Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Et Tu, Parmesan? Beware the Perils of Processed "Food."

Just one more cautionary post then we'll get back to Michel's recipes. I promise. 

Whether you agree with him or not, author Michael Pollan (In Defense of Food) makes a good point with his haiku-esque advice about what to eat:

"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." 

Maybe you've never thought about having to come up with a definition for "food" but in a culture overrun by corporate interests the likes of Monsanto, unlabeled GMOs, and food industry lobbyists, we need to know exactly what we're consuming.  

Quick example: My former high school students were shocked--but largely undeterred--to learn from a NY Times article that the energy drinks they guzzled daily contained brominated vegetable oil, a flame retardant used in kids' pajama fabric, among other applications. I assured my students that if they continued to drink Gatorade and similar beverages that, yes, they might feel more energetic from all the processed SUGAR they were ingesting but the big bonus would be that they wouldn't need to worry about catching on fire. At least they stayed awake during class.

My most recent post covered news stories about the Agromafia selling fake extra-virgin olive oil in the US. Now we're moving on to This Week's Adulterated Food News headline:

Your packaged grated Parmesan cheese contains wood pulp (cellulose). 
A small amount is allowed to preserve the product in its convenient plastic shaker, but some brands go way past the limit. Want to know more? Here's a link to the CBS News video story:  

The worst offender is Castle Foods, receiving this communication from FDA investigators:

The company filed bankruptcy in 2014 and criminal charges/fines are in the works. 

Michel seldom buys any kind of processed food for a couple of reasons: First, packaged and processed foods are not as healthful/tasty as fresh ingredients, and second, he grew up in a culture where daily shopping was a necessity due in large part to lack of storage space and refrigeration for large amounts of food. Holland is a small country with most of its population living in small residences with even smaller kitchens. 

If you watch HGTV "House Hunters International" you've probably seen American buyers complaining about how they can't possibly function in those tiny Euro-kitchens with no stainless steel appliances and sometimes not even an oven. It's all about perspective, I guess, but it makes me cringe to see how spoiled we are.  

Michel has lots of childhood stories about walking to neighborhood food shops in The Hague with his mother--stopping at the butcher shop, the green grocer, the cheese shop, the bakery, etc.  Fresh food was the norm and shopping/cooking was part of the daily routine. The shopkeepers would offer Michel a taste of cheese or sausage which he accepted with precocious skepticism. Sometimes he liked the samples, sometimes not, but he was always polite no matter what. 

Michel is still a picky cheese shopper. He selects hard cheeses, mostly Dutch, not too expensive, and he buys what appears to be freshly (or at least recently) grated Parmesan from the supermarket cheese counter or Lotsa Pasta specialty food shop. Since this CBS news story has aired, he says he'll buy a wedge of Parmesan and do the grating himself from now on. Cutting out the middle man again, as he is wont to do. 

Lotsa Pasta cheese counter, Louisville 

Dutch isn't exactly a lyrical language like Italian, but there are some words that are fun to know and use. One of the Dutch words I find most charming is winkel, which means "shop."  Cheese is kaas so the cheese shop is the kaaswinkel. If it's a really tiny shop the diminutive suffix -je or -tje is added to make kaaswinkeltje, pictured above.

There is a memorable shop in Amsterdam called the Tandenwinkel, known for its window display of toothbrushes riding a miniature Ferris wheel. This very small store is filled with all manner of interesting and unusual items for keeping your teeth and gums healthy and clean. So now you can figure out that tanden is teeth, right? The next time you're in Amsterdam, stop by Tandenwinkel and get yourself some new dental gear.

If there is a moral to this story, it's probably two-fold and not very profound:

1. Eat the freshest, most wholesome foods you can find, avoiding mystery ingredients like wood pulp and flame retardants.

2. Brush your teeth. 

I'll be back soon with a new recipe for something yummy and vegetarian/vegan.
Thanks for reading!

Saturday, February 20, 2016

What's In Your Olive Oil? The Agromafia Knows.

A few observations about the the word "direct" as it relates to the Dutch, the Mafia, and Michel's olive oil procurement method:

Dutch people are known for their unflinching frankness. In fact, they are often baffled and outwardly perturbed by the dodgy replies offered by people from other cultures in response to direct questions or comments. Michel is no exception. He is direct in everyday conversations (always asking lots of questions), in violin business dealings, and when purchasing goods or services. 

I guess it's this innate, unabashed Dutch directness that allows him to strike a friendly bargain with auto mechanics, plumbers, auction houses, oriental rug salesmen, you name it. He's completely fearless about finding the best deal and cutting out the middle man to get to the primary source for what he wants.  

Not me. No way. At those moments when Michel begins to negotiate something I become very nervous and I try to make myself invisible until the deal is done. Yes, that's irrational on my part but Michel's forthright approach to people and life in general runs completely counter to my restrictive Southern upbringing. 

I was taught not to ask for anything in "company" situations but to wait until things were offered to me; this method only works when all parties involved are equally hyper-polite and the hosts turn themselves inside out to accommodate their guests. Otherwise a kid could starve to death at Miss Fannie Belle's Emily-Post-Perfect dinner table. To her credit, Miss Fannie Belle made a mean baked macaroni and cheese (yes, that was her real name). 

Southerners are crazy like that, but we are the reigning champions of All Things Euphemistic; we know that "bless your heart" really means "wow, what a bad idea," among other things. It's our version of aloha, sort of. 

Apparently the British have some difficulty with directness, too. It's similar to the discomfort a Southerner might feel when he or she encounters a Northerner (i.e.,Yankee) with the brusque manner we see in the likes of Mr. Trump or NJ Governor Christie, let's say. Here's an amusing, brief, and aptly titled post from a Brit now living in Amsterdam. She sums it all up quite nicely:

Michel was completely unfazed--even amused--by the directness he met with when he came to New York to study the violin as a young man in the 1960s. (Now I'm wondering if that NY conversational style has evolved somehow from the Dutch who settled there and called it New Amsterdam. Hmm.) Michel also loves the dialogue written for "The Sopranos" characters, maybe because he lived in New Jersey for several years and heard it firsthand in neighborhood butcher shops and hardware stores. Films like "The Godfather" and "Goodfellas" he can recite almost verbatim. 

La Cosa Nostra obviously has its own cultural directness, hence the clichéd "make him an offer he can't refuse" line which is, of course, a veiled threat against anyone who would dare to cross a mafia boss. That legendary "Godfather" horse head moment is about as direct as communication gets--fictionalized or not.

Back in the real world, it came as no surprise to Michel that CBS "60 Minutes" recently reported on the tactics of the Agromafia in Italy. This organization is making a fortune from sales of fake extra-virgin olive oil, among other things. Agromafia activity is so widespread that the Italian government has created a special department to test olive oil and to monitor other food products as well. They also have beautiful Italian designer uniforms.

Olive oil fraud is nothing new but it's more pervasive in today's global economy. Current research shows that half the olive oil sold as extra-virgin in Italy and up to 75-80 percent sold in the US does not meet legal grade for extra-virgin. Are you outraged yet? It's often diluted with cheaper seed oils or worse, it's not olive oil at all but sunflower or other seed oil colored with chlorophyll. 

The bottom line: Caveat emptor when shopping for olive oil at your favorite supermarket chain.  In case you missed it, here's a preview of the segment.  60 Minutes videos are available online. 

A few years ago Michel set out to find a safe, direct way to buy olive oil--mostly due to the ridiculous price per ounce the consumer pays in a supermarket or specialty food store. He went after a direct olive oil source with the same tenacity he brought to bear when he searched for safe (non-radioactive) tea after the Fukushima disaster. Now Michel buys extra-virgin olive oil directly from California growers. 

The first source he found was an olive grove run by Phil Bava, who was very nice to deal with and answered all of Michel's questions during a series of phone conversations. Mr. Bava's products are very high quality and pressed/bottled at just the right time for the best tasting oil. 

The source Michel uses now is Lucero, another family-run business in northern California. They offer a variety of products, including extra-virgin olive oil by the gallon. Their prices are quite reasonable and they frequently post special offers. 

Since Michel cooks with olive oil every day, ordering by the gallon is definitely more cost-efficient than purchasing smaller bottles at the supermarket. He orders about twice a year and there is no problem storing the oil for a few months. Online ordering via the Lucero website is easy and shipping is prompt--also free when certain purchase requirements are met.  

So the next time you're ready to buy olive oil, check those deceitfully picturesque labels carefully to find out where the oil comes from. The Agromafia is hard at work to defraud us.