Articles in Healthy Cooking
Winter is making its presence chillingly known, and when the bitter winds and icy storms appear, so do the runny noses and sore throats. I’ve discovered that a key friend in these situations is also one of my favorite ingredients: ginger. The spicy root, while better known for curing nausea, also has secret anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting powers that make it a handy natural defense against winter germs. With its subtle heat, ginger even gives that extra warmth needed to sustain you in the frigid months. Luckily, there are several easy and delicious ways to incorporate ginger into your diet, so you can give both your immune system and your tastebuds that warm fuzzy feeling.
Try this bright tea to warm up your immune system and clear up your sinuses. Add several pieces of peeled sliced ginger (or a teaspoon of ground ginger) to three cups of water. Bring the water to boil and simmer 5 minutes. Add a teaspoon of turmeric (another anti-inflammatory immune booster), a pinch of cayenne pepper (decongestant), a tablespoon of lemon juice (vitamin C infusion) and a cinnamon stick (anti-inflammatory, bacteria-fighting, and antioxidant-rich). Simmer 5 more minutes, then strain into a mug and add a spoonful of honey (sweetens the spice). You can adjust measurements — just err on the careful side with cayenne and turmeric, which pack a strong punch. Prefer a shortcut? Combine the ingredients in a mug and pour boiled water over them, stirring well. Looking to really heat things up? Add rum or whiskey — it’s a Ginger Hot Toddy! A bit of a cheat on the health front, but will definitely help you stay warm.
This is a great option for when you’re on the run. Fresh ginger infuses refreshingly tart spice into any smoothie. Options include: mixed berries, milk, honey and banana; pineapple, coconut water, yogurt and cinnamon; mango, orange juice, ice and banana; strawberries, banana, milk and honey; carrot (juice), lemon juice, banana and mint; or kale, apple, lemon juice, blueberries, cinnamon, banana, milk and honey. Go wild with variations. I use frozen berries or banana to thicken, but you can add ice if using fresh fruit. Pick your preferred milk or yogurt — I go with almond and goat, respectively — and same goes for greens (like substituting spinach for kale). Toss it all in the blender with a few peeled slices of fresh ginger for a smooth and tasty immunity boost.
Here’s a zesty way to incorporate ginger into your lunch or dinner. Combine several peeled slices of ginger in a blender with a few tablespoons of miso, soy sauce, rice vinegar and about 1/4 cup olive or canola oil, a scant teaspoon of sesame oil, a clove of crushed garlic, a squeeze of lemon juice and/or orange juice, and salt and pepper to taste (and chopped scallions or fresh cilantro if desired). After a few minutes you have a mouthwatering, immune-empowering, Asian-inspired paste that can be used as a marinade for meat and veggies, a dressing for your favorite salad, or even a sauce for stir-fry.
Granola is the perfect snack: portable, versatile and filling, with lots of protein and flavor. If you’re a granola addict like myself, it just makes sense to create your own. It’s easy and enables you to add all your favorite elements — including ginger!
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Here’s a good starting recipe:
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 50 minutes
Total time: 65 minutes
Yield: 6 cups
4 cups oats (substitute other grains, like oat bran or quinoa)
1/4 cup each of your favorite nuts, roughly chopped (I use almonds, walnuts and pecans)
1/2 cup shredded unsweetened coconut
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons chopped crystallized ginger
1/4 cup each of dried fruit (figs, raisins, cranberries, apples, cherries — or a combination)
1/2 cup coconut oil
1/4 cup molasses (optional)
1/3 cup maple syrup (substitute agave or honey)
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1. Combine oats, nuts, coconut, 1 teaspoon of the cinnamon, salt, ginger and dried fruit in a large bowl.
2. On medium-low heat, combine coconut oil, molasses, maple syrup, brown sugar, vanilla and 1 teaspoon cinnamon in a saucepan. Stir until sugar dissolves. Pour sauce over dry ingredients and combine.
3. Lay out granola on parchment-lined baking sheet and bake at 275 F for 20 minutes; turn the pan; bake 20 to 30 minutes more until golden brown.
Again, feel free to personalize! Don’t like granola too sweet? Scratch the maple syrup and sugar. Wild for luscious clusters? Don’t stir while baking. And if you still need more ginger: Add 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger to the dry ingredients or shave fresh ginger into the saucepan mixture.
Main photo: Create a ginger tea with tumeric, cayenne pepper, lemon, cinnamon and honey to keep colds away. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rose Winer
There are so many people writing “Eat this!” and “Don’t eat that!” when it comes to the holiday season, it feels like a bit of a buzzkill. After all, food is at the heart of our best-loved holiday traditions and culture, whether baking cookies, shaking cocktails or hosting feasts for friends and family. I would never encourage you to deny these most simple and beautiful of life’s pleasures. I’m a nutrition scientist, not a nutrition Grinch.
Forget denial! Instead, follow these science-based strategies to help your body naturally consume less. Enjoy the season healthfully without making that tired resolution to lose those holiday pounds come the first of the year.
Select smaller plates and cups
Behavioral research conducted at Cornell University and elsewhere has found that selecting smaller plates and cups leads to less food and drink consumed. There’s simply not as much room on your plate for food, which helps manage portions. You can help yourself, and others, by setting your holiday table with smaller place settings. Choosing smaller plates is especially important in a buffet situation, which is a recipe for overindulgence given all of the tasty choices for the taking. This strategy is especially important when consuming calorie-laden foods like cheese and desserts. Another benefit of this tip is that going for smaller portions means you’re more likely to eat what’s on your plate, which means less food waste.
Swap water for wine (sometimes)
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Savor every delectable bite
If you’re taking smaller portions then you’ll definitely want to make sure you are enjoying every single bite. The advice to chew slowly and consume mindfully is never more important than during the holidays. There are so many good reasons to do so. First of all, it takes time for your brain to respond to satiety signals that tell you “Stop eating! I’m full!” We often don’t hear these signals, either because they are drowned out by our desire for more or because we are not giving our body the chance to react. Further, the holiday season in all its succulence is meant to be savored. Enjoy each moment, including the hedonic pleasures that eating evokes. In so doing, you’ll likely consume less food and have fewer stomachaches from over consumption.
Go for green
Holiday treats tend to be rich in calories. Baked brie, iced sugar cookies, boozy eggnog… Where was I? Yet nutrition scientists recommend that you fill half your plate with vegetables and fruits daily. We are lucky that the increased awareness of consuming plant-based foods for optimal health and weight means that restaurants and businesses are increasingly featuring veggies and fruits on their menus. I encourage you to do the same when you’re planning a meal at your own home. This tip may sound tired, but the dishes needn’t be. There are so many festive ways to prepare vegetables for your holiday table. Think: spinach salad with ruby-red pomegranates and crunchy toasted almonds; roasted butternut squash with crimson cranberries and caramelized onions; or herbaceous arugula with figs, pine nuts and a zesty vinaigrette. And why not feature fruit for dessert, like red wine-poached pears with blackberries? Don’t neglect these superfoods this holiday season.
Hara hachi bu at home
Holiday schedules quickly become packed with cheerful gatherings and epic nights on the town. But every night isn’t a party, and there are still times when you’re spending a quiet evening at home. Thinking about what you’re eating and drinking during those days are just as important as your noshing habits when you’re out. “Hara hachi bu” is an adage of the Okinawans, one of the longest-living populations in the world. It roughly means “eat to when you’re 80% full.” It’s outstanding advice for every day and any occasion, given research has shown that limiting calories throughout your life is related to longevity. But the recommendation is even more critical during this most wonderful time of the year. We all know what to expect when attending holiday parties: food, and lots of it. You’ll help balance your overall calorie intake if you can eat less and make healthier choices when at home.
Get out and play (often)
Weight gain is, ultimately, a simple equation: consuming more calories than you’re burning will lead to storage of energy in the form of body fat. Yet maintaining a fitness routine is a real challenge when there are more stresses on our schedules than ever. But the frustrating fact remains that we should actually increase our activity to compensate for the extra calories we’re consuming. I share your pain in the difficulty in making this happen, but I’d be remiss if the other side of energy balance — physical activity –wasn’t on my list. Hate running? Then how about walking to and from work or taking the stairs rather than the escalator when shopping at the mall? Perhaps ice-skating or a family football game? Jump rope? Hula hoop? Figure out what works for you –and stick to it. And if stuff gets in the way, don’t beat yourself up; just get back out there when you can.
Watch your weight (literally)
Weight gain occurs incrementally, and detecting small changes are best observed numerically. Monitoring your weight by stepping on a scale is the best way to tell whether your holiday feasting has gone awry. You might also consider measuring your overall body composition by calculating your body mass index, which is as important as measuring other physiological parameters such as blood pressure and blood lipids; all of these impact your risk of chronic disease. Weight gain around the waist is especially harmful because of its inflammatory effect, so keeping track of how your clothes are fitting throughout the season is also key. If you don’t own a scale, you might consider asking for one as a gift. Better yet, buy this present for yourself today.
Main photo: Prepare festive fruits for your holiday table, such as wine poached pears with blackberries. Credit: Copyright 2015 P.K. Newby
Cooking for dinner parties should be fun. If the occasion is a holiday, a birthday or a personal landmark, celebrating at home with a meal cements relationships with friends and family. But when preparing the meal is too much work, the fun goes away.
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With relative ease, chef Nicole Heaney shows how to create a flavorful dish featuring a filet of fish that is perfect for entertaining. The key for a dinner party, as she demonstrates, is a little planning.
In the kitchen at Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar in Monterey, California, chef de cuisine Heaney shows how to prepare sablefish with crispy skin in a brown butter sauce. Adding flavor, Heaney pairs the rich, fatty fish with al dente Brussels sprouts, creamy farro cooked risotto-style and savory apple puree to add acid and sweetness.
Key to making the festive plate is the combination of four elements, each of which takes very little effort to create. And of the four, three can be made ahead. The Brussels sprouts, farro and apple puree can be made hours ahead of the dinner or even the day before. Then, just before serving, reheat the three components and cook the sablefish as your guests are sitting down ready for a celebration.
For a delicious vegan and vegetarian meal, leave out the fish and serve the Brussels sprouts, farro and apple puree.
A kitchen with a view
Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar is the main restaurant at the Monterey Plaza Hotel on Cannery Row. Working with executive chef James Waller, Heaney cooks in a kitchen with a view of Monterey Bay. Growing up in Wyoming and working in Colorado and New Mexico, Heaney was an adult before she saw the Pacific Ocean.
She confesses that, even after a year at the restaurant, when baby humpback whales swim close to the restaurant, she joins the other kitchen staff members to rush outside for a closer look from the dining patio. There they watch as the whales breach for a long moment before disappearing in the cold blue water.
Her cooking is influenced by the time she spent in Sedona at Mii amo Café. Preparing meals for health-conscious guests of the resort and spa, Heaney learned the importance of clean, fresh flavors. Fats were kept to a minimum. The kitchen did not use butter or cream. Asian ingredients and techniques were frequently used.
The regime is not as strict at Schooners, but Heaney still creates dishes with distinctive flavors and innovative ingredients like the kelp noodles she uses to make her version of pad thai.
An avid reader of Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen,” she knows that the more you understand the chemistry of cooking, the better you can control the results. In her video demonstration, she points out the importance of using acid to round out flavors, as in the savory apple puree and farro risotto.
The apples Heaney uses are grown locally on the Gizdich Ranch in Watsonville, California. She recommends using Gala apples in the recipe. Heaney leaves on the peels to add flavor and color. Because the apples will be pureed, there is no need to cut them precisely.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes
Final assembly time: 5 minutes
Total time: 25 minutes
Yield: 3 cups sauce
4 large Gala apples, washed, pat dried, peels on
1 yellow onion, washed, peeled and trimmed, roughly chopped
2 to 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup bourbon (optional)
Unsweetened apple juice to cover
Freshly squeezed lemon juice to taste
Kosher salt to taste
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1. Heat a large saucepan on a medium flame.
2. Cut open the apples. Remove and discard the core and seeds. Do not peel the apples. Cut the apples into large pieces.
3. Drizzle olive oil into saucepan, add onion and apples and sauté together until translucent.
4. Add bourbon (optional). Cook off the alcohol, which may catch fire. Be careful not to singe your eyebrows as chef Heaney once did.
5. Cover with unsweetened apple juice. Simmer on medium heat until reduced by half and the apples soften and begin to break down.
6. Puree in a large blender. Start blending on a low speed and progress to a higher speed until the puree is smooth.
7. Taste and season with lemon juice, apple cider vinegar and kosher salt.
8. If preparing ahead, store refrigerated in a sealed container.
9. Just before serving, reheat. Taste and adjust the seasoning and, if the puree is too thin, continue reducing on a medium flame to thicken.
Farro Risotto Fit for a Dinner Party
Cooking farro risotto-style means heating and hydrating the grain as if it were Arborio rice. Substituting farro for rice adds a nutty flavor. Heaney prefers her farro al dente but that choice is entirely personal. Many people prefer their risotto softer rather than al dente.
Better quality ingredients yield a better result. With risotto, that means using quality rice or, in this case, farro. The stock is as important. Canned stocks are available, but they are high in sodium content and can have an off-putting aroma. Homemade stocks are preferable. Any good quality stock can be used — beef, pork, chicken or seafood. For vegetarians and vegans, the farro can be prepared with vegetable broth and without the butter or Asiago cheese.
The cooking time may vary depending on the farro.
Like other whole spices, pepper has volatile oils. To preserve the freshness of its flavor, Heaney prefers to grind the peppercorns just before using.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 30 to 45 minutes
Final assembly time: 5 minutes
Total time: 40 to 55 minutes
Yield: serves 4
64 ounces hot stock, preferably homemade, can be vegetable, beef, pork, chicken or seafood
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 yellow onion, washed, peeled, trimmed, small dice
1 large carrot, washed, peeled, trimmed, small dice
2 large celery stalks, washed, peeled, trimmed, small dice
3 garlic cloves, washed, peeled, rimmed, minced (optional)
16 ounces farro
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 tablespoon sweet butter (optional)
1 bunch Italian parsley, washed, pat dried, leaves chopped fine
1 tablespoon chives, washed, chopped fine
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, washed, chopped fine
1 cup shredded Asiago cheese (optional)
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Kosher salt to taste
Black peppercorns, freshly ground, to taste
1. In a saucepan, heat stock on a low flame.
2. Heat a separate medium saucepan over a medium flame. When hot, add olive oil and sauté onions, carrots and celery until the vegetables are translucent.
3. Add farro. Stir well and sauté until lightly toasted.
4. Add garlic (optional) and sauté until translucent but do not brown.
5. Deglaze the pan with white wine. Cook until alcohol is fully cooked out.
6. Add hot stock in 6- to 8-ounce portion. Stir well.
7. As stock is absorbed, add more stock and stir well. Do not scald the farro.
8. Each time the stock is absorbed, add more stock until the liquid becomes cloudy and the farro softens.
9. If the farro is being made ahead, when the farro is soft but not yet soft enough to eat, or 75 percent cooked, remove from the burner, allow to cool and refrigerate in a sealed container.
10. If continuing to cook or if reheating, taste and continue cooking the farro until it is al dente or to your liking. Set aside until the fish is cooked.
11. Just before serving, to finish, add sweet butter (optional) and stir into the heated farro until melted.
12. Add Asiago cheese (optional) and stir well to melt.
13. Taste and season with fresh lemon juice, salt and freshly ground black pepper.
14. Just before plating, sprinkle in chopped fine parsley, chives and thyme and stir well.
15. Serve hot and plate as described below.
Caramelized Brussels Sprouts
Heaney prefers her Brussels sprouts al dente. Some people like them softer, in which case, after the Brussels sprouts are washed, trimmed and halved, blanch them in salted boiling water for two minutes, drain and then sauté as directed below.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes
Final assembly time: 5 minutes
Total time: 20 minutes
Yield: serves 4
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 pound medium-sized Brussels sprouts, washed, discolored leaves removed, ends trimmed, halved
Kosher salt to taste
Freshly ground black peppercorns to taste
1. Heat a large sauté pan.
2. Add extra virgin olive oil and halved Brussels sprouts.
3. Season to taste with kosher salt and black pepper.
4. Stir well to prevent burning. Sauté until Brussels sprouts are caramelized on both sides.
5. If the sprouts are to be served later or the next day, when they are cooked 75 percent, remove from the burner, allow to cool and refrigerate in an airtight container.
6. When the fish is cooking, heat the sauté pan with a small amount of olive oil. Add the cooked Brussels sprouts to reheat and plate with the fish, farro risotto and apple puree.
Crispy-Skin Sablefish in a Brown Butter Sauce
Also called black cod, sablefish is not actually cod. Heaney uses sablefish caught in nearby Morro Bay. She likes cooking the fish because it is almost “bulletproof.” The flesh is difficult to overcook and is almost always moist, flavorful and delicate.
In order to achieve a crispy skin, Heaney has developed a simple technique described in the directions. She recommends buying a wooden-handled fish spatula with a beveled edge, which helps remove the fish from the pan. The spatula is preferable to tongs, which tend to break apart the filets.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 5 to 10 minutes
Final assembly time: 5 minutes
Total time: 15-20 minutes
Yield: serves 4
4 6-ounce skin-on filets of sablefish or black cod, washed, pat dried
1/2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon sweet butter
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon Italian parsley, washed, pat dried, leaves only, finely chopped
1. Season each filet with kosher salt and black pepper on both sides.
2. Heat a large sauté pan on a medium-high flame. When the pan is hot, reduce the flame to medium-low.
3. Add the olive oil. Allow the oil to heat.
4. Place the filets into the pan, skin side down. Do not overcrowd the pan, allowing space between each filet. If the filets are crowded together, the skin will not crisp.
Sear but do not burn the skin.
Jiggle the pan. That will help prevent the filets from sticking to the pan. If they do stick, use the fish spatula to gently release them from the bottom of the pan.
5. Add sweet butter to the pan and swirl around the filets.
6. Let the filets cook without fussing too much. The fish is cooked when the flesh is opaque.
7. Using the fish spatula, gently flip each filet over. Swirl the filets into the melted butter, being careful to brown but not burn the butter.
After 30 seconds, use a spoon to baste the filets with the melted butter.
8. At this point, the fish is cooked. Add parsley for color and season with lemon juice.
Put the saucepan to the side.
Assembling the dish:
Plate the fish when everyone is seated at the table.
All of the elements — fish, apple puree, Brussels sprouts and farro risotto — should be hot and ready to serve.
Select a large plate. Using the back of a soup spoon, spread a tablespoon of the apple puree across the plate. Add a good portion of the farro risotto in the middle of the plate, then the caramelized Brussels sprouts.
Gently add the sablefish filet, crispy skin side up. Spoon a little bit of the brown butter on top of the filet, farro and Brussels sprouts. And as chef Heaney says, “That is it.”
Serve the dish hot with a crisp white wine and let the festivities begin.
Main photo: Chef Nicole Heaney shows her sablefish with apple puree, Brussels sprouts and farro risotto. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt
Salads are the last thing we think about when we’re planning a Thanksgiving menu, but they are a great way to begin the feast. We like to serve this course before people sit down to dinner. We’ll plate them in the kitchen, then pass them around while the crowd sips champagne before the meal. Or we’ll place them on a buffet along with other hors d’oeuvres, a stack of salad plates and forks close by.
Here are some of my favorite choices for this holiday meal, salads that show off fall produce, feel autumnal, but won’t fill you up too much before the main event.
Endive and Baby Arugula with Pears and Toasted Hazelnuts
Toast about 1/4 cup hazelnuts, set aside. Combine baby arugula, endive, a sliced ripe pear or two, some chopped fresh tarragon and parsley and toss with a lemon vinaigrette made with lemon juice, mustard, a little garlic, hazelnut oil, olive oil, salt, pepper and some shaved Parmesan. Add hazelnuts just before serving.
Marinated Vegetables with Coriander Seeds and Herbs
Simmer 3 cups water, 1/3 cup vinegar, 1/2 cup dry white wine, 1/2 cup olive oil, a few crushed garlic cloves and chopped shallots, a bouquet garni made with parsley sprigs, bay leaf and thyme sprigs, 1 1/2 tablespoons coriander seeds, 2 teaspoons fennel seeds, a teaspoon of peppercorns and salt to taste in a large saucepan or soup pot 15 to 30 minutes. Remove vegetables to a bowl. Reduce marinade by half and add lemon juice to taste, and pour over vegetables. Refrigerate for a few hours. Garnish with chopped fresh herbs such as parsley, tarragon or chervil.
Baby Spinach Salad with Balsamic Roasted Turnips or Beets
Cut peeled turnips or beets in wedges and toss with a few tablespoons olive oil and a tablespoon or two of balsamic vinegar. Season with salt and pepper and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake 10 minutes at 425 F. Stir and bake for another 10 minutes, until tender. Remove from heat and allow to cool, then toss with baby greens and vinaigrette. Walnuts, blue cheese or feta, fresh herbs all welcome.
Make a creamy dressing with 3 tablespoons mayonnaise, 1/4 cup plain yogurt, 1 teaspoon curry powder, 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin, a little honey, 2 to 3 tablespoons lemon juice, salt and 2 tablespoons walnut oil or grapeseed oil and toss with shredded turkey, chopped apples, diced celery, chopped walnuts and chopped radicchio or endive.
Broccoli, Baby Arugula and Purslane with Quinoa
Slice broccoli crowns as thin as possible. Toss with a vinaigrette and marinate 10 minutes. Add baby arugula and purslane and toss together. Add just a little quinoa, about 1/4 cup, and toss again.
Marinated Carrot and Cauliflower Salad
Cut carrots into 2-inch sticks and break cauliflower into florets. Steam carrots 5 minutes. Steam cauliflower 5 to 8 minutes, until just tender. Toss at once with coarse sea salt and equal parts sherry vinegar and olive oil. Before serving, toss with a few tablespoons chopped fresh mint.
Radish and Orange Salad
Cut navel and blood oranges into rounds or sections. Cut radishes and daikon radishes into thin rounds. Make a dressing with lemon juice, a little agave syrup or honey, cinnamon, cayenne and pistachio oil. Toss radishes and citrus with dressing in separate bowls and arrange on a platter or on plates. Garnish with pistachios and fresh mint.
Romaine and Couscous Salad
Toss romaine (broken into small pieces), diced red and yellow peppers, and abundant fresh herbs with a lemon vinaigrette.
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Main photo: An endive and baby arugula salad with pears and toasted hazelnuts makes a perfect Thanksgiving salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman
High-end vinegar is going through something of a renaissance among foodies, chefs and home cooks. Vinegar is alive. Literally. At least before it’s pasteurized — a step taken by most manufacturers to make vinegar shelf stable. I’m on a quest to make my own vinegar, the kind that must be consumed quickly while at its peak acidity level, or fed at regular intervals to keep it alive. This living vinegar is tastier, healthier — and can give you better bragging rights — than the expensive pasteurized product you’re likely to find in gourmet food stores.
I dove into the world of DIY vinegar at the home of America’s greatest promoter of maker lifestyle: Thomas Jefferson. The Monticello Heritage Harvest festival is an annual celebration of food, history and the do-it-yourself spirit of the American Revolution, where authors and PhDs rub shoulders with urban homesteaders — a gathering that my husband calls “Historians ‘n’ Hippies.” My guides in the art of vinegar production come from both ends of this spectrum: Sandor Katz, author of “The Art of Fermentation,” and Gabriele Rausse, a pioneer of modern Virginian wine making and director of Gardens and Grounds at Monticello.
Ancient roots of vinegar culture
Vinegar appears in the human record at the dawn of civilization. Vinegar residue has been found in Egyptian urns from 3000 BC. Vinegar is mentioned as a tasty treat in the Bible and as medicinal treatment for colds in the works of Hippocrates. Apple cider vinegar was a cure-all in colonial America, but by the time of the American Revolution, people such as Thomas Jefferson explored vinegar as the ultimate addition to fine dining. Jefferson’s years in Paris made him a connoisseur of vinegar — and culinary historian Damon Lee Fowler declared Jefferson was positively “addicted” to tarragon vinegar.
Making your own
There are extremely elaborate, highly measured ways to accomplish the transformation of fruit juice or wine into fine vinegar. But Sandor Katz takes a loose, DIY approach to the process. Acetic-acid-producing bacteria called acetobacter and yeast — the two microorganisms required for vinegar making — are all around us. “You don’t have to be a microbiologist,” said Katz, when I expressed my concerns about making fruit scrap vinegar. “Not to worry: vinegar makes itself.” My process began with fruit scraps. While making a pie, I found myself with a pile of peach skins and several less-than-perfect chunks of fruit. I would begin with this, starting the process of turning fruit sugar into alcohol.
Step one: Sugar to alcohol
Vinegar requires two steps to turn fruit scraps into vinegar. First, yeast naturally found on fruit turns sugars in the fruit into alcohol — a process called alcoholic fermentation. And second, acetobacter converts the alcohol into acetic acid. A home brewer or winemaker will use specific types of fruit sugar and add a specific type of yeast to the mixture. For my purposes, I just mixed the fruit scraps with a sugar solution in a Mason jar following Katz’s recipe in his first book, “Wild Fermentation.” Then I covered the top with a paper towel secured with a rubber band and let the natural yeasts on the fruit (and in my kitchen) find their way to it. Yeast consumed the sugar, excreting carbon dioxide bubbles and ethanol in the process. I gently swirled the mixture around in the jar every once in a while and within a week, I could see the telltale bubbles that showed alcohol was being created.
Step two: Alcohol to acetic acid
My goal was not low-alcohol peach hooch. There’s a second step: turning alcohol into an acetic acid mixture that tastes delicious. “The word we use is French,” Katz said. “Vin aigre just means ‘sour wine.’ It is the consolation prize when alcohol goes bad.” I strained out the chunks of peach skin to stop the alcohol-creation process, then put the golden liquid into a new container with a scrap of thin kitchen towel over the top of the jar. Katz’s approach to this step is extremely simple: just let it sit there. The peach alcohol soon began to get stringy gelatinous threads that eventually massed into a noticeable translucent layer on top of my peach mixture. At first glance, it seemed like a food-safety disaster, but it’s actually the start of the vinegar magic.
A historic how-to series for home cooks, canners and kids
This was the beginning of the “vinegar mother,” a gelatinous membrane made mostly of cellulose produced by the acetobacter. It is the “starter” from which more vinegar can be created. After two weeks, a quick whiff at the top of the jar revealed the powerful tang of transformation.
I poured some of the vinegar into a shot glass. It tasted sharp, with a hint of sweetness — a distinct peach taste to the delicious acidic liquid. I plan to let this sit for a couple of more weeks, until it reaches its peak of acidity. I have a dozen plans for this: salad dressing, marinade, potato salad, even mayonnaise.
Making fruit scrap vinegar was an interesting experiment, but this kind of live vinegar needs to be used fairly quickly, while at its maximum acidity level, or heat-pasteurized and stored in a closed narrow-necked bottle for long-term storage. I wasn’t interested in the details of heating and storing this kind of vinegar safely. And it is crucial to pay attention to these details because as the acidity level in vinegar drops, other microorganisms can start to take over — a potentially dangerous situation from a food-safety standpoint. I wanted to find an easy sustainable way to keep vinegar alive in my own kitchen, so I turned to a classic Italian method for making wine vinegar.
An alternate step: Acquire a mother
The traditional method of making vinegar with wine begins with acquiring a “mother of vinegar” from a vinegar-making friend or from a wine-making supply store. I was generously given a small jar of this vinegar mother by Rausse. A passionate winemaker and vinegar maker, Rausse makes vinegar in his home every day using a “mother” that came from his grandmother’s house in Italy. When I asked him how long he had had his vinegar mother, he told me, “Since I was born.”
I was honored. My vinegar mother had its birth on another continent three generations ago. But such a legacy requires dedication and focus. I learned about the care and feeding of vinegar mothers at Rausse’s vinegar-making demonstration at Monticello’s Heritage Harvest Festival.
Keep your vinegar alive
The key to good vinegar, according to both Katz and Rausse, is to consume it while it is still alive. Most vinegar that you buy in the grocery store or gourmet shop has been pasteurized — the living organisms killed for the sake of shelf-stability and food safety. There is an important place for pasteurized vinegar, most notably in food preservation.
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The USDA recommends that only vinegar with an acidity level of at least 5 percent should be used for pickling fruits and vegetables. Because the acidity level of homemade vinegar is unknown, it should never be used for pickling. I follow this rule in my own kitchen and encourage others to do the same. But when I want to dress a salad, I reach for live vinegar.
Up until now, I’ve bought commercially produced vinegar with live bacterial cultures (Bragg’s makes a good one from apple cider). In a few months, I hope I’ll be reaching for vinegar with a living history instead. My homemade vinegar will tell the story of at least three generations of Italian vinegar makers, with additional flavors from my own kitchen. Over time, I’m sure my homemade vinegar will transform into something unrecognizable to Gabriele Rausse and his grandmother, but I hope it will be a delicious heirloom that I’ll be able to pass on to friends and family over the years and eventually to my own grandchildren. Time will tell.
Main photo: Peach skins were used to make homemade peach vinegar. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz
Puréed vegetable soups make an excellent entrée for a delicious meal consisting entirely of a soup and salad.
Wanting an authentic French recipe, I visited chef Jacques Fiorentino in the West Hollywood kitchen of his restaurant L’Assiette Steak Frites where he demonstrated his easy-to-prepare sorrel soup.
Sorrel brings dark, leafy goodness
Sorrel is not spinach. The leaves are similar, but the flavor is completely different. Richly flavored with citrus notes, sorrel’s dark green pointed leaves are a good source of potassium, vitamin A and vitamin C.
Unlike many leafy greens, sorrel is a perennial. One spring we were given a small plant in a 3-inch pot. During the first year the plant doubled in size. By pinching off the floral buds and harvesting the young leaves, the plant flourished and we enjoyed sorrel soup on a regular basis. After several years it grew so vigorously that it all but took over the garden.
A riff on soupe à l’oseille, a French classic
Calling his restaurant Steak Frites, Fiorentino announced to the world that his restaurant was solidly in the French bistro tradition. The dark wood interior and precise menu puts a spotlight on favorites that would be found in neighborhood restaurants throughout France.
Like Proust and his madeleines, Fiorentino uses a few carefully chosen dishes to evoke his childhood in Paris. For him that means grilled steak, double-cooked french fries (frites), foie gras and sorrel soup with deep herbal accents. As a nod to contemporary preferences he added salmon and, for vegetarians, portobello mushrooms with frites.
Wash. Sauté. Simmer. Blend. Season.
Depending on the chicken flavoring used, you will need more or less salt. Homemade chicken stock has the least salt and is preferred. Packaged stock, chicken concentrate and bouillon cubes have considerably higher salt contents.
Good quality concentrated chicken stock and bouillon cubes can be purchased in restaurant supply stores and supermarkets. Since the sodium content varies considerably, delay adding salt to the soup until all ingredients have been blended, then taste and season.
A vegetarian version can be created by substituting vegetable for chicken stock. As with chicken stock, homemade vegetable stock is preferable to bouillon cubes and will have a lower salt content.
In the restaurant, Fiorentino uses potato flakes for flavor and convenience. If you would prefer to use potatoes, boil the potatoes in salted water until a paring knife pierces the flesh easily. Allow to cool, peel, cut into quarter-sized pieces, add to the soup and blend.
L’Assiette Sorrel Soup
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 40 minutes
Total time: 60 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
4 ounces unsalted butter
1 small red onion, washed, peeled, roughly chopped
1/2 stalk celery, washed, trimmed, roughly chopped
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram leaves
1 medium-sized potato, Yukon Gold preferred, washed
1 1/2 cups chicken stock (homemade preferred) or 1½ cups water and 3 cubes Knorr chicken bouillon
8 ounces whole milk
4 ounces cream
1/4 pound fresh sorrel, washed, leaves only
Sea salt to taste
Pinch freshly ground white pepper, finely ground
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1. Heat a large saucepan over a medium flame. Add butter, melt and allow to lightly foam. Add chopped onion and celery, stir well and sauté until the onion is lightly translucent. Do not allow to brown. Add thyme and marjoram, stir well to combine flavors.
2. Boil a pot of salted water, cook whole potato, covered, for 20 minutes or until a pairing knife enters easily. Set aside to cool.
3. Add liquid, either chicken stock or water, stir well and continue simmering for a minute or two. Pour in milk and cream, stir well and bring flame up to medium so the liquids simmer five minutes to combine the flavors, being careful not to boil.
4. Add whole sorrel leaves. Stir into the soup. Reduce flame so the soup simmers. Stir frequently and cook 25 to 30 minutes to combine flavors. If water was used instead of chicken stock, add chicken bouillon or base, stir well. Simmer an additional 5 minutes.
5. Blend the soup using either an immersion or a general purpose blender, about 5 minutes. Peel the cooked potato, dice and add to the soup. Blend until smooth.
6. Taste and adjust seasoning with sea salt and freshly ground white pepper.
Serve hot with fresh bread and, if desired, a tossed green salad.
Main photo: Sorrel soup with crème fraîche prepared by chef Jacques Fiorentino at L’Assiette Steak Frites. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt
Chopped ultrathin in a style called a chiffonade, kale is a perfect bed upon which to build your salad dreams. And since it is one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet, with vitamins A, K, C, B6, manganese, calcium, copper, potassium and magnesium to boot, it’s pretty much the Tempur-Pedic of salad beds. Try these simple combinations to become a kale fan for life. And make sure that your kale was harvested correctly — too late and the leaves turn bitter, a winning characteristic for no one.
Apple of your eye
Sweet and tart apples make kale salads meet all of your taste requirements for sweet, bitter, sour and umami. Try a Pink Lady sliced thin paired with pistachios and feta, and mix gently with a dressing of fig vinegar and high-quality olive oil.
The classic spinach salad combination of bacon, grape tomatoes, hard-boiled egg and red onion gets an updated nutritional boost by replacing the spinach with kale. Toss in a vinaigrette made with warm bacon fat, olive oil and your favorite balsamic.
Citrus is the star
Citrus is the star of this kale salad, which pairs the leafy green with thin-sliced fennel, shaved Parmesan and vinaigrette of lemon and olive oil. For a sweet touch, add a thin-sliced Asian pear to the mix.
A protein punch
For a dinner salad with a protein punch and good fats galore, add pieces of turkey, chopped walnuts and scooped, diced avocado. Dress with your favorite balsamic vinaigrette and season with salt and pepper.
Veggies abound in this kale salad with grated carrot and diced roasted beet. For extra crunch and the perfect mellowing creaminess, add some thin-sliced almonds and crumbled chèvre. Toss in a vinaigrette with fresh dill or make a creamy dill dressing with plain yogurt, olive oil, dill and garlic.
If you’re a fan of Caesar salad, you’ll adore a kale-centered version pairing the leafy green with sliced sardines and Parmesan. Simple and packed with fatty acids, it’s a plated nutrition bomb. Make a dressing of minced garlic with lemon juice and high-quality olive oil.
Rethink the radish
Rethink the radish in this design-friendly stunner where the contrast of red and green makes the plate. Slice the radishes as thin as possible and toss them with the kale, sliced green onions (or chives) and a generous handful of pumpkin seeds. Dress with good old apple cider vinegar and olive oil and you’ve got a plate to celebrate early summer.
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Main photo: Kale is the perfect bed upon which to build a salad, as well as being packed with nutrients. Credit: Thinkstock
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson recently shared his muscle-building meal plan, startling some with the more than 4,000 calories and 36 ounces of cod he consumes on a daily basis. While my Oklahoma-raised husband nary includes seafood on the menu, he has been “eating for muscle” since high school, as he has trained and competed in wrestling, bodybuilding and power-lifting.
Over the past decade, I have been forced to cede significant kitchen territory to culinary enigmas such as chocolate-flavored whey protein, pink-hued pre-workout powders and multi-piece shaker bottles. As a result, I have observed at close range the food rules of a deliberately anti-foodie subculture, where positive nitrogen balance triumphs over palatability.
Protein is king
A veritable army of protein-rich comestibles rules our kitchen. Dozens of eggs, pounds upon pounds of lean meat and gallons of milk colonize the refrigerator. Large, barrel-like canisters of protein powder and accompanying supplements set up camp in one of the largest cupboards. Far from a child’s after-school snack, skim string cheeses populate the dairy drawer, ready in waiting for when hunger strikes.
Food is fuel
Anyone following an eating plan like this calculates each meal to provide a specific amount of carbohydrate, fat and protein, referred to as “macros.” This means that seasoning, texture and overall flavor may fall to the wayside. For example, on the morning of my husband’s final bodybuilding competition, he ate his last meal: a boiled chicken breast and a side of cooked oatmeal with cinnamon. He ate it cold. Out of a plastic container. Standing up. He might not have tasted it at all. It was just fuel. One last fill up before the show.
Taste is secondary
When protein commands the kitchen, flavor may be highly compromised, as foods take on a decidedly chalky taste. With options like chocolate malt, cinnamon graham cracker and banana cream, protein powder flavors may mimic a dessert menu, but they taste nothing like it. While there are certainly vegetarians and vegans who successfully follow muscle-building diets, it is unlikely many foodies could follow this regimen.
Cheating is part of the plan
Not all muscle-building meals are so profoundly ascetic. Bodybuilding resources abound that promote scheduling “cheat meals,” food breaks that understandably relieve the monotony of the diet, enhancing compliance and preserving sanity. Cheat meals also purportedly boost hormones and insulin sensitivity, which can be affected by prolonged calorie restriction during stricter phases of the pre-competition diet.
Bulk is good
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Building muscle bulk is one thing. Preparing food in bulk, known as meal prep, is another. Take, for example, the ingredients for one week of my husband’s lunches: 6 pounds of ground turkey, two cups of whole grain pasta, four cups of chopped vegetables and another four of greens, plus olive oil and low-calorie salad dressing. He prepares these meals in a fury on Sunday evenings, transforming our kitchen counter into a Ford-inspired assembly line. In under an hour, he cranks out five identical lunches, programmed for macros and packed into transportable containers. You can judge a muscle-building kitchen by how many pieces of Tupperware it holds.
Meal prep is not cooking
Make no mistake. Meal prep is not exactly cooking. It lacks cooking’s therapeutic value, its sensual processes, its variation and its creativity. Meal prep is mass assembly, measured and calculated. Meal prep is about efficiency, convenience and perhaps above all, adherence. Because sticking to the plan facilitates meeting one’s goals. It means making weight or achieving a competition-ready physique at just the right time — and if everything falls into place, winning.
Main photo: Eating to build and maintain muscles, rather than taste, is a very different approach to your diet. Credit: Thinkstock.com