Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Monday, January 2, 2012

2011 Sunsets

A Couple Cooking Tools

So I know I'm late to the party on this, but I just discovered how to microwave an egg to make a sort of scrambled/omelet thing out of it.  However, I think I've found the perfect vessel for it, and it's pretty cheap.

We registered for these things back in 2002 for our wedding. At the time I probably thought 8 was an excessive number, but now I think I'm going to get a couple more.  They're less than 2 bucks, and I use them for everything- dips, puddings/dessert cups, nut cups (please hold your middle school giggles), and condiments.  They're pretty enough to put on the table for a party, but they hold up to the microwave, dishwasher, baking, even broiling.  What makes them perfect for this task is that the egg puffs up and still fits very nicely on a mini bagel or English muffin due to the small diameter.  And a little cup for a one-egg serving means not having to worry about heating up or cleaning out a pan. Better for the environment and better for my time crunched lifestyle.  Incidentally, Crate and Barrel has two larger sizes which have all the same fabulous properties, except that they are not so perfect for microwaving an egg.  I use the bigger ones all the time too.

The other thing I found out is that yes, you can use a cookie press to pipe meringues.

If you or your family is doing the whole "eat better/lose weight" resolution, meringues are a nice dessert option, because they are basically egg whites, sugar, and air.  Not ideal for the carb-phobic, but 0 fat grams, and low in calories with a little dose of protein from the eggs.  Some people think they're too sweet or they taste like styrofoam, but I like 'em.  And you can always make nests and fill them with something more extravagant, like nutella, dulce de leche, ice cream, lemon curd or raspberry jam, but then you're sort of getting away from the healthy dessert thing.

My parents bought me a cookie press about 3 years ago.  Theoretically this should have been a perfect gift. I am a baker type- I really get into the Christmas cookie thing, and I love making pies, cakes, etc.- but I am not a fussy cookie press type. So it sat unused in my "kitchen graveyard" (does anyone else remember that episode of the Cosby Show?) for all of this time.  I wasn't sure if loading the meringue in there would deflate it or what, but besides being a messy process, it was really simple and easier than fighting with one of those pastry bags in my opinion.  My cookie press has a star tip and has a continuous trigger for piping whipped cream and frosting, and it turns out- meringue.

Happy New Year!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Sugar: The New Old Bad Guy

During the 1970's, sugar was the big dietary evil.  Sugar made kids hyperactive. Sugar gave kids cavities. Sugar made adults and adolescents fat and unhealthy. Any responsible grocery-shopping mom knew to read labels, and knew that the words ending in "-ose" designated something in the sugar family, and therefore should appear toward the end of an ingredient list (if at all).  Ah yes, the days before the "Nutrition Facts" labels.  But I will get to that in a moment. . .

The food industry fought back and answered our sugar paranoia.  We were blessed with Tab cola and carob.  Remember carob? Wasn't it fabulous?  It tastes JUST LIKE chocolate- in the way I imagine chocolate flavored Ex-Lax(R) tastes just like chocolate. The decade came in with white sugar and went out with saccharin.  All was good with the world, right?

Nope- not for the corporate world and not for consumers.  In the 1980's, the food industry widely began replacing sucrose (aka table sugar or white sugar, one fructose molecule bonded to one glucose molecule) with something mysterious called "high fructose corn syrup."  It started with the soft drink industry but quickly spread to other products. I've read a few creative theories about why this happened, but the clear reason is money.  Since the 1960s trade embargo with Cuba, the cost of real sugar had skyrocketed, and the soda companies could not keep adding that cost onto the consumer without losing some business.  High fructose corn syrup had two advantages: 1) It was cheap to make, and 2) It was sweeter than sugar, so less could be used to achieve the same sweetness levels.  Win-Win!

Along came the Pepsi Challenge and New Coke to launch these new super-sweet sodas.  Malcolm Gladwell has a great discussion about why the Pepsi Challenge succeeded and New Coke failed miserably in his book Blink. The short version is that sweetness has an advantage in one sip, but not in a whole can.

Still, for most consumers, the HFCS swap went under the radar.  The USDA, media, and medical community were focussing on fat and cholesterol during this period- not added sugars.  Eggs were the new evil! Low fat and fat-free were the new carob and Tab.  Salad dressing makers replaced vegetable oils with HFCS to reduce fat.  Entemann's introduced us to fat-free donuts and coffee cake.

In the 1990s, out of US government concern for the new rise in obesity despite a national trend toward decreased fat intake, the USDA Nutrition Facts label was born.  Consumers could easily read how many grams of fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates and fiber a product contained, on a per serving basis and make an informed decision.  All was good with the world now, right?

Wrong again.  Remember that this new label was introduced around 1990, but HFCS began making its way into our products as early as the 1970s, and the fat free version of products (where much of the added fat was replaced with HFCS) came on the market toward the late 1980s.  The food industry had not-so-gradually been increasing simple sugar (carbohydrate, HFCS) in its products during this time to much higher levels.  While consumers could compare one current product to another, they had no reference point for how many grams of sugars an Oreo cookie had in 1975 vs 2005.

Fact: The easiest way to make a food more palatable to humans is to introduce more fat, sugar, and/or salt.
Fact: Sugar (HFCS) is now very cheap.
Fact: Americans were getting fatter.

Thank goodness someone came along to explain it all.  Dr Atkins introduced his new version of the Diet Revolution in 2002.  Carbs are bad!  Fat and protein are good!  Note that this guy introduced his first version in 1973, coasting the wave of the anti-sugar sentiment.  Now he was propelling a second wave.  Americans bought his book by the tens of thousands; hundreds of thousands admitted that they were on the Atkins diet.  Many lost a lot of weight when they adhered closely to the protocol.  Some lost a gall bladder or got kidney stones due to the toll high protein intake has on the human body.

Fact: Fat is higher in calories, gram per gram than carbohydrate or sugar.
Fact: All highly restrictive diets are difficult to maintain over a period of more than 6 months.
Fact: None of these trends focussed  on eating the right things (fruits, vegetables, low fat protein sources, minimally processed food)- only on avoiding the "bad" things, by which I mean whatever was trendy to avoid.
Fact: Americans were not only continuing to become fatter, they were becoming fatter faster.

In 2011, the question remains: Is it fat, or is it sugar making Americans fatter?  Is it just HFCS?  While fat is getting surprising little attention these days from the media or the medical community (despite the fact that its accumulation in arteries is directly linked to heart attack and stroke), many equate all sugars as bad, regardless of source. Ignoring the evidence that HFCS is probably worse for humans than table sugar, there are other factors in play, most obviously physical activity.

Fact: Americans are markedly less active now than they were 30-40 years ago.  Jobs are more sedentary due to the advent of the personal computer and email.  
Fact: Kids are more sedentary due to the current parenting climate which strongly discourages unsupervised outdoor play.
Fact: A calorie is a calorie is a calorie, whether it comes from fat, sugar, HFCS, or protein.  What goes in must be used in growth, activity, repair, or be stored as fat somewhere on the body.
Fact: Exercise has been proven to be beneficial in controlling Type 2 diabetes, weight gain, even in reducing the number and duration of colds in a year.

Conclusion: Americans eat too much of everything and aren't active enough. It's making us fat, and it's killing us.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Smells Like Team Spirit

Back in my early 20s, I swore I'd never grow up to be "one of those women."  I wasn't going drive a minivan.  I was keeping my career AND keeping my name.  My kids (if I even had any) wouldn't play soccer just because every other kid in suburbia does.
I had grown up in a two working-parent household, never played team sports, and this was fine with me.  Sure, I had been on "teams" before, but nothing requiring catching, throwing, kicking or hand-eye coordination. My team sport experience had been decidedly less about cooperation and more about individual performance. I swam and tumbled competitively, and while you may give your teammates high fives following a good performance on the uneven bars, you're never going to get the same collective high as when you turn a double play. "Sweet flip turn, dude!" just doesn't have the same ring.
Then I somehow found myself married to a confirmed jock, a man who had played baseball from childhood, lettered in multiple sports in high school, and still plays softball year round. While the rest of my pledges to myself were negotiable, if we had kids, there just wasn't any question that they would be playing sports, and those sports would start with little league.

My hubby, the confirmed jock
I resisted at first.  Until my son's preschool teacher told me that while he was a well-behaved kid, well-adjusted, and independent; his group interaction was lacking.  Having just had an annual review where my boss used niceties to express "You're stubborn and not a team player," I took this to heart.  Were my (perceived) personality shortcomings a result of my not having played team sports? I couldn't take that chance with my kid.
Thus began my foray into the world of youth organized sports. I plunged in head first, signing our son up for t-ball at the earliest possible moment. He could start in a nearby community at (almost) 4 rather than waiting until he was almost 5 in our neighborhood. He seemed excited about it, that is, until the "assessments."  (Yes folks, evaluations for 4 year-olds playing t-ball.  I could not make this stuff up if I tried.)  On the day of tryouts, he ran away crying when it was his turn to show his stuff.  I had to collect him at the swings.  
I thought: What have I done? Surely I've turned him off to a lifetime of physical fitness and activity.  I should have stuck with my original no-team-sports-plan.
As the season progressed, my child spent game time playing in the dirt, with his glove either on the wrong hand or on his head.  He whined about early game times and begged to stay home on Saturday mornings.  Practice was out of the question. Clearly, we had made a big mistake. 
My firstborn, playing his version of defense
At some point toward the end of the season, without my discerning it, the winds shifted.  My independent, stubborn offspring had embraced the team spirit.  He shouted "Good game!" to his fellow Diamond Jaxx as he walked off the field.  He gave high fives at the snack bar.  Alas it was almost too late. He was finally asking about his game time on the first Saturday after the season ended.
Two happy Diamond Jaxx
It's been 3 years, and my kid is happily playing his third season of little league (he took a year break after that less than enthusiastic first season).  He approaches his practices with seriousness and dedication which belie his 7 years. He is often dressed in his uniform on Saturday morning before his dad and I are even up.  As much as I love watching him play, given that I never had the team sport experience, I will gladly return to my sleep-in Saturdays at the first sign that it's no longer fun for him. . . of course he has a little brother who is 100% wired for playing ball, so I doubt that I will be getting Saturday morning shuteye any time soon, but that is a story for another post.
According to my former boss, I'd even made some progress over the past 4 years on my team skills too, but in the end I found it was easier to go free agent and play for a new team. I've spent a very productive season and a half with them.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Oscars Redux

Word on the street is that the 2010 Academy Awards, aka this year's Oscars, was at best a snoozefest and at worst, well, the worst.  Viewership was down, one of the "young, hip" co-hosts that the Academy put forth in an attempt to capture a younger demographic appeared to be heavily sedated or suffering from boredom, and it took a Billy Crystal cameo to resuscitate the show at its midpoint.  The only good part of the whole show was the first 5 minutes, which ABC is milking here.

Can someone explain to me how James Franco got the reputation of being this deep, brooding, intelligent guy, when he wears that goofy, clueless look at all times? I spent the evening wanting to smack the smirk off his face.  Anne Hathaway meanwhile, was beautiful in dress after dress, but she looked like a deer in the headlights throughout the show.  Is this the same woman who was so hilarious on Saturday Night Live in November?

As I predicted in my previous post, the stuffy film about the royal family ran away with the big prizes.  Again, I wasn't the only one who felt that The King's Speech was good, but maybe overrated.  Comedian Bill Maher tweeted "Great movie, but of all the problems in the world, stuttering is about the millionth on my list."

Speaking of Twitter, this was my first year being online during the Oscars, unless you count last year's fiasco where the site crashed on me about two dozen times in the 10 minutes I tried to use it.   Reading tweets, commenting, and watching requires going back to those old school times when we watched shows live, rather than zip-zipping through the ads Tivo-style; but the atmosphere was fun and decidedly more hip than what was happening onscreen, despite ABC's valiant attempts.  In the Twitter world, many cracks were made about Franco's apparent intoxication on something or other, Gwynneth Paltrow's subpar vocal skills, and how incredibly unfunny the entire show was.

After much too long, the clips for the nominees for Best Picture finally rolled,  and I took a moment to check myself.  Was my adoration for The Fighter due to the fact that His Royal Markyness is naked from the waist up in about 60% of his screen time? No. It's Christian Bale and Melissa Leo who make the movie, along with a generous sprinkling of Amy Adams.  And those sisters!

If Christian Bale hadn't won the best supporting actor award, it would have been nothing short of robbery.  Melissa Leo's supporting actress award was also well-deserved, even if she was shamelessly campaigning for it. Although she whined in a Fresh Air interview that she had to play the mother to someone who was less than 10 years her junior ("There's not ten years between us!"), that statement was a stretch.  The truth thanks to IMDB: Melissa Leo, b1960; Mark Wahlberg, b1971; Christian Bale (who plays the much older brother to Wahlberg), b1974. It's also worth noting that she was closer to her character's true age than the two gentlemen. While Ms. Leo did manage to escape the Fresh Air interview without dropping an F-bomb, the same couldn't have been said about her appearance on live television.  The Fighter is still in theaters.

My predictions were right in 8 of my 10 favorite categories, which means that the winners were by definition predictable.  Though I knew it would turn out this way, it didn't diminish my disappointment that Winter's Bone walked away empty-handed. The story was fresh, and Jennifer Lawrence shone in the lead role which is most accurately described as gritty.  Winter's Bone is available on DVD.

The two winners I didn't accurately predict were the awards for my two favorite movie genres: foreign and documentary, and I'm still stinging from that.

Note: In a Better World, the foreign language film winner, was not released here in time for the awards, and there wasn't much buzz. Due to what I can only assume must have been a mixup, my invitation to the Cannes premiere never arrived, and so I still haven't had a chance to screen it yet. For those of you who aren't members of the Academy, it's due out in US theaters in April. Who knows when it will be available for rent, assuming we even remember to put it in our queues. . .

Finally, a big thank you to Luke Matheny, who won for best Short Film, but more importantly, gave a shout out to the First State, Home of Tax Free Shopping, Small Wonder: Delaware.  To those of you who don't realize this is a big deal, the total population of Delaware is still under one million; and the only state shout out that would have been more shocking would have been to North Dakota. Just try to find some Delaware plates on the road once you've gone west of Virginia.  Seriously, just try.  I have seen fewer than 5 since I left almost 9 years ago, and I live in a military town.  Matheny's film God of Love is available on iTunes.

Friday, February 25, 2011

I'm Obsessed with the Oscars, Even Though the Academy Gets it Wrong

When I created this blog, over three months ago, I envisioned an outlet for expressing my perspective on the things I feel most passionately about- food, fitness and nutrition, parenting, and politics with an occasional post sharing samples of my photography.   The title is a nod not only to my love of food and support of the locavore movement, but also my being native Californian (and a rearer of native Californians).

Well, much time has passed, and I'm finally making my inaugural entry.  What exciting and thought-provoking topic did I select for this momentous post?  That stodgiest of award shows, The Oscars.

Then again, I am a California girl, and we're talking Hollywood.  I guess it's ok.

My fascination with the Academy Awards, is fairly recent.  In college I would go to see foreign films and all the low budget stuff I could on Two Dollar Tuesday at the ACT I/II theater in Berkeley.   (Yes, young 'uns, seriously.  TWO dollars. First run movies.)  I didn't pay attention to the Oscars back then, except to note that Belle Epoque (incidentally, referenced in 2010's The Fighter) won 9 Goyas, which (as I learned by reading the movie poster) is the Spanish version of the Oscar.  I loved Belle Epoque.  Who knew that Penelope Cruz would become such a star? She did not win a Goya for her performance, and I thought she was the ugliest of the sisters in that flick. A dear friend of mine still refers to her as "weasel face."  But I digress. . .

For the past 5 or so years, I've been taking the Academy Awards more seriously.  I have my score sheet marked up, much the way a basketball fan fills out his bracket each March or the guy at the track carefully marks his choice in ponies on the Racing Form. Each year, I try to guess what "The Acahdehmy" would pick in each category.  Much of the time, it's obvious, but every now and then they surprise me. Regardless, we rarely agree.

Below, you will see my educated guesses at the Academy's winners in (what I consider to be) the major awards.  Below each guess you will also see my own picks in parentheses. HUGE DISCLAIMER- I have not seen all of the movies in all of these categories.  I rarely go to the theater because we have a nice projector and screen and, when I do go to the theater, invariably some random audience member seems hell-bent on ruining my movie watching experience. More on that in a future post.  Still, I do make an effort in the few weeks between when the picks are announced and when the show airs to see everything I have time to either on dvd or by suffering through a theater showing. As of press time, I've seen 7 of the Best Picture nominees as well as a smattering of other movies in the categories below.

Another HUGE DISCLAIMER: I don't care who wins for best sound mixing or sound editing. Or makeup, or costumes, or  visual effects. Or even best score.  I realize that these factors are very important to the overall success and art of the movie, but I'm there to watch the movie, and as long as the music, editing, and mixing isn't so bad as to be distracting, I'm probably not paying attention. The Best Original Song award seems entirely beside the point.  Give the artist a Grammy, not an Oscar.  I care about the story and the acting.

And now, on with the show-

Best Picture
The King's Speech
(The Fighter)
Yeah, I know Georgie overcame his stutter, but he had like gazillions of pounds sterling; and honestly, what would have happened to him if he hadn't?  He'd still have been HRH, the King of England.  Thankfully, I'm not the only one who finds movies about the royals overrated and stuffy.  Richard Brody of The New Yorker is right there with me.  Give me a movie about a scruffy underdog who overcomes the odds, and I'm far more satisfied.

Best Director
Tom Hooper- The King's Speech
(Coen Brothers- True Grit)
The King's Speech is the Academy's baby this year. The Coen brothers are brilliant and innovative- two things the Academy seems not to care much about.  They remade a movie with John Wayne- some said it was a sacrilege! But they did it, and they did it better. Here's how.

Best Actor
Colin Firth- The King's Speech
(Colin Firth- The King's Speech)
If I'm being honest, I haven't seen enough of the movies in this category to judge, but Colin Firth does an excellent job of affecting a stammer without resorting to campiness.  He's favored to win, and he's a fine choice.

Best Actress
Natalie Portman- Black Swan
(Michelle Williams- Blue Valentine)
Can someone tell me what is so freaking special about The Kids Are All Right? It certainly does not belong in the Best Picture category.  Benning does a far better job at being a tense control freak who comes undone in the underrated Mother and Child.  No matter, I think this year Portman has the category sewn up with her creepy performance.  Michelle Williams is wonderful, but will fly under the radar.

Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale- The Fighter
(Christian Bale- The Fighter)
All of the performances in this category were good, but Bale was great.  Genius. Jeremy Renner was very good in The Town, and he got robbed in 2010, but I don't think they'll try to make amends this year.  He has good work ahead of him yet. Incidentally, some felt Justin Timberlake would get a nomination for his performance in The Social Network, but I don't think he stood a chance against these guys anyway.

Best Supporting Actress
Melissa Leo- The Fighter
(Amy Adams- The Fighter)
Another tough choice-  Hailee Steinfeld may even steal it.  All the performances in this category were great, with the exception of Helena Bonham Carter, who I thought was just ok.  Amy Adams holds her own in her scenes in this movie, a much better match than sharing the screen with Meryl Streep in Julie and Julia. I just loved her character and her performance.

Best Adapted Screenplay
The Social Network
(Winter's Bone)
I felt like I had already seen The Social Network after reading this article, so I didn't think the screenplay was anything special.  While Zuckerberg's ride to fame was a fun story, I liked the Winter's Bone tale better.  Appalachian inbred meth cookers- who knew?

Best Original Screenplay
The King's Speech
(The Fighter)
Again, The King's Speech is the Academy's baby this year, and again, I think The Fighter was more interesting. Besides, the sisters in The Fighter- they stole the show! 'Nuff said.

Best Documentary (Feature Length)
Exit Through the Gift Shop
Gee, isn't Banksy special?  He has lots of stencils, some spray paint, and he breaks the law.  Oh, and people will pay a lot of money for artwork by an unknown if someone cool like Banksy mentions the artist.  Even if that artist's art is totally derivative and sucky.

Best Foreign Film
Two of the nominees haven't even been released in the US yet, which seems awfully unfair to those of us who don't belong to the Academy.  Dogtooth was weird and disturbing.   Meanwhile, Bardem does not disappoint. I think they may get this one right.