Risotto Mantecato with Balsamic Vinegar

risotto_mantecato.jpgOne of my wife and my favorite restaurants here in Atlanta is an Italian place called Sotto Sotto, located on Highland Avenue near Little Five Points. Amongst our favorite things about the restaurant, in addition to the romantic atmosphere, is the bevy of vegetarian options to choose from. Even better is that the kitchen will prepare "first course" size portions, so we can actually order two different dishes without feeling like gluttons.

Thus Sotto Sotto was the first place I tried risotto, and their Risotto Mantecato quickly became one of my standbys. While I certainly can't replicate the experience of dining at out a nice restaurant, I thought I might at least see if I could master the dish itself, with this recipe (which I've converted from grams and oz. to cups):

1 cup Carnaroli or Arborio rice
3 tbsp butter
1/2 onion
1/2 cup white wine
3 cups vegetable broth
1/3 cup Parmesan cheese
1 tsp vinegar

Cut onion into thin slices, place them in a small bowl, sprinkle with balsamic vinegar, and leave them to soak for 10 minutes. Strain the onions and put them into a pan with half of the butter over medium heat. Once the onions are brown, add the rice. Let the rice simmer for a minute, then steam with white wine. Begin adding the vegetable broth one cup at a time, waiting for the liquid to soak in and evaporate before adding the next cup, stirring constantly. Once all the broth has evaporated, turn the heat off, add the Parmesan cheese, the remaining butter, and a splash of balsamic vinegar. Let it rest for a few minutes and serve.

This recipe was easy to follow, and did not take much in the way of skill. Rather it is an exercise in diligence, with the constant stirring as cup after cup of vegetable broth is poured and then soaked up by the rice. It turned out extremely well, nearly as good as the restaurant. Like at Sotto Sotto, this dish has a very strong flavor, best served as either an appetizer or a side dish, or at least with some good bread.

The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan

pollan_omnivores.jpgAt the beginning of his unlikely bestseller, Michael Pollan makes the case that Americans have lost touch with what was once the most basic decision humans faced: what should I eat? Though a seemingly simple question, Pollan recognizes Americans find the choice more perplexing than ever. He traces his own epiphany about "our national eating disorder" to the rise of the low-carb diets that somehow managed to banish bread, a staple food around the globe for thousands of years, from our national table:

So violent a change in a culture's eating habits is surely the sign of a national eating disorder. Certainly it would never have happened in a culture in possession of deeply rooted traditions surrounding food and eating. But then, such a culture would not feel the need for its most august legislative body to ever deliberate the nation's "dietary goals"--or, for that matter, to wage political battle every few years over the precise design of an official government graphic called the "food pyramid." A country with a stable culture of food would not shell out millions for the quackery (or common sense) of a new diet book every January. It would not be susceptible to the pendulum swings of food scares or fads, to the apotheosis every few years of one newly discovered nutrient and the demonization of another. It would not be apt to confuse protein bars and food supplements with meals or breakfast cereals with medicines. It probably would not eat a fifth of its meals in cars or feed fully a third of its children at a fast-food outlet every day. And it surely would not be nearly so fat.

In tackling this question, The Omnivore's Dilemma traces three different food chains: "the industrial, the organic, and the hunter-gatherer." The first third of the book is by far the best, and the most disturbing. Pollan introduces us to corporate farming, and to the reality that in America, that means corn:

Corn is what feeds the steer that becomes the steak. Corn feeds the chicken and the pig, the turkey and the lamb, the catfish and the tilapia and, increasingly, even the salmon, a carnivore by nature that the fish farmers are reengineering to tolerate corn. The eggs are made of corn. The milk and cheese and yogurt, which once came from dairy cows that grazed on grass, now typically come from Holsteins that spend their working lives indoors tethered to machines, eating corn.

In subsequent chapters, Pollan explores in depth the science of corn, the economics of the corn industry, the politics of corn, and the historical interaction of these elements that has led to the plant's triumph. Suffice it to say that this section of the book is so infuriating and so provocative that my colleagues are getting pretty tired of sharing meals with a guy who keeps pointing to everything at the table and shouting "That's corn, too!"

In the middle third, Pollan looks at alternative methods of farming. His account of his stay at Joel Salatin's Polyface Farms (dedicated to "management-intensive grazing") is fascinating, but his look at organic farming (and the co-opting of that term) was neither as compelling nor as consequential as the exploration of king corn. The final third, in which Pollan relates his efforts to hunt boar and gather wild mushrooms, develops an intimate tone some may favor, but it struck me as a fanciful conceit that said more about Pollan and his eccentric California friends than it did about the virtues or vices of the American diet.

The chapter I was most interested in, that devoted to the ethics of eating meat, was the chapter that most disappointed me. Pollan deserves credit for tackling the issue, and he starts well enough, with a respectful outline of the arguments put forth by Peter Singer in Animal Liberation. Unfortunately, Pollan cannot mask an antipathy for vegetarianism, or at least the people who practice it (as a vegetarian I am "nothing if not self-respecting" and will "burden you with my obligatory compromises and ethical distinctions"). And Pollan has a tendency to sidestep the issue with reductionist anecdotes:

I looked into the black eye of the chicken and, thankfully, saw nothing, not a flicker of fear. Holding his head in my right hand, I drew the knife down the left side of the chicken's neck.

Set aside the presumptive personification that fear or suffering must manifest itself in the eyes of an animal, or that we would recognize it if we saw it; how is this persuasive in any way? To invoke the argument from marginal cases, the power of which Pollan readily acknowledges, why should we take any more comfort from the trusting eyes of a chicken or cow about to be slaughtered than we would the trusting eyes of an infant child, or the mentally ill or handicapped?

To close the chapter, Pollan takes refuge in this nonsense a second time, relating the ever-so-clever (and almost certainly fictional) account offered by Joel Salatin of a man who rides up with a PETA bumper sticker on his car, explains that he decided he could only eat meat again if he killed it himself, slits a chicken's throat, watches it die, and sees "that the animal did not look at him accusingly." One wonders, did Isaac look accusingly at Abraham?

To be fair to Pollan, he does acknowledge the horror of what America does to its animals:

Were the walls of our meat industry to become transparent, literally or even figuratively, we would not long continue to raise, kill, and eat animals the way we do. Tail docking and sow crates and beak clipping would disappear overnight, and the days of slaughtering four hundred head of cattle an hour would promptly come to an end--for who could stand the sight? Yes, meat would get more expensive. We'd probably eat a lot less of it, too, but maybe when we did eat animals we'd eat them with the consciousness, ceremony, and respect they deserve.

All well and good, but Pollan is still taking the easy way out. He was so swept away by his experience at Polyface Farms, with its more mindful method of slaughter, that he sidesteps the actual choice facing individual Americans. If as a country we were able to decide to revolutionize the way our animals are raised and killed, all farms could be like Polyface. There would be less meat, it would be more expensive, but much of the evil in the process would be eliminated.

That choice is not before us today, however, and likely never will be. Instead, all each of us can do (unless we happen to live very close to Polyface Farms), is choose between eating meat produced as it is now, in all its brutality, or not eating meat at all. For several years, that's been an easy choice for me, and this book only made it easier. As Milan Kundera said in The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. ManĀ­kind's true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it.

How we treat animals is not just a matter of diet, it is a matter of how we comport ourselves in the world. Pollan might have done well to explore that connection.

Happy Thanksgiving!

thanksgiving2008.jpg

Vanilla Brownies

Today is my first day back in Kuwait, but before I left I notched two more recipes out of the Betty Crocker Cookie Book. The initial plan was to bake each recipe from front to back, but I think my colleagues were in danger of chocolate chip cookie overload. So, I decided to skip ahead to the bars and brownies; I'll go back to cookies once I get back to the States. The first recipe I made was the "Fudgy Saucepan Brownies." They turned out okay, but not worth publicizing. The other recipe, "Vanilla Brownies," was much better.

vanilla_brownies.jpg

This is not a blondie recipe; blondies are like chocolate chip cookies in brownie form. This is actually a vanilla flavored brownie, with vanilla frosting. The recipe calls for vanilla milk chips; these are often called white or white chocolate chips, but make sure that the chips you buy are made from cocoa butter. The Nestle White Morsels that my grocery store carries are not, so I went with the store brand.

1/2 cup butter
1 package (10 oz.) white chocolate chips (1 2/3 cups)
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 eggs
1/2 cup chopped nuts

Preheat your oven to 350F. Heat the white chocolate chips and butter in a 2-qt. saucepan over low heat, just until melted. Stir frequently, as white chocolate will burn if it starts feeling abandoned. Remove the pan from heat and let it cool. Stir in the flour, sugar, vanilla, salt, and eggs. Mix in the nuts (I used pecans, toasted in the oven for 10 minutes).

Spread the batter into a greased and floured a 9x13 pan. Bake 30-35 minutes, cool completely, and then spread the vanilla frosting (just mix these four easy ingredients):

1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
3 tablespoons butter, softened
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons milk

These were just as easy as your run-of-the-mill brownie recipe, but serve as a welcome change of pace. The browned edges have a caramel taste, and the homemade frosting adds a nice bit of moisture and give the end product a nicely finished appearance.

Giant Toffee Chocolate Chip Cookie

Like I said last week, with a new oven, and a new cookbook, I could not resist the urge to do a lot of baking. The next recipe in the Betty Crocker Cookie Book was the aptly named "Giant Toffee Chocolate Chip Cookie."

cc_toffee.jpg

The recipe calls for almond brickle bits; the only I have ever seen are Heath Toffee Bits, but I can understand that General Mills did not want to advertise a Hershey product. For some reason, my local supermarkets have only been carrying the version of Heath bits that also has milk chocolate mixed in, so that's what I used; I doubt anyone will complain about a little extra chocolate. I also replaced the mini chocolate chips with semisweet chocolate chunks. Though they are pretty much the opposite of a mini chip, that's what I had.

1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup shortening
1/4 cup honey
1 cup brown sugar
1 egg
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 package (12 oz.) miniature semisweet chocolate chips (2 cups)
1 package (7.5 oz.) almond brickle chips (1 cup)

Preheat your oven to 350F. Cream together the butter, shortening, honey and brown sugar. Stir in the egg. Add the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt, and stir until blended. Then mix in the chocolate and toffee chips.

The recipe calls for 1/4 cup of dough per cookie. Rather than fuss with one of your measuring cups, I highly recommend investing in a #16 cookie/ice-cream scoop. It will vastly simplify and speed the process, and ensure uniform size (and thus uniform baking). They are available from Fantes, where I buy most of my kitchen supplies.

Using the cookie scoop, place the dough on baking sheets lined with parchment paper. These spread out quite a bit, so I did 9 cookies per sheet (3x3); there's just enough dough for 18 cookies, so that's just two sheets. Bake 12-14 minutes. Let them cool for a couple minutes on the baking sheet before moving them to wire racks.

These come out soft, thin, and heavy. They are the closest I have ever made to a cookie from Mrs. Field's, with that dense, buttery goodness. I'm tempted to credit the honey, which I don't recall using in a cookie recipe before; the butter/shortening blend surely helped. Too bad it only made 18; next time I'll double the recipe.

The Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookie

Since I had a new oven, and a new cookbook, I did not have much choice but to bake quite a bit this week. I took two steps forward in my effort to bake the Betty Crocker Cookie Book from start to finish. Last night, I made the "Giant Toffee-Chocolate Chip Cookies," which I will post about next week. Before that, on Tuesday, the first night with our new appliances, I took a stab at "The Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookie."

ultimatecc.jpg

I was afraid I was running low on ingredients, so I hopped over to the Whole Foods for flour, sugar, and chocolate chips. Turns out I didn't need any of them, but my next recipe sure will have some high-end organic ingredients.

1 1/2 cups butter, softened
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 1/4 cups brown sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla
2 eggs
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups chopped walnuts
4 cups semisweet chocolate chips

Preheat your oven to 375F. Cream together the sugars and butter, and stir in the eggs and vanilla. Add the flour, baking soda, and salt, and stir until blended. Then stir in the nuts and chocolate chips. If you have time, it is a nice touch to toast the walnuts in the oven on a baking sheet for 10 minutes before you add them to the dough.

A quick glance at these ingredients should signal that this is going to be a big pile of dough. That usually means there will be a lot of cookies. Not in this case. The recipe calls for 1/4 cup of dough per cookie. Rather than fuss with one of your measuring cups, I highly recommend investing in a #16 cookie/ice-cream scoop. It will vastly simplify and speed the process, and ensure uniform size (and thus uniform baking). They are available from Fantes, where I buy most of my kitchen supplies.

Using the cookie scoop, place the dough on baking sheets lined with parchment paper. These need a bit of space, so I did 9 cookies per sheet (3x3). The cookbook calls for 13-15 minutes in the oven, but I found they were ready at 12 minutes. Just keep an eye on them, pull them once they start to brown, then cool on wire racks.

These are very large, thick cookies. All that dough only made about 40 in my batch. They are also a bit cakier than the Award Winning Soft Chocolate Chip Cookies from Allrecipes I made in July, likely due to the increased white sugar. Very tasty, and very popular.

New Kitchen Appliances

This weekend I had one of the most extraordinary shopping experiences of my life. Last year, my wife and I remodeled the bathrooms in our condo, replacing the Hollywood-style light fixtures and mirrors. Several months ago, we decided that our next big home improvement project would be to replace the cabinet doors in our kitchen.

We arranged an in-home consultation with a local "kitchen refacing" company to do this work, and we realized this would also be the ideal time to install an over-the-range microwave. This got us thinking that new cabinet doors and a new microwave would make our old appliances look pretty dingy. We still have the 10-year old base-model white GE appliances that the builder put in every unit in our complex, and the refrigerator in particular has been getting on my nerves lately. With one eye on our own happiness, and another eye on resale value, we decided to make the move to stainless appliances.

The biggest limitation on our shopping was the size of the refrigerator. This is only a 1200 sq.ft. condo, after all, and the space for the refrigerator is only 30" wide and 68" high. No side-by-sides or French Door for us, and even the bottom-mounts in that width would not work well in our space. So that narrowed it to stainless top-mount refrigerators in the 18-19 cu ft. range, with the hinge on the left (or reversible).

After loads of online research, particularly using the wealth of information and photos available on the AJ Madison website, we found the Frigidaire PHT189JKM. It has everything we could ask for in a traditional top-mount fridge that we don't have now: adjustable half-width shelves, adjustable door bins, a freaking deli drawer (don't ask me how we've lived without one of these for three years), and a left-hinge option:

refrigerator.jpg

Once we'd become excited about this refrigerator, it seemed a simple matter just to go out and get eyes on it, make sure it looked as good in person as it did online. Easier said than done. We went to Best Buy, Lowe's, Home Depot, HHGregg, all with no success. These stores seemed to recognize, reasonably enough, that those looking for fancy stainless appliances probably had room for a side-by-side or French Door model. The stainless top-mount selection was modest at best. They all said they could order the model we wanted, but we really hoped to see it in person first.

brandsmartusa_ad.jpgMy wife mentioned that a friend of hers got a good deal on appliances at a discount Southern chain called Brandsmart USA, but I was skeptical. Just look at their print ad. Does this seem like the kind of place that is going to have a refrigerator that no other store carries? Their television ads are even worse. I figured it would just be a low-rent operation that made its money with high volume sales of closeout models. But frustrated with the other stores, I relented and we headed up I-85 to the Doraville location.

Almost impossible to miss from the highway because it is so big, this store is also nearly impossible to describe. It is as if you are actually inside that advertisement. Everything is crammed together, there are bright neon signs for everything, it is highly disorienting at best. Ramps take you one way, stairs take you another. Once the first wave of nausea passes, however, you notice something remarkable: this store has an incredible selection, and the prices are amazing.

We made our way up to the appliances, and as we stumbled amongst the hundreds of refrigerators that line the entire second floor, what did we find? The exact Frigidaire model we wanted; it was even the left-hinged version. It was beautiful. And so was the price, more than $200 less than what Lowe's or Best Buy wanted. We fought off a few hungry salesmen (the only downside to the experience, but what do you expect?), and looked to see if they had the Frigidaire range, microwave, and dishwasher that we wanted to complete the kitchen. They did:

appliances.jpg

Of course, not only did they have the GLEFZ384GC range, the PLMVZ169GC microwave, and the GLD2445RFC dishwasher, the prices were lower than anywhere else we had seen. As we were browsing the dishwashers, a soft-spoken salesman asked us if we had any questions. My wife asked about delivery and installation, and we were stunned to learn that it would only cost about $100 total for delivery and installation of all the appliances, and they could deliver as early as Tuesday (today!). This salesman noticed that we were looking at Frigidaire appliances, and he pulled out a rebate form that would entitle us to more than $100 in rebates based on the models we were looking at (I'm usually skeptical of mail-in rebates, but if I'm buying anyway, it's worth a stamp to try). We decided to pull the trigger, and as the salesman was ringing up the purchase, what did he do? He summarily dropped another $20 off the price of each item, for no reason that we have been able to figure out.

Now I'm happily waiting at home for the delivery and installation of our new appliances, just a couple of days later. When the cabinet refacing is done next month, and the new microwave installed, I'll post before and after pictures for everyone to see.

UPDATE: Delivered, installed, wonderful.

Hilarious

Those who've served overseas or who have family that did might be familiar with the Stars and Stripes newspaper, which is published daily by various overseas printers and provided free on U.S. military installations in the Middle East (I believe it is command-sponsored here, but not elsewhere). It has some independent reporting with a military focus, but also aggregates a lot of wire service reporting, like most newspapers these days.

There's probably some irony in the fact that even though I have as much access to the Internet here as I did in the States, I've actually taken to reading this newspaper pretty regularly. It may be because I am having breakfast and dinner in the DFAC where they have stacks at the entrance, whereas I rarely "eat out" at home. But I think it also provides a sense of normality and domesticity, just another little way not to feel 7000 miles away.

Anyhow, I have always loved the Sunday comics, and thankfully Stars and Stripes includes some of the best strips. This one is a classic:

othercoast_vegan.gif

When someone finds out I am a vegetarian, the reaction I get can say a lot about the person. Or at least about the assumptions they do or do not make. The caricature in this comic portrays the worst kind of vegetarian (vegan, actually, but I digress), one whose elevation of their personal morals to a religious imperative is distressing no matter the subject, and who feels a penchant for unsolicited intervention. I do think that if I can get all the nutrients I need without an animal having to suffer or die, I should. And on a more general level, I also believe people should make informed choices in the way they live, and I don't think most Americans do that when it comes to food. But so long as no one tries to convince me to eat meat, I will not personally try to get them to stop. I'm OK, you're OK, as it were.

The Bloodless Revolution

stuart_bloodlessThough I have yet to start reading The Bloodless Revolution (it arrived in the same order as Organic, Inc., which I just finished and enjoyed), I am not surprised to hear that it is receiving some controversial reviews. Vegetarianism, like religion and politics, always seems to inspire strong opinions. So I was glad to see Condalmo add a sensible perspective to the matter:

I am a vegetarian. On an individual level, people need to decide for themselves whether or not vegetarianism is right for them; I don't know that it's right for everyone. But lame closers like this one are A) the work of a bad reviewer, and B) lame and uninformed generalizations about life as a vegetarian. Why do people feel a need to spread stereotypes about vegetarians or meat eaters? Saying that a vegetarian diet is "wallowing in stupid defeatism" is the same as saying that a diet of meat is "wallowing in rampant barbarianism and blood thirst" - it just isn't true.

Speaking for myself, I often get a glimpse at a person's character by how they react to learning that I am a vegetarian. Those who are interested, or engaging, or at least polite, they get my respect. Those who immediately launch into heated rhetoric about how stupid vegetarianism is (and an alarming number of otherwise thoughtful people fly into just such a rage), or fawn in adulation about how they "wish they could do that," they go on a different list.

It is not that I care whether they agree with my vegetarianism or not, just as I should hope that they not care whether I agree with their meat-eating or not. I just want some civil discourse, and for whatever reason vegetarianism is one of those subjects that sometimes exposes a person's penchance for condescension, and that I do mind. I have never been caught speaking ill of someone else's choice to eat meat (or not), be it in my own home or at an office function at Outback Steakhouse (where I gladly order a salad or pasta). I simply expect the same treatment.

Five Guys

5guysYou don't often hear vegetarians raving about burger joints, even if the burgers are made from "fresh ground beef that's never been frozen". But Five Guys Burgers and Fries holds an unusually special place in the hearts of my wife and I. And while we are not, of course, enamored with the burgers, we are in love with the fries.

A good french fry is just about my favorite food on the planet. I prefer a slightly chunky fry (boardwalk-style), and the potato skins must still be on the fry. A bit of salt (or some Old Bay) and some ketchup, and I'm living in luxury. Of course, Five Guys also makes a decent grilled cheese (and they'll add tomato and grilled onion at no extra charge), so it is easy to make a meal, even for vegetarians.

But as good as the fries are, that's not the reason that Five Guys holds such a unique position in our married life. You see, during our second year of law school at Virginia, a Five Guys restaurant opened up in the Barracks Road Shopping Center, which is just down the hill from the law school and is also where we did all of our grocery shopping. So a trip to Five Guys became a recurring treat for us.

We got engaged during the summer before our third year, and our wedding day was in the spring. That day, as per custom, my wife went off with her mother and maid of honor while my groomsmen and I relaxed. Unbeknownst to either one of us, we each had lunch at the same Five Guys that day, probably within an hour of each other. Even in our last meals of unmarried life, we were together.

It is only fitting then, that almost two years later and living in Atlanta, we find that Five Guys Burgers and Fries is expanding exponentially. A location has just opened in the Edgewood Shopping District, which is, of course, where we do most of our weekly shopping. So once again, a trip to Five Guys has become a recurring treat. Now, though, we always go together.

McDonald's Misdirection

It seems that the constant attacks on the dietary deficencies at McDonald's have the corporation concerned enough to counterattack:

McDonald's on Monday will kick off a two-day media event to tout the quality of its food and combat critics who say its burgers and fries are unhealthy.

New print ads tout McDonald's "top quality USDA eggs" and "high-quality chicken", and the company already has a Balanced Lifestyles initiative to promote physical activity.

High-profile attacks on McDonald's in recent years, such as the 2004 film, "Super Size Me," have accused the company of contributing to the United States' obesity problems with products like the Big Mac, whose 30 grams of fat are equal to about half the government's recommended daily amount.

McDonald's in recent months has blamed the poor image of its food among British consumers for a falloff in sales in Britain. To prevent that from spreading further, one marketing expert said the company wants to shift the focus away from its burgers' fat and calorie content.

"Maybe if people think they have this terrific quality, then they'll forget about the calories and the fat," said Jack Trout, president of marketing strategy firm Trout & Partners. "Will it fix it with the naysayers? No. But what it will do is present more of a rationale for the people who take their kids to this place."

Perhaps counterattack is the wrong word. This new marketing scheme is probably better described as misdirection. Although the company says that the new campaign is targeted at "the perception that McDonald's burgers are filled with additives and other non-beef ingredients," that is really a side issue to the problems with the nutritional content of the food. Perhaps a few of the critics are worried about bacteria. But most are concerned about grease, oil, fat, and outrageously sized portions. Poison mixed from the finest natural ingredients is still poison.

Faith-Based Vitamins

As a regular consumer of Men's One-a-Day vitamins, I'm a little bit shamed to learn that there is no evidence that they do me any good:

Popping the daily multivitamin is as routine as the morning cup of coffee. Multivitamins are cheap and easy to access, giving people the quick gratification that they've taken a small step towards protecting their well-being.

Yet the goodness is an article of faith. A multivitamin is not an insurance policy against disease or a guarantee of longevity. It may, in fact, be little more than just another substance for the body to excrete, at least for a healthy adult.

Much of the current literature on vitamins focuses on testing whether a specific nutrient has any effect on a particular condition. Some evidence suggests a regular multivitamin may offer some benefit to subgroups of patients who have chronic conditions, and there's solid evidence that the folate in a multivitamin benefits women and their fetuses during pregnancy.

But for healthy adults, the jury is out. Whether a daily multivitamin provides any clinical benefit to the average healthy American depends on whom you ask.

The article goes into further details on different aspects of the vitamin question, but here are the key paragraphs for those of us who like a little scientific support behind our medical choices:

There are no randomized, double-blinded, controlled studies comparing a multivitamin with a placebo in healthy individuals to determine whether there's any tangible health benefit. Such a study would be costly and time-consuming. Experts on both sides of the issue agree on this point.

Where experts begin to disagree is whether the kind of evidence that currently exists on vitamins show any clinical benefit. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force doesn't seem to think so.

In the July 1, 2003 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine, the task force said that "the best studies suggested no clear benefit of taking vitamins" and there was "insufficient scientific evidence to recommend vitamin supplements as a way to prevent cancer or heart disease." Their conclusions were based on a review of the literature.

The benefits of vitamin supplementation for the general population, said Janet Allen, Ph.D., R.N., vice chair of the task force, "remain uncertain."

But the task force noted that taking vitamins according to the recommended daily allowances "does not cause harm."

Well I'm glad to know that I'm not actively doing harm to myself by taking vitamins, but that's not really the result I have been going for. I am pretty uncomfortable with the idea of consciously taking part in what could be little more than the greatest placebo effect of all time.

Crustacean Ice Cream

You wouldn't think I could write two snarky posts in a row, both referencing Baskin Robbins ice cream. But I can. While browsing for evidence that there are, in fact, more than 31 flavors at Baskin Robbins, I noticed another curiosity.

Baskin Robbins and Dunkin Donuts, owned by the same parent company, both provide very extensive nutritional information for each of the items they sell in their stores. For this, they should be applauded. They should also be applauded for including details about whether each product is safe for various allergies.

The list of allergies, however, includes a couple unusual categories for a company that sells ice cream and donuts:

Crustaceans
Eggs
Fish
Milk
Peanuts
Soy
Tree Nuts
Wheat

Now I can only presume that each of these categories is listed because it is an ingredient in something, somewhere on the menu of either Dunkin Donuts or Baskin Robbins. It took me a while to find Fish, but then I noticed that Dunkin Donuts sells a Salmon Cream Cheese. That just leaves crustaceans, which includes "crab, crayfish, lobster, and shrimponds (sic, I hope)."

So here's the project. Someone with more time to spare than me, look through all the nutritional information at both Baskin Robbins and Dunkin Donuts, and enlighten the meat-eaters of the world as to where they can get their crustacean fix in either ice cream or donut form.

UPDATE: Alas, I am not the first to post this inquiry. One of the commenters on that site actually emailed Dunkin Donuts and got a response. The key paragragh:

At this time, no Dunkin Donuts products contain any crustaceans. The on-line allergy form was developed for all brands and for any future developments and associated seafood allergies.

That has to be one of the most frightening qualifiers ever.

No More Meat

I have come to believe that the massive slaughter of livestock and the frequent cruelty exhibited towards animals right up to and during their deaths is one of the most unnecessary and avoidable sources of suffering in this country. That the suffering is largely endured by animals rather than people is not sufficient reason to ignore it any longer. Even if humans are to have temporary control or governance of God's creation, it is not ours to exercise inhumanely. We have perverted nature to the point of absurdity. Hens laying eggs are so crowded in cages that they live their entire lives without spreading a single wing. Milk cows never get to feed their young. We are mocking nature, mocking God. And that's just the norm; look at the excess:

An animal rights group plans to release a videotape showing slaughterhouse workers with a KFC Corp. supplier jumping on live chickens and slamming them into walls, apparently for fun, a newspaper reported Tuesday.

Here is PETA's website on the KFC slaughterhouse.

Even for those who adamantly refuse to consider the pain of non-humans, I would offer the argument that by taking part in such conduct, either as a businessman or employee in that field or a consumer of that product, most American people are also suffering as a result. Can it reasonably be argued that the suppliers throwing live chickens against walls for fun are not disturbed and suffering? Thich Nhat Hanh's book, Anger, devotes much of the first chapter to a Buddhist perspective on how the massive suffering by animals is transmitted to humans.

And yet even for a non-Buddhist, it would seem to me hard to deny that taking part in a consumer culture that devours meat without coming to terms with what that means is a willful blindness and ignorance that is an indictment all to itself. Many, perhaps most people get very uncomfortable at the dinner table if anyone starts a discussion of what they are actually eating, how it actually came to be on their plates. I was one such person. Yet how can we justify to ourselves that the only way to avoid losing our appetites or even vomiting at the dinner table is to pretend that we do not know or do not care where the food came from, how it got there, and whether the animal we're eating lived a pathetic and short life filled with little but pain and slaughter? Is this not evidence of at least a subconscious understanding of the wrong being committed, the suffering being encouraged? And if so, does it not reflect an internal hypocrisy, paradox, or at least guilt that can be ignored but never eliminated? Even outside a Buddhist tradition, I see no way to avoid the conclusion that the willfully ignorant consumption of livestock and associated products is planting the seeds of suffering, anger, and guilt inside the vast majority of Americans.

And I am absolutely included in that group. This was a dark little secret for me. Particularly as an aspiring Buddhist practitioner, it was incumbent on me to do my research, understand where my food was coming from, be thankful when it came from suffering-free sources, and avoid it when it did not. But instead, for years I have put my head in the sand. Vegetarianism and animal-friendly dairy and egg products have always seemed just a bit too inconvenient. Yet I knew that if I were confronted with the truth about the meat I was eating, I would never be able to eat it again.

So I kept myself ignorant.

Well, no longer. While flipping through the channels last night, I encountered a documentary sponsored by PETA (not the KFC one described above) that was perhaps the most horrifying thing I've ever seen. That sounds like hyperbole, particularly considering my experience with the tragic visuals of the Holocaust and other slaughters of people, or various wars. Yet though those horrors are even more tragic and more regrettable, they are events in which I had no complicity. I did not give money to those people to commit the very acts that filled me with such horror. With the livestock industry, I did.

And I had no excuse for doing so. I am very well-educated, with access to all the information one could ever need to see the truth. I have all the resources I need to make a healthy and relatively easy transition away from eating meat from caged pigs or eggs from caged hens, or milk from caged cattle. I have enough money that I can afford to pay more for food gathered in more compassionate, animal-friendly, and environment-friendly ways.

It may be easy to dismiss what I have said as the rantings and ravings of a converted PETA eco-terrorist, or something along those lines. And I will freely admit that I am particularly emotional about this right now. But I would ask no one to take my word for anything that I've said. All I would ask is that people start asking questions, start doing research, and then decide for themselves. Doing what I did, hiding from the facts while enjoying the fruits of suffering, is perhaps the most cowardly and indefensible choice of all.

She Got a Ring, I Got Emerilware. Cool!

emerilware.jpg

This cookware looks and feels great! It has that sturdy, well-crafted All-Clad feel, without that sturdy, well-crafted All-Clad price. I can't wait to get back to Charlottesville to start cooking.

Cookware Bargain

Via a cookware forum, I found this great deal on a 7 qt. Le Creuset French Oven: $106 including shipping. Check out Amazon for product reviews (and a price comparison) and enjoy. I just ordered one myself. My first Le Creuset!

lecreuset.jpg

Swedish Apple Pie

My girlfriend and her friends are having a big get-together to celebrate/mourn the final episode of Sex and the City. Not having much use for that show in its last few seasons (or the prospects of watching it with a dozen women), I won't be joining her. I did, however, contribute to the night's culinary attractions. Though labelled a Swedish Apple Pie, this dessert does not have a crust underneath and is thus more akin to a cobbler than a traditional apple pie. It is, either way, absolutely delicious. I doubled the recipe and cooked it in a 9x13 dish:

swedish_apple.jpg

Muffins, Brownies, Pie

Thought I'd share a couple items I baked this week, both of which met with much approval from friends (and most importantly, girlfriend):

Banana Crumb Muffins:

muffins.jpg

Best Brownies (I added crushed up Werther's candies to the frosting to give a little extra flavor; excellent, but not necessary, as the brownies are tremendous on their own):

brownies.jpg

I also made this Caramel Pecan Pie, but forgot to take a picture before we ate it. Absolutely incredible; make this pie!

Statutory Interpretation and Cooking

I often have problems switching between modes of reading and writing. Quite often, when I'm taking notes on various cases in Microsoft Word, I'll make futile attempts to italicize case names using HTML brackets: [code]Brandenburg v. Ohio[/code] This probably happens once a day at least. Similarly, last night I was making this recipe for an easy alfredo sauce, and got very hung up on the instructions:
Melt butter in a medium, non-stick saucepan over medium heat. Add cream cheese and garlic powder, stirring with wire whisk until smooth. Add milk, a little at a time, whisking to smooth out lumps.
You see that period after "whisk until smooth"? Well I stopped reading right there, and sat trying to whisk the cream cheese itself until smooth. Hopeless. Futile. Finally I read it again, and realized that I was suppose to "whisk until smooth" while adding the milk a little at a time. How outrageous! Why don't the instructions say that? There should be a comma, or at most a semi-colon; surely not a period. I'm beginning to think I place too much emphasis on these punctuation marks. I think statutory interpretation is to blame.

Pumpkin Pie

I don't think there is an area in my life where the gap between desire and ability is further than in cooking. I love to cook, and am good at what I know. It's just that I don't know much. I get scared when I read recipes with spices I can't pronounce, vegetables I've never heard of, and cookware I don't own. But the past month or so I've been taking some baby steps at expanding my culinary horizons. I began with Rachael Ray's Macaroni & Cheese. I'd mastered the Kraft version as a child, so I thought it was a fitting place to start. Imagine the look on my face when oil, butter, then flour, then milk, and finally shredded cheese actually turned into a delicious cheese sauce. Baby steps, folks, baby steps.

Well today I decided to surprise my girlfriend with her favorite dessert: pumpkin pie. I surfed over to Allrecipes, because I really like their rating/review system (like an Amazon.com for food) and because they have a feature that automatically scales the ingredients for a smaller or larger number of servings. One of the highest rated recipes was Jim Wright's "Mom's Pumpkin Pie":

Ingredients

1 recipe pastry for a 9 inch single crust pie
3 eggs
1 egg yolk
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
2 cups pumpkin puree

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F (220 degrees C.)

2. In a large bowl, combine eggs, egg yolk, white sugar and brown sugar. Add salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cloves. Gradually stir in milk and cream. Stir in pumpkin. Pour filling into pie shell.

3. Bake for ten minutes in preheated oven. Reduce heat to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C), and bake for an additional 40 to 45 minutes, or until filling is set.

I used these exact ingredients, except for the cloves. As some of the reviewers noted on the site, this recipe actually makes enough filling for two shallow 9" pies, so keep that in mind if your grocery store (like mine) does not have deep crust pie shells available.

I'm not the pumpkin pie connoisseur that my girlfriend is, but I think it turned out very well. She'll be getting back from a trip to NYC in a few hours, and she'll have a fresh baked pie waiting. Let's hope she likes it!