Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Spring Cleaning Confessions

This past weekend, my husband and I spend some time organizing our basement - most people wouldn't necessarily consider this a fun task, but I'm not most people, and I found it kind of fun for an afternoon. (My husband always teases me about the fact that I organize the shirts in my closet first by sleeve length, then by color - in my SUNY Albany/single days I even had different colored hangers for "work appropriate" and "going out" clothes, but I've graduated from that - no pun intended).

Now, while I'm by no means ready to make an appearance on Hoarders, I was slightly surprised to see how many bulk flours, pastas, and other stuff I'd accumulated over the winter. I've always been a bit of a pack rat - during our move to the new house I finally got rid the suede jacket that I had purchased using my first paycheck at my high school job. (In my defense, it still fit) ... though, I still kept the cropped Michael Kors denim jacket with rhinestone buttons, lacy cami shirts for going out, and a whole bunch of other fashion catastrophes from my past.

While in the past I've talked about the importance of stocking certain pantry staples, I didn't know I was a food pack rat too! :-) Those pastas? 3 or 4 deep, except the Asian pastas which are piled all over the place. And the flours? Tons of bulk bags of different types of flours from the Asian Supermarket.... the plastic airtight containers are the flours that I use for scooping when I bake in that kitchen.

I suppose the bright side is, we're ready for the zombie apocalypse.

Now, pardon me while I go clean out my closet with a garbage bag...

Monday, March 28, 2011

Parents Picket Girl with Peanut Allergy!?

This afternoon I came across this article, where parents are protesting a school's accommodations for a girl with extreme peanut allergies - to the point of asking her to withdraw from the school (OK, I'm a little behind on my news).

Wow. At first I really didn't have any words.

Now - I feel fortunate that no one in either my family or my husband's family has a severe peanut allergy. We have gluten intolerance and celiac, but that's the only thing we know of so far. Still, just based on the constant worry of cross-contamination I can feel for some of the precautions that the parents of allergic children are asking the school and students to make.

My thoughts?
  • Is this girl's allergy really so severe that she cannot eat in the same cafeteria as someone with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? If she can be in the same room, I think it's paranoid and oppressive to make her eat somewhere else. Kids want to be "normal" and part of that is sitting at a table with all their friends. (I realize that some people will be affected by the smell, but to my understanding that's an extremely small segment of the population).
  • Asking classmates to avoid snacks and wash their hands before class? The snacks are a no brainer - we certainly weren't allowed to eat in class when I was in school. With childhood obesity what it is, this seems to make sense as well.
  • RE: the hand washing, with rampant flu this makes sense regardless of food allergies. If I was the school administration, I'd make everyone do this just because I'd want to avoid the spread of germs. Peanut allergies are almost secondary. If handwashing is too much of a pain, distribute antibacterial hand gel and make everyone clean off their hands. (And re-evaluate exactly why so many people get sick in an academic environment).
  • Encouraging students to brush their teeth/rinse their mouths? I'm on the fence - given the astonishing ignorance of their parents this might be the only time in a day they are given the opportunity to brush their teeth. But it does seem a bit excessive to me. It's not like the students are going to be making out in class, and if they are then the school has many more problems than allergy accommodation.
  • Hiring a peanut-sniffing dog? Overkill. Come on. This is just asking this girl to be teasing fodder for the rest of her school career - especially if an athletic star is caught with a PayDay in his backpack that he intends to eat after sports practice.
  • Make the girl carry an epi-pen on her at all times. In fact, all of her teachers should have a spare as well, just in case.
As far as the parents picketing the school? Oh. My. God. Just grow up. If your precious little snowflake seriously harms or even kills a child with a serious allergy over something as preventable as washing your hands, I would HOPE that you both would be completely devastated. Why take the risk? All you are doing now is raising entitled, selfish brats who don't think of anyone but themselves. Retract the helicopter wings now and you might have a shot at a raising a decent adult.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Movie Theater Concession and Nutrition Labelling

I came across a rather interesting article regarding movie theater popcorn and proposed legislation to force theaters to disclose the nutrition information in their concessions - and suggesting that they include alternate, healthier movie snacks such as yogurt, granola bars, and vegetables along with their traditional fare.

Now, I'm a bit torn. On one hand, I'm all for truth in labelling and see this only as a good thing. I mean, one of my once-or-twice-a-year guilty pleasures is going to an earlier evening movie, and making a dinner out of popcorn, nachos, and movie theater candy. Especially if it's a traditional summertime "popcorn" movie - nothing beats a hot day killing some time in a frigidly air-conditioned movie theater with my sweetie, hands greasy from dipping into the super-duper-extra-butter popcorn bag (and of course, pockets full of salt packets for the inevitable sodium drop-off after we skim the top layer of popcorn), interspersed with chewy sugar bombs like Skittles or Starburst. Or, if we're feeling incredibly sinful, we'll have theater nachos: corn chips covered with warm, goopy neon-orange "cheese" that just tastes unbeliavably yummy. All while slurping down a Diet Coke twice the size of my head.

Afterwards, of course, I always feel incredibly guilty and atone by tacking on extra workouts (never hard in the nice weather) and eating boring green salads for the next week - with none of the fun add-ons like bacon, bleu cheese, etc.

Now. Labels are good - and I want labels - because a) I like to know exactly that I'm eating and b) It almost goes without saying, but anyone with a food allergy/insensitivity/restriction wants the added assurance that what they're eating is definitely safe. While we've always encountered wonderfully accommodating theater staff who bring out labels for us to read, more disclosure is always a good thing in my book.

Would it cause me to eat less? Of course! I mean, I love the Cheesecake Factory but after realizing how many calories I was consuming in my favorite dishes, I definitely reduced the amount of food that I consume when I go there. A mixed drink for 300, 400 calories? No, thanks, I'll stick to water. Salads that are just as calorie-dense as some of the huge dishes? I'll pass on the salad and force myself to eat only half of the entree I order. Appetizers, dessert? Definitely not (or at least, package it in a to-go box for later consumption).

Would I still go and order food? Yes - and the frequency probably wouldn't change. I mean, once a year or so isn't that bad to have a big blow-out. I may not eat quite as much - perhaps going for drinks and a salad beforehand rather than scarfing down the entire meal at the theater - but once in a while, it's probably not going to kill me.

Would I order healthier food?

Um, no.

To me, eating a yogurt or crudites while sitting in a chair in a large room full of strangers, eyes trained at the movie theater screen - is as foreign and distateful as those yahoos that sometimes sneak an entire fried chicken dinner into the theater with them, making the entire room smell like fried chicken, crinkling aluminum foil, and passing sides like cole slaw. (Yes, I've actually seen this).

Yogurt? If it requires one or more utensil to eat, it's probably not a good idea to have in the theater. Let's stick to finger foods here.
Crudites - most likely with dip? Well first of all depending on the amount and type of dip, this might be the nutritional equivelent of the buttered popcorn. But with that aside, most veggies - carrots, celery, etc. - are crunchy. I'd feel paranoid throughout the entire movie that I was the annoying loud person every time I chewed - or more likely, I'd be the person shooting dirty looks and wishing bad things upon the loud chewers. And really, I don't need the bad karma.

No, I think the content of movie theater snacks should remain the same. I mean, I'm not opposed to some healthful changes - like using better oils - but if I wanted air-popped kettle corn with no added salt, I'd have made it at home.

That said, I do think the industry would be well-served by re-vamping their portion sizes. A "small" soda is ridiculous! I mean honestly, who can drink that much in the span of two or three hours without getting up for a pee break or missing the movie, or ruining the end of the movie for themselves by tightly crossing their legs until their eyes turn yellow and counting down to the credits when they can make the mad dash to be first in line for the bathroom? Plus - I drink diet soda, but most people drink something sweetened - now that is a lot of calories before you even get to the concessions. Offer a 12 oz size, and people would buy it.

Popcorn too - I understand the need for larger sizes, and my husband and I usually share a small. But since it's never good the next day, you're forced to finish the entire bag and feel like a pig or else waste a ton of food. And while some people can, and want to, put away that much, and other people share with a large group - other people go to the theater alone. Or want just a little bit. A single-serving popcorn (think, the size of one of those 100-calorie microwave popcorn bags) would work well here.

Finally, theater candy. Do we really need huge boxes when the size sold at grocery checkouts would do for most people? Better yet - get some bulk bins in there so people can take what they want, how much they want, mix and match, and then just pay by weight. (Crossgates already has a bulk candy store, FYI).

So overall -- nutrition labelling is a great idea that I support. But before revamping the theater menu, understand that individual-sized portions are likely to have a warmer reception than, say, swapping out the nachos for granola.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Stuff Every Restaurant Should Do

Last Saturday, my husband and I devoted about half a day to running errands in and around Albany. Since Saturday is traditionally our grocery shopping day and the last week had been extremely hectic, we didn’t have much food in the house and didn’t really feel like doing grocery shopping just yet. (I hope that other people have been there and we’re not just slackers who sometimes dread the chore of menu planning and grocery shopping). With a couple of unforeseen snowstorms and the warmer weather upon us my pantry has been slowly emptying, to the point where all we really had in the house were yogurt – which I live on and my husband hates – and cottage cheese and cheese curds – which my husband loves dearly but make me gag. Neither was going to make a satisfying lunch, so we decided to just leave in the morning and pick something up while we were running around.

Fast forward a couple hours later, and we’re driving down the Northway debating what to eat. Since my husband was driving, I got iPhone duty. Remembering that Moe’s recently launched a line of gluten free products, I suggested stopping at the Moe’s on Wolf Road. My husband asked me if I knew what was on the gluten free list – I remembered they had rice bowls, but since I can count the number of times I’ve eaten there on one hand I didn’t know what condiments are safe. Enter the iPhone – I Googled “Moe’s allergen” and the first result was a PDF from moes.com titled ALLERGEN – it looked like exactly what I needed.

I clicked on the link… and was redirected to Moe’s mobile homepage. What!?!? To add insult to injury, a minute of surfing around on their “mobile” site didn’t give me the information that I wanted – and every time I tried to view their regular site or click a link from Google I went right back to the Moe’s mobile homepage. Ugh! After a couple of frustrating minutes, I gave up and we headed further down the Northway, eating lunch at the Chipotle in Stuyvesant Plaza. (SN: We had a yummy lunch that made up for the so-so grand opening we attended when they first came to the area. I was very impressed that not only did the employee making our tacos change his gloves, but they also brought out a fresh, uncontaminated tub of cheese.)

Now, admittedly I’m a computer geek and technophile, but Come. On. There’s no excuse for that – especially in this day and age when mobile search is the norm and people have come to expect data instantly at their fingertips. And the fact is, companies lose business by not making information accessible to their customers and potential customers. Not only did Moe’s lose our business last weekend, but since we had a favorable experience at Chipotle we’re going to remember that the next time we get a hankering for tacos.

So – here’s my list of stuff that I wish every restaurant would do – I think it would benefit smaller restaurants as well as big chains:

First of all – make sure your site is accessible for everyone! Yes, that includes home computers, tablets, phones, etc. etc. etc. By all means leave the stupid Flash animations off your mobile site. But an allergen list? You’re really going to make that inaccessible on a mobile device? I don’t care if it looks all pretty on the mobile phone, I’d be fine with a PDF or a text list of what I wanted to know.
Always make the following information available on your site:
  • The entire menu. Preferably with prices. Specials of the day would also be great.
  • Calories and nutritional information as long as it’s available... Ingredients are good to know as well!
  • Allergen information. For Every Product. And by the way, if you offer gluten free bread or something else along those lines, please mention it somewhere on your site so I know to ask!
  • Address and directions. It’s very easy to embed Google Maps into your site. Use it or at least link to it.

Bonus points for making the following information available on your site:
  • Company guidelines for processing allergens. Happy to accommodate requests to change gloves? Why, thank you Chipotle for letting me know! Things like that make me more confident in the establishment I’m choosing to patronize.
  • Have a local/sustainable/organic/ethical/green/other policy on the food you provide? Please tell me – yes, sometimes that information will sway me to choose one restaurant over the other.
  • A way to make reservations/order takeout or delivery through the website.

And finally, the stuff that I really don’t care about and would prefer not to see on your website at all:
  • Silly flash animations, music, videos… I want to go there for a meal, I don’t want to experience sensory overload by hitting your homepage.

As for the non-website-related stuff:
  • Please make training mandatory for servers. All servers should know, for example, that gluten free means no bread products. I always get nervous in these cases, because you don’t know if the server goes back into the kitchen, rolls their eyes and just picks croutons off the salad they initially brought out.
  • If you’re going to have gluten free offerings, please do some research. We often eat at Topp’s Diner in Rotterdam – while they have some great options and are generally willing to accommodate gluten free, it makes me nervous to hear a server say “Well, that’s gluten free as long as you can eat rice.” And trust me, I’d rather have a server go into the kitchen and ask a question than give me an answer that I have no confidence in. Similarly, we went to Benevento’s in Scotia offering gluten free sub rolls. When asked what meats and condiments were OK the owner – yes, owner! – said “I don’t know, shouldn’t they all be?” … Needless to say, we left without ordering.
  • If you’re going to offer things like bottled salad dressings, having preprinted allergen lists would help tremendously. “We serve Ken’s salad dressings, and we print their gluten free list every month. This is current as of X” would make me want to hug a server. Then leave a humongous tip.
  • If you’re going to offer a gluten free menu at all, please make sure that the food is good. I know I’ve carped on this in the past, but nothing bugs me more than “Order this yummy dish – but request that it not be breaded, the kitchen holds the tortilla strips, hold the sauce, substitute the mashed potatoes for a plain baked potato, and hold the seasoning on the vegetables.” Once in a while we have to eat at establishments like this – when we’re traveling and there are no other options, or if we have to attend a social event somewhere. But if I have the choice to spend money somewhere, and the restaurant treats every single gluten free menu item like I described above? I figure they must not want my money. And, by the way, we often order booze when we dine out. And, I like to frequent places – and bring friends/tell other people - that I like again and again. Oh yeah, and I waitressed in college so a server really has to try to get less than a 20% tip. But, that’s not a lot of money, now is it?

What other things would you like to see restaurants do, both overall and to cater to restricted diet communities?

Monday, March 14, 2011


I have a confession to make.

For a while I was boycotting Starbucks. Between pulling the delicious and gluten free orange valencia cake to being infuriatingly inconsistent with the information they provide about the gluten status of their drinks, it was mostly a point of principle.

However, I've gone back. I'm not quite at my previous five-latte-a-week habit, but I've had two lattes so far today. (Full disclosure before you think I'm absolutely terrible: as I'm writing this it's the day after we "sprung forward," I worked an eight-hour workday and I am currently waiting for an evening class running 6 - 9:45 to start). They're delicious, and the caffeine boost - especially when workplace coffee leaves much to be desired - is a godsend.

I'm torn - I love their products, and there are really no convenient alternatives for me based on where I live and work (I hate Dunkin' Donuts). But Starbucks as a whole would leave a much better taste in my mouth (no pun intended) if they (you, if you're from Starbucks and reading this) did the following:
  • Decide if you want to cater to the gluten free community or not. The orange valencia cake was great, and I can understand pulling it. But then "replacing" it with poor substitutes? I mean, really... who wants dried apple slices with their macchiato?
  • And when it comes to specialty drinks - please train your customer service representatives to be consistent. If I call twice and e-mail once, I'll get three different answers. And while I get that e-mail is persistent and that in this litigious day and age you want to CYA -- it's really not helpful to only say "Um, everything can be cross contaminated." Especially when your reps will tell you which drinks do and don't have gluten. In the corporate world that's the equivalent of giving the finger (with an upward shove for emphasis) to the entire gluten free community.
  • Get some gluten free prepackaged snacks. I mean look at the protein plate - would it be really hard to replace the meusli bread with flax crackers and make -one- gluten free grab-and-go option?? We're not talking gluten free bread or pastries here. It's not THAT complicated and it would make a lot of people really, really happy.
Do you have any other beef with Starbucks?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Belated Menu Plan 3/4 - 3/11

I've gotten a bit behind on my blogging - between schoolwork, work work and other stuff going on in my life I haven't had much time to cook let alone write about it. :) We had a busy-but-fun weekend, and believe it or not I did plan out my meals for the week.

OK. So here goes.

We had two of our good friends over for dinner. These friends prefer to eat vegetarian/low on the food chain and brought a delicious tortilla espanola as an appetizer, so I made the following:
  • This Indian Relish appetizer, mixed with cream cheese and served with rice crackers. OMG was it crazy-addictive-good. It was even better the next day. I am in LOVE.
  • Cajun stuffed peppers. I split them up half an half - some had chicken andouille sausage and others had portabella mushrooms. All had hot sauce, rice and monterey jack cheese.
  • Green salad.
  • Dessert: Fresh fruit with a Cool Whip-and-yogurt dipping sauce.
Leftover stuffed peppers for dinner, and leftover fruit dip for dessert.

I made ribs, slow cooked in the oven with Dinosaur BBQ sauce (yummy!) and served with baked potato and creamed corn.

This mini frittata recipe (though I plan to add green pepper as well), served with hash browns and green salad.

Chicken tenders baked with Bisquick, frozen veggies (probably green beans) and a starch TBD. Either a baked potato or some type of rice.

Pulling some chili out of the freezer for dinner, with green salad for dinner. Since I don't have to commute that day, if I feel ambitious I'll make some crusty Italian bread to go along with it.

Leftovers night.

Leftovers or takeout, depending on what we have/are in the mood for.