Time for Lunch

It seems I’m meant to talk about kids’ lunches right now. This past Tuesday, I did a segment on ABC-TV’s View from the Bay on making healthy lunches fun for kids. But even better than peanut butter banana spirals is the fact that, right now, we have an opportunity to be a part of re-framing the school lunch program in America. Here to tell us all about it and how we can get involved is one of our talented new Contributors, Kurt Michael Friese.


Fifty-three years ago when President Truman signed the first School Lunch Act, he said at the ceremony that “In the long view, no nation is healthier than its children, or more prosperous than its farmers.”  Yet today in America we have steadily rising rates of childhood obesity and early-onset diabetes, so much so that if you were born after 2000 you have a startling one-in-three chance of developing diabetes before you’re old enough to vote.  If you’re a minority, that number rises to one-in-two.  America, too, has more prisoners than farmers now, and among those few remaining the average age is 57 and rising.  It seems America has failed President Truman’s vision in both the health of its children and the prosperity of its farmers. An interesting proposition: fewer farmers=less healthy food.

Yet we have the opportunity to better both sides of that equation. The Child Nutrition Act, the piece of legislation that governs what 30 million kids eat in school each day, is up for re-authorization and Slow Food USA has launched the Time for Lunch Campaign to bring about some needed change. Among the modifications they’re petitioning Congress to make are investing in healthy food (right now, schools are given roughly $1 day per student to spend on food); protecting against foods that are a proven risk to kids’ health; and fostering healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime, in part by getting kids and schools involved with local farms and gardens.

What you can do

•    Sign the petition. If you want to voice your desire for change, sign Slow Food’s petition to get real food in schools. As of this writing, more than 13,000 people have signed.

•    Go to an Eat-in. Think of an Eat-In as the marriage of the traditional picnic to the classic activism of the 1960’s Sit-Ins; this is old-fashioned activism with a hot dish to share.  In all 50 states, local Slow Food members and friends of the organization have put together more than 280 grass-roots potluck picnics to occur simultaneously on September 7th, Labor Day. From Bellingham to Bay St. Louis, Carlsbad to Cambridge, people will gather with their friends and neighbors to show their support for getting real food in schools and everyone—whether or not you’re a Slow Food member—is welcome.  Bring some food to share, preferably something homemade with local ingredients (for ideas on eco-friendly picnic ware, click here).

•    Spread the word. If you do attend a sit-in, or even if you just want to help, tell people—post on Facebook, tweet, send an e-mail blast, start a conversation in the school parking lot—about the Eat-ins and the need to bring real food into our schools.

What is “real food?” you may ask. The answer is simple: real food is food that is and does good from the ground up. It’s good for the earth, it’s good for those who grow it, it’s good for our bodies, it tastes good and makes our community, country and planet a better place. As Truman alluded to all those years ago, real food grown by real people is essential for our health–as individuals, as families and as a nation.

kurt-thumbKurt Michael Friese is the founding leader of Slow Food Iowa, serves on the Slow Food USA National Board of Directors, and is editor and publisher of the local food magazine Edible Iowa River Valley. He’s also Chef and co-owner of the Iowa City restaurant Devotay, a freelance food writer and photographer, and author of A Cook’s Journey: Slow Food in the Heartland.

South-of-the-Border Steak Salad with Grilled Pepper & Corn Salsa

This is an ultimate summer steak salad, full of ingredients just begging to be picked up fresh at the farmers’ market. It’s a hearty dinner salad, but also makes great potluck or picnic fare.


Get a New Grain: Wheat Berries


If you’re trying to get acquainted with more whole grains, add wheat berries to your list. Wheat berries are actually whole wheat kernels. It’s the wheat berries that are ground into whole wheat flour; white wheat berries create a lighter, tan-colored flour and red wheat berries yield a darker, tawny tint. (Click here learn more about whole wheat flours.) Left whole, though, wheat berries are a versatile addition to the kitchen.


What They Look Like: You’ll find both white and red wheat berries, which carry the hues of their name. When cooked, they’re the size of plumped-up rice and have a buttery sheen to them.

What They Taste Like: Soft wheat berries (whether white or red) have a toothsome starchiness. Hard wheat berries retain a firm chewiness no matter how long they boil.

How to Cook Them: Wheat berries in general have a particularly tough bran that takes some time to soften, but cooking time varies significantly between soft and hard varieties. Just as there are different strains of wheat—hard wheat that’s higher in gluten and typically used for bread products and soft wheat with a lower protein content that’s used more for pastries—there are different types of wheat berries too. Soft wheat berries (whether white or red) cook up in just over an hour while hard wheat berries (again, regardless of color) can take hours to cook. You can also presoak them — as you would dried beans — to speed up the cooking time.

Cook soft wheat berries in a 3:1 ratio of liquid to berries. Bring to a boil, lower heat, cover and simmer for 60 to 90 minutes, or until tender (drain off any excess liquid). For hard wheat berries, soak overnight and double (at least . . . keep an eye out to make sure the liquid hasn’t been absorbed or the kernels will scorch) both liquid and cooking time.

How to Use Them: Wheat berries have a sturdy texture and complex, wheaty flavor that make for wonderful salads and stir-fries. Subbing them for rice as a side dish is also a great way to get to know them.

Additional Notes: You’ll find hard red and hard white, and soft red and soft white, wheat berries out there (and wheat flours as well), but don’t let the label lead you into thinking these whole grains are refined. The “white” they’re referring to here is a class of wheat due to the color of the kernel, not a refining process. Confusing, I know, but “white wheat” berries or flour are whole grain products with all three parts of the kernel intact while “white flour” is processed flour with all but the endosperm stripped away.

Eat Fat to Stay Slim

Would you believe me if I said you stand a better chance of dropping pounds and maintaining a healthy weight by using more olive oil? It’s true. Yet if you’re like me, you’re still carrying around false beliefs instilled by decades of guidelines based on sketchy science.

Nearly 20 years ago, when I was practically living on fat-free yogurt and pretzels and feeling oh-so righteous for doing so, I spent a summer on Corfu, Greece. Each time Mama put a plate of oil-drenched vegetables in front of me I’d cringe, thinking I was doomed to balloon. But I left the island lighter than when I’d arrived. Years later, when I started writing articles on healthy fats, I began to understand why eating more fat can help you stay slim.

And yet even after that experience in Greece, even after scouring studies and speaking to experts around the globe, my first reaction is still to shy away from dishes with double-digit fat grams. It’s not easy to banish old habits, but one step at a time I call to mind the facts I’ve learned and move towards reshaping my views for good.

•    Fact to Remember #1: Overall Fat Intake Means Nothing to Your Weight. Well, almost nothing. The amount of fat you consume doesn’t directly make you gain weight, but there’s no skirting the fact that fat is the most calorically dense food group there is. That means that even though that tablespoon of olive oil in and of itself won’t make you fat, the 120 calories it carries with it will, if you don’t balance it out. A great strategy is to pair up “good fats” (see FFtR #3) and veggies, since vegetables are inherently low in calories, while trimming back on calorically dense meat, starches and dairy for the majority of your meals.

•    Fact to Remember #2: Fat Helps Us Maintain a Healthy Weight. This is so contrary to what’s been drummed into us that I, personally, still find it hard to digest at times. Yet it’s a fact. Subjects on Mediterranean and low-carb diets that included a moderate amount of healthy fats from things like olive oil, nuts and fish lost more weight and kept it off longer than those on a low-fat diet. If you think about it, it makes sense. We’re programmed to like fat. Just a drizzle of olive oil or a few slices of avocado make a meal exponentially more enjoyable, and when we take pleasure in something we’re much more likely to repeat it. The good news, as you’ll see in the next Fact, is that we should be eating these kinds of fats.

•    Fact to Remember #3: Our Bodies Need Fat to Function. Once you digest the reality that consuming fat isn’t directly related to becoming fat and in fact helps prevent it, turn your mind to the truth that “good fats”—monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats—are an essential part of our bodies’ systems, playing a whole host of functions at the cellular level. Monounsaturated fats, like olive oil and those found in avocados, are especially beneficial to our cardiovascular health. Polyunsaturated fats, like the omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon, help build brain cell membranes and regulate blood clotting. They’ve also been shown to protect against numerous diseases, from cancer to heart disease to autoimmune disorders. Steer clear of saturated fats as much as you can, though, as they send cholesterol into our blood streams where it can cause problems, and avoid the double-whammy negative of trans fats altogether. A good rule of thumb is to put down anything that has “partially hydrogenated” or “hydrogenated” in the ingredients list.

So what does a healthy view of fat look like? Scroll down to the Grilled Onions with Chile-Nut Paste and you’ll see one view. You may think “frying” the sauce would make it less healthy, but all the fats in this recipe are good fats in portions that won’t widen your waist. So enjoy to your heart’s content . . . literally.

Grilled Onions with Chile-Nut Puree

These grilled onions make me  think of Mexico and cebollitas (little onions), nestled in embers, turning buttery soft with a rich, smoky flavor. I like to wrap the charred tail around the bulb like wrapping string around a ball, then I scrape it through the flavorful paste and pop it in my mouth whole.


2 red bell peppers
1 tomato, halved lengthwise
1/2 onion
5 cloves garlic, peeled
1 ancho chile, halved, stemmed and seeded
3 chile morro (or 2 dried chipotles), halved, stemmed and seeded
1/4 cinnamon stick
3 tablespoons pumpkin seeds
3/4 ounce peanuts, (about 3 tablespoons)
1/4 teaspoon cumin
3/4 teaspoon salt, divided
2 pounds spring onions, cleaned, greens kept on
2 teaspoons canola oil
1 tablespoon cider vinegar

On a medium-high grill or over an open flame, roast bell pepper until flesh is completely charred, 12-15 minutes. Transfer to a paper bag until cool enough to handle, then peel, stem and seed. Place roasted peppers in the bowl of a food processor.

Heat a large skillet to medium and toast tomato, onion and garlic. Turn every few minutes to char all surfaces, about 5 minutes total, and transfer to food processor. Flatten chiles onto the skillet and toast for 30 seconds on both sides, until shiny and fragrant (be careful not to scorch). Transfer to the bowl. Add cinnamon stick and pumpkin seeds to the skillet, and transfer to the bowl when toasted and fragrant. Add peanuts, cumin and 1/2 teaspoon salt to the mixture and process until a coarse paste.

Heat 2 teaspoons oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and when oil is hot, add puree (be careful; puree may splatter at first). Fry sauce for 5 minutes, until darkened a shade and thickened. Remove from heat, stir in vinegar and transfer to a serving bowl.

Toss green onions with remaining teaspoon oil and salt and grill for 5-8 minutes, turning often, until charred but not burnt on all sides. Serve with Chile-Nut Puree.

Serves 4

Open-Faced Avocado Tomato Sandwich

This avocado and tomato sandwich embodies all sorts of nutritional virtues: whole grains, healthy fats and fresh vegetables. But really it does even more than that . . . it exemplifies how enjoyable even the simplest fresh food can be.


Three Tips for Greener Summer Entertaining

Now that we’re in the dog days of summer, I thought it a good time for a post on how to make your summer get-togethers a touch more green. For help, I turned to our new Green Entertaining Expert, Nicole Aloni, author of the website and upcoming book A Conscious Feast and passionate advocate of environmentally-wise entertaining.


Greener Grilling

“Natural gas or propane is the most environmentally-friendly choice,” says Nicole. Yet she acknowledges the smoky appeal of charcoal. If you must go gasless, a good solution is to use lump charcoal, which is made from hardwood (you can find bags in most hardware and grilling stores nowadays). “Regular briquettes use fillers that let off toxic fumes into the environment . . . and your food.” Skip the lighter fluid, which Nicole says is also “a big no-no” for the same reasons as briquettes, and use a chimney starter instead; you’ll be surprised how effective it is despite its simplistic design.

Greener Picnicking

While disposable paper plates are the embodiment of ease, they’re not the most friendly on the environment. But don’t feel like you need to spring for a set of eco-groovy bamboo or palm leaf dishes (although boy they are nice) every time you picnic, instead just tote along the dishes you normally use. We stack cloth napkins in between our plates to keep them from knocking together and wrap them (after scraping off the food) in the tablecloth when we’re done. If your dishes are especially messy (or your tablecloth especially nice), Nicole suggests wrapping them tight with plastic wrap and tying them up in a garbage bag. “That way they don’t rattle around and slosh goo all over the car.” Either way, just unwrap and run through the dishwasher when you get home.

Greener Bug Control

We’ve all had cookouts tainted by the scent of bug spray. Instead, swap the can for a spade and plant a hedge of alliums coffee-burningor marigolds, suggests Nicole. They’re beautiful for guests to behold but unappealing to many pests. If it’s yellowjackets you’re plagued by, fill small bowls with dry ground coffee and light them on fire so they smolder, then set them around the yard. I picked up this gem of a tip while at Rancho La Puerta and was astounded by how well it worked.

So light up your gas grill (or fire up your chimney starter), pack up your porcelain plates and light some coffee . . . then cook up these savory chicken legs for a green summery feast.

Mahogany Grilled Chicken

To me there’s something beguiling about a bronzed grilled chicken leg, and these most certainly fill that bill. Serve with fresh, cool, creamy (easy) Romaine Slaw for a nice contrast of tastes and textures. These grilled chicken legs are stunning picnic or potluck fare. You don’t have to tell anyone how easy they are to make!


Bestest Buttermilk-Chive Dressing

There’s something about a creamy, tangy – dare I say? – zippy buttermilk dressing that makes it positively crave-able. And despite its richness, buttermilk has fewer calories than whole milk, so pour it on and let go of the guilt.


1 cup buttermilk, well-shaken
1/4 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons chives, minced
1 tablespoon onion, peeled and grated
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 clove garlic, peeled and grated
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Combine all ingredients in a tight-sealing jar and shake until well blended. Store in refrigerator up to five days.

Yields about 1-1/2 cups