Monday, June 25, 2012

The Almond Brothers Live at the Backyard Garden

We've been living in a rental house for nearly a year now. This comes after living in a house we owned (well, along with the bank, of course) for nearly 4 years. During those years I managed to put together a vegetable garden, of varying degrees, every year. Denver, where our house is (we are currently absentee landlords, as it is being rented) is a relatively difficult place to grow a vegetable garden -- especially compared to northern, coastal California. In Denver, most plants are only safe after Memorial Day, as this is the historic place marker for frosts and freezing temperatures. Of course, rain never comes in gentle showers on the front range, and often, during the summer, if a torrential downpour isn't passing overhead, precipitation comes in the form of hail storms, which can not only destroy tomato plants (as I witnessed a few years ago) but reek havoc in general. Hopefully, Old Man Winter waits around until the end of September before visiting the Mile High City, but this is nothing that one can bank on either, meaning that a three month growing window is all one gets in Denver.

The Denver garden in various stages
This is a stark contrast to our little rented plot of land, just north of San Francisco, where we have citrus trees right outside our windows, which of course, mature in the winter. We also moved into a home where the owners had left us with a opulent and generous vegetable garden, one that kept providing bounty well into December. The jalapeno peppers and brussel sprouts kept producing well past the point where single digits nights were the norm in Denver.

Now, with the summer only being a few days old, I have had the meager (relatively speaking) vegetable plants in the ground for nearly a month, and for the most part they are growing like weeds -- no wait, the weeds are still growing like weeds, but my plants, nevertheless, are growing.

The garden and backyard with fruit trees in California

I've got 5 basil plants, with 4 different varieties. There are 3 tomato plants, a jalepeno, habenero and bell pepper plant along with a cilantro plant. These are all in the upper plot, in full sun. It's not the prettiest chunk of land, and I won't be spreading mulch around, but I think it will produce, if the past week is any indication.

Okay. Basil is one of my favorite things. I use it generously in many dishes, and to have multiple plants producing one tasty leaf after another is the primary goal of even having a garden. And basil, the Bilderberg group of my garden, is the inspiration of what I am making for dinner tonight.

I love basil in all forms, that is to say, that I've never had basil that I've not liked. Hopefully, this track record will not be broken tonight.

Whatever protein a meal features, it is almost always the star of the meal. That will change tonight, instead it will have a costarring role, along side the home-made almond basil pesto, in it's debut performance.

In an effort to create the best, low carbohydrate meals that I can, I decided to use almonds versus pinenuts (the "nut" component in a traditional pesto), or pistachios, which I will try in the near future, as pistachio basil pesto sounds ridiculously delicious. I don't eschew all carbohydrates, especially since I'm currently training for a half-marathon, but I am conscious of limiting them, especially when it is easy to do.

Almond Basil Pesto:

  • 1.75 cups of raw almonds
  • 2.25 packed cups of fresh basil (I used 3 different basil varieties, but this may not be available)
  • 5 large cloves of fresh garlic
  • 1 cup of olive oil
  • 0.5 fresh lemon, squeezed
  • 1 cup fresh Parmesan cheese, grated
  • .75 teaspoon salt
  • 0.5 cup water (used because I only have a blender, not a food processor)
I toasted the almonds in the toaster oven, for 8 minutes, on broil. It took some effort, because I used a blender to gain proper consistency of the pesto, but some patience with a wooden spoon overcomes all. Also, because I left the skin of the almonds on, the pesto is somewhat "browner" than I was expecting, in that it almost looks like a salsa (which I also love to make fresh) but if I remember anything from elementary school, it is that green and brown mixed together make a greenish brown.

I know I made couscous just couple of posts ago. And, I'm gonna use it again -- except this time with a twist in that I pureed some herbs and garlic to mix in. Here is the recipe behind it. 

Green Couscous:
  • 0.5 cup fresh chives
  • 0.5 cup fresh parsley
  • 0.25 cup fresh basil
  • 2 large cloves of fresh garlic
  • 0.25 cup water, added to the blender
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 0.75 water, added at the end
I use instant couscous, and it calls for a one to one ratio for grain and water. So, with all the above brought to a boil, I take the pan off the heat and stir in the couscous. It turns green. Like the hulk. 

I would've loved to have gotten some fantastic cut of meat for this dish, perhaps some lamb shank or something and grilled it, but part of my desire in writing this blog is to demonstrate that, within in a reasonable budget, can be had fantastic, healthy food. So, one of the staples around our house is Costco brand frozen, individually wrapped chicken breasts. Easy, and relatively healthy. I'd love to say that they are free range, organic, locally grown chickens, but alas. I did want to do something a little more fancy than just grill or broil some chicken, so I decided to "bread" them with almonds, cheese and spices and then bake them. Components:

Almond Breaded Baked Chicken Breast:
  • 2 chicken breasts
  • 0.5 cup raw almonds
  • 0.25 fresh Parmesan cheese, grated
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tablespoon Hungarian paprika
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon pepper

So, as you can see in the action shots (photo credits go to the wife here), one just tries to dry the chicken as best as possible, and then dip it in the yellow snot that is a scrambled egg. I then tried to hang as much of the almond/cheese gravel as I could on the chicken before baking it. During baking, when I flipped the chicken I used the leftover almond/cheese mixture to sprinkle on top of the chicken, as it had gotten kind of pasty. I'm looking for a crispy chicken breast, after all! I baked the chicken for 35 minutes, before finishing it off with roughly 5 minutes of high broil, in an effort to achieve maximum crispiness.

My wife says that she would've preferred to have the chicken breast stuffed with the pesto, instead of just plopped on the plate, free to be used how the eater sees fit. Seeing as how the last two dinner posts were stuffing-centric, there was no way I was gonna stuff anything with this meal, but I can appreciate where she is coming from.

If nothing else, this is a flavor packed meal. The chicken is spicy, and the cheese comes through just as I was hoping. The couscous is really good -- the only thing I would do differently is make sure that Trader Joes had taragon in stock, which they did not, or else have my own herb garden up to speed, which I do not. The pesto is surprisingly good, and I am glad that I have 4 or so cups sitting in the fridge. I was, as stated above, a tad apprehensive about the almonds, but they turned out well. I often reached a good balance with the garlic concentration as well, as often I tend to add too much garlic. The couscous (which, with the recipe I provided could serve 4 people, not just 2) is well "garlic-ed" and the pesto is not garlic heavy at all.

Update: The pesto has sat in the fridge overnight, and has had an opportunity to "set" and I'm contemplating adding some more oil and stirring it in, as it's consistency is less like any pesto that I've had but more like an olive tapenade spread. But this is okay, and most likely we'll just use it as it is, and I don't foresee it languishing, unused in the refrigerator for very long, in that we will eat it all soon enough.

Overall grade: A-

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Caution! This soap box is only able to support one overweight, aspiring physician.

Even though the Supreme Court ruling on the PPACA (erroneously referred to as ObamaCare, even though it is a re-hash of what the Republican Party offered as an alternative to what Hillary Clinton put together and proposed for health care reform in the 1990's, and furthermore the "individual mandate" was an idea trumpeted by Gingrich and the Heritage Foundation as a way to kill medicaid) wasn't released yesterday, I wanted to share my latest feelings on the subject. 

My personal (albeit a pipe-dream) hope is that the PPACA is struck down, and in the aftermath, congress would rally and pass an intelligent, well thought out modified single payer system -- one that would be in place by the time I am practicing medicine.*

Here is my reasoning behind that hope. 

Right now, those of us with private health insurance are already at the mercy of "death panels." That's right! I spent years in the emergency department watching this scenario play out. If a life threatening trauma or illness would befall anyone with private insurance, the company responsible for paying for your care is run by a CEO and board of directors that is bound by law to do everything in his power to generate the largest margin of profit, ever larger, every single successive quarter. 

Hmmm. That doesn't sound like a good situation. 

The alternative is to rely on the government, or at least a quasi-governmental institution to provide payment for services rendered. 

But wait, I don't like bureaucratic red tape! I don't even like going to the DMV!

There will be problems! 

It will be inefficient!

The employees will probably be lazy and take advantage of working for the government!

Absolutely, all of the above will occur. How could it not?

Hmmm. That doesn't sound like a good situation either. 

Well, I agree. But it is better than having a share holder return dictating access to health care.

We will always have to deal with cost to benefit ratios in health care -- increasingly so as technology and expensive research continues to bring better, but more costly care. 

Allstate Insurance, in the last decade showed the way, as you can read in this damning report, for all other insurance companies. Granted, this is not specifically discussing health insurance, but don't be fooled in thinking that the healthcare industry is run by benevolent masters isolated from the insurance business as a whole. 

For those of you who dislike the current health care bill, I behoove you to examine what the lies at the root of your disdain. This is not to say there are not valid criticisms concerning the bill, but I don't think the issue lies where the fuss is the loudest. When the hot air from the talking heads is eliminated from the discussion, and personal political bias takes a back seat, let us at least agree that things as they currently stand are at best unsustainable, and at worst, amounts to your impending, unforseen bankruptcy. In defense of what could seem like hyperbole: this from the article -- "medical bills contributed to nearly two thirds, or 62 percent, of all bankruptcies in 2007 and just over three-quarters of people who suffered a bankruptcy due to illness were insured at the onset of their health issue."

I feel compelled to address, at least in general, my opinion on what the role of the federal government should be.

First, the things that I want from my government.

  • Infrastructure. Including, in part, utilities and transportation (safety and physical structures)
  • Military protection from foreign hostile actions (not private profiteering in the name of nation building, as we've seen for more than a decade now)
  • Police protection & law enforcement (including, as silly as it sounds, justice for all, regardless of the bank account size)
  • Appropriate business climate (what this exactly means is up for legitimate debate. I would argue this does not mean tax holidays for companies that have built their business with the infrastructure that taxpayers of today, and yesteryear have paid for)
  • A tax code that does not require professional assistance to interpret or plumb the depths of (or for that matter, even software)
  • Reasonable access to health care
Now, the things I do not want from my government.
  • Laws concerning what I can say, think or express
  • Laws concerning what I can put in my body
  • Laws concerning who can marry who (for those who fear for the institution of marriage, especially in the name of religion, I respond by saying I want no part of legislating morality, and denying the benefits that come with state sanctioned marriage due to a "sin" only further highlights my reluctance with having government involved; afterall, "a sin is a sin," and if we maintain this logic with honest consistency, gluttons should also come under lawful punishment -- also, I make a stark distinction between state sanctioned unions and those wed under whatever religious auspice any given person adheres to)
  • Laws or regulations that in any way infringe on personal liberty in the name of safety (I'm looking at you TSA!)
These are just the short list, and what I've listed is heavily influenced by the "hot" issues of the moment.  

As this post stands, I had to struggle to achieve this level of brevity. 

*I also wanted to make the distinction between a single payer system and the nationalization of health care, as some (especially in the media) have not been able, or perhaps, more appropriately, unwilling, to make that distinction. I am not advocating for the nationalization of healthcare -- I don't want to have to be a government employee just to practice medicine in the United States. In fact, I think marrying the private sector efficiency and innovation of health care facilities and clinicians with a single payer, government backed or operated system is as American as apple pie -- or, perhaps as American as diabetes would be more appropriate. 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Why did the chicken cross the road? I'm on a boat.

I love grilled pineapple. This week I thought about how I wanted to incorporate pineapple into a meal that was a little more than the canned pineapple ring thrown on a barbie. I looked around the internet. In fact, even my favorite food related site had nothing to offer in the way of the level of grilled pineapple that I was seeking. I found many recipes that featured meat stuffed with pineapple, but nothing with pineapple stuffed with meat!

Last week I stuffed pork with bacon and cheese. This week, I'm gonna stuff pineapple with chicken and onions and wrap it in bacon. 

This recipe is perfect for four people. Here is the ingredients list. 

-2 large pineapples
-1.5 large yellow onions
-0.5 cup brocoli
-21 Asparagus spears
-3 Chicken breasts
-9 slices thick sliced bacon
- .75 cup balsamic vinegar
-3 sprigs rosemary
-2 tblspns honey
-1.5 cup couscous
-0.5 tblspn chicken bouillon
-2 tblspn olive oil
-18 toothpicks (not for eating, unless you are entertaining termites)

I was planning on cooking this dinner yesterday, and had planned on a  24 hour marinade of the chicken breasts in a balsamic vinegar reduction sauce. First things first, a balsamic reduction sauce is so lovely -- it is versatile, and depending on what one is using it for, minor ingredient adjustments makes for a drastically different sauce -- it is easy to go savory or sweet. I started with 3/4 of a cup and 3 whole sprigs of fresh rosemary, over high heat in a medium sauce pan. I brought this all to a boil, and only then did I add the honey. Interestingly enough, I've been reading lately that honey doesn't have the allergen fighting power that I have long heard it does. That said, one should still by from local producers when possible. I turned down the heat to a low-medium and let it simmer for nearly an hour. At this time, I had a viscous and sweet sauce left in the pan. I poured the sauce over the three chicken breasts while hot, but there could be an argument made for letting the sauce cool down before marinating the chicken. That sat in the refrigerator for 48 hours, as dinner was pushed back a day. 

I had a couple of days to try and conceptualize how I was going to engineer the stuffing and maintenance of the stuffing of the pineapple. 

Idea #1: Halve the pineapple, core it, slice the rind off, stuff the pineapple and then tie the halves together with twine. Bacon would be attached to pineapple with toothpicks.

Idea #2: Halve the pineapple, core it, slice the rind off, try and attach the pineapple together with toothpicks that will also attach the bacon.

As can be seen from the photo below, wrapping the pineapple with bacon and keeping the two halves together proved difficult, especially considering that I would need to flip over the whole contraption while on the grill, dripping with hot, juicy goodness. 

 Idea #3: By virtue of necessity, I decided upon "pineapple boats" instead of a complete stuffed pineapple. This worked okay. 

Before I started to slice the pineapple, I began to carmelize the onions and broccoli. I used to 2 tablespoons of olive oil and also a good portion of the balsamic reduction sauce from the chicken marinade. When that began to smoke I added the julienned onions and finely chopped broccoli. This sat on a medium-high heat for 30 minutes or so before I added the chopped chicken to the mix. After adding the chicken, it didn't take long to cook through. As you can see from the photos, I just piled as much of the mixture as I could into the pineapple half, and then secured the bacon strips as best I could. 

The grill was hot, and the boats were ready to go. The asparagus was oiled, salted and peppered. I also sprinkled a little balsamic vinegar on them, as I felt it was necessary to spread the acetic acid to all involved parties. 

I would love to own a smoker. However, if I didn't know better, I would have thought that I was using a smoker tonight (sorry neighbors!) This is really no surprise, considering that there was pineapple juice, bacon grease, asparagus oil and leaking stuffing ooze all dripping down onto the coals. When I used to roast coffee for a living, there were multiple times that the fire department arrived, having been called by a passer-by seeing all the smoke, ready to put out the flames. For all of you out there who are considering starting a coffee roasting business, all I can say is that you had better become friends with the local FD. Send them away with bags of coffee and drinks -- at least then they aren't pissed at having to suit up and come out for nothing. 

Couscous is one of my favorite grains. It is quick and easy, and very much tasty. I added some chicken bouillon to the couscous tonight, as I wasn't planning on adding a sauce, although, a balsamic reduction sauce may have been perfect here.

Initially, my wife and I were having two dinner guests, but, one was not able to make, leaving only three. This was good only in that I ruined one of the pineapple halves. This is why there are only three on the grill. 

The finished, plated product, with an expectant, scrap hungry dog ready and waiting:

Gratuitous Food Porn shot:

I was pleased with how this turned out. 

Overall grade: A-

Sunday, June 10, 2012

This one is for you, Andy. Pork on pork action, stuffed with cheese. I hope this makes you proud!

Many of my fellow students are living on student loans alone, which is tough. Thankfully, my wife is gainfully employed (with great benefits to boot) which means that, while some aspects of our life resemble that of a broke graduate student's, we are afforded some luxuries. And, what does luxury mean to us? Costco: the western hemisphere's shining temple of bulk savings, with the modern gilding of naked cantilevered I-beams and glossy concrete floors, where wild fork-lifts roam and the worshipers wait patiently for the sample lady and then for the validating highlighter mark before returning to the harsh world.

Today, during our bi-monthly trek to pay our respects we came home with a pork sirloin tip roast, which is what tonight's meal will feature. In general, I prefer to cook cuts of meat on the grill, but certainly a pork sirloin tip roast does not demand a grill (perhaps, like a beef sirloin steak might) but since the temperature today was in the mid-nineties, grilling it will be.

Since I'm dealing with a nerf football sized chunk of meat, I'm going to take some special precautions with the barbecue's setup, the most important of them being piling up the briquettes on one side, while the meat sits on the opposite side. This will help provide a more even cook, with non-direct heat.

At first, I contemplated butterfly cutting the pork and then stuffing it, however, upon further review, I had no twine available. So, I just took a knife and tried to make slices down through the center, which seemed to work well. My stuffing consists of: 2 slices of smoked gouda, fresh basil (from the garden) and fresh rosemary with nearly 4 tablespoons of chopped garlic. I also added 3 slices of thick sliced apple wood smoked bacon. I managed to get it all in.

The pork is almost ready to grill. I wasn't initially planning on doing this, but with a pan full of hot and tasty bacon grease I decided to use that instead of olive oil for my wet rub base. So, I added about 2 tablespoons of garlic, along with a generous pinch of basil and rosemary to the grease and smeared it all over the pork. Now it is ready to go.

A rough estimate for the pork is 20 minutes per pound, and this roast was a little over two pounds. Halfway through the grilling process, I use the rest of the bacon grease and friends, after all, I don't want to rely on a mere three slices of bacon to maintain (and the quarter cup of bacon grease) the bacon-ness of a bacon stuffed pork roast.

The local Trader Joes  has had great local corn for the past few weeks, so I was looking forward to grilling some corn on the cob. Unfortunately, we are not only out of twine, but tin foil as well. Even though putting the corn in the foil with butter and salt and pepper is my favored way of cooking corn. Tonight, I considered keeping the husk on, but I decided to just grill it naked, add butter and seasoning afterward. The corn definitely was not the star of this meal, but my wife and I both ate it.

Now, final verdict from the wife: "A different cheese, such as swiss would be better next time. A wrap of bacon around the outside would be better than stuffing it. However, I would have still stuffed the inside with the garlic, herbs and cheese. Nevertheless, it was very delicious and I ate all that I was given."

Of course, those that know me will not be surprised at all that I am my harshest critic. I won't make this exact dish ever again. I like all the components, and will incorporate all the elements, in some way, only not in this incarnation. The largest issue, in my mind, is that I used raw garlic, and too much of it. I was seriously considering roasting garlic cloves in olive oil in the oven and using that instead of raw chopped garlic, and now, I wish I had. I also agree with my wife that a harder cheese, such as swiss or even provolone would have been a better choice. I also wish that I would have ensured that I had serviceable twine, so I could have properly stuffed the meat. As it stood, I did think that I did a good job making sure that the stuffing was in a good position to be in every slice of meat.

I would like to start pairing wine, or beer with my meals, but since I'm currently training for a half-marathon I'm drinking very little. However, an ice cold glass of water (no ice) complemented this dish well.

Overall grade: B-

Saturday, June 9, 2012

At least the kitchen is not proving to hot for me

I've been away for a long time. Away from writing on this blog.

Numerous reasons are at fault, struggles with school not being the least of them.

However, summer is here and, even though I am still focused and excited to write about all things medicine, I want to take a few months to explore a passion of mine that has been semi-dormant for too long.


I love food, perhaps more importantly, I love eating food. A current BMI of >30 (but dropping) can attest to this, unfortunately.

In the year prior to beginning medical school I ran in two half-marathons, worked full time as a coffee roaster and was, in general, very good shape. Six months of school, well, to be fair, the manner in which I dealt with the first six months of school left me in significant worse health. I was eating poorly. I took to drinking soda pop, which I hadn't done on a regular basis since I was a teenager. That, coupled with being more sedentary than I have ever been in my entire life left me needing to come up with a better way to deal with stress.

So, what I've decided to do is, among many other things, spend this summer perfecting and creating dishes that I already know and love and working with those that I've always wanted to make.

There is another component to my ambition. One that is rooted in more than stuffing my face, but is intimately related to the general stuffing of faces -- eating healthy.

Here is what you won't get from me. I don't think (and more importantly, I know why I think this and can provide sources to back my sh*t up) that animal fats are to blame for obesity, nor is dietary cholesterol linked as tightly to serum cholesterol as the makers of statins would like us to think. I do think that butter not only tastes better than margarine, but is more than marginally better for you than margarine, as well.  I can go on and on, (and trust me, I will) but I don't want to boil over in my first new blog post.

Obviously, ants are not the target demographic for margarine manufacture's marketing campaigns. 

I plan on coming up with a meal tomorrow night that I will document from beginning to end, including the cost, time involved with preparation and most importantly, whether my wife likes it or not. I almost said that our dog would like anything I could make, but that is actually not the truth. She is more picky than many humans that I've met. She doesn't like olives, she eats around the skin of zucchini squash, and last night she decided that she doesn't like gummy bears! Oh well, considering she likes to lick her own crotch, I won't take it too personally.

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