29 August 2014

The Health Files: Quality Ingredients

Personal Picture: Salmon sashimi, miso soup and Tomates-Mozza

After receiving a few questions and comments, I have decided to continue the "Health Files" series, posts mainly around sport and food habits, based on personal experience only as I am neither a nutritionist nor a coach. After the first post on global nutrition ideas, I'd like to dig deeper into the contents of our assiettes, and the importance of quality food, which is more affordable than one may think.

A Tale of Tomatoes and Mozzarella

Tomates-Mozza is a staple of student food here in France. Based on the Italian tomato & mozzarella salad, it was one of the easiest and cheapest dishes I could reproduce from my mother's kitchen year round when I moved into my studio appartment in Lyon. During my university years, I've eaten countless tomates-mozza dishes, based on the cheapest supermarket tomatoes, cow milk mozzarella cheese and dried basil.

Fast forward a few years, le fiancé and I nostalgically decided to prepare a tomates-mozza, as pictured above. We went to the marché d'Aligre in the 12th arrondissement of Paris, got a selection of mixed seasonal tomatoes and fresh basil from the local farmer's stall, and bought traditional mozzarella di buffala from an Italian vendor from Genova (who also gave us his secret for a tasty pesto alla Genovese). A drizzle of olive oil from my father's olive trees, and voilà!

Only, it tasted nothing like the memory I had of my student years, a different dish altogether. Why? Because in season tomatoes, gorged with sun and juice, are way more tasty than the watery supermarket kind, fresh basil is a quite different deal from dried one, and mozzarella cheese made of buffalo milk actually tastes something.

We were discovering an entirely new dish, despite all these years of eating the - now obviously - tasteless knock-off, and, apart from the Mozzarella cheese itself, none of the ingredients were more expensive than those of my student years. Because in-season tomatoes are cheap and tasty, and a bunch of fresh basil costs cents - even nothing, if you cultivate a pot of basil on your windowsill.

On Simplicity and Seasonality

I can share two lessons from my Tomates-Mozza: the simplest dishes can taste heavenly if ingredients are chosen carefully, and one shouldn't eat a salad based on tomatoes and basil in December. Most of us may not even know the taste of the real thing yet, but once you discover the difference, there is no coming back. Just like the feel of a genuine leather jacket or cashmere knit can turn us away from synthetic fabrics.

Based on exeriences like the tale above, but also, and foremost, the sensible food education of my mother, I use these two simple rules when selecting my recipes and ingredients:

  • Simplicity & Quality: I always prefer simple recipes that require few ingredients - allowing to select quality produce without going bankrupt, and to enjoy each ingredient's taste without the interference of too many different flavours. With fresh and qualitative ingredients, one doesn't need to add too much fat, salt or sugar to compensate for the bland taste. Other advantages of selecting quality ingredients: they are full of nutrients for health, we don't need to eat too much to feel satisfied, and it doesn't require much time in the kitchen, as they don't need elaborate preparations to surrender their taste.

  • Embracing Seasonality: That may sound obvious, but with the availability of virtually any food year round, we tend to forget that most products are seasonal - that's actually the joy of each season, finding the first asparagus on the market, then the first strawberries, melons, peaches, plums, mushrooms... Seasonal products are abundant, therefore cheap, and their taste is incomparable, since they don't need to be picked early nor to travel the world. Seasonality is the main factor to eating quality without sacrificing budget. Besides, boredom is the worst enemy of healthy eating habits - eating in season allows for a variety of combinations and recipes over the course of the year.

A Few Tips and Ideas

The idea of selecting quality, seasonal ingredients may sound abstract, if it isn't in your habits at all and if you don't know where to start. So, here are a few tips and ideas I'm using myself in my everyday life:

  • Favour local farmer's markets over supermarkets - I don't know how wide spread these are outside of France, but maybe you can start with a good old Google search to see what your city offers? If markets don't exist, at least natural or organic grocery stores are much more likely to offer quality, local products than supermarkets.

  • Read labels - Where do these come from? Chances are, if these veggies come from the other side of the world, it means it's out of season for you. Never forget to take a look at the price per kilo/pound, especially for pre-packaged goods. And for "prepared" products rather than raw ingredients, always look at the ingredient list - it should be as small as possible. 

  • There is an app for that - I use a free iPhone app that lists seasonal produce, if I'm in lack of inspiration or am looking for variety. I'm sure it exists on every smartphone OS. Worst case scenario, you can grab a list from the web. This helps selecting what to buy; getting new ideas...

  • Look for Local Farmer's Initiatives - in France, we have "AMAP" organization that allow city-dwellers to receive a bag of seasonal products directly from farmers, (almost) sans middle man. There is also La Ruche qui Dit Oui in France, which I just discovered and registered to, and since we often borrow concepts from other countries, this has to exist elsewhere. Among the good points: you get a new selection of produce every week or so, diversity guaranteed, and you support local farmers over big retail chains.

  • Prepare More Dishes Yourself: Sometimes, making something yourself is easier and quicker than you may think (as I discovered recently with hummus). My mother does this a lot with her garden's produce, as all the seasonal ones arrive at the same time and rot if she doesn't prepare dishes with them in advance: tomato sauces, eggplant puree, raspberry coulis... Even if you don't have a garden, you can take advantage of the availability of seasonal products while they are cheap and prepare simple dishes or seasonings you'll be happy to find in the heart of winter! For example, at the end of summer, I prepare and freeze a lot of pesto with my basil before it dries and dies in Autumn.

  • Start Easy, and Level Up: All of the above are tips, ideas, you don't need to do each and every one of them tomorrow to enjoy better quality food. Like every other habits, small and steady progress is the key - maybe you can start with cooking more veggies, then find an alternative to supermarkets, then start making your own sauces and dips...

I hope this little article will be of use to you. Since it's pretty general, it may still sound abstract, so please let me know if you are interested in any specific focus for potential follow-up posts! I've also been toying with the idea to present easy recipes here on the blog, bearing in mind that I'm nowhere near a good cook, and favour very simple dishes, so I don't know how valuable that may be to you. As usual, feel free to provide feedback!


  1. Great Post! thank you
    Any chance of a monthly update of what's in season?

    1. That's a good post idea indeed, I'll think about how I can put together interesting seasonal posts! In the meantime I discovered a food site lately who already had the idea: http://foodieunderground.com/whats-in-season-august/
      Hope it helps :)

  2. For someone who is neither a health coach nor a nutritionist, this is excellent advice. I've since changed jobs, but I used to be a nutrition educator, and your post is very similar to the kinds of things I would teach people trying to eat healthier, especially if they were on tight budgets. Unfortunately, in the US those people have trouble accessing seasonal fruits and vegetables at low cost - while farmers markets are widespread, they're ironically more accessible in urban areas, and to those with higher incomes. And, of course, our tastes here tend to be such that we're not exactly up-in-arms about lack of access to fruits and vegetables!
    I'm lucky that I grew up with a family who gardened quite a bit, so I've always like produce. One of my favorite snacks when I was kid a were turnips my grandfather would pull right out of the ground and peel with his pocket knife. :) I also like to cook , so I enjoy making things from scratch to keep costs down; my main issue is having time. Batch cooking really helps with that, and having meals prepared ahead of time, so I don't give my lunch hour over to McDonald's just because I wasn't able to pack anything in the morning.

    1. Thank you for this kind word, I'm happy to hear that what I'm writing actually makes sense and can be useful for readers :) I'm guessing it is very difficult to teach someone to eat more veggies when they never ate any at home when they were younger. I saw a TED talk about it, a chef who decided to "re-educate" American families about healthy eating, vegetables, making food themselves etc. I really liked the initiative!

      I also enjoy cooking from scratch a lot, it's more enjoyable to eat something we've put time and effort into. But I'm having quite the same time issue, which is why I cook a lot of things in the week-end, and then refrigerate and freeze, to be able to enjoy (almost) instant meals while being home-made, cheap and healthy.

  3. I'd love to see some of your recipes! In all the cooking classe I attended, the importance of ingredients was really stressed, be it flour or fish or vegetables. Here in Italy we have weekly markets, which us where I do most of my fruit and vegetables shopping, and it's fun to see what is new as the season progresses. Besides, stuff is much cheaper than in supermarkets there. What I have learned in my cooking classes, and talking to a great fishmonger, is that there is a seasonality for fish too! And a good cook can make a great dish no matter what's the catch of the day.

    1. Oh cooking classes must have been so interesting! I'd like to take some too with my fiancé, once we live together :) It's true that fish is seasonal as well, we tend to forget it, but there is nothing like a fish freshly caught, not frozen and all. I also agree that ingredients make the dish - as Mireille Guiliano says, it takes a particular kind of evil genius to turn a mix of good ingredients into a bad dish. I'm fomenting some post ideas around seasons and food - I don't think I'm good enough a cook to actually publish a lot of recipes, but I was thinking of doing monthly posts about what's in season, with photos and either the recipe, or the link to the recipe I used from another site. To give a bit of kitchen inspiration maybe? Let's see what I can come up with - and as usual feedback is always welcome ;)

    2. I don't know how you feel about linkups, but you could post about what's in season and ask your readers to share a recipe either on the comments or in a blog post that would be linked. The simpler, every day kind of recipe, the better.

  4. Hello Kali,
    I really hope this doesn´t sound offensive or anything, but I was wondering how you combine your general approach towards life (i.e. economy, simplicity, environmental-friendliness etc.) with your consumption of meat and fish? I don´t know why, to me you seem like a typical vegetarian... :-D I guess this is a topic a lot of people are dealing with at the moment, so maybe you could even devote a blog post to it? Just curious to hear your opinion on that!
    I really enjoy your posts, keep going! :-)

    1. Hi Franziska,
      This is a very interesting question, because I have noticed there are a lot of vegetarians and vegans among the community I share some of my opinions with (may it be bloggers, magazines, friends, readers...), and I have to admit I wonder how simplicity, intentional life, ethics and environment/ecology are linked to not consuming meat and fish.

      I admit I haven't broached the subject much on my blog because these are very personal choices, and I have seen the debate get quite inflated on forums or blog comments, and I don't want to enter into a sensitive subject, or unintentionally offend people.

      To answer your question quickly, to me there are 3 aspects of being (or not) a vegetarian, and here are my own view on it (bearing in mind that these are personal choices and not a judgement on vegetarians, whom I admire for such dedication to their values):

      - Culture & values: In my cultural background, in France, we have always eaten meat and fish - from the local farmers, the market... Especially in my home region where we produce a lot of pork based ham and sausages. Eating meat and fish has always come as a matter of course and it never crossed my mind to go vegetarian. As I grew close to farmers, I saw they were treating their animals with a lot of love and care (my own grand parents had poultry), I therefore never associated eating meat with animal cruelty.

      - Ecology and environment: I always was taught be be extra careful where the meat and fish comes from: no industrial plants, only farm-raised animals who are treated as well as in older days, or wild animals. In my home region, we usually ate meat from local farms, and either river fish, or, ideally wild, sea fish and seafood, only in season. In France, we are lucky to have several labels that ensure produce comes from farms, is grass fed and spends a lot of time grazing outside. To me, the environmental friendly choice is the same for vegetables or animals - I avoid industrial veggies that consume a lot of water and come from fields created upon the destruction of forests or local ecosystems, as much as I avoid consuming animals raised in cruel conditions in huge plants.

      - Health: I believe in the diversity of the diet, to make sure I have all the nutrients I need to grow properly. This is also personal and linked to my own metabolism and genetics - my formerly vegetarian aunt had osteoroposis and had to eat meat again upon medical advice, so I've never wanted to take the risk to remove a whole food type from my diet. I do believe in moderation though, and I don't eat meat often. I favour poultry, duck, and a bit of pork, and reserve red meat for the occasional restaurant treat. As for fish, I also eat it a few times a week, raw or steamed, getting it fresh, in season, and, if I can afford, wild. Maybe about half of my meals don't contain meat or fish at all.

      I hope that covers your questions on my own views regarding eating meat and fish :)

  5. It does! Thank you so much for your detailed answer! :-)
    I can totally see why you don´t want to discuss this topic on your blog, people can get extremely... emotional about it, to say the least^^ And in the end it´s a personal choice, I agree.