The Danger of Chef as Dietician

Dreamstime nutrition
In my (completely unqualified) opinion, if a food can be balanced on a dumbbell then it is healthy. Problem solved.

 

It should be relatively straightforward. Dieticians tell us what to eat. Chefs tell us how to eat it.

But nothing involving humans is ever simple.

In Australia at the moment, celebrity chef Pete Evans is currently enjoying a somewhat troubled moment in the sun. Evans rose to fame as one of the kindly judges of the hapless home-cooks on My Kitchen Rules. (He also keeps tight control of his image, so I can’t post it here, but if you’d like to gaze upon his preternaturally white smile you can do so here.) You wouldn’t think to look at him that he’d be able to generate much controversy, let alone howling hatred. But generate it he has.

Evans’ nickname is ‘Paleo Pete’ and, when he’s not consoling people whose soufflés have fallen on national TV, he is vigorously promoting the Paleo diet. The diet is based around excluding food groups with the aim of returning us to a pre-Industrial level of health. Evans has been accused of advocating food in place of prescribed medicine; recommending bone broth instead of infant formula; and generally speaking too authoritatively on the issue of nutrition for someone who is not, in fact, a dietician.

Though Paleo Pete is advocating a diet that is a bit more controversial than most, he is part of a proud lineage of chefs turned nutrition crusaders. The most prominent is of course Jamie Oliver, who has done battle with everyone from hamburger-clutching American parents, to new mothers who don’t realise just how easy breastfeeding is. In fact, chefs and food writers have been at it for centuries, with most Victorian-era cookbooks including a section on ‘Invalid Cookery’.

It’s made me wonder just who has the right to publically give nutrition advice.

These questions have arisen because, in my challenge to learn every technique in Leith’s Technique Bible, I’m currently up to the section on nutrition.

Leith’s states that it is the cook’s responsibility to know the basics of nutrition, in order to provide a nutritionally-balanced meal to the people they serve. This duty is the same regardless of whether they’re cooking for family, friends, or a corporate buffet of 200 at the Hilton.

Cooks – either of the home or Hilton variety – need to know that a lactating woman requires more calories, a diabetic should have less carbohydrate, and that no one in the world needs a savoury dish that contains a whole carton of double cream. But should they ever publically advocate these positions, and in doing so represent themselves as an expert in human nutrition to a credulous public?

It’s clearly not practical to make every food professional take a vow of secrecy upon learning any health information. However, cooks and food writers (including bloggers like myself) need to take precautions when talking about nutrition.

  • First off, we need to make sure we actually know what we’re talking about. That means finding out what the scientific consensus is, rather than going with our ‘gut feeling’.
  • Secondly, we need to ensure that our training or expertise is clear. In case you’re wondering, I score a ‘0’ on both counts.
  • Finally, we need to link back to sources written by actual dieticians.

As a consumer, if the blogger or chef you’re reading isn’t informed and transparent, then consider if you should listen when they tell you to cut out dairy.

Of Fortitude and Lemon Wedges

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Serving suggestion: throw at family while yelling that you quit.

Two things happened at once this week.

The first is that I reached the section in Leith’s Technique Bible (which I’m learning cover to cover this year) on presentation.

The second is that my toddler went completely insane.

For those readers who aren’t parents, let me be the one to break the news to you that periodically children go a bit wrong. Whether they’re having a growth spurt or connecting a few particularly tricky neurons, they temporarily take leave of their senses and turn into a tiny ball of misery and destruction. Dutch researchers who’ve looked into the phenomenon euphemistically call these times “Wonder Weeks”.

There is a corresponding effect that occurs in parents. It’s a combination of sleep deprivation and being kept constantly off balence by your toddler’s mood swings and bizzare requests. I’m not aware of any scientific studies of this phenomenon, but if I had to use a similarly euphemistic name, I’d call it, “A Period of Adaptability”. As in adapting to no showers, a dirty house, and increasingly strange and desperate ‘meal’ ideas.

Let me sum the situation up in a single scene:

MJ was helping me carry Zool to the car. We’d all been up to 2AM the night before. Zool, because she wanted to fall asleep near us but not touching us; me, because I ended up driving her on a round trip to the nearest regional centre to achieve this; and MJ because she was lying awake at home worried we were going to die in a fiery car crash.

As MJ clipped a floppy Zool into her car seat, she said, “There’s chocolate in the glove box. But it’s pretty gross. It melted and resolidified a few times.”

I started rummaging for the chocolate, moving aside a Tupperware that seemed to be full of sliced onion. “I don’t care,” I replied. “I’d eat it even if it had been chewed on by rats.”

“That might have happened too,” MJ said.

I found the chocolate, and we finished the block standing next to the car.

Meanwhile, in an alternate universe of precision and excellence, Leith’s was suggesting that I remove the pointy ends from lemon wedges before serving them. The rationale behind this is unclear, as they also stipulate that there should still be pith at each end. Just not pointy pith. Why? Why! What difference could it possibly make?

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A lemon wedge, de-pointed but still blighted by the hideous central membrane.

My first response was to skip the section. Why did it matter if the watercress was in a bouquet, or the parsley was chiffonade-ed, or the lemon ends rounded? I had bigger fish to fry. We didn’t have any clean sheets, and we were perilously close to simultaneously running out of toilet paper and tissues.

But something gave me pause. Why was I going to do this if I skipped the hard bits, or gave myself a pass when Zool had a “Wonder Week”? What if, underlying each of those seemingly fussy techniques was actually a philosophy – a principal of always striving for excellence in food?

After all, though Leith’s Technique Bible is for both home cooks and chefs, the Diploma at Leith’s School of Food and Wine that it is based on is aimed at food professionals. These are people who, if push comes to shove, have chosen to prioritise food over laundry and sleep.

The reason I undertook this challenge was to see if a person like me – a mum and part time teacher – could learn to cook like a professional chef. Well, it turns out that to cook like pro, you have to prioritise food like a pro.

So dinner rolled around, and I needed a lemon wedge to serve with a warm root-vegetable salad. Zool had undressed her Elsa doll and then removed its head. The washing machine was beeping to let me know that it was ready to disgorge yet another pile of wet clothes. The dog was trying to dig a hold through her dog bed.

I chose to prioritise food.

It turns out that if you’ve got the opportunity and ability,  the only question that remains is: how much do you want it? I want to learn my craft as a cook enough to surgically remove various parts of lemon wedges in the midst of that chaos.

And you know what?  I actually like the way they look.

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You win again, Leith’s.

 

How to Plan a Three Course Dinner Party: TexMex Edition

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Home made tortilla chips.

Last week, I wrote about how to plan a three course dinner party, and tried to convince you that it was actually the easy option when it comes to entertaining.

Yesterday, I decided to put my money where my mouth was, and serve up a three course dinner party for six. Well, five and a toddler.

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Okra from the garden, ready to be crumbed in cornmeal and pan fried.

The guests: MJ’s aunt and uncle, and their adult daughter who is lactose intolerant. All three of them love Mexican food as much as MJ. That is, a lot.

The protein: A huge packet of beef ribs from the farmer’s Market that have been malingering in the freezer for a month.

The main course: Sticky Tex Mex ribs, marinated all day and cooked all afternoon

The side dish: Choosing seasonal options (it’s late summer here in Melbourne), I went for creamy mashed sweet potato, and pan fried okra dusted in cornmeal and spices.

The appetizer: The ribs are sticky and tender, so I needed an appetizer that was crunchy and tart. Home-made tortilla chips and salsa fit the bill, and can be made ahead of time.

The desert: Because it’s summer, I went for a light dessert. I couldn’t go past Diana Kennedy’s classic The Essential Cuisines of Mexico, which includes a recipe for a Mexican street food snack of fruit salad sprinkled with chili and salt.

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Salsa made with heirloom tomatoes – oddly coloured but full of flavour.

The verdict: As always, there’s a gap between theory and practice. While I could have made most of this ahead of time, having a toddler isn’t exactly conducive to organized kitchen prep. While I didn’t get to reap the benefits of pre-cooking part of the meal, I loved cooking dishes that I knew inside out. Cooking familiar dishes for guests will definitely be on the menu when I entertain from now on.

Have you tried using the three course menu plan yet? Did it work for you?

The Secret to a Stress-Free Dinner Party

Dreamstime Awkward dinner party
A three course dinner will give your most interesting guest (in this case, the guy in the middle of this stock photo) plenty of time to tell all of his funny anecdotes. Look how much the women around him are loving it!

There’s something about a dinner party that strikes fear into the heart of the home cook.

When I realise that guests are about the descent upon my home for a sit-down meal, I find myself with an irresistible urge to cook impressive sounding dishes I know nothing about, and impulse-buying expensive cheese. But no more. As part of my challenge to master every technique in Lieth’s Technique Bible, I’m learning how to plan like a chef.

My previous approach to cooking for a dinner party was to either go to ridiculous lengths and expense to cook my guest’s dream meal, or throw down a quick buffet involving burgers and potato salad. It turns out there is a third way.

That third way is a three course meal.

I can see you – finger hovering over the ‘back’ button, imagining ridiculous French banquets and muttering, “This is not the secret I was looking for!” But hear me out.

According to FoodTimeline.org, humans have been eating food in courses for about 10,000 years. And while there is an association between wealth and courses (wealthy people generally have more food to spread around), meals with different stages occur in all societies and socio-economic groups.

So why should you cook a three course meal when you have guests? Won’t it send you bankrupt? Or insane?

Not so. By using the planning guide below, you’ll cook most of the meal in advance, and save on expensive ingredients at every stage. Most importantly,  you’ll be able to enjoy the meal rather than trying to unravel the mysteries of Lobster Thermidor while your best friend’s husband eats all your expensive cheese.

Planning a Three Course Meal in Seven Easy Steps

Adapted from the general meal planning guidelines in Leith’s Technique Bible.

1. Consider your guests.

Do they have any particular preferences or dietary needs? Don’t be grudging about it – even if you’re sceptical about your brother-in-law’s self-diagnosed starch intolerance, you still need to cater for his preference. After all, cooking for someone should be about cooking for them, not in spite of them.

2. Pick your cuisine.

Go with a cuisine that you’re comfortable cooking. Your first Moroccan dish should be a fun experiment on a lazy Saturday, not a panicked disaster as twelve of your friends watch on in sympathetic horror.

3. Choosing a protein for the main course.

Pick the star of your main course: meat, seafood, tofu, eggs, beans or lentils. Make sure this main ingredient is either seasonal (cheap and easy to find) out already in your pantry (even cheaper).

4. Pick the dish for the main course.

Choose the main course dish by finding recipes for your protein in your cuisine that are at your level and look fun. If you already have a tried and tested recipe that fits the bill, then go with that.

5. Balance your main course.

Add balance to the main course with carbs or vegetables. Carbs could consist of rice, pasta, flatbread, a loaf of bread, or potatoes. Vegetables could be roasted, steamed, or in the form of a salad. Most of these options can be made earlier in the day, or with very little attention.

6. Choose your appetizer.

Pick something from the same cuisine, but with a different texture. Ideally, choose something that can be made ahead so you can focus on the main course. Having an appetizer up your sleeve will buy you time to finish the main course, while adding interest to the meal for your guests.

7. Finally, dessert.

Pick something from the same cuisine that is light in summer or heavy in winter. Cakes and biscuits are my favourite options as they can be made in advance and use inexpensive ingredients, but at the same time have a lovely home-made touch.

 

Using this guide, everything can be made ahead apart from the main meal. Your guests get a culinary journey through a cuisine your love, and all you have to do on the night is cook a single dish like you would for any weeknight dinner.

 

Tune in on Saturday to see a sample menu, as I turn MJ’s extended family into my meal-planning guinea pigs.

What is your experience of planning a special meal? Would you consider a three course sit-down dinner?

Five Reasons to Pre-Measure Your Ingredients, from Someone Who’s Done It Twice

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Get in a bowl, ingredients!

I’m a convert.

One week in to my quest to master all the skills in Leith’s Techniques Bible, the authors have already convinced me to change my cooking style completely, and measure all my ingredients before I start cooking.

This involves reading through the ingredient list and preparing everything in the way described before even considering embarking on the recipe proper. Two tablespoons of cumin, in a little bowl. One onion, diced, and bowled. Grated parmesan – get in a bowl! Then, when it’s time for that ingredient to make an appearance in the recipe, it’s ready for its close up.

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After pre-measuring and chopping all of my ingredients, this chicken soup came together like a symphony of root vegetables and poultry bones.

As the old saying goes, there’s no one as fervent as a recent convert. So here are the top five reasons you should pre-measure your ingredients, from someone who has done so twice and is very excited about it.

1. You’ll realise early if you’re missing an ingredient.

Even though I read through recipes before cooking from them, I’m still occasionally caught out by an ingredient I’m sure I have, but actually used last Wednesday. Handling every ingredient for a dish stops this from happening. When you discover something is missing, you have plenty of time to either work out a substitution or dash to the shops.

2. It divides cooking into two separate activities: preparation and construction.

This means that, for most recipes, you can take a break between preparing the ingredients and cooking the meal. This is useful for people in any number of situations. If your toddler can’t go more than ten minutes without your undivided attention, you can spend a bit of time admiring their latest acrobatic trick before moving onto Phase 2 of cooking dinner. Perhaps you care for a family member, and need to check on them regularly. Maybe you suffer from a chronic health condition, and need periodic rest breaks. Dividing cooking in this way makes it fit in with your life.

3. It makes you more precise with your measurements.

Your dishes will start to taste increasingly different to one another: instead of adding your usual amount of paprika, you’ll add the amount the author intended. A whole new vista of flavour profiles will open up. Even better, you won’t find yourself trying to fish out an unwanted heap of chilli powder that you accidentally dumped into the pot, because you will instead be measuring your chilli powder into a bowl before you’ve even turned the stove on.

4. It gives you a chance to follow all of the instructions in the recipe, even the little ones.

Does the butter need to be brought to room temperature? No problem. Leave it on the bench in its little bowl, and it will be ready to go when you are. No longer will you have to fling the frigid butter in the microwave and hope that ‘half melted/half solid’ acts the same way as ‘soft’ would.

5. It makes cooking more enjoyable.

This is the big one for me. Precision is great. But it’s not why I cook. I cook for joy. Bringing order to my kitchen chaos has dialled the joy up to 11. Instead of scrambling to keep up with a runaway recipe, I can savour the smells, sounds and feels of cooking. I invite you to try pre-measuring ingredients and do the same!

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The finished product: stress-free chicken soup and matzo balls. Thanks, Leith’s!

Do you already prepare all your ingredients before you begin to cook? If not, have I managed to convert you?

Habit: My Frenemy in the Kitchen

Cooking is 90% habit.

The more time you’ve spent cooking, the more you can cruise along on autopilot, even in the midst of kitchen chaos. With a bit of practice, you will no longer stare in horror as your simmering homemade jam suddenly quadruples in size into a Hot Burny Sugar Monster intent on devouring your stove. Instead, you will lift the pan from the burner even as you adjust the temperature, barely breaking your cooking stride.

This allows us to attempt increasingly difficult culinary manouvers. When we no longer consciously think through every choice in the kitchen, we find ourselves with brain power left over to make a Croquembouche.

Dreamstime Croquembouche
I am yet to reach that point.  This is not my Croquembouche. But I can say with some pride that I haven’t had any jam disasters in at least a year.

So what’s so bad about kitchen habits when they facilitate jam with a chance of Croquembouche?

The problem is that habits are hard to change. And for me,  this year is all about change. This is the year I learn every technique in Leith’s Technique Bible. This week my challenge has been to measure all my ingredients before cooking each time. It should be as easy as falling off a log.

So far I haven’t succeeded once.

My best attempt has involved jumbling the ingredients for Bigoli in Salsa in a pile on the bench, which looked a bit as if I’d upended a shopping bag there.

Every change-resistant bone in my body is trying to rationalize my current way of cooking. My current method, by the way, is to grab things from the panty and fridge as necessarily, chopping ingredients the moment before they’re needed. Sometimes the moment after. It’s frantic, which makes it feel like it must be the most efficient way of getting the job done. (I don’t think it looks efficient. In a galley kitchen with a dog and a toddler I think it looks like I’m playing a high-speed version of 3D Twister).

I refuse to fall at the first (seemingly embarrassingly easy) hurdle.

Tomorrow night I am picking an unfamiliar recipe in an unfamiliar cuisine, to force myself to actually follow the recipe. For once. Then I’m going to measure every damn ingredient from that recipe into a little glass bowl. And then I will see just what it’s like to cook without tripping over the dog while rushing to the pantry. It better be magical.

If my attempts at pre-measuring ingredients so far are anything to go by, breaking this habit is certainly going to be a challenge.

What cooking habits would you find hardest to change? Is habit your friend or enemy in the kitchen?

All about the Bullseye

There are many aspects of cooking that are sexy, exotic and exciting.

Accurate measurement of ingredients is not one of those things. Rather than conjuring up images of roaming a foreign city sampling surprising street food, the idea of weighing things to the gram takes us back to Year 7 Home Economics and Mrs G telling us for the fifth time that ovens were hot.

One page in to Leith’s Technique Bible, and I’m beginning to think that Mrs G flashbacks are a big part of the reason why people can get excited far more easily over ingredients and gadgets than technique.

Yes, that’s right. My thrilling culinary journey starts with a list of instructions that boil down to the message that good cooks do not “just eyeball it”. Ever.

Dreamstime Ingredients in Bowls
This person loves measuring their ingredients so much, they’ve measured this egg.

I am dubious. I learnt to cook watching my parents, who owned measuring cups and spoons largely because it was the done thing. My usual approach can, in fact, be summed up by the time MJ asked me for the ratio of water and oats to make porridge and I replied in all seriousness, “Some and some.”

Could it really make a noticeable difference if I made sure each teaspoon was level? Or, in fact, used a teaspoon?

Would it streamline my cooking to measure all ingredients before I began, or would it just create a billion times more washing and drive me to the edge of lunacy?

Was fine cooking really all about the bullseye?

Find out in my next post, where I’ll cook the same dish twice: once my way, and once Leith’s.

Readers, are you measurers or eyeballers? Is 307g ever good enough when 300g is called for?