27 January 2009

Another Reason to Love Coffee

January 23, 2009

Drinking coffee may do more than just keep you awake. A new study suggests an intriguing potential link to mental health later in life, as well.

A team of Swedish and Danish researchers tracked coffee consumption in a group of 1,409 middle-age men and women for an average of 21 years. During that time, 61 participants developed dementia, 48 with Alzheimer’s disease.

After controlling for numerous socioeconomic and health factors, including high cholesterol and high blood pressure, the scientists found that the subjects who had reported drinking three to five cups of coffee daily were 65 percent less likely to have developed dementia, compared with those who drank two cups or less. People who drank more than five cups a day also were at reduced risk of dementia, the researchers said, but there were not enough people in this group to draw statistically significant conclusions.

Dr. Miia Kivipelto, an associate professor of neurology at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and lead author of the study, does not as yet advocate drinking coffee as a preventive health measure. “This is an observational study,” she said. “We have no evidence that for people who are not drinking coffee, taking up drinking will have a protective effect.”

Dr. Kivipelto and her colleagues suggest several possibilities for why coffee might reduce the risk of dementia later in life. First, earlier studies have linked coffee consumption with a decreased risk of type 2 diabetes, which in turn has been associated with a greater risk of dementia. In animal studies, caffeine has been shown to reduce the formation of amyloid plaques in the brain, one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease. Finally, coffee may have an antioxidant effect in the bloodstream, reducing vascular risk factors for dementia.

Dr. Kivipelto noted that previous studies have shown that coffee drinking may also be linked to a reduced risk of Parkinson’s disease.

The new study, published this month in The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, is unusual in that more than 70 percent of the original group of 2,000 people randomly selected for tracking were available for re-examination 21 years later. The dietary information had been collected at the beginning of the study, which reduced the possibility of errors introduced by people inaccurately recalling their consumption. Still, the authors acknowledge that any self-reported data is subject to inaccuracies.

10 January 2009

Eating Locally in Winter

I live in the Northeast US, so as you can imagine, eating seasonally in the winter can definitely pose a challenge. For those in the south and the west coast, I am extremely envious that you can purchase fresh local fruits and vegetables year round. We have to be a little more conscious here of the seasons and plan them accordingly. For example, this summer I froze bags and bags of fresh berries, peaches, apricots, and tomatoes until my freezer was stuffed – knowing that I would be grateful to be able to enjoy them in the winter months. I also recently stocked up on root vegetables that store well in the fridge like carrots, turnips, onions, shallots, and garlic, since they too may be scarce in the coming months.

So what if you didn’t have room in your freezer or you simply did not plan ahead? What’s to eat?

Well, fortunately many farmers’ markets stay open year round and some CSAs offer “winter shares.” They may dwindle in size and offer much less on the produce end, but they still offer grass fed meats, wild game, chicken, eggs, fish, cheeses, as well as winter squash, root vegetables, apples and pears, and from some of the farmers that have greenhouses – green vegetables, hydroponic tomatoes (which aren’t always so great), and cultivated mushrooms. According to traditional Chinese medicine, winter is the time when the body needs to store up energy, rest, and meditation and therefore needs strengthening, warming foods like soups and stews. It’s a perfect time to experiment with heartier meats like lamb, bison, or venison; hearty heirloom beans; exotic roots like burdock, celery root, and sunchokes; and baked eggy things like quiche, Spanish tortilla, or frittatas.

This was the tortilla de patatas I made for Rosh Hashana dinner.

Many farmers also pickle and preserve their own vegetables and fruits. So in addition to all the fresh stuff, it may be a fun time to taste those pickled French beans, some raw sauerkraut, pesto sauce, canned tomatoes with herbs, or delicious fruit preserves sweetened with local honey.

There are still local offerings in some supermarkets too. I have found wild greens and onions from Massachusetts at my nearest Whole Foods (well… that’s kind of local). And at my neighborhood health food store, they sell grass fed beef from New Jersey, local raw cheeses from upstate New York, as well as winter squashes from local farms.

A sample winter's dinner:

Grass-fed lamb short ribs braised in hard cider
Parsnip and celery root mash
Steamed brussel sprouts
Christmas lima beans


Any resolutions to eat healthier this year and more sustainably?

Mark Bittman, whose column I love, wrote this article published in last Tuesday's NY Times.  It’s full of terrific ideas (and it’s not too late to start).

PERHAPS, like me, you have this romantic notion of shopping daily — maybe even a mental vision of yourself making the rounds, wicker basket in hand, of your little Shropshire or Provençal or Tuscan village. The reality, of course, is that few of us provision our kitchens or cook exclusively with ultra-fresh ingredients, especially in winter, when there simply are no ultra-fresh ingredients.

But if your goal is to cook and cook quickly, to get a satisfying and enjoyable variety of real food on the table as often as possible, a well-stocked pantry and fridge can sustain you. Replenished weekly or even less frequently, with an occasional stop for fresh vegetables, meat, fish and dairy, they are the core supply houses for the home cook.

While you’re stocking up, you might clear out a bit of the detritus that’s cluttering your shelves. Some of these things take up more space than they’re worth, while others are so much better in their real forms that the difference is laughable. Sadly, some remain in common usage even among good cooks. My point here is not to criminalize their use, but to point out how easily and successfully we can substitute for them, in every case with better results.

Here, then, is my little list of items you might spurn, along with some essential pantry and long-keeping refrigerator items you might consider. Note that I’m not including the ultra-obvious, things that are more or less ubiquitous in the contemporary American pantry, like potatoes, eggs and honey.

02 January 2009

Chicken at 400 MPH (into a Headwind)

The rhythm of life in Manhattan with Stephanie involves regular trips to the farmers' markets near her home. I've commented before in previous posts that it is a pleasure for me to watch her and many other shoppers involved in the full-sense selection of food items. They're a savvy bunch, those regulars. And the people-watching is first-rate.

The polished red skins of commercial apples, bred for durability and showiness, are forsaken for the irregular, blemished, and much better-tasting fruits of the so-called "heirloom" variety. Carnivores study the fish, poultry, and meat vendor offerings, poking with expert fingers at not just chicken and beef, but pheasant, duck, and goat as well.

Steph bought a nice-sized organic chicken during one such visit. She had previously purchased leeks, a variety of carrots (orange, red, purple), Jerusalem artichokes (also known as "sunchokes"), black salsify, and a bunch of rosemary. We went home and she brined the bird overnight (3/4 cup salt, in our case kosher, per gallon of water).

The next day we patted the carcass down and I took my spot in the corner of the kitchen. As the oven warmed up to 450 degrees, Steph cut the leeks into 6"-8" sections and stuffed them into the carcass along with a few cloves of garlic and a nice bunch of rosemary. She seasoned the bird with fresh ground pepper and paprika. Since the chicken was brined, it didn't need salt. The other vegetables went into the pan under the chicken which was placed on a cradle type rack. She salted and peppered those veggies and added a bit of schmaltz as an initial coating. The chicken would rain a little more fat upon them during the cooking process.

Carrot: What was that?

Sunchoke: What was what?

Carrot: That! Something just fell on my root tip!

Sunchoke: It's a light schmaltzing. Didn't you read the weather report? There's a bird up there!

Carrot: Oh.

Sunchoke: Just sit back and enjoy the warmth.

Cook the chicken at 450 for 20 minutes, then reduce to 375 for another 20 to 40+ minutes, depending upon the size of the bird. The skin will crisp up nicely and form a great barrier to escaping moisture. When the thick part of the thigh reads 170 degrees, your bird should be done. If you don't have a thermometer, piercing the same area should yield a flow of clear fluid. If it's bloody, the bird isn't quite ready yet.

I had to leave shortly after the bird was done. Stephanie prepared me a marvelous meal to go of light and dark meats, veggies, and less than three ounces of drippings/sauce. I carried the bag with the precious meal carefully to the airport. The TSA allowed me to take it through security.

The only problem came when, midflight, I actually opened my little bit of heaven and started eating it. The cabin of the Airbus A320 filled with the aroma of chicken, rosemary, and roast vegetables. There were a few murmers. Someone a couple of seats behind me asked the flight attendant about it. I didn't hear the response. I was prepared to run to the back of the aircraft and barricade myself if necessary and finish my meal.

As it turned out, the food provided later material for conversation with a rowmate about this very blog, my lovely partner, and the importance of food in general.