Coffee with bagel

The (J)Oy! of Bagels

Eating clean. It’s been real, it’s been fun, and it’s been real fun. It’s also been adventurous. Recently, in my committed attempt to eat bagels that do not have additives (like derivatives of human hair in them – blah!), I decided to make my own bagels from scratch.

The idea came to me when I had stopped in my neighborhood bagel shop and saw that a single bagel cost a whopping $1.30! That meant that a dozen bagels would cost me well over a dozen dollars (even with the price break you usually get by buying a dozen of anything), and I had a hard time forking over so much money for something that was made with flour (cheap) and water (really cheap). But, there was no going back to the  store-bought, 12-for-$5 bulk bagels either. So in a flash of genius (or maybe sleep deprived delirium?), I decided I would cut out the middle man and make the bagels myself.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I love New York style bagels. There’s just something about their chewiness that makes them so much better than the lighter, airy bagels out there (sorry Montreal bagel lovers!). So I decided to try out a recipe for chewy, New York style bagels (which I found here).

Having baked bread before, I knew that I would need to allow ample time for the dough to rise (Read: This will be a multi-hour process). However, what I didn’t account for were the many steps involved in the bagel baking process, which also included shaping the bagels and boiling them.

Now don’t get me wrong here, boiling bagels takes like a whopping 5 minutes once you have the water going. That wasn’t too bad. But where the real added time comes in in cleaning up all the mess that comes from boiling bagels (where do you put a dozen wet bagels once you take them out of the pot?) and sprinkling on sesame seeds (“nature’s confetti”) … which makes a mess that is really <insert-adjective-of-choice> to clean up.

All that by itself would have been okay, but I had no idea how to then bake the bagels to get the flat bottom and nicely rounded top. Do you bake them upside down and then turn them over halfway or is it the other way around? Or, maybe you just leave them as is and hope they bake evenly? “Hmm…These are questions the neighborhood bagel baker who charges $1.30 per bagel would know the answers to…”

In any case, I made a few guesses and a big mess and ended up with deliciously chewy, albeit misshapen, bagels. I’ve never felt prouder eating an uglier piece of bread in my life.

At the end of my bagel-baking adventure, I had delicious, “clean” home-made bagels that cost me a couple bucks (and a lot of sweat equity) to produce. And more importantly, I held the neighborhood bagel baker (and his prices) in much higher esteem. Maybe $1.30 for a bagel ain’t so bad after all!

Shopping Clean: On Buying Real Food

In one of my previous posts, I shared with you my horror of learning about what I was actually putting onto my family’s plates: processed human hair. Gross!

Now that I have removed the offending “not-food” from my pantry, I have to ensure that when I shop, I shop clean and buy real food.

Now, I don’t know what your shopping routine is like, but mine is highly unpredictable, which can make it stressful at times. No, I’m not talking about impulse buys of ice-cream  at the grocery store (although I am definitely guilty of those!); I am talking about corralling preschoolers in a grocery store during the late afternoon when everyone’s energy levels are all over the place (Read: All I want is a nap) while I attempt to get through a grocery list quick enough to be able to have enough ingredients on hand to make something healthy and yummy for my family to eat. Some days this experience is amazing – my kids act like little angels, help me find items off my shopping list, take turns pushing the cart, and ask me to buy broccoli (for reals). And some days … well, let’s just say some very nice strangers come over to me to give me very kind words of encouragement (Thank you grocery store angels!).

In any case, I need some kind of quick and dirty way of figuring out whether an item is real food or just a poser, and I need to be able to figure it out while keeping preschoolers entertained and somewhere near my cart. This means I need to be able to evaluate a food in less than 15 seconds. To do that, I have developed a mental cheat sheet to help cut down on time. I’ve been working on this over the past few weeks and have found that over time, it has become easier and more automatic to choose foods that don’t have artificial preservatives, colors, additives, and flavors in them. Here are my tips in no particular order:

  1. Shop at places where it is easy to find clean food. I have found that I can drastically cut the amount of time I spend selecting food if I shop at places where clean, minimally processed food is abundant. For example, I have found that independent bakeries, natural foods stores, and farmer’s markets often (but not always!) have pre-made food that is fresh, made from real ingredients, and tastes really good.
  2. Restructure your grocery list so that the bulk of your food is unprocessed. For example, instead of buying a frozen chicken teriyaki dinner entree, buy chicken, fresh veggies (pre-cut if you want to spend extra to save on prep time), and a sauce (or make your own!). You’ll still have to read the ingredient label on the sauce, but at least you will know the chicken and veggies are fresh and unprocessed (plus you have more freedom over deciding which veggies and cuts of meat go into your food). Unprocessed foods that require little or no label reading include all the following:
    • Fresh fruits and veggies
    • Fresh cuts of meat
    • Dairy (milk and eggs).
    • Dried or milled foods (whole grains, dried fruits, beans, legumes)
  3. Read no more than 5-10 food labels during each grocery store trip. Yes, you will need to read labels to find out which foods are the real deal and which are posers. However, there is no reason to force yourself to read all of them in one trip. Decide which dishes you will “clean” ahead of time (Your favorite casserole? Stir fry? Pasta?) and then read labels for that type of food during that particular grocery store trip. The good news is that once you have found a clean substitute, you won’t need to read the labels again. The new brand will become your “go-to” brand (and who knows, it might taste better too!).
  4. Spend less than 15 seconds looking at a label. I don’t read food labels, I scan them looking for problematic ingredients. Here are some tricks I have to speed up reading labels:
    • Are there any ingredients I cannot visualize? …coconut milk…carrageenan… (“WTF does carrageenan look like?). Stop. Food goes back on the shelf.
    • Are there any ingredients my toddler cannot pronounce? …milk…calcium propionate…(“Pro-PIE-on-ate? PRO-pee-on-ate?”) All I know is I am not eating it.
    • Are there any acronyms in the food list? …chicken … PDMS… (“Is that like PMS???”) Doesn’t sound like a food. Out it goes!
    • Are there too many ingredients in this label for what it is? I know from cooking that pasta sauce has a handful of ingredients: tomatoes, olive oil, garlic/onions, and spices. If the label of the basic pasta sauce I am looking at has 2-3 times as many ingredients, it goes back on the shelf.
    • Is sugar one of the top 3 ingredients? I love sugar, but sugar should not be the star when it comes to my plate. For much of human history, refined sugar was not used in food plus it’s consumption been linked to health problems. Do yourself a favor and avoid foods that have sugar towards the top of the ingredient list (which means it makes up the bulk of what you are eating). My one exception: Treats or condiments that are supposed to be sugary (like cookies or jams).
    • If 15 seconds have passed and I am still reading the ingredients label, the food goes back on the shelf.
  5. Avoid Poser Foods. Want to drink milk that isn’t from a cow or goat? Want to eat cheese that is low (or no) fat or meat that isn’t from animals? Poser foods like these often have additives in them to make them have the consistency, aroma, or appearance of whatever real food they are imitating but with a lot less nutritional substance. If you really want the taste and texture of milk without buying the real thing, be prepared to spend a good chunk of time reading the labels of competing brands. Or spend that time googling a DIY recipe for it. Your homemade version might taste better than the store-bought one (or it might not), but at least you will know what went in it (and possibly have a funny story to tell about your epic cooking failure if your version doesn’t turn out so well).
  6. Buy items that don’t have packaging. Fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, meats, beans, etc. are exactly what they are and don’t come in packages. In addition to knowing you are buying a real whole food, you will also save time not having to read labels or un-package food. Plus, you can feel good knowing that you are reducing your waste by purchasing food that doesn’t have any packaging that needs to be recycled or left in a landfill to rot over the next several decades.

Cleaning Pantry

Hello again! It’s been a while since I last posted. Due to the California deluge, many people have been indoors most of the time, which has resulted in everyone in my family taking turns getting sick multiple times (including yours truly). I guess we are just really good at sharing. Maybe I should cut back on the “sharing is good” lecture I give my kids whenever there is a quarrel or just add in a caveat…hmm…

In any case, I am still scarred from eating hairy bagels and have been working on cleaning my pantry. This task has been surprisingly easy and difficult simultaneously. It’s been easy in that now I read the list of ingredients on everything that comes in a box, bag, jar, or can. If there is an ingredient on the list that I can’t picture in my mind (WTF is ‘palm stearin‘???), then out it goes.

Reading ingredient labels is simple and surprisingly quick since once you rule out an item, you never have to re-read the label again. However, I have found that once I determine a food is on the no-go list, I am faced with an ethical dilemma:

Is it better to eat this bag of not-food-posing-as-food (shudder) or to throw it out (shudder)?

While standing in my kitchen deciding the fate of the box of faux-food that is in my hands, I am instantly transported back to family dinners decades ago. There I am sitting at the table staring at the overcooked, slimy spinach on my plate, and hearing my father lecture me about world hunger: “There are children starving right now who would love to have the privilege of eating this.” Silent and blinking, I am staring down at the shiny, smelly green mess on my plate wondering why anyone would want to eat it, while also wondering if there were a way to somehow invite this figurative person over for dinner so they could finish the food on my plate…

And we are back. It’s 2017, and here I am holding the not-food instant soup mix in my hand. It’s an open container, which means I cannot send it to my local food bank. And, I am hearing my father’s voice in my head “There are children starving right now who would love to have the privilege of eating this.“… I decide to punt and put the box back into the pantry for now.

I tell my husband, who is a full-on pragmatist, about my dilemma and he suggests we eat through whatever we already have and then stop buying it. We’ve eaten it before so why not just finish it out? Makes complete sense. However, once you know something, it is very hard to un-know it. So now when I see the marked boxes, cans, and jars of not-food, I can’t actually bring myself to eat them. So I try to punt again – I’ll just let (make?) my preschoolers eat the “berry” cereal they love that has additives in it to make the berries look nice and red. However, guilt sets in as I watch them eating it. Little kids can get really sick from things that minimally affect adults (think viruses, contaminants, and so on), so why am letting them shove additives and not-really-healthy (or fruity) food into their faces when I can just find a substitute?

After a few guilt-inducing meals, I decide to chuck all opened not-food “food” packages with one important caveat: If my pragmatic husband will willingly prepare and eat the food himself until it’s completely gone, then it gets to stay.

I go through my pantry and put all the not-food into the compost and all of its packaging into the recycling. Guilt assuaged; pantry cleaned. Done and done.

 

Taking the Leap: Saying “No” to Hairy Bagels

I was buying a bag of freshly baked bagels from a store the other day when I decided to flip over the package and read the ingredients. I had recently read some of Michael Pollan’s books on “real food” verses “processed food” and was pretty confident that these freshly baked bagels were fine. That is until I noticed that the bagels in the bag in my hand seemed unusually soft and pliable today. Maybe I just happened to pick them up right after they were baked? Upon reading the ingredients, I found several I didn’t recognize. Ahh, it’s fine, I told myself. These are probably just fancy names for baking soda or something.

Well, the curiosity hung on and after I had made myself and my family a few delicious toasty bagels at home, I decided to play a form of Russian Roulette and randomly google one of the mysterious ingredients; L-Cysteine was the winner.

I figured it would be pretty boring since I assumed that it was some kind of amino acid (trying to remember biology from high school). Turned out I was right. Except I found out something highly disturbing that I wasn’t expecting: the source of this additive could be duck feathers or … human hair! Given that this amino acid is most abundant in human hair (which means it is also probably the cheapest way of manufacturing it) and that human hair is very inexpensive to procure in Asia, one can safely presume that I had been happily scarfing down hair clippings from the other side of the world for several weeks. BLAAAARRGH! Fast forward to me throwing out the rest of my bagel and feeling like I had just eaten a hairball – actually many hairballs; who knows, maybe I had done the equivalent of licking a salon floor post hair cut. I texted my sister, who is a medical school student, to inform her of my horrifying discovery, who reassured me it wasn’t human hair at that point and “That [it is] like saying eating veggies is the same as eating sh*t.” Thanks, Sis, for making me feel so much better.

To make matters worse, I am pregnant, so this whole I-think-I-am-eating-bagels-but-really-I-am-eating-Chinese-hair-clippings episode really threw me for a loop; what was I supposed to eat if freshly baked, FDA approved store bagels had completely bizarre, non-food ingredients in them? Did anyone know what effect (if any) these “approved” additives and preservatives had on unborn children?

I decided I wouldn’t wait for science to determine whether this was the new margarine or not (“Hey this is totally fine, just eat it. Oops, causes heart disease. My bad. Guess you should have just downed the butter. Oh well!”). I decided to quit processed food cold turkey.

And so I am. It just so happens that this coincides with New Years, which makes me hesitate to say “This year, I am opting out of all non-food ‘food'” mostly because I don’t like New Years Resolutions (so much pressure, so little follow through). But, this time I decided to interpret this as a nice coincidence that meant that I had a whole year of clean, non-hairy eating in front of me. That and learning how to cook and substitute out boxed goods.

So join me on my quest to nix the packaged and boxed items while attempting to juggle work, family, and home (possibly in that order).

PS – Don’t believe me on the human hair because it is just so disgusting? Check it out (along with other horrifying additive sources) here.