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Kitchen Shrink: From math to mouth – A culinary numbers game

Five-bean chili
(Courtesy of Herringbone, La Jolla)

As dreaded tax season looms, the nation becomes obsessed with numbers and calculations. Food preparation, whether cooking or baking is also log-jammed with a dizzying array of figures since food after all is science. From the time you leave your home with an itemized shopping list till the time you finish eating your meal—it has become an intricate numbers game. Now, here’s my two cents’ worth.

List in hand, (and calculators in palm for those serious comparative shoppers) you go armed and ready to the market, dressed to the nines and feeling like a million bucks. Starting in the produce department, where possible, buy seasonal, local, and organic. Remember the Clean 15 and the Dirty Dozen? The former refers to produce that can be safely consumed even though conventionally grown, like avocados, melons and other hard-shelled fruits and vegetables impervious to pesticides. The Dirty Dozen, on the other hand, like leafy greens and berries are fragile, porous crops that tend to be heavily sprayed with toxins by conventional farmers, so buy these organically grown. As for weights and measures, we still use the Imperial system, typically selling produce by the pound, and the dry pint, which is not a measurement of weight, rather volume. So a pint of blueberries fills about two cups, and weighs around 12 ounces. And usually bulk quantities are better priced, but not always. Do the math.

Many items are sold by the dozen (12), like eggs, which can also be marketed in half dozen, or dozen and a half cartons. Bagels are also sold by the dozen, and some smart cookies sell a “baker’s dozen,” which is 13 for the price of 12. This concept traces back to Medieval England where judicious bakers who sold loaves by the dozen tossed in an extra one for good measure so they wouldn’t be penalized by the regulatory trade guild for shorting the consumer.

Now, for the sixty-four million dollar question—why are hot dogs sold in packages of 10, while buns sold in eights? Maybe it’s an omen from the healthy food gods to steer clear.

We keep crunching the numbers as our obsession with salt, sugar, and fat rages on. Salt, an ancient mineral so treasured it had been used as a currency to pay Roman Legions is now embraced by top chefs across the lands enlivening everything from soup to nuts, along with holistic healers to ease sore throats and achy joints. Our bodies need salt to maintain fluid balance, and preserve nerve and muscle functions. For every 10 grams of salt we consume, that’s 4 grams of sodium. Like Baby Bear’s porridge salt has to be shaken just right since too much can trigger kidney stones and hypertension, while too little can cause dizziness and muscle spasms. Sodium lurks in processed foods, so read labels carefully, and aim for the American Heart Association’s recommended daily dose of no more than 2.3 grams, or one-half teaspoon. Take that with a large grain of salt.

Alas, the sugar shock—this energy-depleting toxin that suppresses the immune system, wallops the pancreas, and rots the teeth should be eliminated from the diet. Studies have shown the average American consumes roughly 1,000 grams or two pounds of sugar every week. A whopping 13 percent of calories are derived from sugar, and these are not only empty, but harmful ones. Sweet tooths can satisfy their cravings with more healthful substitutes, including coconut and date sugars, stevia, agave, brown rice syrup, and whole fruits.

From salt and sugar to fats, trim artery-clogging monsters from your table by swapping out red meat for red snapper or other omega-3 fatty acid powerhouses, especially wild-caught, deep sea, cold-water ones like salmon, herring, sardines and mackerel, and using olive oil to keep the brain cells vibrant, and the heart humming. An optimum adult diet comprises 20 percent to 30 percent of calories from friendly fats. If you consume 2,000 calories a day that represents 44 to 77 grams of choice fat.

My final numerical contribution is a five-bean chili that’ll fortify you throughout tax season.

Five-Bean Chili

1 cup each, kidney beans, white navy beans, black beans, chickpeas, and pintos, (drained)

1 sweet red pepper, diced

1/2 red onion, diced

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 tablespoons chili powder

1-teaspoon cumin1-teaspoon oregano

28 ounces diced tomatoes

3 ounces bittersweet chocolate

Sea salt, cracked black pepper and Tabasco sauce to taste

In a large skillet, heat oil on medium and sauté peppers, garlic and onions until tender. Add spices, chocolate, tomatoes and beans, and continue to cook on low heat, partially covering the skillet until chili thickens, about 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt, pepper and Tabasco, Serve with short-grain rice or tortillas.

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