TASTE: Getting Real

A new book explains authentic, healthy cuisine

Max Jacobson

Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be one of the most delicious things that I had ever tasted. But more than that, the dish brought me back, to the taste of the chicken that my mother used to buy directly from a farm, and the intense flavor of freshly shelled peas that I hadn't had in more than two decades.

This was also, coincidentally, around the same time that restaurateurs Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck were revolutionizing American dining by using local and organic ingredients, a trend that continues today.

Many of us know they taste better, that they are more expensive. But until you read Real Food: What to Eat and Why, an important new book by Nina Planck, you may not realize that this issue can also be a matter of life and death. It turns out that these foods are far better for you.

The essence of Planck's book is that science is finally beginning to catch up with the notion that traditional foods, particularly fats, are good for you, and that butter, eggs and even lard are healthy foods in their natural—not industrial—states. Reading this book is likely to change the way you eat. It has with me.

I have long noticed that the richer a country becomes, the worse its food supply. What is actually at fault is industrialization; beef fed on grains and animal parts, chickens force-fed hormones and raised in cages too small for them to move in, some milks that have been homogenized, which hides the sludge of dead white blood cells and bacteria that sinks to the bottom of a vat before the process is completed.

Organic milk, especially without BGH, or bovine growth hormone, is available at any supermarket these days. Planck also advocates drinking raw milk, a little harder to find in Vegas, and also a taste she was raised with. (Most of us are not going to take that step, I realize.)

[Sip This Now!]

It's a Grind Winter Blend coffee. Seasonal coffees, especially around Christmas time, can be more penance than pleasure. Remember that maiden aunt, whose taste buds were so withered from chain-smoking Pall Malls and closet gin-dosing that she had to be forbidden from preparing the stuffing on Thanksgiving? Because she had gone from measuring spices by the pinch, to the handful, and finally to the can-full? That's usually the deal with holiday coffee blends as well—so tarted up with cinnamon and nutmeg and maybe ground reindeer that the effect is like a black-leather Santa standing over you with the sleigh whip and snarling, "Celebrate, you mangy curs! Get with the fa-la-la-la, or this boot's up your ass."

Credit, then, to the It's a Grind coffee emporia, for their rather more subtle Winter Blend. A smooth sophisticate of a cup, with flavors of cinnamon (c'mon, it's mandatory) and hazelnut. (The latter shouldn't be a problem for those with allergies—it's not the real nuts, but a triumph of chemistry instead.) A bit of nonalcoholic Irish cream and a touch of Madagascar vanilla beans make it tasty enough to justify stocking the freezer with a couple of extra bags, just to get you through Valentine's Day. At It's a Grind locations; $11.35 by the pound; $1.95 for a regular size cup and $2.15 for a large.

K.W. Jeter

Planck makes a compelling case for eating specific types of fish, even including a chart illustrating the good and the bad. Farmed salmon, for example, is what you find on 99 percent of Las Vegas restaurant menus, as opposed to the wild salmon that you can buy in markets like Wild Oats or Whole Foods. But farmed Atlantic salmon, for instance, is higher in sea lice and collateral ecological damage from chemical runoffs, and has higher levels of PCPs and dioxin than wild salmons, which have virtually none. I won't even mention taste.

Just look at their color. Farmed salmon is pale, while the wild species, such as sockeye, are rich and red, in addition to being much higher in Omega-3 fatty acids, which are good for the cardiovascular system. Fish we should farm, according to Planck, are herbivores, such as catfish, carp, tilapia (found in tanks live in many Chinese restaurants) and oysters or other mollusks. Other fish to avoid are farmed shrimp and Chilean sea bass. (Some local chefs, such as Rick Moonen of RM Seafood and R-Bar in Mandalay Bay, already follow guidelines similar to Planck's—Moonen serves most of the fish she recommends.)

If you only have time to glance at Planck's book, read the chapter on fats. In it, she explains why traditional fats such as butter and lard are healthy; is a fan of whole eggs (she considers an egg-white omelet an "abomination"); and extols the virtues of fish oils, vital to brain development. And she insists we avoid modern industrial fats, all hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils, including lard, and oils such as corn, soy, safflower and sunflower oils, if they have been refined or heated.

This merely scratches the surface of what is in this book. It's challenging, but not impossible, to buy the products she suggests, by going to farmer's markets, ethnic grocery stores and places such as Wild Oats and Whole Foods Markets, but it should also be noted that a number of products that label their foods "organic" do so by tricking the consumer.

And lastly, there is an economic downside to all of this. If you don't grow your own, you will probably pay quite a bit more to eat real foods, because industrial foods are a lot cheaper to produce, because of the volume of their production.

But I'm guessing the more people who read this book, the more demand there will be for better and healthier products. Anyway, it's a step in the right direction.

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