March 18, 2012

The Real Deal on Organic; A complete Guide

In keeping with this current era of everything green, local and sustainable, I thought that I would rehash for you, the specifics of the word organic and what that truly means. For those of us who are, and have been, familiar with organics, we'll call this a refresher course. Those of you that may be venturing into the organic world for the first time will gain a complete understanding of what it means, what it does and how it may, or may not, impact your health, eating and buying habits. 

By Definition
First and foremost, let's define exactly what the word 'organic' means in the world of food. When we speak about the term, it simply means 'all the crops and products you are used to buying or consuming, generally grown without synthetic pesticides, artificial fertilizers, irradiation (a form of radiation used to kill bacteria), or biotechnology. Animals on organic farms eat organically grown feed, aren't confined 100 percent of the time (as they sometimes are on conventional farms), and are raised without antibiotics or synthetic growth hormones.'

Now don't be confused, organic does not mean natural. There is no legal definition as to what constitutes a "natural" food. However, the food industry uses the term "natural" to indicate that a food has been minimally processed and is preservative-free. Natural foods can include organic foods, but, not all natural foods are organic.

Buying and Shopping
Let's talk about why organic products are a bit more expensive. Higher prices are mostly due to more expensive farming practices, tighter government regulations and lower crop yields. Because organic farmers don't use herbicides or pesticides, many management tools that control weeds and pests are labor intensive. For example, organic growers may hand-weed vegetables to control weeds and you may end up paying a little more for these vegetables.

There are four classifications when it comes to 'organic', so be careful to read the labels, especially when buying a higher priced organic item, as most products in this classification can be between 10-40% higher than the same non-organic products.

Always remember, just because a product says it's organic or contains organic ingredients, doesn't necessarily mean it's a healthier alternative. Some organic products may still be high in sugar, salt, fat or calories. We believe it’s worth paying more for say, organic apples, peaches, spinach, milk, and beef as examples, in order to avoid the chemicals found in conventionally produced versions of those items. Organic foods meet the same quality and safety standards as non-organic foods. The difference lies in how the food is produced, processed and handled. For instance, organic fruits and vegetables spoil faster because they aren't treated with waxes or preservatives. This quicker perish-ability means that to get the most out of these products you should make your trips to the market more frequently, buying smaller quantities.

You'll notice the upside to this is fresher, better tasting ingredients and will find it worth the added trip. Also, expect less-than-perfect appearances in some organic produce, ie; odd shapes, varying colors and perhaps smaller sizes. I'm sure we are all familiar with the exponentially better taste of  'ugly tomatoes,' so don't let appearances fool you. However, in most cases organic foods look identical to their conventional counterparts. And, of course, when it comes to fresh produce, remember that you’ll save by buying it in season.

When selecting a store from which to buy your organic products, make sure you get what you pay for by watching where produce sits on shelves. All grocers are legally required to stack organic fruits and vegetables where they won’t be exposed to water runoff from the misting of conventional produce, which could contaminate organic items with pesticide residue. If a store is not following that rule, you may be wasting your money by buying organic produce there. Also, try to buy your produce the day it's delivered to market to ensure that you're buying the freshest food possible. Ask your grocer what day new produce arrives, most will be happy to let you know their delivery schedule.

Make sure you comparison shop. Do a price check among local grocery stores for often purchased organic items and shop where you find the lowest prices. Also, try to always buy local. You can find organic growers at most farmer’s markets, and a USDA study in 2002 found that about 40 percent of those farmers don’t charge a premium. For listings of local farmer’s markets and other sources, go to and

Health Aspects
Organic foods may have higher nutritional value than conventional food, according to some research. The reason: In the absence of pesticides and fertilizers, plants boost their production of the phytochemicals (vitamins and antioxidants) that strengthen their resistance to bugs and weeds. Some studies have linked pesticides in our food to everything from headaches, to cancer, to birth defects, even though many 'experts' maintain that the levels in conventional food are safe for most healthy adults. My opinion here is that there is no 'acceptable ' level of a contaminant that is harmful to you. Whether it is in 'acceptable' levels that harm you slowly, or high levels that harm you quickly, the key word to me here is 'harm!" Even low-level pesticide exposure, however, can be significantly more toxic for fetuses and children (due to their less-developed immune systems) and for pregnant women (it puts added strain on their already taxed organs), according to a report by the National Academy of Sciences

Pesticide contamination isn't as much of a concern in meats and dairy products (animals may consume some pesticides, depending on their diet), but many scientists are concerned about the antibiotics being given to most farm animals:" Many are the same antibiotics humans rely on, and overuse of these drugs has already enabled bacteria to develop resistance to them, rendering them less effective in fighting infection," so says Chuck Benbrook, Ph.D., chief scientist at the Organic Center, a nonprofit research organization.

The Highest in Pesticides
  • Apples
  • Bell Peppers
  • Celery
  • Cherries
  • Grapes
  • Nectarines
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Potatoes
  • Red Raspberries
  • Spinach
  • Strawberries
The Lowest in Pesticides
  • Asparagus
  • Avacados
  • Bananas
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Sweet Corn
  • Kiwi
  • Mangos
  • Onions
  • Papaya
  • Pineapple
  • Sweet Peas
A growing body of research shows that pesticides and other contaminants are more prevalent in the foods we eat, in our bodies, and in the environment than we thought. And studies show that by eating organic foods, you can reduce your exposure to the potential health risks associated with those chemicals. What you add in expense for buying 'organic' will result in your overall better health and you'll save on doctor and medical costs in the long run. Remember though, eating healthy is just one aspect of taking better care of your body.

According to Wikipedia about health benefits to children: "Parents are concerned about the potential neurological health risks posed to children by trace pesticide residues in food. A 2001 study demonstrated that children fed organic diets experienced significantly lower organophosphorus pesticide exposure than children fed conventional diets. A similar study in 2006 measured the levels of organophosphorus pesticide exposure in 23 preschool children before and after replacing their diet with organic food: levels of organophosphorus pesticide exposure dropped dramatically and immediately when the children switched to an organic diet. Although the researchers did not collect health outcome data in this study, they concluded "it is intuitive to assume that children whose diets consist of organic food items would have a lower probability of neurological health risks."

Obviously taste is subjective, as everyone's palate is different. My suggestion is to do a side by side tasting and decide for yourself. I believe that most will find that the better taste of organic verses non-organic is completely evident. There, of course, may be some that disagree, but one thing is certain; Regardless of whether you find the taste better, or the same, as conventional products, common sense dictates that NOT eating and consuming pesticides, preservatives, growth hormones or food that has been irradiated, has to be less harmful to you and is therefore, better for you.

Organic Farming
Here's where the 'green' portion of organics is making its impact. Organic methods as compared to conventional methods are having a healthier, more positive affect on our environment than previously believed. Here's is the reason: Organic farming reduces pollutants in groundwater and creates richer soil that aids plant growth while reducing erosion, according to the Organic Trade Association. It also decreases pesticides that
can end up in your drinking glass; in some cities, pesticides in tap water have been measured at unsafe levels for weeks at a time, according to an analysis performed by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Plus, organic farming used 50 percent less energy than conventional farming methods in one 15-year study.

When taking into account the impact on soils and biodiversity, there is an average of 30% more species on organic farms than there are on farms using conventional farming methods. Birds, butterflies, soil microbes, beetles, earthworms, spiders, vegetation, and mammals are particularly affected. Almost all non-crop, naturally-occurring species that were studied demonstrated a preference in organic farming both by population and richness. Many weed species attract beneficial insects that improve soil qualities and forage on weed pests. Organisms which are soil-bound usually benefit because of increased bacteria populations. This is due to natural fertilizer spreads such as manure, while at the same time, a reduction in the intake of herbicides and pesticides commonly associated with conventional farming methods.

I believe that a healthier climate and environment, along with a healthier diet and lifestyle go a long way to improving the quality of life overall. You may not need to purchase organics across the board when shopping for yourself or your family, but if you slowly incorporate healthier and more sustainable products into your buying habits and lifestyle, we all benefit from the impact and can all experience a better existence on this planet. Why do I believe this? Well, after all, one of my mantras is "Good Living" and while most would interpret that to mean 'the good life,' I interpret that as " Being good to yourself, your family, friends, neighbors and the planet as a whole." I hope you learned something from this feature. I know I did.

Bon Appetit,


Photo sources: David Castillo ~Dominici Danilo Rizzuti

March 15, 2012

Searing and Sauteing Installment #3 in my "at home cook series"

Welcome to the third (3rd) installment in my 'at home cook series.' The first two (2) installments, Mise en place and Knife Skills, I covered the basics of proper set up and the proper knife techniques needed to insure ease and expertise when preparing meals and recipe's for your family, prior to the cooking process. In today's installment, Searing and Sauteing, we will start to explore the actual cooking process and techniques. Learning the fundamentals of cooking can impact a chef’s ability to drive levels of flavor, texture, color and presentation to the plate. Most cooking fundamentals are based on classical French techniques. Below are some definitions of important terms when referring to searing and sauteing.

 Searing (or pan searing): is a technique used to cook the surface of food at a high temperature so that a caramelized crust forms. Searing is a process of cooking that creates the crusty surface texture most people find appealing and the caramelized sugars that gives us that steak flavor we want.

Dry Heat Cooking Method: Dry heat refers to cooking a food item uncovered without adding moisture and provides high retention of vitamins and minerals. It is normally done in a small amount of fat at a high temperature.

Caramelization: To heat sugar to its melting point, at which time it liquefies into a clear caramel syrup. Fruits and vegetables can be grilled or roasted, roasted bell peppers for example, until the natural sugars turn to caramel and infuse a sweet flavor.

Maillard Reaction: This is a chemical reaction between the amino acid and a reacting sugar, usually requiring heat. Like caramelization, it is a form of non-enzymatic browning. Many food scientists depend on this reaction to extract flavors that are imparted during the process, for use in fragrances or imitation flavorings.

Browning: The term browning may refer to several different processes. The most common type of browning, Maillard reaction, refers to a series of chemical reactions that makes foods from cookies to fried chicken and grilled steak taste and look more appealing. As the sugars in any food are heated, they change color from clear to dark brown and produce new flavor compounds. Browning is also an effective way to destroy surface bacteria on meats. A similar type of browning is known as caramelization. This is what happens to white sugar at high temperatures. Another, less desirable browning is what happens to certain fruits and vegetables when phenolic compounds in their flesh react with oxygen in the air to discolor the food. EX: Apples, bananas etc.

Color, Flavor and Crust: During the searing process, we are achieving many things. Color is an important part of flavor development. The levels of flavors that are developed during searing and the caramelization process are not easily recreated. The texture of a crust is an important part of the finished products' mouth feel. To obtain the desired brown crust on meat, the surface must exceed 300 degrees, so searing requires the meat surface be free of water, which boils around 212 degrees.

Sealing in the Juices: The belief that searing meat 'seals in the juices' is widespread and still often repeated. This theory was first put forth by Justus von Liebig, a German chemist and food scientist, around 1850. The notion was embraced by contemporary cooks and authors including Auguste Escoffier. Simple experiments have been performed to test this theory and the results are surprising. Take 2 pieces of meat and bring them to the same internal temperature, searing one of them and not the other. Weigh the end results of both to see which loses more moisture. Most of the time, the seared meat loses the same or more of its 'juices,' which proves the theory wrong. None the less, the purpose of searing is not to 'seal in the juices,' and if the product is cooked to the proper internal temperature and handled with care, it will be full of moisture and flavor.

Cooking Mediums: In order to sear something properly, some type of cooking medium is needed. A cooking medium includes oils and fats that are used to begin the searing process. Cooking oil is purified fat of plant or animal origin, which is liquid at room temperature. Other fats that are often used to sear and saute with include: clarified and whole butter, coconut oil, duck fat, grapeseed oil, peanut oil, safflower oil, soybean oil, margarine, lard and all other vegetable oils. Each oil has a different smoking point and must be used accordingly.

Smoke Point: Refers to the temperature at which a cooking fat or oil begins to break down. The substance smokes or burns, and gives food an unpleasant taste. Beyond the smoke point is the flash point, the point at which combustion occurs. Peanut oil has a much higher smoke point than vegetable oil. Vegetable oil has a higher smoke point than whole butter. Butter contains milk solids that tend to burn fairly quick, so butter must be added at the right time.

Fond/deglazing: A fond is created in the bottom of a pan during the searing/browning process. It is all the residual sugars that have caramelized to the pan. The untrained cook may look at that as a dirty pan and simply wash it and put it away. But to the aspiring chef, that leftover goodness is VERY flavorful, and can be used as the base for a delicious sauce. In order to lift those flavors back up off the pan, the art of 'deglazing' is needed. Choose your favorite alcohol or stock and add it to the pan then put it back on the flame. This requires some agitation, but the fond will loosen up and all of those well developed flavors are ready to use! Season with aromatics and possibly butter, reduce to desired consistency, and your wonderful pan sauce is complete.

Choosing the Best Ingredients: Always purchase your ingredients from a reputable purveyor or market. Home grown vegetables and herbs are the best and ensure freshness. For seafood, meat and poultry, it is important to inspect them for discoloration, unpleasant odors, and any unwanted markings on the exterior. Ask the right questions to ensure quality and freshness, and don't be shy to turn away any product you are unhappy with.

Preparing Meat, Fish and Poultry for Searing: Portion size is important when deciding what type of pan to sear in. Next step is to dry the product of any excess moisture. The more moisture present, the more difficult it will be to achieve that perfect sear, so pat it dry with a paper towel. Even seasoning should be done next. I tend to season the top, bottom and sides of each protein, depending on its size.

Sauteing: is a method of cooking food that uses a small amount of fat in a shallow pan over relatively high heat. Unlike pan-searing, sautes are often finished with a sauce made from the pan's residual fond. Food that is sauteed is usually cooked for a relatively short period of time over high heat, with the goal of browning the food while preserving its color, moisture and flavor. This is very common with more tender cuts of meat, e.g. tenderloin, pork chops or Filet Mignon.

Choosing the Right Pan: The best pan for sauteing and making a pan sauce would be a heavy bottomed, non reactive saute pan. The desirable fond that is created in the pan, cannot easily be achieved in a non stick pan. Size is everything!  Whenever you are sauteing anything, you want to make sure you give the meat, chicken or fish enough room in the pan to allow it to sear and to prevent steaming. Rule of thumb is leave at least 1/4 to 1/2 inch between pieces. On the other hand, you don't want a pan that's too big or the ingredients have a tendency to burn. A 9 or 10 inch pan works well for at home. There are many different kinds of pans on the market from cast iron, to non stick, to every celebrity chef's newest collection. It solely comes down to quality and personal preference.

Differences Between Sauteing and Searing: Sauteing differs from searing in that the sauteed food is thoroughly cooked in the process. One may sear simply to add flavor and improve appearance before another process is used to finish cooking it.

Hear the Music (Sizzle): To ensure the right temperature and amount of fat are being used during the saute process, listen for the sizzle. If no 'music' is heard, then the sauteing most likely hasn't begun. Adjust the temperature of your pan, or add more fat.

Cut, Size and Timing: Not all vegetables will cook at the same time. For example, a root vegetable (such as a carrot) and an eggplant, both have different textures and water content. If they are both cut to the same size and shape and entered into the hot pan simultaneously, the eggplant will be overcooked by the time carrot is tender. Knowing your vegetables and their water content will help you determine who goes in the pan first. If a vegetable needs less time to thoroughly cook, then add it towards the end of the sauteing process. Timing is everything with cooking, and knowledge is power!

Turning and Tossing (Jumping): Sauter in French means "To Jump." It refers to flipping the food in the air. This is necessary to ensure even cooking without breaking up the food by agitating it with foreign objects, such as spoons and tongs. Practice makes perfect, so figure out which hand you have more control with and begin. A great tip for practicing, is to take a cold pan, put a handful of beans or rice in the pan, and push the weight of the pan forward so that all the food falls to the front of the pan. In one swift movement, pull the pan towards you and rotate your wrist upward, forcing the food to flip in the air. If the wrist movement isn't done at the right time, all of your food will fly forward onto the floor before it sets flight. Lastly, accept the food back in the pan as if you were trying to catch an egg, with care and concern.

Learn, practice and perfect these skills, and you'll be unstoppable in the kitchen! Cooking can be very scientific, but knowing the 'whys' of cooking will ensure that when a mistake is made, it can be fixed.

Bon Appetit!