Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Make mine REAL meat, thanks


Tor Hassell is grilling some natural uncured beef hot dogs. He loves operating the heavy equipment but prefers his sardines. His dad, Dr. Hassell, is on hand with the antioxidants.

Processed (preserved) meat

You are probably aware that there have been some ugly rumors out there about processed meats. Are they really associated with more cancer, heart disease and diabetes? Is bringing home the bacon really a good idea? Good question. So, let’s talk turkey.

For example, there is a very recent paper published in Circulation, the flagship journal of the American Heart Association, which should make Subway very nervous. The authors analyzed 20 high-quality prospective trials involving 1,218,380 people in 10 countries, followed for as long as 18 years. Their purpose was to look for a relationship between red meat or processed meats and risk of heart disease or diabetes.

Their findings are sobering for anyone who has bacon, sausages, salami, hot dogs, corn dogs, bologna, spam, ham, or sliced lunch meats in their refrigerator. You may be harboring fugitives. Read on.


 It’s a knockdown!

First, the researchers found no relationship between heart disease or diabetes and the consumption of unprocessed red meat, based on an average intake of a little over 3 ounces (100g) daily. This will seem startling to some people, who have been convinced that red meat is associated with heart disease. Recent studies even cast doubt on there being any cardiac risk with eating saturated fats!

Second, the researchers did find a strong relationship between eating processed meats and heart disease or diabetes. For every 50g (a little under 2 ounces) of processed meat consumed daily, the risk of heart disease went up by 42% and the risk of diabetes by almost 20%.

So - put the Spam down and back away

This analysis – perhaps the most complete to date – should give us a compelling reason to rethink our consumption of all preserved meats. We recommend avoiding preserved meat most of the time, with the exception of special occasions like February 29th, April Fools’ Day, Halloween, and National Hot Dog Day, which is apparently on July 23rd.

On those occasions when you indulge in preserved meats, counter with an antidote of antioxidant-rich food. For example, if you’re eating a hot dog at a Labor Day picnic, follow it up with corn on the cob. If you’re serving yourself a slab of honey baked ham at a family reunion, find some broccoli or spinach to accompany it. If you are going to have bacon for breakfast, slice up a tomato to fry at the same time. Simple strategies with potential benefits.

Happily for those of us who enjoy grilled sausages or hot dogs, not all of them are in the preserved meat category. Uncured fresh sausages – simply fresh spiced ground meat that has been stuffed into a sausage casing – are easily found at many local stores.

The Painted Hills Natural Beef hot dogs in the photograph above have the sort of ingredient list to look for: beef, water, sea salt, honey, paprika, celery, and garlic powder. Yes, uncured meats do cost more than their preserved counterparts. So does good bread and good ice cream. Corn syrup is a cheap ingredient!

On the subject of grilling, it’s hard to beat the flavor and usefulness of a tri-tip roast or flat iron steak that you can grill, slice and serve, with leftovers good for another meal or two. Even though red meat appears to be perfectly healthy in the context of a varied diet, it is probably wise to avoid eating more than about 500g – a little more than a pound – of red meat weekly, as some studies suggest that cancer risk rises when red meat consumption goes above that level. (American Institute for Cancer Research 2007.)

If you want sliced turkey in your refrigerator for sandwiches, roast a fresh, skin on, bone in, turkey breast until the skin is golden brown and meat is a juicy 160°. Or roast a whole chicken and turn the leftovers into a one-dish meal like Southwest Chicken Couscous Salad (page 202 in Good Food, Great Medicine); or as a substitute for tuna in Tuna and White Bean Salad or Tuna and Broccoli Pasta (pages 189-190); or into a batch of Chicken Salad (page 105) to enjoy for a few meals.

And remember, even real meat should only take up about one quarter of the real estate on your plate, which leaves lots of room for culinary heroes like vegetables and fruit, beans and legumes, and whole grain foods.

And on the rest of your plate…
The good news is that you can eat all the vegetables you want! Lots of them are tasty raw, a fine quality for a vegetable to have on a lazy summer day – carrots and celery, broccoli and cauliflower florets, cucumbers and tomatoes, either served with dip as finger food or tossed in vinaigrette as a salad. 

Then there are all kinds of great barbecue-friendly salads.  Greek and potato, bean or lentil, rice, tabbouleh, barley or quinoa, and so on. (See pages 134, 135, 161-66, 176, 178-80 in Good Food, Great Medicine). These are especially useful options for at least two reasons: you may discover a vegetarian in your midst, and you are less likely to go back for seconds in meat if you have a plateful of tasty – and filling! – food.

A logical choice this time of year is Greek Salad.  For one thing, it is THE time of year to eat sun-ripened local tomatoes, fresh picked cucumbers, and the mild Walla Walla onion.  Also, it has very few ingredients (yay!) but the flavors of the rich Kalamata olives and the salty feta cheese set them off perfectly.  Following is our interpretation.

Greek Salad

(from Good Food, Great Medicine by Mea Hassell and Miles Hassell, M.D.)
I suggest Roma tomatoes because they have more flesh and less juice, so are more likely to maintain their chunkiness in the salad.  A mild onion is important in this salad — one of the sweet varieties like the seasonal Walla Wallas from Washington state, or Vidalias from Georgia, or Texas Sweets.  Sweet onions from somewhere are available year-round.  If you have only hot onion, make a different salad.  My Greek salad needs plenty of onions, so they need to be mild.  This is one of those recipes where every ingredient is critical.

(Serves 4 as side dish)

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 cups sliced sweet onion

1 cucumber, or about 2 cups chopped
4 – 6 Roma tomatoes, at least 2 cups chopped
½ cup kalamata olives, pitted and quartered
4 – 8 ounces mild feta cheese, thinly sliced and crumbled

1.  Place vinegar, oil, salt, and pepper in mixing bowl.

2.  Peel onion and halve lengthwise. Lay one half cut side down on cutting board and slice slim strips, no more than ¼ inch at widest point, from the rounded edge. (Cut strips in half if onion is big.) You will need 2 cups of onion slices, if onion is mild enough. Add onion to dressing in bowl and toss.

3.  Peel and quarter cucumber lengthwise, and scoop out seeds. Cut in ¼-inch slices. (If you are using a thin-skinned English cucumber you don’t need to peel or seed.)

4.  Quarter tomatoes lengthwise and remove bits of core, then cut crosswise into ½-inch slices. Add tomatoes and cucumbers to onion mixture.

5.  Prepare kalamata olives (20 olives make about ½ cup) and feta. I prefer to use the larger quantity of feta, and slice it thinly so it crumbles and blends into the salad as part of the dressing. You may prefer to leave the feta in chunks. Add olives and feta to salad and toss. Mmmm.

*  If you’re not a feta cheese user already, start with a mild domestic brand made from cow’s milk. Don’t be intimidated by the use-by date – feta lasts an amazingly long time in the refrigerator sealed in its original package. Its rich, salty bite mingles with the dressing and is not at all intrusive, even for those who think they don’t like feta.

*  The kalamata olive is an almond-shaped marinated Greek olive with a succulent texture and a very distinctive flavor. Another olive will work here, but not the mild black olive found in buffet salad bars. You can buy kalamata olives already pitted, either in a jar on the supermarket shelf or from a good deli section olive bar where you can serve yourself. However, if you happen to find yourself with olives that haven’t been pitted, here is my kalamata-pitting method. (It does not work with the tiny Nicoise olives, thankfully, they are available already pitted.)

*  Score each olive into quarters, cutting down to the seed, then massage the olive gently, with a finger and thumb on the pointy ends, until the pit disengages from the neatly quartered flesh. (Well, they don’t all quarter neatly, but it doesn’t matter. The flavor is the important thing.)

*  Don’t pit the olives over the salad! Being a bit sensitive about broken fillings myself, I count the pits — which look dangerously like quartered olives — before I add the olives to the salad.