The Food Guy, Steven Keith Eating his way through the state, plate by plate

According to retail experts, Americans purchase about 58 million pounds of chocolate during the days leading up to Valentine’s Day, making Feb. 14th the second-largest chocolate holiday. So, how can you celebrate this day of hearts while still protecting your own heart and overall health?

Here are some light and luscious lessons to love from Carolyn O’ Neil, co-author of The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous! 

  • Bubbles for you and your babe: Did you know that Champagne is one of the lightest libations on the bar menu?  Toast your love with a glass of “Brut” Champagne or other dry (not sweet) sparkling wine such as Spanish Cava or Italian Prosecco at only 78 calories for a 4-oz. glass.
  •  Choose chocolates with benefits: Ditch sugary heart-shaped candies in favor of Adora, a rich all-natural chocolate fortified with calcium, magnesium and vitamin D. Adora is a win-win for taste and health, with each indulgent disk providing up to 50 percent of the daily value of calcium plus plenty of vitamin D3 and magnesium. Choose dark or milk chocolate varieties.
  • Keep the romance heavy and the menu light: Planning a romantic dinner? Eating too much may make you drowsy before the dancing begins. Whether it’s at a snazzy bistro or a cozy dinner at home, choose lean proteins such as sirloin steak, pork tenderloin, steamed shrimp or grilled fish. Go for the greens in side salads and steamed vegetables, plus avoid fat- and calorie-laden fried appetizers.
  • Red is the color of the day: So enjoy a glass of red wine with dinner. Studies have shown that drinking red wine in moderation, a glass or two a day, can lower your risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Red wine and chocolate is a great flavor pairing, too, and both are good sources of disease fighting antioxidants.

In case you missed it, my column in today’s Daily Mail offered some healthier game-day snack suggestions for this weekend’s Party of all Junk Food Parties – the Super Bowl. Things like making turkey sliders instead of cheeseburgers, serving veggies and dip instead of chips and drinking flavored seltzers instead of beer.

Although we all know that last one is just crazy talk.

But here are a few more suggestions from NuVal, a new nutritional scoring system that factors in 30 different attributes of foods (from fiber to folate) to give it a score from 1 to 100 on the Nuval scale. The higher the number, the healthier the food. These NuVal scores are starting to show up on some supermarket shelves nationwide, though none in our area yet, listed right next to the item’s price.

Here are some suggested “nutritional trade-ups” to help raise your NuVal snacking score this Sunday …

  • Some refrigerated dips, such as hummus or guacamole, can benefit from their protein, fiber and vitamin E. Fresherized Foods Wholly Guacamole, for instance, scores a 59, a very high score for the category.
  • Gringo Green Mountain Salsa Scores a 9 and Newman’s Own Black Bean and Corn Salsa scores a 48.
  • Don’t let terms like “fat free” or “fruit dip” fool you. T Marzetti Dill Fat-Free Veggie Dip scores an 11 on the NuVal scale, and the cream cheese fruit dip gets a lowly 2.
  • All chips are not equal. While barbecue potato chips rank in the low single digits, other regular-brand chips score in the mid-20s. While “baked” chips score higher, the difference in score may not always justify the difference in taste. Lay’s Baked Potato Chips, for instance, score a 24. Regular Lay’s? A 23.
  • Don’t assume pretzels are more nutritious than potato chips. Rold Gold Pretzel Rods score a 14, while Cape Cod 40% Reduced Fat Chips score a 31. It’s also possible to find chips that score relatively high. If you don’t mind skipping the salt, Garden of Eatin Blue Tortilla Chips score a 52, the highest score in the category.
  • If you’re looking for better nutrition than chips or dips can provide, why not go with some nuts? Whole natural almonds score an 81 and Flavorite sunflower seeds rank a 52. Even Planters’ Honey Roasted Peanuts come in at a respectable 29. Others however, such as toasted corn nuts, are way down in the single digits.
  • If you’re craving a football game staple like buffalo wings, TGI Friday’s Frozen Buffalo wings come in low at 14, while Morningstar Farms meatless “buffalo wings” fare better at 29.

For additional game-day suggestions or to learn more about the NuVal scoring system, visit http://www.NuVal.com/Shop/trading.

Here’s a pretty cool new website to check out …

Do you take pictures of your food and post them on Facebook? Do you like to show off what’s cookin’ in your own kitchen? Do you like chatting with others about great recipes, cooking tips, unusual ingredients, funny cooking stories or even food catastrophes?

If so, Los Angeles-based Chef Jeffrey Nimer (owner of HauteChefsLA) has created just the site for you. Welcome to the Social Culinaire Network (www.socialculinaire.com), a new online community celebrating all things edible!

You can upload your own photos, create a profile, make your own food photo albums, find out about upcoming events – or simply just join the national “foodie” conversation. Enjoy!

OK, OK.

I know the song goes “bring us some FIGGY pudding” — and Christmas has passed anyway — but you gotta hear about this …

A good friend just sent me a gift of Sticky Toffee Pudding made by The Crazy Baker (Hall Hitzig) of Greenbrier County. If you’re  not familiar with Hall, you should be. He’s a great guy who turns out some really fantastic, rustic, European baked specialties from his small bakery in the beautiful Greenbrier Valley. You should try his creations every chance you get …

I do (and sent several of his incredible panfortes to co-workers this Christmas) but have never tried the Sticky Pudding. In describing this dandy dessert, his website (www.thecrazybaker.com) says “Bring out the exclamations!” Truer words have never been spoken.

Essentially a dense, dark bread pudding drenched in hot toffee sauce, it’s a soul-satisfying end to any meal. Or, as I discovered today, a darn good breakfast too. You take a bite, sigh and savor before digging in for  more.

The site goes on to say: “The Crazy Baker has a treat guaranteed to satisfy your desire for a high-quality dessert and bring a bit of England to you at the same time. In England, pudding refers to dessert. In this case, the pudding is a yummy date cake served with an unbelievable hot toffee sauce poured over it.”

A few spoonfuls of this rich sauce alone could kill you dead. But what a way to go!

T-Minus One Day and Counting … Tick-Tock, Tick-Tock

 OK, we’re at T-minus one day and counting.

The menu is planned, the shopping is done and the big bird is thawing. There’s really not much left to worry about at this point. Except trying not to kill your guests.

Food poisoning is serious business and reported cases often spike around the holidays. Here’s what you can do to avoid spending your holiday laid up in bed – either yours or one at the hospital …

  1. Wash your hands often, especially in between handling foods that are dry and wet. 
  2. Before preparing food, carefully clean counters, cutting boards and utensils with hot soapy water. Repeat cleaning in between recipes, especially if you have raw meat or leafy greens on the cutting board, both of which can carry salmonella.
  3. Rinse fruits and vegetables thoroughly under cool running water and use a produce brush to remove surface dirt.
  4. If you purchased a turkey fresh and not frozen, refrigerate it immediately. For a frozen turkey, allow lots of time for it to thaw – about 2 hours of thaw time per five pounds of turkey. Thaw a turkey a high walled pan placed in the refrigerator, and do not let the water touch any other food.
  5. It is safest not to stuff a turkey, but rather put herbs inside the cavity to season it. If you must stuff, use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of the stuffing which must reach 165° F. Stuffings with meat or shellfish (oyster) ingredients are risky. Always cook these on the stove top or in the oven, and not in the turkey.
  6. A significant risk of food poisoning comes from undercooking the turkey. You can’t tell it’s done by how it looks! While recipes give you hints about testing for “doneness,” such as a golden brown color or seeing juices run clear, these may not be accurate. The only way to make sure your bird is cooked sufficiently to be safe to eat is to measure the internal temperature with a meat thermometer. It must reach 165 degrees F.
  7. It may not be in mom’s recipe, but bring gravy to a full boil before serving.
  8. Keep cold food like salads, Jell-O molds and salad dressing refrigerated until just before serving. Once dinner is over, refrigerate leftovers. If food has been sitting out for two hours or more, it may not be safe to eat.
  9. Use pasteurized eggs in homemade recipes.
  10. After eating, take the remaining meat off the bird and store in a shallow container in the refrigerator. Don’t put an entire carcass into the refrigerator — it won’t cool down quickly enough.

So how do you know if those cramps you’re feeling are innocent indigestion or something more sinister?

Food poisoning can cause fever, stomach pain, vomiting and/or diarrhea, often leading to dehydration. These signs usually appear within six, but up to 48, hours after eating or drinking a contaminated food or beverage. For the elderly, children, infants, pregnant woman and people suffering from compromised immune systems, food poisoning can be severe. When in doubt, get it checked out.

Maybe It’s Time You Just Picked Up the Phone …

Still haven’t settled on a menu or picked up your turkey for Thanksgiving Day? You’re SERIOUSLY running out of time. Unless you thrive on stress, you may want to let someone else do your dirty work …

A few great local restaurants (Bridge Road Bistro, South Hills Market & Café) were offering pre-made holiday feasts you could order ahead of time, pick up Wednesday and take home to reheat on the big day. But those ships (i.e. deadlines) have sailed.

You may still have time to grab a Bob Evans carry-home Farmhouse Feast featuring a variety of almost-like-homemade holiday favorites. The hearty meal comes complete with your choice of a slow-roasted whole boneless turkey breast or sliced boneless ham, bread and celery dressing, mashed potatoes with gravy, buttered sweet corn, green beans with ham, cranberry relish, rolls, a loaf of pumpkin bread and a pumpkin pie with whipped topping.

Call, stop by a restaurant or order at www.bobevans.com now through December, or while supplies last.

A few local hotels (including the Marriott and Embassy Suites downtown) are also serving Thanksgiving Day buffets. Just be sure to call ahead for more information and reservations.

Two of the biggest questions on the minds of turkey cookers everywhere are:

  1. How long do I could the darn thing?
  2. And stuff, or not to stuff?

You have questions. I have answers …

How long should I cook my turkey?

This is where I have to give an obligatory speech about how important it is to cook the life out of your turkey so there’s no risk of killing your guests via nasty salmonella or other unsavory critters. Most sources recommend cooking to an internal temperature of 170, but I have a few caveats to add.

First, any bacteria that may have set up shop in your turkey kicks the bucket at lower temperatures, in the 140 degree range. What’s more: Even if you remove your turkey at 170, it’s going to keep cooking inside for a bit, to a higher temperature that will dry the poor thing out even more.

So definitely take it out the oven before it hits 170, and ideally even 10-15 degrees sooner.

How do you know when that is? Inserting a good ol’ meat thermometer into the thickest part of the bird gives you the best reading. Many turkeys also come with automatic pop-up timers these days. They’re convenient, sure, but also don’t pop until you’re past the 170 mark. Meaning they’ll keep cooking after that. And be dry as chalk.

But the “recommended” rule of thumb is this: Roast for 12-15 minutes per pound, or until the internal temperature hits, ahem, 165-175 degrees – or, if you want tasty turkey, a little less.

To stuff or not to stuff?

Here again, food safety experts caution against stuffing your bird. A mass of stuffing inside draws heat away from the turkey itself, increasing the risk that your meat won’t cook to a safe temperature.

That could definitely happen. So I also recommend against stuffing the turkey, not just for safety reasons but also quality, too.

All of that bread inside can not only suck up your heat, but also soak up all of the turkey’s natural juices. That may make for mighty moist stuffing, but not tasty turkey.

Cross Wine Shopping Off Your Thanksgiving To-Do List

Although it’s a wee bit early to start any Thanksgiving cooking, you can go ahead and cross wine shopping off your list today.

Few things stress out hosts more than the pressure of pairing perfect wines to complement the food they’ll be serving. Lucky for them, a traditional Thanksgiving menu is so varied in flavors that a complex (or even a specific) wine is not really your best bet. There are several simple reds AND whites that should work out just fine.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • White: German Rieslings are usually crowd-pleasers because their sweetness appeals to those who don’t think they like wine, yet they are subtly nuanced enough to be appreciated by more experienced wine drinkers. I still prefer a creamy and buttery Chardonnay, but a sweet Riesling or light Pinot Grigio will usually please more of the masses.
  • Red: The Gamay grape goes well with turkey, so look for a nice Beaujolais from France. (It’s light and fruity enough to please most without offending any.) Beaujolais Nouveau is the most prevalent you’ll see, but splurge a few dollars more for a better cru Beaujolais, like Morgon and Fleurie.
  • Sparkling: A festive bubbly is fun, and the touch of sophistication it adds leaves no doubt that you’ve gathered for a special occasion. Champagne (France) is nice, but don’t overlook a less-expensive Prosecco (Italy) or Cava (Spain) either. In fact, you could try both for the cost of a single bottle of decent Champagne.
  • Worth a Splurge: When you have the urge to splurge on some fabulous fruit of the vine, a big red is always a great choice. Opus One is a popular choice, but will set you back about $200. You could buy four or five really nice bottles for that price, so I’d go that route instead. Just explain what type of wine you like and let a knowledgeable employee or friend point you in the right direction. As for a high-end bubbly, there’s pricey Dom Perignon and Cristal, or the more reasonable – but still highly regarded – Veuve Cliquot.
  • And for Dessert: Choosing a dessert wine can be tricky, but Ports are a perfect winter treat with bottles running the price gamut – from $15 to $100-plus. My pick is a richly decadent Sauterne, a fortified French dessert wine that tastes of fine brandy and butterscotch more that straight sugar. Delicious!

Having just spent a less-than-pleasant hour at a crazier-than-usual Kroger, trust me when I say you need to come up with your Thanksgiving menu – and secure all the necessary groceries – speedy quick.

You do NOT want to be battling these crowds the day before your feast, when there’s enough stress to deal with already.

So let’s get to it, shall we?

The star of your table is a no-brainer (you’ve already bought your fresh turkey, right?) although may want to serve a small ham alongside it for variety. After that’s settled, most of your obligatory side dishes fall neatly into place …

You have to have stuffing, but also mashed potatoes for all that good homemade gravy you’re making. And not just mashed potatoes, but sweet potatoes too. And rolls. (This is definitely a “no carb left behind” kind of meal.) A few token veggies are a must – usually green beans on my side of the family, but peas on my wife’s.

But I always like to throw in at least one or two new sides each year, just for kicks. This year I’m leaning toward a Brussels sprout hash (sautéed with a little bacon) and maybe a colorful succotash with edamame and fresh corn.

And we’ll round things out with buffet of sweet treats – pumpkin, pecan and apple pies, plus some sort or rich chocolate torte.
It’s a pretty basic menu, sure, but the holidays are all about keeping long-standing traditions alive. So bon appétit!

How to Cook Thanksgiving’s Guest of Honor – RIP.

Yesterday we talked about buying your big Thanksgiving bird. Today, let’s discuss cooking that bad boy!

Here’s some advice from the venerable Old Farmer’s Almanac Everyday Recipes (and me) on how to roast it to earn raves:

  • Position your oven rack so the turkey sits in the lower third of the oven. If you’re cooking it in a bag – which I HIGHLY RECOMMEND – be sure you allow enough space above so the bag won’t touch the heating elements and burst as it inflates during cooking.
  • Preheat your oven to 325 degrees. This low-roasting temperature results in a juicier bird.
  • Remove the neck and giblets from the body cavity, drain any juices and rinse the bird thoroughly under cold water. Drain, blot it dry and set it aside to let it reach room temperature.
  • Stuff the turkey (if you wish) and then truss it: Take a 4- to 6-foot piece of cooking twine and tie the legs together at the ankles. Run the twine around the thighs and under the wings. Pull tightly and make a knot around the excess flesh where the turkey’s neck used to be. Trussing the turkey into a compact shape helps to ensure that it cooks evenly and makes it easier to carve.
  • Place the turkey on the oven rack in a pan deep enough to collect any juices that may run off during cooking. (You’ll want to save these to make awesome gravy later!)
  • Lightly brush the bird with melted butter or oil, then generously season with salt, pepper and your favorite herbs – either on the skin’s surface or, better yet, underneath it between skin and meat. (Just gently ply the skin away from the meet with your fingers, and slather your herbed butter mixture inside to better infuse the meat.) And don’t be stingy with the seasoning, either. Turkeys are big and their meat is dense, so they can withstand (and need) lots of flavorings.
  • Roast the turkey, basting with the pan drippings every 40 to 60 minutes. If you’re using a cooking bag, you don’t have to do this. Yet another reason to use the bag – less work, moister meat!
  • When the skin is golden brown, after approximately 1 to 2 hours, shield the breast with a tent of aluminum foil, shiny side out. To prevent over-browning.
  • Thirty minutes before the end of the roasting time, begin taking the turkey’s temperature with an instant-read meat thermometer in both the thigh and breast areas. Continue doing this in 15-minute increments until the thermometer reads at least 180 degrees in both areas.
  • Remove the bird, cover with aluminum foil and let sit for 30 minutes. This allows the juices to retreat back into the meat, making it easier to carve. (And tastier, to boot!)