Category Archives: Food & Recipes

Good News Monday: It’s Not You, It’s Your Brain

Unhealthy, processed food, snacks
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[Reprinted from studyfinds.org]

Our brains may be wired to seek out junk food, scientists say

by Chris Melore

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WAGENINGEN, Netherlands — If you’ve ever snuck into your kitchen for a midnight snack, you probably know exactly where all the sweet and tasty treats are hidden with your eyes closed. Researchers in the Netherlands say this isn’t just about good memory, the human brain may actually be wired to hunt down high-calorie food. Their study finds humans are significantly better at remembering where junk foods are kept than they are with healthier options.

A team from Wageningen University & Research believes the human brain has evolved to focus on memorizing where high-calorie foods are located. Study authors theorize this allowed our hunter-gatherer ancestors to survive in tough environments with few food options.

The study tested 512 participants who were put through a sort of food-memory maze. Researchers had the group follow a fixed route through a room where eight foods or food-scented pads were strategically placed.

As each participant walked through the maze, they either tasted the food or smelled the pads. These tasty options ranged from apples and cucumbers to potato chips and chocolate brownies. The group was also asked to rate how much they like each food they encountered. Researchers then gave the volunteers a surprise quiz on where these snacks were located.

Junk food more appealing to our mind, too

The results reveal the group was 27 percent more accurate at picking the right locations of high-calorie foods than low-calorie options. Participants were even better with food scents, spotting high-calorie pads with 28 percent more accuracy than low-calorie ones.

Researchers report that the results weren’t affected by whether the high-calorie snack was sweet or savory. It also didn’t seem to matter if the participants liked the foods or not. Overall, people were 2.5 times (or 243 percent) better at memorizing where actual food was compared to food-scented pads.

Is there a downside to this skill?

While this ability likely served humans well in the distant past, the study suggests it could lead to problems today. Researchers hint that the memory bias towards high-calorie foods can create dieting issues for many people.

They add that brains which can resist the urge to hunt down sweeter snacks will likely avoid these dieting problems. Researchers are now looking at how the high-calorie memory bias affects present day eating habits.

The study appears in Scientific Reports.

Good News Monday: Kitchen Magic

With all the cooking at home we’re doing, I was excited to pick up some great tips this week. It may not make sheltering in place any less stressful, but at least the kitchen will be cleaner!

First up, some dishwasher tricks:

  • For dishes that still look cloudy even after a full cycle, pour some white vinegar into a dishwasher-safe bowl and place it on the top rack. The vinegar cuts through hard water to help reduce stubborn residue.
  • Another dishwasher hint: To keep plastic containers from flipping over and filling with water, put them on the top rack and cover them with your plastic or metal dish drainer to weigh them down. (Odds are, it could use a good clean, too.)
  • The dishwasher’s also useful for cleaning your microwave’s turntable. Just put it in the bottom section with the plates and goodbye, anything sticky.
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Finally — here’s my favorite hack to keep your eyes from tearing when you slice onions: Simply sprinkle some lemon juice on your cutting board as well as the onion. I have no idea why this works, but it’s kind of amazing!

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Autocorrect For Life

Have you ever made a simple cooking mistake that rendered your masterpiece totally inedible? I did this yesterday.

I’d decided to make a mixed-grain bread using bread flour, whole wheat, and rye, adding caraway, chia and hemp seeds for texture and interest.

Except I grabbed fennel seeds instead of caraway, which is almost as bad as mixing up salt and sugar. YUCK.

Which got me thinking… wouldn’t it be great to have Universal Autocorrect every time we were about to do something dumb? Like a booming voice from above yelling “Stop!” when we’re walking down the aisle towards the wrong person. (TMI? Am I the only one who’s done this??) Or a quick rewind after we inadvertently send “reply all” bitching about a colleague. How about a time freeze before we sign the contract for a house that will prove to be a money pit?

Unlike my iPhone autocorrect, which turns typos into gibberish, our Life Autocorrect would be unfailingly wise and judicious, knowing what we meant to do, not what we actually did, and fixing it pronto.

Sigh. Back to the drawing board, a.k.a bread board. And like love, the results were lovelier — and tastier — the second time around.

Good News Monday: Cooking During COVID

I can’t remember the last time we ate at a restaurant. By which I mean inside, not grabbing takeout. I’m all for cooking at home but it’s begun to feel a little, well, punitive.

So I was happy to read that being forced to cook more during lockdown has an upside: developing healthier eating habits, according to preliminary results from a worldwide Corona Cooking Survey.

11,000 people in 11 countries have weighed in, reporting fewer purchases of microwave foods and sweet or salty snacks. At the same time, consumers say they’re eating more fruits and veggies, wasting less food, and eating more leftovers.

“Consumption of salty, fat and sweet products usually goes up when people are under stress, but during the pandemic this heightened craving has been fulfilled in many countries with home-baked delicacies,” said Charlotte De Backer, chairman of FOOMS, a research group on food and media at U. Antwerp.

She probably didn’t mean this as a license to go crazy making endless batches of cookies but hey, the very act of baking is a terrific stress reliever. One takes solace where one finds it.

De Backer expects some of these new eating habits to outlast the pandemic, because the lockdowns have been longer than the six weeks it takes to form a new habit.

FOOMS posts updates on the Corona Cooking Survey research on their Facebook page, and anyone who’s interested in participating can take the survey on the U. Antwerp website.

If only I had a recipe for broccoli brownies.

COVID-19 Spending and Saving

Perhaps the only upside to what I call the “pandammit” is that I’m not shopping like a drunken socialite, to quote my friend S. Which doesn’t mean I’ve stopped shopping altogether; it’s more that I’m buying different things.

Big-ticket items flew out the window as life got simpler and our activities remain close to home. Meanwhile, entire categories (hello, hand sanitizer) became essentials. What a topsy-turvy world! (Google reports that the expression “may be an adaptation of the medieval verb ‘tirve’, meaning ‘to turn or to topple over’. It has also been suggested that ‘turvy’ is an allusion to ‘turf’ and that ‘topsy-turvy’ means ‘with one’s head on the turf’.”) 

Spending more

  • Amazon – miscellaneous household items, esp. hard to get stuff
  • Whole Foods delivery in the early months
  • Fresh fruits and veggies from farmers’ market and small specialty grocers
  • Cooking gadgets
  • Wine and booze – do you even have to ask why?
  • TV streaming services
  • Zoom membership
  • Books
  • Vitamins, supplements, acetaminophen PM
  • Face masks — whoever predicted one would need a wardrobe of these?!
  • Cute socks
  • Cleaning supplies
  • Fresh flowers to maintain sanity and illusion of elegant normalcy

Saving more

  • Makeup, especially lipstick – kind of pointless when wearing a mask, no?
  • Hair salon – spreading out appointments and doing trimming/touch-ups myself until desperate
  • Pedicures – My toes are not worth dying for
  • Restaurants
  • New clothes – to go where, exactly?
  • Travel
  • Cultural events/theatre/opera tix
  • Massages and facials (see pedicure)

Yep, things are definitely tirving these days.

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The Pandemic Ten

Remember the “freshman 15”, aka the pounds everyone seemed to gain their first year at college? It’s déjà vu all over again.

Back in the day, the culprits were pizza, beer (and/or weed), and nerve-wracking new experiences like late-night cramming and unprecedented freedom.

This is different, and not just because I’m older. Month after month of the same old, same old has led to inertia and tedium with a constant low hum of anxiety buzzing along underneath.

I don’t really care what the government is recommending… Dear Husband and I are staying put except for essential and unavoidable tasks. Since we can’t travel or eat out with friends, we’ve amused ourselves by cooking food from different cultures and pretending to be elsewhere. Unlike traveling, however, we are not burning calories by walking extra miles through cities, museums, and the like. Even my Fitbit is bored.  The result: packing on extra poundage like a wild animal in captivity.

Like many of you, I eat when I’m stressed even if I’m not physically hungry. And what I’ve realized, as my own little world keeps shrinking — while I’m not — is how many of my essential needs aren’t being met… which leads to stress… which leads to snacking.

  • Order and control. Toss this one right out the window. We have no idea when this will end and can’t do much about it except to continue social distancing and wearing a mask. Plus, staying informed is highly overrated when so much of the news is just plain sickening.
  • Anticipation. It’s hard to plan for a trip or special event when there’s nothing on the calendar.  And being worried about catching the virus en route does dim one’s enthusiasm.
  • Personal space.  If you’re someone who needs lots of alone time, a pandemic is not your friend.
  • Sleep. Stress and worry make sleep elusive, or fitful at best. Which in turn affects your body’s balance of the hunger hormones ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin stimulates appetite, while leptin decreases it. When the body is sleep-deprived, ghrelin levels spike, while the level of leptin falls, leading to an increase in hunger, especially for junk food. (I don’t know how it knows, but it does.)
  • Variety of experiences. When going to the grocery store is the weekly highlight, life’s a little blah no matter how nice your home or neighborhood is.

Anyway, it’s useful to know the triggers. Now I need to get serious about my action plan, as I refuse to buy a larger-size wardrobe. Who’s with me?

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Wistful Thinking

There are so many things I miss these days, from the prosaic to the profound.  Among them:

  • Free samples at Costco and Trader Joe’s
  • Visiting with my kids
  • Dinner out with friends
  • Responsible government leadership
  • A proper haircut
  • A decent pedicure
  • My group exercise class
  • Anxiety-free sleep
  • News that’s actually news
  • Space to roam
  • My waistline

But perhaps the one thing I miss most of all is the anticipation of upcoming travel.  For those of us who love a change of scenery — whether exotic or familiar — there is something deeply satisfying about planning a trip down to the last detail, while leaving lots of room for unexpected developments. (The good kind, not the “oh s*** I’m suddenly quarantined in a foreign country” kind.)

I’m enjoying vicarious adventures through other bloggers’ posts, but we all know it’s hardly the same.  Having cancelled our London trip planned for March, and now deciding not to play “beat the odds” with the trip to France we’d scheduled for this summer, I feel a bit adrift.

And wondering… what do YOU miss most these days?

airplane window view of airplane wing and clouds

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To Brie or Not to Brie

Armed with gloves, Purell and facemasks, we sallied forth this morning to explore the dangerous terrain of a grocery store.  Terra incognita for over a month, we’d finally caved to the need for items beyond Amazon’s ability to deliver.

First, a great deal of strategy was required.  The store needed to be overpriced and inconveniently located, so as to attract the fewest customers. The shopping list needed to be air tight, with no room for impulse buys or backtracking through aisles already traveled. All equipment needed to be checked in advance for pinholes through which sneaky microbes might invade. Sanitizer needed to be at the ready.  Ditto, credit card… no fumbling for cash.

Upon arrival, we spotted a few other intrepid souls, all great distances apart and moving cautiously.  We carefully stalked the produce section, standing well back to furtively scan the available items before plunging into the fray.  While no one seemed interested in artichokes, we did note a mysterious convergence in the imported cheese section.  Pasta was also dangerously populated and best avoided.

For approximately the price of a skydiving session, we completed our daring expedition and emerged triumphant with empty wallets and a full cart. I, for one, am exhausted by all this exertion and plan to take to my couch with the vapors.

As the famous Earl Nightingale quote has it: “Wherever there is danger, there lurks opportunity; whenever there is opportunity, there lurks danger.”  Hopefully, the crisis will be resolved soon.  There’s only so much excitement I can tolerate.

man standing on cliff

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Hot Stuff

I’m finding cooking to be a major antidote to boredom and anxiety during these trying times.  (Unfortunately, so is eating… but that’s a topic for another time.) Recently, our daughter B suggested I write about mustard. Can’t remember what prompted this, but here goes.

Did you know that mustard is one of the world’s oldest condiments? According to my “deep” Internet dive, the Romans used to grind mustard seeds with grape juice (called must) to create a spicy paste known as mustum ardens (“burning must”) in Latin. Travelers brought mustard seeds to Gaul, where they were planted in vineyards alongside the grapes. French monasteries cultivated and sold mustard as early as the ninth century, and the condiment was available in Paris by the 13th century.

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Very simply, mustard is a combination of the ground seeds of the mustard plant and some form of liquid such as water, vinegar, lemon juice, or wine. Different types of each create different varieties: some sweet, some spicy, some eye-wateringly hot. While the level of heat is mostly related to the style of seed—yellow seeds are mild, while brown and black seeds are spicier— it’s the liquid that activates their natural enzymes and determines a mustard’s potency.

These enzymes convert to mustard oil once the seed is broken. The more acidic the liquid, the longer lasting the burn will be; less acidic mustards tend to be quite pungent at first, but quickly lose their punch.

Generally low calorie, especially compared with condiments like mayonnaise, mustard also provides important nutrients. Mustard leaves contain significant amounts of calcium, vitamins A, C, K, and copper, while the seeds are rich in fiber, selenium, magnesium, and manganese.

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What follows is adapted from an article at spoonuniversity.com, which includes recipe suggestions.

YELLOW mustard (aka ballpark mustard) is the most basic. Made from yellow mustard seeds and vinegar, it gets its yellow color from turmeric. It’s one of the mildest types of mustard, popular on hot dogs and other sandwiches.  I think of it as “starter” mustard.

DIJON takes mustard to the next level. White wine is used instead of vinegar, and the seeds are brown rather than yellow.  This results in a complex flavor with more of a bite, perfect for salad dressing, potato salad, and sauces for fish and chicken.

SPICY BROWN mustard is made with coarsely-ground brown mustard seeds that offer more heat than classic yellow or Dijon, along with turmeric and a combination of spices such as allspice, ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Commonly found in delis, the warm flavor goes beautifully with meat.

Too tame? HORSERADISH MUSTARD packs even more heat.

HOT MUSTARD You’ll find this searingly hot mustard in most Chinese restaurants. What makes it so brutally strong is that brown or black mustard seeds are mixed with water. These seeds are naturally more pungent than yellow seeds, due to their alkaline nature. An acidic liquid– like the vinegar used in yellow mustard — would calm that natural heat, while water’s neutral ph lets it go roaring forth.  Your sinuses know what I’m talking about.

WHOLE GRAIN This is more of a manufacturing process than a type of mustard—as the name suggests, the seeds are essentially whole. Type of seeds and mixing liquid can vary, with most brands available in the store featuring brown mustard seeds mixed with white wine.  Expect a flavor similar to that of Dijon with a coarser texture that pairs well with cheese, potato salad, and sandwiches.

STONE GROUND mustard is the middle ground between smooth Dijon and the chewiness of whole grain. Most commonly, brown seeds are ground between two stones in the form of a mortar and pestle. This type of mustard is typically made with vinegar, and has a little more heat than yellow mustard with less spice than brown mustard.

HONEY MUSTARD is both sweet and tangy and works well in salad dressing, especially to soften the taste of bitter greens such as kale. You can whip some up yourself by mixing your mustard of choice with honey in a 1:1 ratio. Use half as much honey if you prefer less sweetness than commercial brands.

Do you have a favorite type? Or a recipe to share?

 

Good News Monday: Rotten Luck

Garbage: it’s not just for landfills anymore! A company in New York City has created an all-purpose cleaner made from 97% food waste plus 3% sustainably sourced natural fragrance. Lab tests indicate that it’s 99% effective at cleaning tough dirt from multiple surfaces.

Rather than adding water — which accounts for as much as 90% in most household cleaners — all the liquid in this product is directly derived from the recycled food waste.

And instead of a plastic spray bottle that might or might not get recycled, the product comes in a refillable aluminum bottle.

How’s that for cleaning up a mess?

woman standing holding chopping board

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