Monday, May 25, 2015

Chicken Breast: Why I hate it

I love a pan roasted chicken - In the context of a whole chicken, the breast is a blank canvas

So you love chicken breast - boneless, skinless -- eating it all the time? Well, your mouth just dialed my 911 number and is asking for an intervention.  Here it is: why on earth are you eating this nonsense?

I love chicken - a whole roasted chicken is one of my favorite meals of all time- made in either a splatchcock style as above, or on my ancient rotisserie.  In the case of those, the breast is a part of a whole- it is in context, it is a blank canvas upon which you can layer lovely flavors. 

But a boneless, skinless chicken breast - it has no flavor. None. It is bland, it is lifeless, it is the favorite of dieters since the ancient myths about this lean protein being healthy. 

Here it is - the naked chicken breast - with a herb satchel. 

Chicken Breast Is It Low In Fat - must be compared to steak

Oh, but this is good - you hear the chorus say. It is a "diet" food.  This is a 5 ounce chicken breast, it has about 250 calories in it. About 30 grams of protein, 4 grams of the evil saturated fat, and etc. 

Oh that red meat you eschew? A similar piece of New York Strip (one of my favorite cuts) is also about 250 calories. About 42 grams of protein, and 2.8 grams of the evil saturated fat. What? Yes, you read that correctly.  There is more saturated fat in chicken breast than New York Strip. I ask you- which has more flavor? 

It is Too Easy To Overcook

People overcook the chicken breast all the time.  The instructions of many recipes are set to an internal temperature of about 165 degrees Fahrenheit - which means all of the moisture will be gone - the chicken will be dry. 

Or they put it into a crock pot thinking a slow cooking at a low temperature will be a good thing. Nothing worse than crock pot chicken breast -- the lowest temperature on most crock pots is about 177 degrees Fahrenheit - again, over cooked.  So the chicken will be surrounded by juice of itself and be dry and overcooked. The best way to cook this protein is Sous Vide - otherwise you sacrificed the life of a chicken for naught.

Speaking of the steak - ever wonder why a steak is more moist than a chicken? Medium rare is 132-134 degrees Fahrenheit - so the steak is still moist.  All you need is that sear on it, the Maillard reaction, and you have a great bit of food.

It has no flavor

Seriously - grill a plain chicken breast and eat it. Kind of dull. Make it interesting- surround it with other flavors and the chicken is just a dull protein that won't ruin the spark of the other flavors. Chicken Marsala - well,  if you make a rich marsala with great mushrooms, stock, and wonderful wine the sauce will not be overwhelmed with the flavor of the chicken breast (don't buy the cheap wine, this is food, if you eat cheap food you are missing out). 

Pick any chicken breast dish - any - tell me how the chicken flavor added to it. 

Boneless - Skinless - oh you just tossed the best part

Try this- cook the skin separately on a baking sheet with some poultry spice and salt. It crisps up nicely like bacon - and is delicious. Then cook the chicken breast with the bones - oh there is flavor there, and it comes out- a rich flavor, a flavor of savory chicken that was lost when someone convinced you to pay a bit extra not to have the bone.

It Is Not Diet Food

The increase in sales of chicken breast correlate with obesity. Many think chicken breast is "diet food." It isn't.  Try this experiment: eat four ounces of chicken breast one night, four ounces of salmon the next, and four ounces of steak the next.  See when you get hungry.  Most people find that the fat in the salmon and the savory of the steak keeps you from getting hungry longer than the bland chicken breast.

Chicken breast is just poultry - it isn't diet food. 

But the Thigh

Ok, maybe I am a leg man more than a breast man - but the thigh has flavor, and texture.  Ever wonder why wings taste so good -- (hint, it isn't the blue cheese -- seriously, some people put that on wings - of course some people still choose margarine).

Do Yourself A Favor

Stop buying chicken breasts and thinking you are eating healthy. You want a great chicken - roast one properly, and then you can use the pan gravy from the stock and the drippings to make that breast stand out. 

Don't buy it skinless and boneless. Don't just grill it. Don't put it in a crock pot. 

Stop the insanity. 

Chicken breast - it ranks with fillet and pork loin as flavorless proteins.  I think Tofu is cheaper, and probably tastier. 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Mediterranean Diet: The Dinner Menu

Dinner is the most important meal of the day. Not because anyone says it is, but because that is how the majority of people eat. So what are some good dinner plans if you decide you wish to follow a Mediterranean Plan.

Think of their pyramid: it is heavily favored for fruits and vegetables, next up is fish - which they say one should have twice a week, next up is poultry and eggs, and finally red meat is fairly far up the pyramid.

In terms of menu planning let's start with planning some great food:

Fish Twice A Week

Fish is an important part of the Mediterranean diet. Consider the name- Mediterranean, the sea. Even the American Heart Association recommends having a diet rich in fish because of the higher content of omega-3 fatty acid provides good heart health.

Sadly, most people's experience with salmon is a smelly fish - and if it smells it should not be served to you. Buy some fresh salmon. Wild is more expensive, and seasonal. But you can get great farm raised salmon which is sustainable and provides the same health benefits. Some people will disagree based on OLD and bad data - but today's farmed salmon has been shown to be every bit as delicious as wild (I'm picky about salmon, I was raised in Ketchikan, Alaska - the salmon capital of the world).

Freshly baked salmon with olive oil, herbs, and lemon
This is a simple recipe for salmon, a great seafood that provides a healthy dose of omega-3 fatty acids. For the recipe see my recipe here.

Sous Vide is a great way to make salmon. Some like it because you don't have to heat your house, you can get great results all the time. 
If you have Sous Vide this is a great way to make salmon. Safer than pouched salmon, this is not overcooked.

Ceviche is one of the easiest ways to make fish. Instead of cooking it you use  citrus fruit to cook it instead of heat.
Ceviche is really from the America's - in Italy and Greece they use raw fish with olive oil- called Crudo - but Ceviche provides the same healthy ingredients for a dinner.

Vegetarian Meal Twice A Week

This isn't that difficult when you think about it. Meatless Monday is a "thing," now, but including more vegetables by having two meals where the protein is a vegetable decreases calorie count and increases the effect of the vegetables.

Remember Spaghetti? Pasta works well, but instead of Pasta I like serving up some Spaghetti Squash.  This makes a simple delicious Pasta - just add your favorite sauce to the dish and you have a great and fast meal. You can make your own sauce - or there are some great ones you can purchase (depends on how fast you want the meal).

Vegetarian Chili works also for a great meal at night- and provides some great future meals when you need to prepare it.

Besides the Meals - Other Vegetables, Grains, and Olive Oil -- did I forget wine?

The side dishes of vegetables for your meals should be filling and plenty. This is the basis of the meal. Remember you want to get in at least 1/2 cup of vegetables in at night  - hearty ones, like broccoli, asparagus, or even green beans.

Grains are at the base of the pyramid - and for that there is the bread and olive oil.  Make it a hearty bread- one that will stick with you.

Wine is always a plus- and a single glass of red wine - a five ounce pour - is all you need. More doesn't help.


The best desserts in the Mediterranean are the fruits. Not ice cream, not pastry, not gelato. This is a simple way to get some sweetness in at night and few calories.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Mediterranean Diet and A Healthy Mind

The recent article that came out stating that people who adhere to a Mediterranean diet supplemented with olive oil or nuts had improved function over time hit the presses with vigor. The ability to have an early intervention - a diet intervention, to delay onset of cognitive decline is a priority for all, but to do it with a diet as lovely as this? That is amazing.

You can imagine -living here, looking over the sea, eating olives and drinking red wine and knowing your brain and your heart are better off for it. Who wouldn't be in for that?
What Is The Theory about Mediterranean Diet and Memory?

The theory of cognitive decline as we age has to do with "oxidative stress," much like a nail that becomes rusty by oxidative stress, it is felt that this has a long-term effect on the brain. The theory being that if a person were to eat an antioxidant-rich food that there might be some protection against that slow decline, and perhaps even delay the onset of progressive degenerative diseases.

In addition, it has long been noted that pregnant mothers who diets rich in polyunsaturated fats,  specifically omega-3 fatty acids, have children that are smarter and perform better than mothers who do not. The other observation was from parents who enforce a vegan lifestyle to their children - those children have more difficulty with learning than those children who have more fat in their diet.  Fats are an important part of the brain and nervous system function, so not only are the antioxidants needed but additionally fat is needed to promote that function.

Previous Work Pointed The Way to Healthy Mediterranean Brain

There have been a number of studies, both observational and epidemiological- looking at populations that adhere to a Mediterranean-type diet that have better memory and cognitive abilities as they age as well as less dementia.  

Some work in rodents found that while there was a steep cognitive decline with refined fructose, omega-3 fatty acids appeared to protect against this decline. So if you don't want your rats to remember your house be sure to put out a lot of fructose and don't let them get into your salmon. 

What This Study Adds 

This study randomized older people to different diets and followed them, checking for memory loss, dementia, and cognitive decline (decreasing ability to process with the brain).  What was interesting was a previous study looking at patients who were on the Mediterranean diet found high scores on neuropsychological testing, but without a baseline study to compare.

Study Design

The study took 447 volunteers whose average age was 66.9 years and followed them for five years. This study took baseline data, from lifestyle and blood work to medication use. The participants were randomized into three diet groups: A Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra virgin olive oil, a Mediterranean diet supplemented with mixed nuts, and a control diet where the advice was to reduce dietary fat. 

The Results

There was cognitive improvement in those who had the Mediterranean diet, either supplemented with nuts or with olive oil and cognitive decline with the "control" group. 

Specifically the scores for the Mediterranean diet plus supplement were better with high statistical probablility when compared to controls (P of 0.049 and 0.04) in the Color Trail test and the Rey Auditory Verbal Learning Test (RAVLT). All cognitive scores were significantly decreased from baseline in the control diet group - (P < 0.05).
From the paper: Error bars indicate 95% CIs. P values by analysis of covariance were adjusted for sex, baseline age, years of education, marital status, APOE ε4 genotype, ever smoking, baseline body mass index, energy intake, physical activity, type 2 diabetes mellitus, hyperlipidemia, ratio of total cholesterol to high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, statin treatment, hypertension, use of anticholinergic drugs, and time of follow-up, with the Bonferroni post hoc test. For each cognitive composite, the changes between the 2 Mediterranean arms were not statistically different (P >.99 for all). The changes for memory between the Mediterranean diet plus olive oil and control groups and for frontal and global cognition between the Mediterranean diet plus nuts and control groups had values of P < .25.
Other Studies Comparison

In an Italian  Longitudinal Study on aging, it was noted that people who had greater intake of mono and poly unsaturated fats had better cognitive function in an 8 year follow up. One study showed a weak association with olive oil and cognitive function. So the evidence has pointed to this for years. 


The diet is a healthy way, and delicious way to eat and this study suggests that a healthy Mediterranean diet supplemented with olive oil or nuts may help counteract age-related memory and cognitive decline. 

Since we do not have an effective treatment for cognitive decline- this diet is the best weapon currently for adults.


Mediterranean Diet and Age-Related Cognitive Decline: A Randomized Clinical Trial. Valls-Pedret C, Sala-Vila A, Serra-Mir M, Corella D, de la Torre R, Martínez-González MÁ, Martínez-Lapiscina EH, Fitó M, Pérez-Heras A, Salas-Salvadó J, Estruch R, Ros E. JAMA Intern Med. 2015 PMID: 25961184

Mediterranean diet, cognitive function, and dementia: a systematic review.
Lourida I, Soni M, Thompson-Coon J, Purandare N, Lang IA, Ukoumunne OC, Llewellyn DJ.
Epidemiology. 2013 Jul;24(4):479-89 PMID: 23680940

Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function. Gómez-Pinilla F1.Nat Rev Neurosci. 2008 Jul;9(7):568-78 PMID: 18568016

Association of mediterranean diet with mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis.Singh B, Parsaik AK, Mielke MM, Erwin PJ, Knopman DS, Petersen RC, Roberts RO.J Alzheimers Dis. 2014;39(2):271-82.PMID: 24164735

Bern's Steakhouse: Innovation and Passion

The unassuming entrance to one of the world's great steak houses
In 35 years of dining I have been to 97 different steak houses on three continents. One would think that there is nothing new under the sun - but I was blown away by Bern's steakhouse in Tampa, Florida.

The passion and sense of innovation for providing the customer with a perfect experience is unparalleled.

The Wine

Boasting of over half a million bottles of wine - in this one "prep" cellar I would have to drink 8 bottles of wine a day for 50 years and I still would not have emptied this cellar.
The founder, Bern Laxer traveled the world to select wine for his guests. In doing so he developed the largest wine collection in the world, with over 6800 types of wine, and half a million bottles. This also means that there are over 200 wines by the glass available for the customer.

Their wine by the glass menu features wines from 1937 on - the day I was there I enjoyed a 1937 Madera to start the meal. One can have an individual wine tasting from just the wines by the glass.
This wine was in the wines by the glass menu - our group decided to finish this bottle- it was only right
Part of the enjoyment of a great steak is great wine - and their wine is the most reasonably priced for comparable bottles I have seen at any of the restaurants I have been to in the last 30 years (adjusting for inflation).  Their reason: "Many of the wines we purchased when they were just harvested, at well below market to when they were released for drinking. We pass on the savings to our customers."

Bern's Wine Cellar is the perennial recipient of the Wine Spectator Grand Award, the magazine's highest honor bestowed upon restaurants that display an uncompromising and passionate commitment to quality. According to Wine Spectator, "these lists show serious depth of mature vintages, outstanding breadth in their vertical offerings, excellent harmony with the menu, superior organization and presentation, and 1,250 or more selections."

Do you have a favorite wine? Wish to try something new- their wine program allows the sommeliers to not only produce a new wine for your liking, but at a price point that you can afford.

All of this- this great wine list, wines by the glass, the experience and education about wine- because it is an essential part of the dining experience.

Coffee: They Started Roasting Theirs Long Before Starbucks

Bern's Coffee Roasters

Bern Laxer wanted to freshly roast his coffee, but he was told that coffee roasting machines were just too large, too cumbersome and he shouldn't do it.  But Bern was an inventive guy - so he decided that it might be easy to adapt older machines to roast and grind coffee beans.  The machines above are in a small corner of the kitchen. Consider - this was long before the Seattle coffee boom of the 1980's, before Starbucks was anything but a character in a Melville novel. Bern knew coffee was an important part of the dining experience.
As then, Bern's roast coffee beans daily to serve their customers and staff. 
I discovered, that across the street, in the wine shop at the Epicurean Hotel - if you ask, they will sell you some coffee beans.  You want to get these. These are a classic, rich, nutty roasted bean. Fresh daily. If I were them - I would be roasting more and selling these beans in the steak house, the hotel, and everywhere. I would mail order these beans, and they could put on the date they were roasted. 
But consider- way back when, because he knew it was the dinning experience, they began to roast their beans.
Using my Aeropress - I was able to have the most delicious coffee - freshly roasted coffee beans from Bern's

But more than that- they tested multiple varieties of different  beans and came up with the combination that is unique to their restaurant. 
For twenty years I have had Peet's coffee sent, they only send the day after it is roasted.  I would change to Bern's in a nanosecond if they were to sell their brand online - freshly roasted. 


You have heard the rules about spices: grind them if you can, if you get powdered then keep them in a cool dark place, and toss them out after a year. Not good enough.
Every morning spices are freshly ground for all their kitchens.  If the steak house needs 10 pounds of white pepper, the dessert restaurant needs 2, it is all ordered and every morning those spices are freshly ground and ready for the day.
Do you know what makes a great steak - fresh spices. 
Do you know what makes amazing food - fresh spices.
Wonder why this food tastes so much better - think fresh spices.

The Meat

My friend, Simon Majumdar and I in the meat locker at Bern's Steak House. The aging of meat is a process that allows for better flavor, and not cutting individuals steaks means that they can cut the steak to order. 
The best steak houses buy their meat, dry age their meat, and cut their meat to order. Some of them will only buy one type of steak to age, but Bern's buys them all. We managed to get a 72 day aged bit of Delmonico steak (perhaps more than a bit). I like mine with 2 inches of diameter done to a temperature of 132 degrees F. They made it perfectly.

Where from here?

The innovation that is Bern's Steakhouse continues. Their new restaurant - Haven's, is an amazing bit of new-American cuisine.  Things have changed over the years at Bern's, and that has made things better.

Bern Laxer use to have fish tanks for his fish, today they can get fish flown in (FedEx) fresh daily. Enough for their customers, and safer than having them in tanks. Although they have an impressive collection of Maine Lobsters.

Bern also had his own vegetable garden, and they still have that, and some vegetables come from that garden, but today more farmers are producing high quality produce that allows them to pick and choose instead of relying on their own crop.

In 97 steakhouses on three continents I found the best. Another reason to visit Tampa.

Lunch and the Mediterranean Diet

One thing you won't find on the menu of someone who wants to eat a Mediterranean diet is fast food - no quick burger or taco. Lunch for those who want to live this lifestyle is a celebration of great food - fresh vegetables, fruits, and olive oil. And think about it- if you want to have a great lunch, don't you want the afternoon to be doing something besides recovering from a bad burger?


Salads area a feature for lunch on the Mediterranean Diet
The focus of eating healthy is having a good basis to start.  In this case, the base is a combination of green leafy vegetables, fruits, and grains. One of the easiest ways to get that is in a salad. Why a salad? Because in a salad you can place a lot of great vegetables, grains, and you can even add some nuts, seeds, and some left overs from the night before.

With the Mediterranean Diet the emphasis is on the flavor of the vegetables, not on the salad dressing.  In the case of the Stetson salad you have grains, a bit of cheese, some protein. Now to this salad you could add some avocado pieces, or some smoked salmon. The one below is a vegetarian option, although I do like mine with a bit of smoked salmon
My favorite salad - recipe from Cowboy Ciao's in Scottsdale. Lined up left to right:
Arugula, Israeli couscous, Roma tomatoes, Corn, Asiago cheese, Toasted Pepitas, Black Currants
Salads can incorporate those dark, leafy greens like arugula (see above) some dark baby spinach, kale,  and even bok choi. Add in some other great vegetables, to provide a bit of crunch and texture and flavors to the salad.

Don't forget the grains. Having left over grains makes a great addition to the salad. Couscous is a great addition to a salad, as is quinoa. Kale is bitter so it is best accented with some grapes to provide sweetness, and when you add some quinoa for protein and cheese for a bit of that Mediterranean flare you have one balanced and delicious salad.

This salad is a great combination of shredded kale, quinoa, sunflower seeds, grapes, preserved lemon, red peppers, fresh parmesan cheese and some manchego. This salad can be found from Ingo in Phoenix.
While the original Cesar Salad sounds like it is Mediterranean, it is really from Mexico, but this Kale Cesar salad has al the ingredients of a great meal: olive oil, kale, slivered almonds, pecorino, dates, and some lemon juice. My favorite Kale Cesar salad is from Tarbell's Restaurant in Phoenix. But this one is easy to make.
The other advantage of salads is you can incorporate last night's protein in them. On top of any of these salads you can put some cold salmon, some cod, or perhaps a bit of thinly sliced cold steak. But the idea of lunch is not to have it heavy with protein - but something light that will sustain you.


A hearty soup for lunch is another great choice on the Mediterranean diet. The great thing about soups is you can make them at home and portion them out in the refrigerator or freezer to keep. Then bring them to work and zap them in the microwave.

 Lentil Soup
Easy to make, and a hearty soup - Lentil provides you with a great deal of protein.
Lentil soup is one of my favorite soups. If you don't wish to go through the trouble of making it there are about ten different types you can buy in most grocery stores. But it is easy to make, then you have portions for a long time and it allows you to really enjoy a great soup.

Vegetarian Chili

This combines some of the best ingredients, layers of flavors, and yet can be made ahead of time, and easily eaten out.
Some might wonder- why a vegetarian chili? Why not use some hamburger in it, or perhaps some turkey. For the Mediterranean diet red meat is underemphasized, but there is a more practical reason. Hamburger and turkey proteins dry out as you re-heat them. Especially if you re-heat them in the microwave. Instead make a vegetarian chili- which would be filled with olive oil, onions, garlic, tomatoes, pinto and black beans, as well as a bit of chili. The idea with the Mediterranean diet is moving away from saturated fats, and into polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.
You can make this ahead of time, portion it out and freeze some, and have some for work. If you have it for dinner and someone really wants some meat in their chili, you can always fry some hamburger up in a skillet with onions and garlic and add it later- avoiding the problems of the proteins losing their moisture and getting more "dry" as they reheat.