Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thinking outside the cat box

When it comes to food, I'm a rather conscientious eater, as you well know. I spend a lot of time thinking about what goes onto my plate, and by that I mean I generally eat organic, local, humanely-treated, hormone-free, and low-processed foods. Recently, I decided I needed to put more thought into what I gave my cats to eat, too.

Over three years ago, when I got Sabriel as a kitten, I fed him Iams because that's what he had been eating at the shelter. After a few months, and some conversations with my new boyfriend the Anthropologist, I learned that the company that makes Iams (and other pet foods) tests its products on animals. Now, it's true that you must "test" food out on animals by offering it to them to eat, to find out if it's palatable to cats and dogs; however, while it's never been made completely clear by PETA and similar organizations, the kind of testing that most conventionally-made pet food companies do most likely involves laboratory testing which includes various forms of cruelty to animals. So I decided to go cruelty-free and switched to Natural Balance, a company owned by Dick van Patten. It was a little more expensive, but what's a few more dollars every month or so to feel good about the food my cats were eating?

After moving a few months ago, I found myself having to pick up cat food when I was back in my old home town — because I had no idea where to get Natural Balance in San Jose. Two different stores (excluding the big chains, which I already knew didn't) the Anthropologist and I visited didn't carry it. Finally, I went to a feed store nearby and asked a woman working there to recommend a similar but different brand. I ended up buying Royal Canin, which I immediately looked up when I got home — and discovered it's owned by a company that tests on animals. How else could they could claim their food produced less odor (which is one of the reasons I actually had bought this particular brand)?

I eventually decided that I needed to go all the way with my cats' food and commit to buying a brand that I could really feel good about: Newman's Organic. I'm completely dedicated to organics, so why shouldn't my cats eat the same way? It's better for them and better for the environment. Sure, it costs about ten dollars for three pounds of food, but again, I feel better about what Sabre and Friday are eating.

It's hard to tell what exactly PETA, who, as I mentioned above, is the primary organization invested in such matters, finds objectionable about the lab testing performed by pet food companies. There are few to no details available about what sort of testing is going on, and since I'm not the biggest fan of PETA's methods (they don't even think people should have pets), I do wonder what qualifies as "cruelty" to them. Regardless, I want to do the best thing for animals, and if that means spending a little more money and a little more thought on what I'm buying, that's fine by me. It works for me, and it's working for my cats, too.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The empty cupboard challenge

I often find myself going into my kitchen around dinner time and thinking, "I don't have any food!" This is often a gross exaggeration, since I generally have basic staples (frozen veggies, canned beans, bread, etc.) stocked up, waiting to be used. But when I'm hungry and have no idea what to make for dinner, the fridge can seem rather lacking in appetizing food.

Last weekend, I was presented with such a dinner challenge. There were two spinach and cheese quiches in the back of my freezer, which covered me for the main dish. But what about sides? Years ago, when I was living with one of my brothers, my standard quiche side dish was an artichoke. Being that I didn't exactly have any artichokes lying around in my nearly bare crisper, I opted for two slightly limp zucchini instead. I also pulled out some small potatoes from the cupboard, which were already sprouting from the eyes.

Referring to a couple of my handy cookbooks, I came up with what turned out to be a really nice meal. The zucchini were sauteed with garlic, then covered in tomato sauce and Parmesan, and broiled till the cheese was bubbling. The potatoes were boiled, then browned in a pan before being tossed with rosemary. Add the quiche, and there it was: dinner.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Return of the cook

For the past few weeks (months, even), I haven't exactly been eating healthy. My work schedule typically gets me home after 7pm, which often meant I was too tired to cook. So I got to-go food from work or went out to a restaurant with the Anthropologist, where I didn't really make the best food choices: I was eating a lot of fried foods, foods covered in cream sauces, and not entirely enough fruits and vegetables.

Last weekend, I declared I was going on a "detox" diet. Far be it from me to actually follow a fad diet (and I wasn't about to starve myself and only drink fruit juices or herbal concoctions) — what I really meant was that I was going to try to eat better. No more eating out. No more meat-and-carbs-only meals. And it was time to start cooking again.

After reading a couple articles on "detox" diets, I decided that, as a guideline, I would try to avoid processed foods (which I try to do anyway), as well as anything with a high sugar or fat content, including meat, and I would concentrate on getting my five to nine servings of produce, including lots of dark, leafy greens. Of course, I'm not always successful (dinner at Taco Bell doesn't exactly fit the criteria, does it?), but I'm happy that I'm cooking again and I feel healthier.

Tonight I decided to make a fish pie, which contained elements of recipes from both Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver. (I had both cookbooks open on the kitchen table and was studying them intently, which caused the Anthropologist to remark that I looked like I was working on a paper.) Served on the side were peas and Heinz baked beans, which apparently are the classic accompaniments to such a dish. It was really very good: a hearty meal for a cold, late autumn night.

Stay tuned for more! I know I often promise this kind of post or another, but I truly am going to try to post on a more regular basis — and a post about something is better than no post at all.

Fish pie
(adapted from Nigella's Feast and Jamie's The Naked Chef Takes Off)

1 large Russet potato, weighing about 1 lb, cut in 1-inch cubes
1/4 c butter, divided (alternatively, use olive oil)
2 handfuls of spinach
1/4 onion, diced
2 small carrots, halved lengthwise, then diced
1 tbsp flour
1 c milk, whole or otherwise
1 tsp herbes de Provence (or thyme or other herb mix)
1 pinch saffron, soaked in 1 tbsp warm water
1/2 lb white fish, like cod (I used tilapia), sliced into strips
juice of 1 lemon

Preheat oven to 400°F.

Boil potato in salted water until tender, about 15 minutes. Mash with butter or olive oil, pepper, or whatever else you like.

Meanwhile, wilt the spinach any way you like and set aside. Sauté the onion and carrots in olive oil until soft, about 5 minutes. Remove from pan. Melt 1 tbsp butter, then whisk in flour. Cook on low heat for a couple minutes, until golden. Gradually add the milk, whisking all the while, until the sauce becomes smooth and thick. Return the onion and carrots to the pan, along with the herbes de Provence (or whatever you're using) and the saffron. Cook for 5 minutes.

In a casserole dish large enough to fit everything (I used a large, deep ramekin*), put the spinach and the fish at the bottom with the lemon juice. Add the sauce on top, smoothing it out with a rubber spatula. Then add the mashed potato on top, making sure the sides are sealed so that no sauce can escape. Place the dish on a baking sheet (to catch any surprise drips) and bake for 25 minutes, until golden on top.

Serve with peas and English baked beans. Nigella and Jamie insist.

Serves 2-3.

*The Anthropologist thinks this sounds dirty.