Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Book Review: VB6 by Mark Bittman

Congratulations to Ketki on winning four boxes of cereal from Attune Foods in last week's giveaway! And so many thanks to everyone who participated, as well as Attune for providing its awesome products. I had been thinking about maybe someday trying to figure out how to do a giveaway for a long time, and the positive response to this one was a huge milestone for this little blog.

As a token of my appreciation, allow me to save you $26 plus tax:

You may know Mark Bittman as the author of cookbooks like How to Cook Everything, the exploration of the American food system Food Matters, or various food-related opinion pieces for the New York Times. He recently came out with another book, this one with the Shakespeareanly long title VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 to Lose Weight and Restore Your Health...For Good.

There is some really solid advice in here that will come in handy when facing the challenges posed by Corn Free July, as well as reasons for choosing diets like these that focus on home cooking of whole foods. But overall I think the book suffers from a lack of focus and some slightly arrogant assumptions about the reader, which are always a huge pet peeve of mine.

The basic premise of VB6 is that you eat healthfully and conscientiously for most of the day; not just by abstaining from animal products, but also from overly processed grains, junk food, anything like that, and then in the evening, the portion of the day that tends to be the most social, you reward yourself a little. After keeping with the diet, your cravings will change, and you'll find yourself not wanting to gorge on steak and dessert after 6, choosing foods like these that Bittman calls "treats" in natural moderation.

I think this is a good idea. I love his theory that diets don't work because they focus too much on deprivation. His flexible approach to his regimen also allows for adjusting of the timing. For example, if you get invited to an afternoon cookout and just can't pass up a hot dog, you can eat vegan for dinner instead and not feel like you've failed or cheated.

The other hugely helpful and informative part of the book, for me at least, was his idea of "building blocks," or foods you prepare ahead of time so that eating a healthy diet will be just as convenient as going to the drive-through. The later sections of the book have excellent suggestions about pre-chopping vegetables and keeping them in water or air-tight containers so that they'll last longer and involve less preparation time. The same goes for beans and whole grains: Bittman suggests making a large batch to freeze for the week and season differently with each meal so they don't get boring. With just a week left until Corn Free July, this is a great tip, and I've already started getting myself in the habit of chopping vegetables right when I get back from shopping before putting them away.

There's also some interesting science involved, if you're into that kind of thing. I was especially fascinated by the discussion of how not all calories function the same way in our bodies, and how the body reacts differently to different kinds of sugars. (The glucose vs. fructose issue, and a breakdown of why HFCS is particularly nasty.) Bittman also points out that sugars are absorbed differently by themselves or when in the company of fiber. He does a good job of explaining why, for example, fruit juice isn't as good for you as a whole fruit.

The approach of the book had some serious flaws though. Bittman's slightly arrogant, presumptuous tone adds pizzazz to recipes and shorter articles, but after 200 pages, it gets old. The "diet book trying not to be a diet book" style in which VB6 was written also doesn't quite work. Toward the beginning, Bittman makes some very good points up front about how the Standard American Diet (aka SAD. Get it?) is unsustainable for the environment, and how the extra money you spend on high quality food will save you money on health care costs in the long run. He even gets some information in there about how the Standard American Diet is inextricably linked with unnecessary animal cruelty, a topic which is usually at the center of any discussion about veganism.

But all this is packed into one or two paragraphs. Maybe I'm reading into this too much, but it felt a little bit like he was saying, "OK now that we got the boring stuff out of the way, let's all admit that you're really only interested in a healthy diet because you want to look pretty." Some of his tips include things like snacking beforehand and then just getting a salad if you're going out to lunch with coworkers. This seems like the kind of lonely, unsustainable approach taken by mainstream diets. We shouldn't punish ourselves for wanting to be healthy or ecologically responsible, or feel good about how we look. Eating is a communal activity. We should encourage our friends and colleagues to enjoy healthy food with us, instead of acting like an outsider.

The other thing that I just couldn't get past was that the title of the book- and the diet- falls into the popular trend of hiding behind the use of an acronym because the words it stands for don't quite apply. KFC is, SAD-ly, the first example of this that comes to mind. What with all the rule-bending to fit your lifestyle, Bittman says he may as well have called it VA6, or VB8, or whatever works best. Also, he condones the use of things like Worcestershire sauce and honey before six, which aren't technically vegan, saying that they're lesser evils than, say, white flour, which is unhealthy, but has nothing to do with animal products.

So...maybe he just should have called the diet, "Unprocessed and featuring minimal amounts of animal products except when you don't feel like it."

Which, let's face it, has already been phrased more elegantly in the mantra, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

My First Giveaway: Cereal by Attune Foods

With Corn Free July just around the corner, it's time to start thinking about what to keep in the pantry to make the challenge as easy, delicious, and fun as possible. Annelies from Attune Foods has generously agreed to help out one lucky reader with four complimentary boxes of cereal. Attune Foods is the company behind Uncle Sam and Erewhon cereals, as well as organic graham crackers and pro-biotic chocolate bars. Many of these products are corn-free and verified non-GMO.

So what would you do with all that cereal? Eat it for breakfast with almond milk and berries, for dinner in green bean casserole, or for dessert in a butternut apple bake to name a few ideas.

So many ways to win:

  • Subscribe to this blog.
  • Follow me on Twitter.
  • Like Corn Free July's Facebook page.
  • Post a recipe or photo featuring cereal to Corn Free July's Facebook page.
  • Follow me on Pinterest.
  • Tweet about this giveway using the hastags #Attune and #CornFreeJuly.
  • Leave a comment on this blog post telling me what you'll use your prize cereal for.
  • Share this post or mention the giveaway on any social media sight.
  • Click the +1 tab at the bottom of this post to like it on Google Plus.
Leave a comment here or send me an e-mail letting me know how and where you entered to win. For each action above, your name will be entered once for random selection. Contest closes at 6PM on Monday June  24th and the winner will be announced the next day.

Good luck!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

What's YOUR favorite Entenmann's?

Apparently the company famous for soft chocolate chip cookies and crumbly coffee cakes has taken its classic tag line into the age of social media with a new blurb on the box that reads, "Everyone's got a favorite. Like us on Facebook and tell us yours." I'll be sure and do that. Sounds like a really exciting conversation.

But let me explain. On my way to work yesterday, I dropped my beloved glass water bottle on the sidewalk, where it shattered and all the people at the nearby bus stop stared as I did my best to pick up the pieces. Not a great way to start the day. I ducked into a convenience store to get another bottle of water, and decided on impulse to try and cheer myself up by grabbing a snack to share at work. I figured with Corn Free July coming up, I should get all my junk food cravings out of the way before my month of sad, lonely deprivation.

But a (actually maybe not-so) strange thing happened. I really didn't enjoy my Cheese Danish Twist. Don't get me wrong, I ate a lot of it, mainly because all those empty calories don't keep you satisfied, but it pretty much just tasted like cake someone put extra frosting on to cover up for the fact that the cake part is a little too dry.

What? That's exactly what it is? Oh, OK then.

I mean, it looks pretty...kind of.
The good thing that came of this was that I was reminded how Corn Free July and other challenges like it aren't really about deprivation at all; they're about focus on the things that you will actually want, enjoy, and benefit from. I'm getting very excited to have a solid reason not to make mistakes like this for a month. And especially to bake my own goodies from scratch that will taste better, be healthier, and not leave me feeling yucky like this one did.

Incidentally, for anyone who's interested, this particular dessert, from a company that, to paraphrase their own advertisement, has been baking fresh and delivering daily since 1898, contains...drumroll please....45 ingredients. And that's a conservative number, since I wasn't counting the sub-ingredients in parenthesis, you know like "enriched white flour: [processed flour, bleach for coloring, all natural nondescript nutrients, bakery workers' tears]"

Of these 45, I recognized at least 8 to be derived from corn, and 3 from soy. Including high fructose corn syrup! Now that high fructose corn syrup has gotten so much bad press, you may have noticed that a lot of junk foods have gone out of their way to replace it with other sweeteners, but apparently Entenmann's isn't even taking that sad excuse for a step in the right direction.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Davis Square Farmers' Market

Massachusetts in June is not exactly the best place to go looking for a harvest, so a trip to the farmers' market this early always runs the risk of being something of a disappointment if you don't have seasonally appropriate expectations.

Last week I tried out the Farmers' Market in Davis Square in Somerville for the first time, with a shopping list full of vegetables for wishful thinking, but keeping in mind what I was actually likely to find: plants. Luckily, there was a plant on my list. I love tomatoes, but they go bad very quickly, and if you try to refrigerate them they become tasteless and mushy, kind of a like a Mitch Albom novel, so being able to get them right from the source is imperative.

I got a Big Beef tomato plant from Enterprise Farm in South Deerfield, MA. It's currently still inside on the window sill, but with temperatures in the 80's like they have been this week, I should transplant it soon.

It was a pleasant surprise to see that this market had taken seasonal monotony into consideration when selecting vendors, such as Valicenti Organico can be trusted to have their artisan pastas and homemade "red gravy" year round, and The Danish Pastry House, who provide snacks for your stroll around the rest of the market no matter what the whims of the weather happen to be.

A provider of animal products is one of the most important things I look for in a farmers' market. At the grocery store, whether it's organic and where it was grown are relatively easy facts to track down about your fruits and vegetables, meat production is a much more nuanced and controversial issue. I like to be able to talk to the farmer face to face and figure out what really went on with these animals, and how and where the meat was processed. Copicut Farms in North Dartmouth, MA offers pasture-fed poultry and eggs.

What's your favorite farmers' market? Any in the Boston area that I'm missing? Let me know in the comments section!