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recipe link: vietnamese sweet potatoes with beef

8 Feb

This, my friends, is officially the most delicious dish I made in 2011. It’s from the Food Matters Cookbook, and it’s fantastic.

I have to warn you, though, that when I made it (all four or five times!) it looked–well–not like the photo.

It looks like orange glop.

But trust me. Try it. It is soothing and satisfying without being boring–comfort food, but with an exotic spin.

The only change I made was to cut the oil back to one tablespoon. I used olive oil, as I generally do, because that’s what’s next to the stove, and it was plenty. I worry with stir-fries that olive oil will burn; that might happen if your stove gets really hot, so use your judgement and pick something with a higher smoking point if you have a really hot range instead of a sissy stove like mine.

I am loving this cookbook more and more, by the way, and I recommend it. This recipe is typical: lots of vegetables, a smaller proportion of meat, and enough interesting spices to make the result into something more than you expected. (The braised chard with chicken and steel-cut oats turns out to be the only thing I’ve ever cooked that somehow fulfills the void left in my life when I stopped cooking chicken breasts in cream of chicken soup from a can, over rice. I have no idea why, but the sauce reminds me of that, in the best possible way.)

book review: The “Food Matters” Cookbook

21 Sep

I have been coveting The Food Matters Cookbook: 500 Revolutionary Recipes for Better Living, by Mark Bittman, for a while, and I got it for my birthday. I’ve used it for a few weeks now, so I guess it’s time for my review.

For the most part, I like it. It contains a lot of how-to-cook ideas and bits about technique, in the recipe instructions sections. It’s simple and descriptive. My biggest peeve is that it doesn’t contain pictures, although I can understand why (it’s already a hefty book with just the text). The dishes I’ve made have been good, and it’s given me some great ideas for lunches and breakfasts, which are the hardest for me to keep interesting.

In theory, I’d also like calorie counts, but in practice, these recipes are so flexible that it would be sort of pointless to include those. Bittman’s recipes are basic plans, not prescriptive or fussy blueprints. He includes plenty of choices and variations for almost every recipe. This approach encourages the use of seasonal produce, which I like.

This cookbook is aimed at readers who have read Bittman’s more argumentative book, Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating with More Than 75 Recipes. I like both of these books very much, and I recommend them both. If you’re not interested in reading about food, though–you just want the recipes and that’s it–there’s no reason you can’t get the cookbook alone. The basic philosophy is simple, and it’s covered in the cookbook as much as it needs to be in order for you to understand it.

follow-up: overeating

15 Aug

My last post discussed eating disorders–a very real issue for a lot of women. Overeating plagues even more of us, though: that is, the tendency to eat more than we need, and to eat for reasons other than hunger (even when it’s not severe enough to warrant the label “eating disorder”).


Some doctors believe that this is more often a problem for women with PCOS and insulin resistance, because the levels of insulin in your blood are connected to cravings and hunger. In particular, a lot of insulin-resistant people crave carbohydrates even when they have had plenty of calories.


Is this you? Do you find it difficult to stick to your eating plan or to listen to your body and eat mindfully, only when you are really hungry? It definitely describes me. There are some things you can do to minimize this, though. Some of these tips you have heard before, but maybe there’s something here that can help you.

  1. Clear your home of your most difficult-to-resist foods. For those of you who share your home, either with a family or a roommate, this might be hard. If popcorn is your go-to food when you’re bored or upset, and your spouse loves it, what do you do? My recommendation is that you get it out of the house. Ask your spouse to keep it at work or find a replacement that you wouldn’t be inclined to overeat. Talk to your housemates and explain that it’s important to you. If the rest of the household isn’t willing to get rid of something that you find irresistible, try to make it less convenient for you to eat it. Store it high up, or ask your partner to put it away out of sight so that you will be less likely to notice it. If you have roommates, ask them to store it in the bedroom so it’s not in your common space.
  2. Avoid tempting situations. If you always succumb to the siren call of the soft pretzels at the mall, don’t walk past them. Go a different route through the mall or whatever you have to do. If you always overeat when you go out to a certain restaurant with a friend, suggest a different restaurant that has healthier options (especially if you dine together frequently). It may seem extreme to avoid whole places in order to control your eating, but it’s not. Would you expect an alcoholic to resist drinking if there were always a bottle of his/her favorite drink on the kitchen shelf, or if every Thursday night was spent in a bar? Not really. It makes sense to save yourself the difficulty.
  3. Find healthier replacements for the things you usually snack on. This is harder than it sounds, because most of us are not satisfied with carrot sticks when we really want potato chips. But think about things that are similar to the food you overeat. For example, if you do crave potato chips, would you be satisfied with whole-wheat crackers and hummus? Or roasted chickpeas with some kind of seasoning? Or even with homemade sweet potato chips?
  4. Plan. This is hard for me, but it really does help: plan what you are eating for the day. Plan not only your meals, but your snacks. If you have a plan, it is easier to choose to adhere to your decision to eat toasted pita with hummus instead of a cookie from the break room at work. And you know that you will be getting a meal at some point in the future, which can make a difference to the way you feel about snacking. I am much more able to eat healthfully throughout the day and avoid overeating if I know that I am making a satisfying dinner that night.
  5. Prep. This is similar to item 4: get your snacks ready ahead of time so that you don’t have to prepare them when you’re craving something to eat. If you have to stop and peel a carrot and cut it up, it’s much less likely that you’ll eat your planned carrots and dip. If you have to clean a box of strawberries before your snack, it’s that much more tempting to eat chocolate instead. When everything is ready in the refrigerator (you might even box up your day’s snacks the night before), you can just grab it and eat it, and that eliminates the time you might spend thinking “maybe it would be easier to just eat this other snack instead.”
Practical suggestions help, of course, but I think it’s important to understand why we overeat. If you are a normal American overeater, you might get a lot of benefit out of David Kessler’s book,The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite.

This book is an excellent discussion of why we overeat and how to stop. Kessler, a former FDA commissioner, spent most of his career trying to improve regulation of cigarettes; his book is another contribution to public health, in my opinion, and it was very helpful to me. Kessler talks a lot about how foods are manufactured to produce the craving response that trips up so many of us. I highly recommend the book.

The Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change and Health

20 Jul

The Environmental Working Group has put out the 2011 “Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change and Health.” This is an interesting document; it describes the environmental impact of the different foods we eat and suggests the best choices. If you are concerned about your health, you can find info about that, too, because their chart describes the things that you can look for when you buy your food–for example, looking for peanut butter that’s free of hydrogenated oils (very easy these days; any supermarket carries PB that’s made from just peanuts, or peanuts and salt).

If you are interested in this school of thought, check out Mark Bittman’s book, Food Matters. I covet the Food Matters cookbook and will certainly review it for this blog when I finally get it.

quick overview: the glycemic index

16 May

Since many of the most-recommended eating plans for PCOS patients are based on the idea of glycemic response, I thought it might be a good idea to discuss a couple of things about the glycemic index (and debunk a couple of other myths). Here are a few basic facts about glycemic response, the glycemic index, and how this idea can help you eat better and reduce your PCOS symptoms.


The glycemic index is a measure of the effects of a certain kind of carbohydrate on blood sugar. Foods with a high GI are the sugars and simple starches that make your blood sugar spike and then plummet (all of those baked goods we love), plus things like potatoes (although these are not as bad as some people have suggested!), and juices or sodas or other sugary drinks. Lower-GI starches include whole grains, beans, some kinds of vegetables, or certain kinds of breads like pumpernickel or rye.

When you hear about “good carbs” vs. “bad carbs,” the difference is the GI. Higher-GI foods set up a number of bad outcomes: the spike in blood sugar causes increased hunger and cravings when it bottoms out, and this eating pattern–over time–can wear out your pancreas, raising your risk of diabetes (especially if you are already insulin resistant, which many PCOS patients are).

In other words, the lower-GI carbohydrates fuel your body without causing drastic ups and downs in your blood sugar–which makes you feel better and is easier on your pancreas. (Eating those lower-GI carbohydrates instead of the sugary or starchy foods can also help you lose weight, especially if insulin resistance is at the root of your difficulties.)

What to Eat
The best books on the glycemic index don’t advocate a radical eating plan. Rather, they mostly suggest reducing carbohydrate portion size and exchanging high-GI carbs for low-GI ones. You can easily find lists of foods by GI on the internet, but it’s really mostly simple (with a few surprises, such as the variation in GI between types of rice). Just choose whole grains, less-processed carbohydrates, and more vegetables instead of starches. (Hey, I said it was simple, not easy.)

The Glycemic Load
You might also hear doctors or nutritionists discussing the glycemic load. This is basically a formula for how much carbohydrate is in a food, multiplied by its GI. The reason it’s useful is that some foods have a high GI, but don’t contain that much carbohydrate, so they don’t affect your blood sugar much. (Carrots are the classic example here.) A food that has a high GI but is low in overall carbohydrate is usually a good choice to eat.

Is this the same as low-carb?
No, it is not. None of these eating plans are low-carb. Atkins, for example, is low-carb, and I do not believe it is a healthful diet at all. But these plans–which have more in common with, say, the South Beach Diet–all emphasize higher-quality foods, better nutrition per calorie, and a balance of macronutrients (that is, a balance between carbohydrate, fat, and protein).

Finally, a Myth
Just because I hear this all the time and read it all the time: no, pasta is not particularly high GI. It’s fine to eat pasta if you can do so wisely and in moderation. It is moderate GI and should be eaten with a low-GI accompaniment. The main reason that so many people struggle with pasta is that Americans tend to eat a lot of it–it should be a moderate serving size, not the only thing you eat at your meal. Also, many people use jarred pasta sauce, which can be a source of a LOT of sugar. Read your label! One sauce that I really like is Victoria marinara (available in most grocery stores, at least on the East Coast, and at Costco). It has no added sugar and it’s delicious.

That said, we eat much less pasta than we used to, because I do find it hard to eat just one serving of it. The main reason I used to cook it was that it was easy: boil noodles, add sauce, and there you have it: dinner! The truth is, though, that it really needs to be just PART of a balanced meal, with more vegetables and possibly a protein source, and at that point I’m cooking anyway and it might be just as easy to cook a whole grain or vegetables instead.

Recommended Reading
My favorite books on this topic are those by Jennie Brand-Miller (she has an assortment; choose the one that reflects your goals or situation!) and the Insulin Resistance Diet. I do also like the South Beach Diet, in many ways, though I find that it is too focused on artificial sweeteners for my taste.

book review: The PCOS Diet Plan

23 Mar

I just read The PCOS Diet Plan: A Natural Approach to Health for Women with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, by Hilary Wright. The title is a bit misleading, because this is really a book that covers many aspects of PCOS (diagnosis, treatments, the mechanisms of insulin resistance, etc.). That sounds like a compliment, but it actually isn’t: in trying to be all things to all PCOS patients, this book loses focus. It’s not a long book, and so the coverage of most topics is fairly cursory.

Wright does a good job of wrapping current research knowledge into her text, and she provides footnotes to document her source material, proving that she has done the research on her topic. The book ends up being a sort of PCOS primer, which is fine if that’s what you’re after; however, if you’ve already read up on the basics about the syndrome, this is not a must-read. She emphasizes diet and exercise as the best treatments for PCOS, which I think is great, but there is nothing new in her “diet plan” that you won’t find in The Insulin Resistance Diet or the New Glucose Revolution, both of which are more useful and detailed books about managing your glycemic response and eating well if you have insulin resistance.

favorite cookbooks

17 Feb

A friend recently asked me for recommendations for favorite cookbooks. When I thought it over, these were the ones I reach for most. Some of these are listed in the “Bookshelf” page above, but many are not. I recommend all of these, except for the ones under “Decadent Treats,” as good sources for healthful recipes and cooking ideas.

My absolute favorites:

Julia Child, The Way to Cook. This is an incredible cookbook, with reliable, understandable recipes for all kinds of things. Even though Mastering the Art of French Cooking is more famous–and perhaps for good reason; I love it too–this is the one I use more often. It is also the one that Child herself considered her magnum opus. If you do not know how to cook, and you read this book from cover to cover, you will know how.

The Moosewood Collective, Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home. I like many of the Moosewood cookbooks, but this one I have used most. The salads are great, and the Risotto with Green Beans and Pesto is amazing. It was the first risotto I ever made and the techniques are described clearly and simply.

Mark Bittman, Food Matters. I could list his collected works, because I also like How to Cook Everything, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, and The Best Recipes in the World, but this is the one I use weekly. It has fewer recipes; the bulk of the book is about how to eat in a way that is ecologically sound and good for you. But it’s worth the price just to get the instructions for cooking whole grains and the frittata recipe (which uses only two eggs and a slew of vegetables, and which has become my breakfast staple.)

Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois, Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day. This was a gift from my sister (thanks, sis!) and has gotten constant use since I got it. This is partly because my 2.5-year-old absorbs bread effortlessly, which makes it all the more important that we eat healthful bread. This is whole-grain and, since I’ve made it myself, I know it’s not loaded with any sugar or anything weird. It’s also incredibly cheap to make and takes little time. I can’t even tell you how easy this is. And you will love the results–really, some of the things I’ve made from this book are so good, I can hardly believe they came out of my kitchen, with my crummy oven with no temperature control.

Laurel Robertson, Carol Flinders, and Bronwen Godfrey, The Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book: A Guide to Whole-Grain Breadmaking. This is a more traditional bread book, which means that the recipes require more work (kneading, whatnot), but it has a wide array of things, including a yummy muffin recipe, good banana bread (or so I’m told–I personally do not eat bananas), very good hamburger buns, etc. If you have a mixer that will knead for you, it’s not too onerous to make the regular yeast breads here, and there are excellent instructions for how to read the dough so that you get good results.

Decadent Treats and Outrageously Unhealthy Party Foods:
Alice Medrich, Bittersweet. This is an entire book about chocolate. It contains stories, personal reflections, and information about chocolate, as well as recipes. I recommend the truffles. But I recommend them for GIVING AWAY, because they are incredible and addictive.

Ree Drummond, The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes from an Accidental Country Girl. I’ll be honest: if I hadn’t been reading her blog all along, I would never have read this cookbook, because it’s so popular that I wouldn’t have thought I could like it. But I do. And it has all kinds of indulgent, wonderful recipes for special occasions. The cinnamon rolls, by the way, are fabulous gifts for Christmas.

Finally, it would be remiss to suggest that most of my cooking comes from these books, since I get so many of my recipes from the internet. So, my favorite cooking sites:

Smitten Kitchen. The 44-Clove Garlic Soup alone is reason enough for this blog’s existence–but I have never had a failure with her recipes, and I’ve made a bunch.

The Pioneer Woman Cooks, by Ree Drummond. Many of the recipes here are a little….excessive, shall we say?, but I love to read it and I have gotten some wonderful recipes. My very favorite actually is pretty healthful, which is unusual for Ree’s food: the Asian Noodle Salad, which I’ve made for a number of parties. It’s “licious,” as my son would say. Some of the recipes from the site appear in the cookbook, but of course the site has more. (There are also a few in the book that aren’t on the web site–savvy marketing and all that.)

Steamy Kitchen, by Jaden Hair. I like her Chinese recipes best and plan to cook a lot more of them someday when I replace my stove and can actually heat up a wok.