Emerging Health Paradox in Greece

By: Michael Engle

Currently, the national economy is not the only crisis for the country of Greece.  In a stunning and ironic development, more than 65% of Greek citizens are obese--the highest percentage of any EU member country. This growing problem in Greece is especially disappointing, when one considers that Greece is the cradle of the Mediterranean diet.  For centuries, the Greek lifestyle has been regarded as one of the healthiest diets, with its plethora of whole grains, olive oil, herbs and spices, and seafood, coupled with its societal aversion to (but not banishment of) red meat and salt. It is even recommended at times in order to lose or maintain ideal weight. Hence, the alarming paradox.

Predictably, Western lifestyles and influences can be blamed, as the Mediterranean region is poised to consume more unhealthy fats and sweets than ever.  As a result of these nontraditional diet practices and lower levels of physical activity, Greeks are increasingly prone to previously unprecedented maladies, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Apparently after countless generations of following the country's famous Mediterranean diet, the Greeks' divergence from their culinary tradition has yielded significant consequences.  Hopefully, as Greece works to restore its economy, the country can recommit to smarter, healthier, and, by default, more traditional and local eating habits in order to combat this new national dilemma as well.

Photo:  Katherine Martinelli

For more news on health, follow me on Twitter (@MarcusCooks)

NYC Cheap Eats for Tax Day

By: Michael Engle

Today is Tax Day for Americans! While local and state governments collect their revenues incrementally, thanks to sales taxes on most transactions, Uncle Sam gets paid in one lump sum. Whether or not you vow to be more thrifty this year, it is always advantageous to know where the local "cheap eats" can be found. Because let's face it: even though some people insist on cooking every meal of every day and night, this is not a realistic option for others. So resist the urge for cheap "extra value meals" at fast food places, because their long-term effects may be incredibly "taxing." Instead, take a look at some of the best values in NYC!

Sal, Kris, and Charlie's Deli: If you're looking for a great sandwich and a good way to stretch your money, this is your place. Featuring the store's famous little-more-than-a-footlong sesame hero rolls (don't ask what bakery supplies the bread, because the owners won't tell), this deli has an extensive list of cold cuts and cheeses. The two most popular options here, however, are the Italian Combo (pepperoni, salami, mortadella, ham, choice of cheese, lettuce, and tomato) and The Bomb (literally, everything). Customers say that one $7.75 sandwich is actually two meals in one, so have it cut in four, enjoy what you can at nearby Astoria Park, and enjoy your "free meal" later in the day! 33-12 23rd Ave., Astoria, NY 11102, tel. (718) 278-9240

Lomzynianka: You'll need the G train to get here, but this Polish spot epitomizes "comfort food." Every main dish is accompanied with mashed potatoes and a vegetable; they range from $5.50 (roast chicken, meatloaf, or bigos--hunter's stew) to $9.00 (mushroom-stuffed chicken cutlet or the signature Polish Platter, which includes three pierogies, kielbasa, stuffed cabbage, bigos, and potatoes). No, there is not a single item that costs more than $10, but yes, you are allowed to bring your own beer or wine and drink it there! With enough meat and potatoes to satisfy even the most scrutinizing Slavic, your wallet will have plenty of room left over for a sweet blintz, but your stomach may beg to differ! 646 Manhattan Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11222, tel. (718) 389-9439

Joy Burger Bar: We've covered it before, so let's just state the obvious: It's a good burger for every size appetite and budget (3 oz. = $3.75; 5 oz. = $4.75; 8 oz. = $5.95) with mostly free toppings (only sun-dried tomatoes, avocados, and fried eggs carry a 75-cent surcharge). Two locations.

If you really want to immerse yourself in the poor man's ethos, New York City, obviously, has street food on almost every corner. The Halal cart on 6th Ave. and 53rd St. is probably the most famous. For $6, you can order the "mixed grill," which includes both lamb and chicken so you won't have to choose. Meanwhile, if you're looking for slightly more exotic curbside grub, we've got you covered once again!

What's your favorite local bargain meal?

Photo:Edgar Zuniga Jr.

For more cheap eats, follow me on Twitter (@MarcusCooks)

Catching Up on Ketchup

By: Michael Engle

Have you ever wondered why ketchup labels itself as "tomato ketchup," even though "other" ketchup is almost impossible to find? This is because ketchup has a long, rich, and interesting history. Tomatoes have only served as the standard ketchup base for a little more than 200 years. Surprisingly, if not for a since-proven misconception about tomatoes, ketchup may not have become so firmly entrenched with tomatoes.

Ketchup can be construed to be a descendant of fish sauce (ke-chiap), which is an Asian condiment made of pickled fish and spices. After ke-chiap was invented in China, in the 1690's, it soon became incorporated into Malay culture. In the 1740's, British explorers discovered ke-chiap in Malaysia, and imported it to England. Eventually, the product name evolved to the anglicized "ketchup." In British cuisine, the most popular ketchup was neither a tomato variety nor the original fish version; instead, the Brits invented a mushroom ketchup to accompany their Victorian meat pies, puddings, and roasts.

The first recorded tomato ketchup recipe, as created by Sandy Addison, appeared in the 1801 publishing of The Sugar House Book. Even though the recipe would be too salty for most modern palettes, this represents the first culinary use of tomatoes in American cuisine. At that time, it was still unclear whether or not raw tomatoes were poisonous. Thanks to liberal uses of vinegar, preservatives, and, eventually, sugar, ketchup overcame all suspicions over tomatoes to become a popular condiment in the United States. Starting in 1837, ketchup was distributed nationally; in 1876, the H.J. Heinz Company was established, and would eventually establish its ketchup as a flagship product.

Even though tomato ketchup is the most common form of ketchup, mushroom ketchup is not the only alternative. Filipino cuisine famously uses banana ketchup as a signature ingredient. Tomato ketchup was widely available in the Philippines before World War II, but due to a low tomato supply in the region, ketchup manufacturers switched to bananas. As a result of its overwhelming popularity, banana ketchup continues to be made and sold as a special niche product. This special sauce is commonly served with fried meat, and is also an ingredient in Filipino spaghetti. Because banana ketchup is, naturally, an unappetizing shade of brown, it is often colored red, so that it looks like the rest of the world's ketchup.

While tomato ketchup is generally considered to be the national condiment, it might have to have a challenger soon. The Wall Street Journal's Sarah Nassauer reports that Hidden Valley is aiming to re-market its famous Ranch sauce, from a salad dressing to "the new ketchup." On the other hand, if you don't care for Ranch dressing (or just prefer ketchup), yet are bored of traditional ketchup, there are plenty of resources!

Whether you are ready to pull out all the stops with Food Republic's Homemade Ketchup recipe, or whether you just want an easy way to make your ketchup a little more exciting (to do this, my method is ridiculously simple--I just stir some Tabasco into my ketchup), we have you covered! We can't do your laundry or pay for your dry cleaning, though, so have your napkins ready!

Check out this recipe for a Sweet & Spicy Peach Ketchup...

Makes 3 cups

Ingredients: 1 tablespoon vegetable oil 2 medium yellow onions, sliced 6 peaches, peeled and pitted (two 10-ounce bags of thawed frozen peaches can be substituted) 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon paprika 1/2 cup packed brown sugar 1/2 tablespoon sugar 1/2 cup cider vinegar 1 teaspoon salt


  1. In a deep saute pan over medium, heat the oil. Add the onions, then cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions turn golden brown and caramelized, about 15 minutes. If they start to darken too much, add 1 tablespoon of water.
  2. Add the peaches, red pepper flakes, cinnamon, paprika, white and brown sugar, vinegar and salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 45 minutes, or until thick.
  3. Working in batches, transfer the mixture to a blender and puree. Adjust the seasoning with additional sugar, salt or vinegar. Transfer the mixture to a clean jar and refrigerate. Keeps for up to 3 weeks.

Photo:Scout Seventeen

For more unique food stories, follow me on Twitter (@MarcusCooks)

Not So Happy Meal: Fast Food Linked to Depression

By: Michael Engle

Have you ever wondered how happy children become when served McDonald's Happy Meals? But just how happy can a Happy Meal actually make you? For years, parents and physicians have worried about fast food's nutritional value (or lack thereof), as well as whether their advertising practices prey upon young children. Fast food has also been criticized for their food preparation techniques, from using GMO's to constraining their livestock in tight living quarters. The most recent attack against fast food companies is of a different ilk. Tracy Pedersen reports that fast food may be linked to depression.

Scientists from the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and the University of Granada found that consumers of fast food are 51 percent more likely to develop depression than minimal or non-consumers. According to the lead author of this study, Dr. Almudena Sanchez-Villegas, Ph.D., the connection is so strong that "the more fast food you consume, the greater the risk of depression." The study also found a similar connection between commercial baked goods, e.g.: donuts, cakes, and croissants, and the likelihood of depression.

The results also showed that those participants who ate the most fast food and commercial baked goods were more likely to be single, to be less active, and to have poor dietary habits (eating less fruit, nuts, fish, vegetables and olive oil). It was also common for individuals in this group to smoke and work over 45 hours per week. The study sample consisted of 8,964 participants who were part of the SUN Project (University of Navarra Diet and Lifestyle Tracking Program). The subjects had never been diagnosed with depression or taken antidepressants. They were assessed for an average of six months, and during this time, 493 were diagnosed with depression or had started to take antidepressants.

I personally wonder whether fast food, in the context of this study, is actually a spurious cause of a diagnosis of depression. After all, consistently working nine hours a day would appear to be a significant factor that could lead to depression. Similarly, being confined to a desk would preclude people from exercising and/or enjoying nature, which could also be a contributing factor to depression. Regardless, bringing a salad or a home-cooked, health-conscious dish to the office would be a good decision on multiple fronts. Not only would you gain satisfaction by making a good meal in advance (and not have to lose time to the cafeteria or the drive-thru), but it would probably taste better as well!

To see which US cities ranked top for fast food consumption, click here.


For more health and food news, follow me on Twitter (@MarcusCooks)

Food Focus: The Seder Plate

By: Michael Engle

On Friday and Saturday nights, April 6 and 7, 2012, Jewish families worldwide will commemorate Passover with seders. Seder is actually the Hebrew word for "order," because there is a strict order to the festivities during these first two nights of Passover. In addition to components such as ritual hand-washing, reading the haggadah, asking "The Four Questions," and leaving drops of wine on the side of your plate, there is much more to a seder than just a Passover dinner.

Two food-centric centerpieces that appear on every seder table are the three-sheet pile of matzo and the seder plate. The seder plate has six food items; each one carries its own symbolic element.

  1. Bitter herbs, or maror, and...
  2. Bitter vegetables, or chazeret, respectively, symbolize the bitterness and harshness of the ancient Hebrews' slavery in Egypt. On seder plates, these are represented by horseradish and romaine lettuce.
  3. Charoset combines the texture of mortar with the sweetness of freedom. Charoset is essentially a chopped fruit salad, with endless variations and family traditions. Charoset almost always contains nuts, apples, cinnamon, and sweet red wine; sephardim (Jews of Western European, African, and/or Middle Eastern descent) commonly add dates and honey to the mixture.
  4. Karpas is a non-bitter green vegetable that symbolizes springtime. The most commonly used vegetables for karpas are parsley, celery, or boiled potato. As per Passover tradition, the karpas is dipped in salt water, which replicates the tears shed over the hardships of slavery, before consumption.
  5. Zeroah is the only meat product on the traditional seder plate. The zeroah represents ancient times, when animals were offered as sacrifices at the ancient Temple of Jerusalem. This is generally represented by a lamb shank bone or a chicken neck; vegetarians may elect to use a roasted beet, owing to its sanguine color and its passing resemblance to an animal bone.
  6. Beitzah is a simple hard-boiled egg. Because eggs are traditional symbols of mourning (eggs are served after Jewish funerals), beitzah represent the sorrow over the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, there is also the stack of three matzo, which remains separate from the seder plate yet is equally as vital to the seder. The bottom matzah is passed around the table to make "Hillel sandwiches," which place charoset and maror on matzah. The middle matzah is broken in half; one half remains untouched, while the other half, now known as the afikoman, is hidden. At the end of the seder, the children in attendance are encouraged to find the afikoman. Once brought back the the table, it is shared among all guests; the afikoman is, by definition, dessert, so claim your last serving of fruit salad before you eat it!

Photo: mollyjade

For more holiday food stories, follow me on Twitter (@MarcusCooks)