Sunday, January 11, 2009

Resolved: Enjoy Great Food

I'll be making my monthly appearance on KPBS radio's These Days tomorrow morning at 10, this time with my friend chef Deborah Schneider. We'll be talking about healthy eating and cooking, something she knows a lot about, especially with the publication of her latest book, Cooking with the Seasons at Rancho La Puerta.

No, this isn't going to be about dieting. Nor is it going to be about denying yourself great tasting foods. If anything, it's going to be about embracing them and figuring out how to keep them foremost in your life, even when greasy fast food beckons. Every year at this time, we hear the same old, same old about eating right and exercising, but it's so easy to get sidetracked with all the demands on our busy lives. We often don't stop to actually taste let alone savor what goes in our mouths and end up eating stuff we don't even much enjoy. We're just refueling. But those of us who love good food know that refueling is a mere byproduct of the joy of eating and cooking. It's about celebrating the remarkable foods grown and raised in our region and the ability to turn them into breathtakingly tasty meals.

And, it's often less expensive to do than you'd think. By eating seasonally, for instance, you get the benefits of bounty. Right now we've got lovely root vegetables, greens, citrus and squash at the farmers markets in San Diego. By eating inexpensive grains and legumes, you get a wealth of fiber, a lot of flavor and only the smallest dent in your wallet. Plus, they're so versatile you can create a wide variety of meals using the same basic ingredient. Barley is perfect in a hearty soup but also makes a delicious risotto. Add garbanzo beans to a salad for lunch or puree them with olive oil, garlic, lemon juice and salt to make a bright tasting dip.

Yes, when it comes to something like grass-fed beef, you're going to pay more per pound but try using it as a flavor enhancer in a stir fry or just serve a smaller portion with your meal, balanced with more vegetables and grains. You'll be eating a protein that is better for you than conventionally raised beef and enjoying portions also more in keeping with better health.

Where to start? Let's look at places to shop:

Farmers markets top the list, of course. You can find a schedule for all of San Diego's farmers markets on the San Diego Farm Bureau's web site.

For good, inexpensive produce, check out the Farmers Market/Farmers Outlet shops in San Diego. The two I know are in Tierrasanta on Santo Road and in Grantville just off of Friars Road near Mission Gorge. They also carry organic packaged products from companies like Bob's Red Mill and Newman's Own. And, they stock a wonderful variety of ethnic foods, including Middle Eastern and Hispanic products.

I enjoy shopping at both Whole Foods and Bristol Farms, but it can get pricey. So I often go to Henry's to find wonderful produce, both conventionally grown and organic, a wide variety of specialty "health" foods -- flax seeds and agave syrup, for instance -- and bins of grains, nuts and flours. You'll do just as well at OB People's Market, Jimbos and, of course, Trader Joe's.

For fish and seafood I like to make sure what I'm buying is absolutely fresh and locally caught if possible. So, I go to either Catalina Offshore Products near Morena Blvd. or Pt. Loma Seafoods on Emerson off of Rosecrans. I buy free-range, organic, air-chilled chicken at Whole Foods or Bristol Farms. I get grass-fed beef at Whole Foods, Boney's Bayside Market in Coronado or the La Jolla Butcher Shop. I'm also a sucker for Iowa Meat Farms' Baja chicks. I don't know what they put in their marinade but it makes for tender, savory roasted chicken. And their Berkshire pork is astoundingly juicy, tender and flavorful -- nothing at all like conventionally raised pork.

How about getting out of your comfort zone and exploring ethnic markets? Just when you start getting tired of brocolli, how about going to 99 Ranch Market on Clairemont-Mesa Blvd. and trying Chinese brocolli. It's delicious steamed, then stir-fried with garlic and ginger and topped with oyster sauce. Or fresh water chestnuts (you'll never go back to canned again). Or Asian pears or persimmons. Or three different types of baby bok choy. Not sure what you're looking at or how to cook what you see? If a store employee isn't available, be bold and ask the customer next to you. You'd be surprised at how kind people are and flattered to be asked.

Among my favorite Asian markets are 99 Ranch, the newly renovated Mitsuwa on Mercury, Nijiya (with organic produce from its own farm) on Convoy near Aero Dr., Zion and First Korean Market.

There are plenty of wonderful items at our many Middle Eastern markets. At Balboa International Market on Balboa near Genesee I recently found beautiful Persian cucumbers, enormous pomegranates, roasted pistachios and a lot of interesting spices. Also worth visiting are Parsian on Convoy and North Park Produce in North Park and in Poway. They have my favorite short grain white rice. It's not labeled but you'll find it in a bin. It makes very tender, sweet rice, and is especially good when you add just a little freshly chopped dill.

I love our local Hispanic markets. Northgate Gonzalez, just off the 805 at 43rd St., has a remarkable produce section, where I've found fresh green garbanzos, magnificent peppers and lovely nopales.

They also have a wonderful array of ceviches -- shrimp, octopus, fish, spicy, mild. Whatever your tastebuds find pleasure in, they have it, already prepared and delicious. They, along with El Tigre and Foodland, have large meat and seafood sections and their own tortillerias.

All of these places help you do another thing well to make cooking at home easier -- creating a well-stocked pantry (and by pantry I also mean refrigerator and freezer). Here's just some of what you'll find in mine in no particular order:

Olive oils, avocado oil, grapeseed oil, sesame oil

Variety of vinegars

Capers packed in salt

Dried fruit

Sea salt, whole peppercorns


Tube of tomato paste

Bags of lentils, rice, wheat berries, pearl barley, quinoa, etc.

Pasta, including whole wheat pasta

Walnuts, pine nuts

Cans of good crushed tomatoes – low sodium

Dijon mustard

Variety of spices

Oatmeal and high-fiber cereal


Fish sauce


Jars of homemade herb rubs

Flax seeds, chia seeds and hemp seeds

Unbleached flour, wheat flour, rye flour

Sugar but also agave syrup

Real maple syrup

A piece of parmesan cheese

Homemade stock in freezer and containers of store-bought in pantry

Cans of beans – Great Northern, black, garbanzo, Cannellini

Dark chocolate

Plus, I always have heads of garlic, shallots, onions and lemons in my kitchen. And, I grow a variety of herbs in my garden just outside my kitchen. Rosemary, chives, thyme, oregano and Italian flat leaf parsley are always available and in the summer I grow different varieties of basil as well as cilantro. In short, I always have the makings of a meal.

Good ingredients easily on hand make it much more likely that you'll make good meals for yourself and your family. You might even try your hand at something very fundamental: baking bread. I've become a fan of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois.

Yes, these recipes are good and the working time involved is minimal -- just a few minutes to mix the dough and another few to shape the loaf. And, yes, there's some rising time after you first make up a batch of dough, before you put it in the oven and while it bakes, but you can do other things in that time. I have been making their basic boule for months now, always keeping a container of dough in my refrigerator to make a loaf on the fly.

Today I made two loaves of their whole wheat bread. The flavor is rich and nutty with a hint of sweetness from honey.

Of course, we all enjoy dining out. With chefs so eager to incorporate and even feature farm-fresh produce, sustainably fished seafood, and the meat of pastured animals on their menus, it's not difficult to order healthy delicious food at most of the fine dining restaurants in town. But we also have a growing number of restaurants that specialize in healthy meals. And they're good, not like the "natural foods" places I used to try back in the 70s and 80s which had strangely plastic-tasting dishes that I found so off-putting. The farm-to-table movement has led to fresh, authentic approaches to cooking with the result that the food is good for you and also really delicious. I had a marvelous grilled ahi salad last week at Tender Greens in Liberty Station, along with a thick, comforting bowl of tomato soup.

Salad Style in downtown's East Village is becoming a popular place that friends of mine have enjoyed. We also have Spread in North Park -- admittedly not a favorite of mine but a favorite of many others. And there are a number of "fast food" places where you can get healthy dishes. La Salsa, Fins and Baja Fresh come to mind -- and that's just Mexican food.

Still looking for good vegetarian or vegan restaurants? You'll find many more options here.

Deb and I will discuss all these ideas and more. But the bottom line? Eating and cooking healthy food is not a sacrifice, it's a pleasure.

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