Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Rubs > Marinades

Tools of the trade.

Over the summer, I had a friend ask me how to address a common problem:  he found his chicken dinners less and less inspiring.  This is nothing to be ashamed of.  It can happen to anyone.  The best solution is to spice it up...literally.

I can relate to running out of inspiration.  For those of us who restrict foods because of food-reaction, diet, or food-quality reasons, it's good to have an arsenal of flavorings ready.  I've come to eating hamburger steaks very often during the week because it's a satisfying carb restricted meal, and because I can afford the grass-fed ground beef - more than steaks, anyway.  So, I've been relying heavily on different spice rubs for the burgers.

Costco BBQ rubbed hamburgers.

As a general rule, I think rubs, both dry rubs and wet rubs, also called pastes, are far superior to marinades.  Dry rubs taste great when you cook the meat immediately after applying the rub, but they also get better with time.  Putting a dry rub on meat the night before is spectacular.  Marinades, on the other hand, seem to need an unnecessary amount of time to do their work.

The most important thing, though, is that rubs consistently accomplish what they are supposed to do - impart a desired flavor.  Marinades are alluring, they immediately make you think of garlic infused chicken breasts or  juicy lemon-pepper fish, but they rarely come through for me.  My marinades always result in bland-tasting, albeit well salted, meat that doesn't brown well due to the extra moisture.  Rubs always deliver.  Jerk rub will taste like a Jamaican vacation, and an herbed garlic paste will make your palate sing.

Now, that's not to say that marinades never work.  They just don't work as often as I would like them to. So instead of marinading the same old chicken, here are a few of the rubs that I like to employ.  Also great on pork, and some will work on beef (Jerk rub and Costo BBQ rub).

Multi-pepper rub (during last minute of grilling, brush maple syrup on meat to add a touch of sweat):

3 tbsp sweet paprika
3 tbsp ancho chile powder
1 tbsp ground black pepper
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp oregano
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

Multi-pepper rubbed pork tenderloins.  Finished with maple syrup.

Herb-garlic paste:

3-4 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp dijon mustard
3 garlic gloves, minced
1 tbsp fresh thyme, minced
1 tbsp fresh rosemary, minced
1 1/2 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp pepper

Jerk Rub:

2 tbls brown sugar
1 ½ tbls ground coriander
1 tbls ground ginger
1 tbls garlic powder
1 ½ tsp ground allspice
1 ½ tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp ground nutmeg
¾ tsp ground cinnamon

And don't forget, you can always buy rubs at the store.  I like Costco's mesquite rub - smokey, spicy, and sweet.  Yes, it's very strong.  So it's great to use on pork and beef, or dark-meat chicken, rather than fish or white meat chicken, and it does well with a healthy dose of lime juice after cooking.

Costco Mesquite BBQ seasoning.

Hopefully my friend will recover from his chicken-woes.  Although I can't help him with his first resistance to using rubs, as astute as the observation is, that raw chicken is gross to touch.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Chocolate, heart disease, and selective skepticism

I've recently developed an obsession with 88% dark chocolate that I can find on sale at Sprouts.  It has about as much fiber as it does sugar, and it's bitterness verges on espresso.  I've prescribed myself to a near-nightly dose of it after dinner.  And one night, while I was medicating, I came across a new study and some responses to the study that got me thinking about how easy it is to be critical about data that do not conform to our preconceived notions.

A meta-analysis was recently published on the effects of chocolate consumption and cardiovascular disease (the full text article can be found here).  The analysis only included 7 studies: 6 cohort studies, one cross-sectional study, and no randomized controlled trials.  Needless to say, I was surprised by the relative strength and consistency of the findings.

Source:  Buitrago-Lopez et. al British Medical Journal 2011.

The various levels of chocolate intake were associated with a 37% decrease in the risk of any cardiovascular disease, and a 29% decrease in the risk of stroke.  This is indicated in the figure by the diamond-shaped confidence intervals, which represent the risk of the combined studies, stratified by cardiovascular outcome, hovering around estimated relative risks.  There was no association between chocolate intake and heart failure, as you can see by the respective diamond crossing the relative risk axis of 1.  Unfortunately, none of these studies measured CVD mortality or total mortality, so we don't know if this reduced CVD risk was associated with a longer lifespan.

If you've been following my previous posts, then hopefully you've taken note that all of these studies are observational rather than randomized and interventional.  This makes this type of data prone to confounding variables (although many of these studies corrected for numerous confounders) and bias.  The bias is especially worrisome given that chocolate is somewhat of a luxury that probably associates with discerning palates, and because of all the marketing buzz regarding cocoa's abundance of antioxidants.

Even the authors are dubious of their findings since chocolate has more than just antioxidant-rich cocoa.  "The high energy density of commercially available chocolate (about 500 kcal/100 g) means excessive consumption will probably induce weight gain, a risk factor for hypertension, dyslipidaemia, diabetes, and cardiometabolic disorders in general."  And they didn't even mention sugar, which I'm more concerned about than calories.  And others are quick to point out that the association may very well not be due to the chocolate, as I mentioned above.  Marion Nestle, at FoodPolitics, concurs: "wisely, the authors point out that much more research is needed to confirm these benefits, not least because the studies were observational, not clinical trials."  

I agree with all of these issues.  And personally, I need substantial evidence to convince me that a food is not just food, but is actually therapeutic.  But if we are going to be skeptical about chocolate because of insufficient evidence, shouldn't we be just as skeptical of other foods or nutrients with similar insufficient evidence?

My last post on meta-analyses featured a study by Siri-Tarino et al. that concluded that prospective cohort studies show no association between saturated fat intake and CVD*.  Chocolate, on the other hand, does show a benefit, even in studies with similar design.  Furthermore, the reduction in the risk of stroke appears greater than might be expected from abstaining from processed meat.  Despite these difference, recommendations to reduce saturated fat abound, while poor chocolate only gets criticism.

Again, we have to be skeptical about all of these studies until there is either sufficint clinical trial data, overwhelming epidemiological data, or preferrably, a combination of clinical trials, epidemiology, and laboratory experiments.  It's imprudent to disparage a study because chocolate "just can't be healthy" or quickly agree with an association becuase processed meats "must be bad for you."  We have to be equally critical of all studies of the same methodology, regardless of the outcome. 

As with coffee, I'm not convinced that chocolate is a health food or will prevent heart disease; although if you can restrain yourself, it certainly doesn't appear harmful.  And with more investigation, perhaps chocolate will be definitively healthy.  So until we have more conclusive evidence,  eat chocolate because it is divine, because we can mull over the richness of it will friends at the dinner table, and because it is the perfect end to a meal.  And be equally skeptical of claims for all foods, regardless of how sweet, sweet, delicious they may be.

*As I described in the previous post, and to be accurate, there have been clinical trials to investigate the benefit of saturated fat reduction.  Replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat does indeed lower the risk of cardiovascular disease.  Although it does not appear to reduce CVD mortality or total mortality.