is certainly worth the cost, especially when given the opportunity to support skillful local artisans.
I find it more difficult to find quality cheeses made in Niagara.  Though there are few producers – the largest being Upper Canada Cheese, which carries only a limited selection of generally mediocre-quality cheeses – Niagara, with its growing wine and tourism industries, is certainly not short on cheese shops.  Most stores’ refrigerators are well-stocked with Quebec cheeses, specialties from Monteforte, a cheese maker outside of Stratford, Ontario, and a wide variety of cheeses from Europe.  Prices range from $3.00* to $20.00* per 100 grams, depending on age, name brand, and place of origin.  Good cheese shops allow clients to taste before buying, and I find that allows me to make better judgments on how much money I need to spend to get the right amount of sharpness or smoothness to compliment the rest of the toppings on the pizza.  Generally, the stronger the cheese, the less that is required, but the higher the price.  Mild or unripened cheeses can be less expensive, but more is required to stand up against more flavourful toppings.
Other than meat and cheese, the rest of the pizza toppings are inexpensive – especially when bought in season, on sale, at the market – like I tend to do.  One of my favourite Saturday activities is going to the local market and seeing what produce is most plentiful – and thus least expensive – that week.  Frequenting the market certainly has its benefits, as vendors are more likely to throw in extra items and give deals to the people they see returning week after week: repeat business is good business.
In total, homemade thin-crust pizzas cost between $0.50 and $3.00 per serving – a fraction of comparable quality restaurant pizza.  Frozen grocery store pizzas may be similar in cost, but are generally made within the bounds of what maximizes mass-production efficiency, cost-cutting and shelf life, rather than quality and connection to the environment.  The time cost, making the pizza from scratch, in my mind is worth every “penny.” 

The story of the wild blueberry

“Plants, it turns out, are a lot like people. It typically takes some kind of challenge to bring out the best in them.”

Though evolutions in agriculture bring us many advantages – increasing seasonal yield by reducing losses due to disease and insects, and enhancing the size, visual uniformity, and thus the marketability of a higher percentage of produce – they can also, in some cases, take away from the product’s natural health benefits.  Cultivated, commercial foods are pampered relative to their wild equivalents – and have no need for natural defenses to limit their size and boost the nutrient concentration that makes them so valuable to our diet.  The flavonoid-rich blueberry – proven to reduce cellular damage and the effects of aging, improve cardiovascular and brain functioning, and reduce the risk of cancer – is a perfect example. 
Mary Ann Lila, a plant scientist at the University of Illinois who has been focusing her research on the nutritional compounds in berries, stresses the importance of abiotic stress – including drought, extreme ultraviolet radiation, or cold temperatures.  "Modern breeding focuses on qualities to attract the consumer.  When we increase the size of a fruit, it is at the expense of the secondary components that would be greater in the wild plant" – particularly in northern climates, Lila explains, where the harsh growing season produces berries with flavonoid concentrations equal to medicinal, “nutraceutical” values.
Such plant adaptations are also sympathetic to the needs of the inhabitants of the area, and further the argument for eating food found locally.  Before grocery stores began shipping and stocking foods from all over the world, people were forced to glean sustenance from the land – a difficult task in northern parts of the country.  The naturally occurring, higher doses of nutrients found in local wild produce, however, help supplement, through quality, the reduced quantity in those climates.
Lila is just one of a number of scientists working to convince the public that bigger is not always better.  Rather than genetically modifying produce to be larger and resilient to disease, they seek produce that is healthier – even if aesthetically impaired.  Using precedents from viticulture – namely the infection of grapes with botrytis to heighten flavonoids levels more than tenfold in neighboring, disease-free fruit – scientists and farmers are developing produce that is even higher in nutrients than their wild counterparts.  The next step is promoting awareness of their inner – rather than outer – beauty.