Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about health and “healthy food”. A friend posted this article from Vice on her Facebook a few days back and ever since I’ve seen it four or five times. It’s just in time for the annual summer Pinterest parade of “clean eating” exhortations and magazine promises of an instant bikini body. ‘Tis the season to obsessively police our food choices.
It’s exhausting to keep up with the ever changing list of what foods are considered healthy and which are not. I like to think that I eat relatively well. I don’t drink pop, don’t buy potato chips, and don’t like a wide variety of less nutritious foods, from deli meats to deviled eggs. I love vegetables and happily eat bowls of beans for snacks. But I also don’t juice, don’t spiralize, and eat a glorious array of gluten. And by the metrics of some clean-eating advocates that’s tantamount to poisoning my body.
In the aforementioned article there was this wise quote from the venerable Nigella Lawson. “I despair of the term ‘clean eating,'” she said, “though I actually like the food that comes under that banner. [‘Clean eating’] necessarily implies that any other form of eating—and consequently the eater of it—is dirty or impure and thus bad, and it’s not simply a way of shaming and persecuting others, but leads to that self-shaming and self-persecution that is forcibly detrimental to true healthy eating.”
It’s very true. Sometimes, though, it’s hard to opt out of this culture of self critique. The other day I was testing cookies at work. I work under a brilliant chef who does not like sweets, and so he outsources the bulk of dessert creation to a handful of line cooks. I’m one of them. He tells me what he wants and I make something that fits the parameters. I tinker, bring him what’s good, he critiques, I tinker again. It’s a system that works pretty well. He only has to try what’s good, and I get paid to play with dough. In this case he wanted an almond flour chocolate chip cookie with a particular chew, which led to me playing with a variety of flour ratios, proportions of brown to white sugar, fat content by butter verses fat content by egg, and baking time. And I had to test the results of all these cookies, so I ate the equivalent of three or four cookies over an eight hour shift. I then felt guilty for eating “all that sugar”.
Let me restate that again. I felt guilty for doing what I’m paid to do, and something that I truly enjoy- developing recipes- because I ate a handful of cookies. Cookies that had 10 grams of sugar each, or about 2 1/2 teaspoons. I don’t believe that’s a healthy amount to eat every day, but I don’t eat cookies every day. I felt guilty even though I know you can’t deprive your way to health, that nutrition is complex, and that while white sugar may not be the best thing you can eat it’s not the devil.
I like to go back to Michael Pollen’s brilliant mantra when I’m in this spin zone. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” It’s easy to remember, and doable. And it’s adaptable. No matter how much wellness blogs praise the avocado that doesn’t change the fact that here in the Midwest the cost routinely tops two dollars for a single avocado, which makes it an occasional treat for me rather than a dietary mainstay. So I don’t eat avocados often. I will, however, throw walnuts into everything and have an infinite variation of kale.
To point, I made this kale caesar salad for lunch the day that I ate those fateful cookies. It was a nice counterpoint- hearty and salty and luscious. The bitterness of the kale stands up nicely to the creamy, sharp dressing in a way that a more delicate green would not. It’s an excellent lunch salad. It’s hearty enough to keep me going for hours, but not so heavy that it feels like too much. I made it when Aaron had a coworker over. They both ate the salad as a side to brats, and I ate a big bowl of salad (with a side of tortilla chips and salsa). Between the three of us the bowl was swiped clean. I didn’t make it to be an apology for eating cookies. I made it because it’s delicious.
I think that’s the key to actual wellness- to take pleasure in more nutritious food, and to enjoy less nutritious food in a measured amount. There are some days that need a bowl of fresh strawberries, and some days that need a leisurely walk for to the local ice cream shop for a scoop of ice cream. That it’s probably wise to do the former more often, but there’s no shame or guilt in indulging in the later.
Kale Caesar Salad
A microplane will be your best friend with this recipe. They’re commonly used to grate citrus zest, hard cheese, and nutmeg, but it’s also the fastest and cleanest way I know to make garlic paste. If you don’t have a microplane or a very small grater, you could mince the garlic or pound it into a paste. I like this salad best with pecorino romano, but if you can’t find it parmesan would be a happy substitute. Because this dressing uses a whole egg, it will only keep for a few days in the refrigerator, so as be generous with the dressing as you want.
dressing proportions inspired by Judy Rodgers’ via Orangette
6 ounces sourdough bread, sliced and torn into bite sized pieces
2 cloves of garlic, microplaned
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon dark miso
1/2 teaspoon dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
2 cloves of garlic, microplaned
juice of 1 lemon
1/3 cup olive oil
1/4 cup finely grated (or microplaned) pecorino romano
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 or 2 bunches of lacinato kale, spines removed and leaves torn
pecorino romano, for shaving
Preheat the oven to 350. Place the torn sourdough pieces in a large bowl. In a small saucepan melt together the butter and the garlic. Pour over the sourdough pieces and toss well to evenly combine. Pour out onto a cookie sheet and bake in the oven for 16 minutes, tossing the croutons halfway. When the croutons are finished they should be dark around the edges and golden, and smell of toasted garlic. Set aside.
In a small bowl combine the red wine vinegar, miso, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, garlic, lemon juice, and olive oil. Mix well. Add the egg, cheese, salt and pepper and mix well. Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary.
In a salad bowl top the kale with the caesar dressing. Massage the dressing into the kale, making sure to toss the leaves well. Set aside for a bit so the dressing can permeate the leaves of the kale.
Top the salad with the croutons and shavings of pecorino romano. Toss well and eat.