Okay, I’m a sucker for a cheap joke, but Jewish holidays often center around bread, and Passover especially. From a historical perspective, bread _is_ life. This has been a truism for my entire life. I love bread. I sometimes bake bread. Really kickass bread. Which is why it comes as a bit of a surprise to find that I’m suddenly, on largely a whim, almost six weeks into an experimental removal of all voluntary wheat products from my diet.
The results have been equally surprising.
I have explicitly not been doing a low-carb diet. I’ve been eating rice (both brown and white), potatoes, corn, and other grains. Just no voluntary wheat - no pasta, bread, breadcrumbs, pastry, cookies, cakes, or crackers. Occasionally, I’ve been having some gluten-free versions of those foods, but mostly I’ve just been avoiding them entirely. I’ve been watching during this time as articles have appeared simultaneously marveling at the size of the gluten-free food market and warning people that they’re wasting their money or warning people that gluten-free products can be unhealthy. These kinds of articles bother me - there’s obviously some truth to them, but they don’t make a particularly good case that they’re largely directed at the extremely processed segment of “gluten-free imitations of foods that should have gluten in them”. These foods on their face seem fairly obviously unhealthy to me but also largely directed on the one hand at the desires of people who actually need to eat gluten free for medical reasons to be able to enjoy the foods they love and have a sense of fitting in and not being excluded, and on the other hand marketed towards people who want to make a change but make it as easy as possible - the appearance of change without actually changing how they eat. I fall into neither of these categories (and there are many people going gluten-free who don’t), so these products are largely unappealing to me (though I did find one brand of fresh gluten-free pasta that is passable - RP, which is available at Whole Foods). Gluten-free (like any other processed food) is big business, and the question of whether processed supermarket foods are healthy is orthogonal to whether any of the individual ingredients are healthy. There’s a lot of quackery, speculation, insufficient research, and drawn conclusions that make no sense (Yes, “Paleo”, I’m looking at you. You can’t dismiss what studies have been done as not conclusive, and then point to other even less conclusive studies to rationalize your assertions.). It doesn’t make sense to me to cut out bread and replace it with a poor substitute for bread made from some other chemicals you had lying around the lab, yet food is cultural as well as nourishing. All that said, there’s real value in “eating better”, except no real consensus on what that entails. My biggest takeaway from all of this is that we’re remarkably ignorant of what foods are healthy to eat, most recommendations are broad generalizations, and it seems to be a given that there isn’t any one diet that will work for everybody. (I’m more sympathetic towards this kind of complaint, that the bandwagon has made life harder for people with a driving medical need to avoid all gluten.)
Mostly I’ve been eating, in this order: 1) a lot of fruits and vegetables, many raw. As before, I eat a salad for lunch most days anyway, and I started substituting toasted pecans for croutons a while ago anyway, 2) some meat, some lean and some not, 3) cheese and other dairy, and 4) non-wheat grains and starches - potatoes, corn, quinoa, rice, others.
The first week and a half was somewhat uncomfortable, but not very difficult. I felt bloated and irritable a good part of the time, and went through a few days where I was extremely tired and a little woozy. (There are a number of articles on the web about “withdrawal symptoms”. I don’t know that I accept the explanations, but the adjustment period seems real enough.) After the second week, this completely disappeared, and I’ve felt great since. My appetite for snacking has almost completely leveled off - I used to get very hungry for snacks at around 4pm and then again at 11pm, and those cravings have nearly vanished. When I get hungry, it’s much more “flat” instead of “sharp”, whispering that I need to eat instead of yelling.
In the first two weeks, I lost about 8 pounds, largely efforlessly. Since then, I’ve lost a little more weight, but not as much, and I’ve started to feel a little slimmer. Of course I’ve lost weight - I’m eating a lot less, and wheat products are huge carriers for sugar - but the interesting thing here is how easy it’s been to eat less. It’s always been a struggle for me, and I’ve felt less deprived in the past few weeks than I can ever remember before. For the past few years, I’ve been trying to avoid processed foods and eat more healthily, but it’s left my weight largely unchanged. No previous dietary change I’ve made has been this easy, and that shocks me. I don’t think I’ve had trouble getting enough fiber - I eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, and I eat 1-2 tbsp of ground flax seeds a day anyway. I take vitamin supplements, even though the jury’s out on those as well. I have not yet had my cholesterol recently checked, but it typically fluctuates with my weight, so I expect it to be improved.
So far, really the only down side has been logistical - it is difficult to avoid wheat in most prepared food, and nearly impossible in some cuisines. Some kinds of Italian restaurants are problematic, and especially with small children, a LOT of people just serve pizza for events. I tried a gluten-free pizza crust at a restaurant to try once (we stumbled into a place that only served pizza despite not actually having the word pizza in the name anywhere and it was too late to go anywhere else), and it was just downright awful. I couldn’t eat more than about three bites before I started to retch. Most Asian food is pretty easy, especially Thai and Malaysian which have a heavy focus on rice. Pretty much all to-go breakfast foods are out, except the various kinds of bars - Clif bars and Larabars are almost all wheat free.
I don’t know if wheatless is the right path forward for me in the long term, but this has been a fascinating and somewhat unexpected experiment, and the results thus far have been good enough that I’m not ready to stop yet (exceptions made for my mother’s matzah ball soup).
As a general rule, when cooking something for an hour, check it at 30 minutes, then again after 15 minutes, then again after 10 minutes, then again after 5 minutes. If it’s still not done, check it every 4 minutes after that, and maybe flip it over or turn up the heat a little. If it’s something that requires stirring, stir it when you check.
I’m a strong believer in accurate food labeling. I feel that the arguments against it are specious and harmful to what little semblance of transparency in the free market we have. There’s been a bit of a brouhaha lately about the petition submitted to allow milk producers to include aspartame in milk products while still being able to call it “milk”. This piece by a dairy farmer argues that this isn’t a problem because it’ll still have to be listed in the ingredients. But why are we okay with making the consumer do more work to make sure they’re getting what they expect?
If you read the petition, it’s obvious - it’s because people don’t want to buy “reduced calorie milk”, and what this petition is asking for is permission to trick them into doing so: ‘Further, the petitioners assert that consumers do not recognize milk—including flavored milk—as necessarily containing sugar. Accordingly, the petitioners state that milk flavored with non-nutritive sweeteners should be labeled as milk without further claims so that consumers can “more easily identify its overall nutritional value.”’
I’d argue that this is still a problem, but the real problem is that milk can _already_ contain sugar, and still be called “milk”. Note the irony in “leveling the playing field” by reducing the accuracy of labeling even further.
The solution is easy. If it’s milk, say so. If it’s milk with added sugar, don’t call it milk. We all know what “milk” is, we know what consumers expect when they see the word “milk”, and if you’re arguing that we don’t or it’s hard to define, it’s because you’re trying to get away with something. I have not heard any compelling reason to think that these rules have to be more complicated than “you have to accurately label what’s in your food products”.
This is a great side dish, it can be made vegan-friendly, and it’s a fantastic way to use roasted root vegetables. If you don’t have or like quinoa, many other grains can be substituted, though they may take more or less time to cook. I’m fond of wheat/spelt berries, which benefit in flavor from being toasted in a dry pan first, soaked for an hour, and then cooked in fresh water until tender. The three components are prepared separately and then combined:Roasted Vegetables
Preheat oven to 425F. Pour a bit of oil into the bottom of the pan, the dice assorted root vegetables (carrots, parsnips, squash, beets, rutabaga, turnips, all work well) to 1/4” - 1/2”, sprinkle liberally with kosher salt and pepper, and then add enough oil to coat. I use grapeseed oil because it has a nice flavor and a high smoke point. A mixture of olive oil and canola will also work well. Spread in a single layer in the bottom of the pan. After 30 minutes, add some shaved red onion and stir. Continue roasting until browned and tender. Set aside. When there’s about 20 minutes left, start:Quinoa
Soak quinoa in excess water, and rinse a few times to remove the soapy outer covering (a mesh strainer is helpful here). I usually use about 2 cups of quinoa to a half-sheet pan of vegetables, but the proportions aren’t critical. Cover quinoa with at least twice as much fresh water as quinoa (but if there’s water left over when done, you can drain it off), add about a teaspoon of kosher salt, bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer for about 15 minutes until done. When it’s ready, the white ring layer around the middle will separate. Turn off the heat and let sit for 5-10 minutes, then fluff with a fork and drain if necessary. While the quinoa is cooking, mix:Vinaigrette
Mix 1 tbsp dijon mustard with 1 tbsp vinegar (I used raspberry vinegar for that one), plus a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Mix well, and slowly drizzle in enough oil (again, I prefer grapeseed for this, because the flavor is mild and doesn’t clash with the raspberry) while whisking until the mixture is thick.Assembly
Mix the vegetables and quinoa together, then add enough vinaigrette to moisten. It will taste very strong, but the acidity will mellow after you let it sit for 20 mins or so at room temp. Taste, and add more vinaigrette if it’s dry, and salt and pepper if needed (a little more than you think you need if you’re serving cold).
I feel terrible for having to write this, but we chose Chez Panisse (the cafe, as we had the kids along and only time for lunch) as our one fancy meal for our trip to San Francisco, scheduling a nice a day trip out to Berkeley and then over to the redwoods. We were expecting to be greeted with the temple of the slow food movement, and were instead rewarded with massively overpriced fairly insipid food. It was by far the most disappointing meal of the entire trip. The restaurant might have been groundbreaking 20-30 years ago, but that invention was nowhere to be found, and what’s left in its place seems to be a machine for ripping off the devoted.
- Avocado and cucumber salad with a lemon vinaigrette and thyme. Passable, but $9 for literally five thin slivers of avocado and four chunks of cucumber. This was the best dish of the meal.
- Pizzetta with bottarga and some sort of forgettable herb topping. Not bad, but the smoked mozzarella/mushroom pizza we had at Tony Tutto’s in Mill Valley later in the day was more imaginative and far tastier (not to mention half the price).
- The prix fixe lunch menu, a green salad (passable but uninspired), gemelli pasta with pesto and peas (might have been revolutionary once, but unremarkable in 2012.), and a granita which we did not stay to sample. I note that the gemelli was offered standalone on the menu for about $18.
- Pork shoulder braised with white beans and some vegetable I don’t remember. (This was the absolute worst dish I’ve been served in a restaurant in a long time. The pork was stringy and dry, the sauce was nearly tasteless. I sent it back.)
- A bowl of blueberries ($9, for literally half a cup. Possibly worth it for the best blueberries I’d ever had. These were not. They were billed as “Triple Delight”, which was not in evidence at the table.)
Alice Waters has unquestionably influenced our food culture in ways I can’t even begin to imagine. I’m sad that eating at her restaurant was such a letdown.