Recipe Nutrition: Behind the Scenes!!
I had a reader recently email me about a nutrition website that I should look into. He helps run a printing company. He said, “Here is a site that I use to create nutritional panels for customers printing. So far I have found it to be accurate. Try it out and see if you like it. Pass it on to the rest of us foodies if it meets with your approval.”
I wrote back, “The funny part is … that’s EXACTLY the site that I use for my own nutritional data! I’d never thought to share that with people. I’ll make it a topic!”
Thanks for the thought, Clive! On with the show!
Firstly, the website above actually pulls information from a few places. The big one, however, is the 21st Release of the USDA’s Nutrient Database (USDA SR-21). You can use the government’s website to search this information, but … the government’s website is confusing to use.
I prefer the user experience of the NutritionData site, personally. (That said, people have suggested I use a variety of different recipe tools. There HAS to be a better way to do what I’m doing and am COMPLETELY open to suggestions!)
* ahem *
At some point, I’d always wanted to get into my own recipes and talk about where they come from, how they’re formed, the process I take, etc. Ultimately, I try and bake a little lesson into each one, but … this isn’t that topic. This topic is strictly about the nutrition elements, how I do it and WHY I do it!
First, let’s look at the “Nutrition Facts” for one of my recipes. These are the facts (Ma’am) as I sees ’em, for today’s Paper Packaged Dover Sole (recipe and picture at the bottom of this email).
When I’m actually writing the recipe, the first thing I do is list the ingredients and measurements in the recipe. Then, I write the method. From there, I rearrange the ingredients, so that they are printed in order of use. I always list “salt and pepper, to taste” at the bottom, because everyone has different tolerances to salt (and spice). Because of this, I don’t include any of the nutritional information in my facts for salt and pepper, nor do I bother to include “sodium” in my recipes. My stance is that, if I’m not going to suggest an amount of salt to use, it’s silly to present a fact for it.
(General Guideline: Salt is a flavor enhancer. I’m pro salt and suggest seasoning a little bit, at each stage, all the way through the entire process of the recipe. Don’t overdo it, though. You want to enhance the flavor, not make stuff salty.)
Once I’ve got my ingredients listed, I then begin the tedious process of analyzing each line, ingredient by ingredient, line-by-line. The first step is in figuring out the gram weight of the ingredient. This can be tricky, because everything weighs a different weight (Thank you, Density!)! A cup of oil doesn’t weigh as much as a cup of water, for example. Also, how much does “a bunch of cilantro” weigh? I’ll pick mine up at the local farmer’s market, where they’re heavy handed. For all I know, the “bunch of cilantro” at your local haunt is miniscule. I have no way of gauging that.
This is where the website above comes in so handy! It serves as a general all-purpose approximation for just about everything. Where I can’t find something on this site (rare), I’ll look elsewhere. 95% of the time, I can find the information I need, including finding an average weight for things like a bunch of cilantro. It’s probably not a large bunch, but it’s also probably not a small one. It’s likely somewhere between!
If you look at my recipe for the Sole, you’ll see the first ingredient is a bunch of asparagus. “Well .. great, DJ! How much is that?”, you might ask, while rolling your eyes at me. If you look at the gram weight, you’ll see that I’ve got it set at 227 grams, or one half of a pound! How did I decide that a bunch of asparagus weighs one half of a pound? Honestly, I’m not sure. I made that choice back when I added asparagus to my system, the first time. My guess is, I noticed that a cup of asparagus is 134 grams, and wanted about twice that. From there, I estimated a more reasonable number (8 ounces/half a pound). I also probably searched for “average weight of one bunch of asparagus”, read through it and made my decision. Once it’s made for an ingredient, it stays made.
Now that I know I’m using 227 grams of asparagus, I look at the nutrient value for 100 grams of asparagus. Everything within the USDA Nutrient Database is based off of a consistent 100 grams (which is why gram weight is used in my recipes). From there, I multiply the values by 2.27, in order to determine how much fat, fiber, calories, etc. asparagus has. Then, I add it to the recipe!
Perhaps it should be said that the nutrient value changes when it’s been cooked, or the woody parts of the stalks are thrown away, or that asparagus from the north is not as sweet as asparagus from the south, or that white asparagus is more dense than green asparagus, etc. Yes. This is all true. Everything is completely flimsy and variable. It makes me insane. Completely bonkers, I tell you!
I stick with a rolling average and trust that the sum-total average of all of my recipes are very sincerely and very honestly as correct as I think they can possibly be. I cannot know the precise value of everything, everywhere. I’ve tried. It gave me a headache.
Ok, back to the task at hand. This is where I do a perform a little mathematical equation and determine the “net carb” value of the asparagus. I subtract the fiber and the sugar alcohols from the carbs, and spit out the net carbs into the final column.
Then, it’s on to 89 grams of the white part of leeks! What kind of adventure will THIS take me on?!
I go through each line, figuring out the weight, then the nutrient values, followed by a little more math.
Then, I total all the values for the entire recipe, in the second to last row.
Finally, I divide each value by the number of servings, so that each portion has a value, as well!
Whew! Are you tired, yet? Analyzing recipes is … well … it’s my least favorite part of this thing we call “Blog”.
Why do I do it? I think it’s important! I know that when I was deeply trying to lose weight, I wouldn’t look at recipes that didn’t have the nutritional information attached to them, ESPECIALLY not while I was still learning. Even then, it was tough to trust some of the numbers. I could just list the net carbs, which is a common approach around the internet, but that doesn’t leave room for modification. By listing every ingredient, and its values, it allows you to determine if you’ve got room within your own personal goals to add a tomato to the recipe. Or, if a recipe has too much protein, you can see where the protein is coming from, and reduce a specific ingredient, rather than “guessing”.
Take a look at the difference between the leeks and the asparagus. There’s about 2 1/2 times more asparagus (by weight) than leeks. At 11 net carbs for 89 grams of leeks, imagine if you multiplied that by 2 1/2. You’d have 27.5 net carbs, for the an equivalent amount of leeks to asparagus. This suggests that leeks have near 10 times the carb content than asparagus. Might want to go easy on leeks! 😉
In the long run, through reading my recipes (or ones like it), you’ll start to absorb some of the numbers. You’ll start knowing the nutrient values of things, in your own head. You won’t need to look. You’ll start learning which cheeses have more sugars and how much a clove of garlic weighs. Osmosis, Baby!
This really all plays into my deeper focus, which is to share as much as I’m able to: from the nutrients involved, to the history of a recipe, to the getting a little deeper into the methods than another similar recipe might. I often feel it’s overkill, but … then I get a nice email from someone complimenting my efforts. These little notes totally make it all worth it!
I really sincerely hope people slowly learn and absorb tips and tricks from these recipes and become happier healthier people, with a more efficient skill set in the store, and in the kitchen.
Now that I’ve shared a little about the nutrition and the amount of work that goes into every single line of every single recipe (not including the conceptualizing, cooking, cleaning, photographing, writing, web optimizing, drawing my little squiggles on the images, etc. Granted, I DO get to eat it all, though!) …
. . . I’m going to throw a little guilt trip on all y’all.
Whenever you see a quality, well formed recipe, whether they are mine, or someone else’s … share it! A LOT of work goes into these things. Tell a friend! It makes it so much more rewarding for the one working on these recipes. It also puts you in the position of sharing quality, well thought out and informative information. Your friends appreciate it. They do. I promise you. SHARE. SHARE!!!!
Ok … one more … SHARE!!!! 😉
(Now, I’m going to get the onslaught of response emails from people telling me how I can do it better. YAY!)
Now let’s talk a little about today’s recipes (below). There are two. One is the sole we’ve been discussing. It’s SUPER easy and a fun idea. Check into it.
Also, I JAM PACKED the flank steak recipe with tips, videos, definitions and all sorts of other blather. It’s the biggest, baddest and beefiest recipe on my site. I’d really like to hear from you on the flank steak recipe. Let me know if that kind of recipe is useful to you, or did I overshoot the mark?
Until next time . . . !
Flank Steak Roll with Mushrooms and Tomato Gravy
This is probably the most advanced recipe on my website, so far. It’s got 3 different components (the beef, the sauce and the filling) and requires a variety of interesting techniques, from butterflying and pounding the steak, to making a “duxelles” and finally, thickening and fortifying the sauce with a little butter!
In the end, the flavors are incredible, deep and rich. The presentation is outstanding. Serve this for any gathering and you’ll have a hit on your hands!
Butterfly Video: One of the trickiest aspects to this is the butterflying of the flank steak. This woman does a great job of showing how to clean and butterfly a flank steak.
Tying a Roast Video: Here’s a great video that shows how to tie a roast. Many people tie it in sections, but this is the method I use. I rarely do the underside, as I don’t think it’s necessary, but it’s nice to see how it’s done. This method uses a long single string and allows you to tighten and adjust the twine, as you go.
Buerre Monté Video: This video shows how a sauce is thickened with butter. In the video, she does it with only water! In my recipe, the gravy is a reduced beef stock, with tomatoes, which is thickened with butter, at the end. YUM!
Finally,the definition of “Duxelles”: Duxelles is a finely chopped (minced) mixture of mushrooms or mushroom stems, onions, shallots and herbs sautéed in butter, and reduced to a paste (sometimes cream is used, as well). It is a basic preparation used in stuffings and sauces (notably, beef Wellington) or as a garnish. Duxelles can also be filled into a pocket of raw pastry and baked as a savory tart (similar to a hand-held pie). More … >
The duxelles I’m using has the addition of carrots and celery, at the last minute. This gives a little sweetness, color and texture.
I have to say, I love that this way of eating allows for these big, beefy and buttery dishes! No more skinless chicken breasts and whole wheat pastas for me! 🙂
Sole en Papillote with Leeks and Asparagus
Back in the 90’s, I used to work at a San Francisco hot spot called “Hawthorne Lane”. For the life of me, I can’t remember what was IN the dish we served, but the idea and concept has stayed with me through all those years. Wrap stuff in parchment paper; then bake it!
I’m trying to eat more fish in my diet. I love fish and order it in restaurants, often. I’m told I cook excellent fish, but I almost never cook it for myself. I do eat Salmon quite a bit, but that’s about it. I really have no idea why or how this trend developed, but … it developed and I’m trying to change the trend.
This recipe is designed to be both quick and fun, while also being … fish that isn’t salmon!
What I love about this method of cooking is, it’s super quick, requires almost no effort, everything is cooked together, cooked well and marinates and cross pollinates flavors in and amongst one another. Then, when it’s time to serve, it’s like a hot little gift from the oven that awaits unwrapping! GOOD TIMES!
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