Local Food

The Chestnut’s Cousin

One of my favorite things about shopping at farmers markets is trying new things. This has been a big part of how I learned to cook. I buy things that catch my eye and figure out what to do with them later.

Here in Hong Kong, I go to Island East Market. While there are a lot of non-farmers hawking their wares as well (baby clothes, jewelry, err..imported olive oil?), I still love going there every Sunday for the fresh, local produce. Yes, you can farm in this concrete jungle of a city!

As with ramps and fiddlehead ferns back in NYC, I get a little sucked into the hype of buying things I don’t particularly need but have a short growing season. I came across this funny-looking thing:


I asked the lady what is was, and she explained it was similar to a chestnut but has a very short growing season so it wouldn’t be available by next week. So obviously I had to buy this unidentifiable nut! I believe she said it’s called “fung ngang guo” but I have no clue how to write that in Chinese and if I even got the right name. Can anyone confirm this? Or know what it’s called in English?

Boiling unidentifiable Hong Kong nut

Following her instructions, I went home and boiled the nuts, which were sticky to the touch, for about 10 minutes.

Peeled unidentifiable Hong Kong nut

After letting them cool, I peeled them and had them as a snack. They were more difficult to peel, but were indeed a lot like chestnuts in texture and taste. Though, these being summer nuts, their taste is more subtle and lighter.

And by the time you read this…these nuts are probably long gone from the market!

Health and Nutrition

8 Tips For Clean Food Shopping

Sometimes I think this blog might confuse people. Bacon? Cheese? Butter?! Does this girl even know anything about clean eating? I’d like to argue, yes. Yes, I do. I don’t buy into what manufacturers tell us is “healthy”. Rather, I focus on buying a variety of real, whole foods. What type of food you choose is one part of the equation, but the quality of your food is another. When I say I use some bacon in a meal, I’m using stuff made from antibiotic-free pork, without added nitrites or chemical preservatives. Believe it or not, even butter has nutrients if you buy the real thing! Grass-fed butter has vitamins and minerals. What do you get from margarine? A whole bunch of man-made trans fat that tastes like shit. Yum.

So, I thought I’d share some of my tips for clean food shopping. As much as I’d love to urge everyone to shop at farmers markets, I know it’s not an option for everyone. These guidelines will help you avoid falling for marketing scams and outdated nutrition advice, and navigate the store like a healthy pro!

Farmers market

1) Beware of industrial meat and seafood…and dairy for that matter
This is the first and longest tip, because I think it’s the most urgent change one needs to make in their shopping habits. I know it’s a painful one because yes, organic and humanely-raised meat is much more expensive. But if I had to choose between buying non-organic/non-wild caught stuff and eating a vegetarian meal, I would totally pick the vegetarian option. Unfortunately, here in America, our mass-market food system is messed up, and when it comes to meat, it’s downright scary. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go watch a documentary like Food, Inc (my Amazon affiliate link). Do you want to eat sick animals that eat garbage, are treated like crap, and pumped up with antibiotics? Or eat their eggs and dairy products? I don’t.

This all sounds very dramatic but the proof is in the pudding. Go pick up a packet of shrink-wrapped supermarket ground beef or farmed salmon and look at it. It’s pretty sad when manufacturers need to dye their product to make it look more appetizing. And if you like tasty food (I’m assuming you do if you’re a normal human being), do a taste test and compare grass-fed beef to feedlot beef. You won’t go back to the cheap stuff. Please question where your meat comes from and how the animal was raised, whether you are at a supermarket, farmers market, or butcher, and make the right choice.

2) Choose organic, non-genetically modified produce when you can
I’m a little more adamant about the non-GMO part than the organic part, but I try to get organic when I can because too many pesticides in your body can mess with your hormonal system, and god knows what else. A good hierarchy or priorities is: 1) get organic when you can. 2) If not, at least be strict about buying organic when it comes to the dirty dozen. 3) If you can’t do that either, wash the shit out of your produce. As for genetically-modified produce, I know this is a tough one to identify, and that’s why I buy mostly organic or at the farmers market. If a food was engineered to resist pesticides, chances are it won’t do lovely things to my body. I might be wrong and maybe they’re not harmful, but I’ll play it safe.

3) If local produce is available, get it
Again, not everyone has access to local food. But if it’s an option, do it. The less time it took for produce to get to you after it was harvested, the more nutrients it will still have by the time you eat it. As much as I love bananas, the fruits I buy most often are local apples. Even if they aren’t totally organic, I still usually choose them over bananas that were harvested before they were ready, exposed to ethylene gas to artificially ripen them and turn them bright yellow, and then shipped from Latin America all the way to my grocery store.

4) Skip the low-fat stuff
What is people’s obsession with low-fat food, especially dairy? Fat is good for you. I’d say do full fat dairy products, or 2% if you’re really not comfortable with that. The non-fat stuff doesn’t taste as good or keep you full as long, or other ingredients are often added to make up for the lack of fat. Plus you need the fat to help with nutrient absorption!

5) Look at the ingredients list of everything you buy
There’s a lot of suspicious stuff in processed food. That’s why I like making things from scratch, but I understand that we don’t have the time or energy for it everyday. So I implore you to carefully read the ingredients list before you buy a product. You’ve already got enough weird additives and chemicals getting into your body against your will–you don’t need to actively seek them out too. Anything weird-sounding that you don’t recognize on that ingredients list? If so, skip it. I’m shocked at how even health food brands have so much stuff you just don’t need (I’m looking at you, soy lecithin) in their ingredient list. But hey, real food isn’t supposed to be shelf-stable. If a product’s packaging tries way too hard to sound healthy, you can bet you’ll find some eyebrow-raising ingredients. Example: compare the packaging and ingredients lists of Kerrygold Pure Irish Butter and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. Mmmm-hmmm.

6) Don’t take trendy super-foods too seriously
Meh. As much as I like kale and acai, I don’t give them any special status just because they’ve been trendy the past couple of years. Too much of anything isn’t good for you. You’d be surprised how pretty much every food has its positives and negatives. I’m not saying these super-foods aren’t healthy. They are. But there’s no need to obsess over what magazines tell you are the miracle food of the month. Instead, make an effort to always eat a variety of food. That’s how you cover all your nutritional bases. Bought spinach and tomatoes last trip to the store? Maybe pick up eggplants and zucchini this time.

7) Be honest with yourself when it comes to a balanced diet
Yes, whole wheat bread is better than white bread. And yes, quality hard cheeses make a better dessert for you than cookies. But let’s get real about the big picture. What you buy is what you’ll eat. What’s actually in your shopping cart? Is it mainly vegetables and quality protein, with maybe just a few fruits, an intact grains, and one single-serving treat? Or can you barely find a leafy green under the boxes of organic sugary cereal and tofu-based ice cream sandwiches in your cart? If so, turn around and try again.

8) Let your food shopping be the 80% in the 80-20 rule
I’m not militant about eating clean at every meal of everyday. Life would be miserable if you had to follow a bunch of rules about eating and never get to taste your aunt’s fabulous pumpkin pie, or starve because you’re traveling and there isn’t a healthy, organic meal in miles. We can’t control everything we eat all the time. But here’s the thing. You can control that 80% if you make the right choices when you’re food shopping. If you don’t make a habit out of preparing healthy meals most days, it’s a slippery slope. Before you know it, half your calories will be coming from poor food choices. Let your aunt’s pumpkin pie or that airport burrito be the 20%. If you’re eating balanced meals made from quality food most of the time, there is definitely room in a healthy diet for letting it slide once in a while!

Health and Nutrition

Making Peace with the Supermarket

I don’t mean to be snobby. But let’s be real. I’m totally snobby about food shopping. As someone interested in nutrition and health, I’ve developed a kind of phobia of the supermarket in recent years. Thanks to Michael Pollan, food industry documentaries, and scary shit you read about food in the papers, I can’t help but see aisles and aisles of chemicals and carcinogens rather than food items. Even shopping the outer aisles of the supermarket, where the whole foods are supposedly at, scares me. I fear the hormones in milk. The color additives in cheese. The dyed salmon. The sickly looking produce covered in pesticide. I started shopping pretty much exclusively at my local health food store and the farmers market.

What finally got me back to the supermarket were dinner parties and cook-offs. When feeding one plus an occasional guest, paying a premium on food is totally affordable. OK it’s not really a premium, food should cost more than what the average American pays and that’s why we’re eating fake food all the time. But regardless, we’re used to it and it now feels like a lot of money. So when feeding a large party, I simply didn’t have the budget to purchase everything at the farmers market. I sheepishly returned to where I used to shop, KeyFood, with my tail between my legs. (Side note: I really want a tail. Wouldn’t that be crazy fun?!)

I’ve slowly rekindled a relationship with the supermarket. It’s hypocritical to shun them–a lot of farmers at the farmers market use conventional methods as opposed to organic, and  likewise, purchasing organic food items at the health food store from a huge national brand isn’t necessarily the most nutritious food either. I still stand by my beliefs that purchasing most of my food from farmers markets is the best thing I can do, followed by second best: organic food from health food stores. But the most important practice everyone needs to learn is purchasing whole foods, even if it’s at the supermarket. The supermarket even has some great advantages–it’s often cheaper and more convenient to get to, they have lots of sales, and they have a much larger variety of products. So, I’ve decided that it’s not a life-and-death situation to occasionally purchase butter from the KeyFood. it’s really not that big a deal. I have made peace with the supermarket.

Where do you do your food shopping? Do you ever get freaked out my supermarkets like I do?


Duck Prosciutto Egg Cups

I’m so lucky to have a year-round farmers market walking distance from my house. I’m there every week as a volunteer, and am pretty familiar with the product offerings. We have sorts of interesting items that aren’t on the average American’s shopping list: Moroccan M’smen, veal, hake, lard, creamed honey, and more. But even I fall into food ruts a lot, despite the more exotic options available to me.

I’ve decided to branch out and buy foods I’ve never prepared before. I started with duck prosciutto. It comes as one big slab with a thick layer of fat (which I, naturally, left on). The first morning, I diced some up and cooked them with creamy scrambled eggs. Yum.

The next morning, I thought I’d do duck prosciutto and eggs again, but give it a little twist. I’ve seen recipes for bacon and egg cups baked in a muffin tin before, so I decided to recreate something similar. Duck Prosciutto Egg Cups were born.

I don’t have a mandoline or any easy way to cut those ultra thin slices of prosciutto we often see, so I took a knife and carefully skimmed the top of my slab. They weren’t perfect but they were good enough. I greased and lined the cups of a muffin tin with prosciutto, grated some parmesan into each cup, and cracked an egg into each one.

I baked them for about 12 minutes and ta-daa! I had duck prosciutto cups. I topped them black pepper and fresh basil. What a decadent breakfast.

Growing Food

My Apartment Garden: Yelling at Seeds

All right, folks. Spring is here. I’ve read my first two books on growing vegetables. I’m ready to get started with this apartment garden! This is what I have so far. Two small pots with arugula seeds and two little seed cups I made from newspaper with strawberry seeds. I also bought an English Thyme plant at the farmers market, ’cause I needs my herbs now and I’m too lazy to start them from seeds. I covered the seed pots in plastic wrap to keep them warm and moist. All I’m doing to try get my seeds to germinate (and my thyme to continue living) is putting them by a sunny window and giving all of them a little bit of water everyday.

The first couple of days I impatiently checked on them constantly. I was so worried that they wouldn’t sprout that I resorted to repeatedly yelling “c’monnnnnnn” at them. The boyfriend didn’t think this was a helpful gardening technique. But guess what happened within a few days:

How exciting! The smaller arugula pot has a little sprout already. THIS IS THE FIRST LIFE I’VE EVER CREATED. Let’s hope I don’t let it die before it gets to grow into a big beautiful plant…that I will kill and eat in a salad with some olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

It’s still a little chilly right now, but I will probably set all this stuff up on the balcony soon and move whatever sprouts outdoors. C’monnnnnnnnn, plants!

Local Food, Lunch and Dinner

Eating with the Seasons

I’m currently reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. (Loving it so far. Pick up a copy.) It’s about her family’s story of how they committed to eat local for one year. They only consumed what they bought raised in their own neighborhood or grew themselves, and learned to pretty much live without the rest.

The idea wasn’t new to me–I’m an advocate for local food, and both volunteer and shop at farmers markets. I know I’ll never take it to the extreme that Kingsolver did, but I felt good that I bought local more than most people do. What was new to me was the thought of living without what you can’t get locally. I shop based on what recipe I want to make, meaning I’ll buy what happens to be available at the farmers market and get the rest from the health food store, not caring where it traveled from nor whether or not it’s in season.

Inspired by Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I’ve decided to commit a little further to local food. Or at least get in the habit of eating with the seasons. We’re currently getting this bizarre hot weather for March here in NYC. I left work on Tuesday feeling like it was a summer’s evening. I kept imagining going home and making myself a big sexy plate of salad greens and lots of juicy raw tomatoes, with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. I loooove tomatoes. They’re my fave. But then I thought of the book and it occurred to me that it wasn’t remotely close to tomato season here in New York. I wanted a tomato, and while I could technically get one, it was grown far, far away. I would go without that night.

You know what is in season, though? Kale. I adapted this recipe from the Kitchn using kale instead of collard greens. I cooked it up with onion and bacon while I simultaneously made some leftover quick-cooking polenta I had in the cupboard. I topped the polenta with the kale and bacon mixture and a fried egg, threw some parmesan and a few drops of hot sauce on top, and had an extremely satisfying meal. This is a well-balanced dish (especially if you’re generous with the kale), and would make a delicious breakfast too.

I see why they call it food porn. It feels so dirty getting all up in my dish to snap sexy pictures of her bits.

I’ve gotten rid of everything on my to-make recipe list that isn’t mainly comprised of food I can get locally right now. Moving forward, I’m planning the recipes around the produce and not vice versa. No, not all parts of this meal was local, and yes I will probably end up buying a tomato or two next winter. But hey, it’s a start.


Rediscovering Brussels Sprouts

The cool thing about a) being and adult and b) developing my palate is that I can start going back to all the foods I used to hate growing up, and pleasantly rediscover how great something can taste. Like 99.99999% of the rest of the world’s population (not a real statistic), I used to loathe brussels sprouts. I felt kind of guilty about it ’cause, c’mon, these little dudes are repping the capital of my father’s country! When I started getting curious about cooking a couple of years ago, but lacked any actual cooking skills, I attempted to steam brussels sprouts.


That reaffirmed my belief that they are just gross. It wasn’t until last year when dining at an Italian restaurant with friends that I discovered how good can they be! I guess it’s just one of those foods you need to cook right.

I love any excuse to roast things, so when I saw this recipe for Maple Roasted Brussels Sprouts, I jumped on the opportunity to prepare some slammin’ sprouts and wash away the sins of that stank steamed mess I created two years ago.

First, you need quality ingredients. Don’t get that fake syrup at the supermarket. Lucky for me, the maple syrup guys just came back to my farmer’s market that week.

I crisped some pancetta while my brussels sprouts were roasting.

Then I tossed everything together, et voilà! Glorious, sweet brussels sprouts.