Sunday, August 27, 2006

The Tricky World of Refreshing Beverages

The other day, walking on the beach, a horde of enthusiastic youngsters with matching teeshirts pounced on me happily, chirping about a "new exciting product, here, try it". I looked behind them and saw their booth, belonging to a local mineral water company called Neviot. There were bottles, and plastic cups, and since I was very thirsty I took one and drank it up.

Gaaaah! It was sweet!

Apparently, the odd trend of flavored water has reached Israel.

As I was drinking, a strange sensation of deja vu hit me. After all, wasn't it, like, three years ago that I was accosted by a similar group of youngsters near San Francisco's Powell Station and offered a similar product? Yes, it was quite vile, even then. So now Israel has a line of peach and apple flavored water.

What is flavored water? apparently, it's somewhat of a lighter version of the juice syrups we used to have as kids, only without the food coloring. The water basically contains either sugar or an artificial sweetener and some artificial fruit flavoring, and also some added vitamins. If you are a Coke or Diet Coke drinker, this option might be better for you; but if you think (like me) that sodas taste vile and are vile, why not skip the ridiculous flavored water and drink water, instead?

The constant struggle to find new and exciting ways to quench and refresh us has yielded various interesting trends. I won't even get on the topic of sodas - there's plenty of people talking about that. There are also the sports drinks - again, much like the artificial syrups of our youth, only with the added halo of SCIENCE behind them. Sports drinks contain electrolytes and sugar, and are aimed at replenishing these particles lost in sweat, while encouraging one to drink more. "What's wrong with water?" asks one website, and answers:

Drinking plain water causes bloating, suppresses thirst and thus further drinking. It stimulates urine output and therefore is inefficiently retained. A poor choice where high fluid intake is required. Water contains no carbohydrate or electrolytes.

Yes, water does "cause" bloating. Anything ingested will make stomach expand as it takes some time to absorb. Yes, consuming liquids "stimulates urine output", as they are supposed to; the kidneys and bladder do their job for a purpose. This might, perhaps, be tricky for marathon runners, but for us simple folk there's really nothing better than good quality water. "Flavored water" is not much different from the fake juices of our childhood. Yes, it doesn't have coloring, possibly to make it seem more healthy (which it probably is, to some extent). But the flavor is still there. Want to ask yourself what it's doing there?

It seems that food manufacturers do not believe that we'll drink anything unless there's some sugar and added ingredients to it. Do pour yourself a glass of good water and prove them wrong.

The Merits of Israeli Breakfasts

Breakfast is a touchy subject. It appears that even folks who are ready to experiment with lunch and dinner don't want to confront something strange and unfamiliar when they get up.

While my breakfast preferences have changed over the years, there are still items that surprise me when I travel or stay with friends. The Large American Brunch, for example, completely threw me off when I came to Berkeley. Fried potatoes? And toast? And meat? For breakfast? I couldn't believe people would want to eat that (even if it's served at a good diner, rather than in an abominable Egg McMuffin). My roommate from Taiwan enjoyed a big plate of pork and fried greens at 7am, which was delicious for her and very odd for me. And, when scheduled to give talks in England, Oxford and London hotels insisted on serving fried tomatoes (why spoil a good thing?) and mushrooms, and beans. All these choices apparently work perfectly well for folks who are used to them, but me - I couldn't cope with those items.

My usual morning fare includes a cup of hot water with lemon, followed by fresh fruit; I find it works really well for me and gives me a nice start. But when going out or inviting people in, we often eat the traditional Israeli breakfast, comprised of the following items:

- eggs
- cheese of various kinds
- a big vegetable salad
- bread
- tuna or some smoked fish (optional)
- orange or grapefruit juice
- coffee or tea

Now, Israeli hotels are quite famous for their breakfasts, which include a variety of additional items: fruit, yoghurt, various muesli, granola and cereal options, hot cake, salty and sweet pastries, etc. Even less exciting venues often add good quality tchina. But the egg, cheese and salad are the key components.

What's so good about an Israel breakfast? Obviously, considering that most people eat bread in the morning with their eggs and cheese, it offers a combination of carbs and protein. Count the juice in, and you've got some more sugar and vitamins. If one is into food combinations, the best and safest way to enjoy this is to focus on the eggs, cheese and vegetables.

Thinking about this, the Israeli breakfast is not less strange than other breakfasts. Its appeal to Israelis is in its familiarity, and to tourists - in its novelty. Most people are not used to raw vegetables on their morning plates.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Takeout Pet Peeves of the Vegetable Adventurer

Takeout is an inevitable part of city life. Often, we are too tired, lazy or hyper to cook. When one's vegetables are delivered to one's door, it doesn't happen often, but still, there comes a time when you pick up that box or bag or folder of leaflets and browse through them, searching for something that the good city restaurateurs can haul over to your doorstep.

Such, indeed, was my mood a few days ago, when I picked up the Tel Aviv Food Book, proclaiming itself to contain menus for most of the restaurants in Tel Aviv. Now, we are very fortunate here in this respect; there's more than pizza and MG-laced Chinese. The city has hundreds of wonderful food digs and many of them offer deliveries.


However, the offerings in the vegan/vegetarian/whole grain department are pathetically slim. I assume there's not much demand: folks who like wholesome food have often gotten used to making it themselves, thus diminishing the supply market for such foods. But wouldn't you occasionally like someone *else* to bring you your quinoa bowl? Also - it's possible that health food is considered snobbish and expensive; but so are many of the extravagant items on the menu, and whole grains and beans don't have to be expensive, at all.

So, here are some of the things I was disappointed with.

1. I *know* there are organic restaurants in this city. I've *eaten* in them. Why no deliveries?

2. Is it too much to ask for Chinese and Indian restaurants to offer steamed brown rice, in addition to the white rice? I'd be willing to pay more and I bet many others would, too. It could make a whole lot of difference for me. One Indian place already does deliveries with brown rice; others should join.

3. It'd be kind of fun for those of us that eat eggs to be able to order Shakshuka from eggs that don't come from chicken coops. Again: there are people who care about this. Would anyone pick this idea up?

4. How about marking the menus, to let us know which dishes are vegetarian/vegan and which aren't? We hate being pests and asking on the phone "does this have meat?". Yes, there are people who won't eat the soup if it's chicken broth. Yes, there are people who want to know if there are eggs in the cake. Why not help them out?

5. Sometimes, generous restaurants give us really nice offers: if we order a certain value of food, we get desert - free! That's really nice of them. Would it be possible to ask them to extend that good will, and offer a free small salad, or water, instead? Some people in this town are diabetic, and it'd be really nice to treat them to something as well, if they spend a lot of money ordering food from your establishment.

6. We can deal with paper containers. No need to produce and consume all this plastic. How about that? And, while we're at it, most of us can, and will, use our own cutlery. The less plastic in this world, the better.

Thank you for your attention, restaurateurs of Tel Aviv; there are many, many great options for folks who eat locally and ethically, here, if they want to eat out. All we need to do is stretch them out a bit, so they apply to folks who order in, as well.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Orthorexia: The Sickness of Eating Healthy?

Heyya, folks, gather round and I'll give you a lecture that has as much to do with sociology (one of my other loves) as it does about food.

How can you tell if one is sick or healthy? With many physical diseases, it's not a difficult task. If one coughs, sneezes and feels awful - they have a cold or a flu. Things get somewhat trickier in the world of mental illnesses. Sure, popular culture is saturated with examples of extreme psychoses, but less serious patterns - neuroses and disorders - raise a lot of issues. And like many other things, defining a certain set of behaviors as an illness is very much a matter of politics.

Mental disorders appear in a special guide called the DSM. The DSM lists a series of symptoms, and clinicians are supposed to see how many of them are manifested in the patient, in order to establish whether or not a disorder is present (here, take a look). Naturally, the disorders don't just appear in the newest DSM edition by themselves; many professionals have to acknowledge them as such, and there is much controversy about which behaviors and phenomena are and are not included in it. For example, part of the struggle for gay rights recognition had to do with removing homosexuality from the list of disorders in the DSM.

Why am I telling you this? Because in recent years, some controversy has arisen over a certain set of behaviors, which some people would like to see defined as a disorder. They call it "Orthorexia", which, in literal latin means "correct appetite".

According to Steven Bratman, who coined the term "orthorexia" and wrote about it in his book, Health Food Junkies, the disorder consists of a pathological obsession with eating healthy food. For an orthorexic, adhering to rigid nutrition disciplines becomes the focus of life. Eating healthfully and "correctly" is seen as a moral, or even spiritual, virtue; the orthorexic might graudally limit his or her consumption of foods, trying to achieve a "purer" state of being. An orthorexic often feels superior to others who eat a less healthy diet. When "falling off the wagon" and eating something unhealthy, the orthorexic experiences a deep sense of guilt and engages in various health-rites of penance such as fasting.

Now, there's no much sense in defining something as an illness if it doesn't cause harm or suffering. Bratman argues that, in severe cases, an obsession with health food can lead to severe physical damage and even to death. However, even when things are less tragic, limiting oneself to what one deems to be extremely healthy food can seriously impair one's life. People who are more attached to their eating regimes than to other aspects of their lives isolate themselves from friends (restrictive eating habits hinder going to lunch together, and so does consistent lecturing about food!), find it difficult to travel and eat out, and become, to a certain extent, slaves of their diet.

Others oppose the medicalization of health food obsession, for various reasons. One of them is that, in general, being a health nut causes no harm. There is no much cause for concern over someone who gets in nutrients, vitamins, minerals, and is interested in wholesome food; that would lead to stigmatizing half of the food blog community, for goodness sake! Cases in which people are taking upon themselves extreme and restrictive dietary regimes could merely be a manifestation of dogmatic, inflexible thinking patterns in general, and not merit a specific disorder title. Moreover, there is no much basis to distinguish between people whose healthy diet is an aspect of their worldview from folks whose dietary restrictions stem from religious decrees (such as kosher or halal diets). What makes one worldview pathological while the other isn't?

Whether or not you think orthorexia should be medicalized, it's probably a good opportunity to say here: all in moderation, folks. I'm the last person to recommend polished grains, white sugar and saturated fats, but hey, if you feel like having a good ice cream or a nice bit of delicious chocolate, and it doesn't hurt you physically, go right ahead and enjoy it. Yes, we should take good care of our bodies, most of the time. Our bodies will reward us by bearing with the occasional treat we have.

To bring this balance to earth, I'll finish with a short quasi-recipe: Oven fries. As good as, or even better than regular fries. Preheat your oven to 180 degrees celsius. Slice thinly some nice potatoes. Place them on an oiled piece of foil on a baking pan, and sprinkle whatever you like on top. In this house, it's usually rosemary, garlic and chile peppers, but there's endless possibilities. Stick in the hot oven for about 35-40 minutes, then munch to your heart's content. Yeah, it's carbs. Yeah, it's not a nutritional powerhouse. But it's fun. Enjoy.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Vegetables and Olive Oil and Peace

This post is my contribution to Barbara's "Fresh and Local Challenge" in Tigers and Strawberries; although all of what I cook comes right out of our Chubeza box, this one has summer vegetables in it, and is therefore very appropriate for this season.

The two dishes I have here feature a common ingredient which may not be exactly a spice, but is a very typical flavor in Middle Eastern cooking: fabulous olive oil from the Gallille. It's not easy being cheerful in Israel Aviv these days, as many of you probably can guess from following the news; but cooking with olive oil is a reminder of the ancient, bountiful olive trees all over the north of Israel, which produce our superb oil, and which are now under missile attacks. May these dishes remind all warring parties in the world of the goodness in the Earth, and how living off the richness it offers shouldn't be taken for granted. While many humans are hurt in our current conflict, there are also silent sufferers: plants and animals hit by rockets, forests that die in forest fires. When (if?) this is over, hopefully soon, humans will have to work not only on reconnecting with each other, but also on restoring some of the natural world that is so often harmed by humans fighting with each other. The vegetables, fresh from a field near Latroun, are a reminder of that world.

When you have good ingredients, there's no need to mess with them more than necessary. The fresh flavors speak for themselves. So, while the two dishes I have here are cooked, they're both cooked for a very short time and preserve the vegetables' essence very well. It's a double feature dish: Green Beans with Garlic and Roasted Peppers. The beans are sauteed in a small amount of light broth and, of coruse, garlic. The peppers are roasted on an old pot lid, then steamed in a plastic bag and served with a tiny bit of olive oil and, possibly, balsamic vinegar. This is proof that very simple things can make very festive dishes.

Green Beans with Garlic

4-5 handfuls of fresh green beans
3 large garlic cloves
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp good quality soy sauce
1/2 cup water or vegetable broth.
1/2 tsp chili flakes
1 inch ginger, thinly sliced
1-2 tsps sesame oil

Prepping green beans is a funny task, because no matter what shortcuts you try to take, you *will* have to chop off their corners. I've stopped bothering with lining them up - they are never the same size and it doesn't simplify things... so just chop their corners, will you? Then, slice the garlic cloves, heat the olive oil in a pan or wok, and add the garlic, the ginger and the chili flakes. When a nice garlicky smell fills the room, add the soy sauce and the beans. Stir gently to mix up , and when they're all heated, add some water or broth - just enough so nothing sticks to the pan. Then, cook for a few more minutes, stirring occasionally, until beans get as soft as you like them, but retain their character. Remove from pan, drizzle a bit of sesame oil, and voila.

Roasted Red Peppers

4 large red peppers
1 old lid of a large pan
1 plastic bag
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp balsamic vinegar (optional)

This works really well on my stove, which has open fire; folks with electric stoves are welcome to offer ideas on how to do this in other kitchens. Anyway, in my kitchen, I found the best method to do this in Shari Ansky's fabulous book Vegetables. I changed it a bit, but it's essentially the same.

Basicaly, what you do, is turn on the stove and place an old metal lid directly on it. Then, you cut the peppers into eight pieces each, lengthwise, and place the pepper slices on top of the lid. Move them around a bit, so they don't get too burned on one side. You'll start seeing black burns on the peel, which is absolutely fine.

When the peppers all get soft and burned (doesn't this sound a bit like an inquisition method?), you turn off the stove, remove the peppers from the lid (careful! they're hot!) and place them in a plastic bag. tie up the bag and let'em sweat for fifteen minutes (inquisition, indeed). Then, open up the bag: if you want to peel the peppers, this will be very easy now, but you don't have to. You can eat them as they are. Put the peppers in a bowl, and drizzle some olive oil and, if desired, some balsamic vinegar on top.

It'll be time to harvest olives soon, and my family will gather to pick them right off our olive tree in September. Then, we'll be making olives off my grandpa's secret recipe, and they will be good and bitter; a reminder of life in this region, which can be very good, but very bitter at times, and a reminder of the olive branches that bear this fruit, and a hope for peace.