Articles in Healthy Cooking

Watercress soup with bread and pear slices. Credit: Sharon Hunt

Watercress is one of those greens that goes in and out of popularity with my friends, although I have been devoted to it for 20 years, after discovering a hummus, tomato and watercress sandwich in a cafe close to where I worked at the time.

The peppery taste of the watercress added a final, perfect note to the tanginess of the hummus and the freshness of the tomatoes. That sandwich became my workday treat, eaten religiously, Monday to Friday, for a couple of years.

Later, when I left the corporate world and returned to cooking for myself, I nibbled watercress while tossing it into salads, learned to make Potage Cressionniere (a soup of potatoes and watercress) in winter and a lighter soup (without the potatoes) in spring and summer, and used it in my own version of that long-gone sandwich.

Historically, watercress thought to fortify mind and body

Nasturtium officinale is the botanical name for watercress. The word Nasturtium comes from the Latin nasus tortus, meaning “twisted nose,” a warning about the effect watercress can have on your nasal passages.

It may be a nose twister, but it is also one of the oldest green vegetables known to man. The ancient Greeks, Romans and Persians loved it. Persian children ate watercress to grow strong, while Persian and Greek soldiers ate it to remain so. Both the Greek general Xenophon and the Persian king Xerxes decreed their troops should eat it for the same reason, with Xenophon once recalling, “How pleasant it is to eat barley cake and some cress when one is hungry by a stream.”

A Greek proverb — “Eat cress and learn more wit” — gave an indication of the vegetable’s contribution to the brain, something Irish monks also understood. They spent months living on watercress and bread to stimulate their brains.

Watercress provides essential vitamins — in particular A and C — as well as calcium, magnesium, folic acid, iodine, sulfur and iron. It is believed to have wonderful cleansing powers and help in curing a variety of ills. (Romans and Anglo-Saxons used it as a treatment for baldness.) It was also eaten to provide courage and character, and as an aphrodisiac.

The Romans put watercress in salads, dressing it with oil and vinegar, much like we do today.  When Hippocrates — the Greek physician known as the father of Western medicine — founded the first hospital on the island of Kos, Greece, about 400 B.C., he used watercress to treat blood disorders. Twelve centuries later, English herbalist John Gerard championed it as a cure for scurvy in the 1600s. Watercress may also have been eaten at the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving dinner.

A twist from Dickens

In more modern times, the English raised it to something of an institution in watercress sandwiches served at afternoon and high teas. No less than Charles Dickens wrote of it in “Great Expectations,” with Mr. Pumblechook, a corn merchant with a mouth “like a fish,” ordering watercress sandwiches for Pip, the book’s hero, as a supposed kindness although, in truth, Pip didn’t like them.

Others of that time did, though. Watercress was breakfast for the working classes in Victorian Britain, eaten with bread or alone.

“The first coster cry heard of a morning in the London streets is of ‘Fresh wo-orter-creases,’ ” English social researcher Henry Mayhew wrote in his 1851 survey “London Labour and the London Poor.” Surely one of those coster cries must have come from Eliza James. Nicknamed “The Watercress Queen,” James was a watercress seller in the late 1800s and early 1900s, hawking her wares in her Covent Garden stall for more than half a century. She started selling watercress when she was 5, first at factories in Birmingham, then eventually becoming the sole watercress supplier of most hotels and restaurants in London as well as, reputedly, the biggest owner of watercress farms in the world.

Wild watercress

Wild watercress grows in shallow rivers and streams, fading in the dog days of summer and the coldest months of winter. Picking it wild, however, requires great care to ensure the water it grows in is pollution free and the watercress is uncontaminated. Commercially, watercress is cultivated in carefully controlled tanks or water beds.

Although peppery in taste, watercress actually has a cooling effect on the mouth. This is something Taillevent, a 14th-century cook to the Court of France, understood. He included a course of “watercress, served alone, to refresh the mouth” in one of his famous banquet menus.

In North America, watercress is an ingredient in salads, soups and sandwiches. It is a lovely complement to oranges, apples and pears, and also works well with eggs.

When using watercress, leave the stems on because they have the strongest flavor. Try not to overcook it. The leaves are delicate, and long cooking robs them of their flavor. Watercress is best eaten soon after purchasing and should be kept immersed in cold water until it is used. So go ahead, let your nose twist as you enjoy this wonderful green.

A Light Watercress Soup

Serves 4

Ingredients

For the soup:

2½ tablespoons unsalted butter

2 shallots, finely chopped

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1 cup whole milk

1 cup low-sodium vegetable stock

¼ teaspoon salt

3 bunches (about 3 cups) watercress, washed, dried and chopped

¼ cup table cream (10%)

Optional garnishes:

Crème fraîche

Thinly sliced pear

Directions

1. Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook until soft. Stir in the flour and cook for 1 minute.

2. Gradually stir in the milk and vegetable stock, then add the salt. When the soup is near boiling, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 5 minutes.

3. While the soup cooks, bring a large pot of water to boil. Add the watercress to blanch until wilted, but still retaining its bright color. Remove it from the water and place in a bowl of ice water.

4. Squeeze the water out of the cooled watercress and add the watercress to the soup.

5. Carefully purée with a hand blender or in a food processor, adding the cream.

6. Reheat if necessary.

7. Garnish with a dollop of crème fraîche and a few slices of pear if you wish. This soup is delicious hot or cold.

Main photo: Watercress soup with bread and pear slices. Credit: Sharon Hunt

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Mary Ann Lila, with colleague Sally Gustafson at North Carolina State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute. Credit: Courtesy of the N.C. State University Plants for Human Health Institute

Fresh local berries in season are a fleeting pleasure in most regions, and until we can virtually reach through the computer screen and grab them off the bush, the choice will come down to frozen berries or imports from faraway. If they’re not kept cool enough, fresh berries shipped long distances can lose important phytonutrients. Unless you’re up for interrogating suppliers, frozen berries are likely your best option, depending on how they’re frozen and thawed.

Mary Ann Lila, director of the Plants for Human Health Institute at North Carolina State University and a berry lover, shares her thoughts on selecting berries when they’re out of season.

How to select and use frozen berries

1. Reject blobs. Have you ever noticed that some packages of frozen berries feel like one big blob while in others, the berries run freely, resembling a sackful of M&Ms? When berries are frozen en masse, they surrender some of their phytonutrients to the moisture that becomes the blob, says Lila.

What you want are IQF berries — individually quick frozen, meaning they’re laid out on a large tray, berry by berry, and then frozen, a process that retains their healthy compounds, keeps them in singular form and thus makes them easier to thaw. How you thaw is crucial.

2. Defrost only the amount you’re planning to eat, consume them the same day and don’t refreeze them, Lila says. “Minimal handling helps the berries retain their ‘ just picked’  flavor and health protective components.”

3. Thaw berries quickly. A long, slow thaw in the fridge or on the counter activates enzymes that start to degrade phytonutrients, she says.

Lila suggests popping a small amount of frozen berries into the microwave for 15 to 20 seconds max just to get the frost off.  She then throws them into her hot morning oatmeal. “The microwave can be devastating if overdone,” she says, so keep the temperature moderate and cooking time short.

4. Gently warm frozen berries on the stovetop, using a double boiler or placing them directly into a pot or pan and stirring continuously so they don’t scorch. A little bit of heat actually breaks down some of the healthy components so they get into your bloodstream faster, Lila says. Again, keep the process short and avoid high heat.

5. Consume the colorful juices left behind. They contain important water-soluble phytonutrients — including anthocyanins, a type of polyphenol that gives berries their red, blue and purple to blackish hues. In nature, anthocyanins protect plants from enemies such as insects and ultraviolet radiation, Lila explained on “The Dr. Oz Show.” In your body, they go straight to your large intestine, where they work with berry fiber and good gut bacteria to fight inflammation.

Lila’s new research suggests that eating berries — any berries — before or after exercising will increase the ability of those anthocyanins to fight inflammation. Her new research also shows that berries have some healthy fat soluble compounds as well, so eat them with a few nuts.

TV screenshot of Mary Ann Lila on "The Dr. Oz Show." Credit: Courtesy of the N.C. State University Plants for Human Health Institute

TV screenshot of Mary Ann Lila on “The Dr. Oz Show.” Credit: Courtesy of the N.C. State University Plants for Human Health Institute

6. How to select and use dried berries.

Dried berries range from the traditional shriveled fruits to the new berries on the block, berry powders and freeze-dried whole fruits.

The traditional dried fruits — the tiny versions dehydrated in the sun — are highly concentrated in natural sugars, and many companies add glucose or other sweeteners. Choose wisely and eat dried fruits in moderation. Wild gojis from the Gobi, for example, are a good option because they’re not sweet and are dense in phytonutrients. All wild berries, if picked when ripe, usually beat out domesticated ones when it comes to producing healthy compounds, says Lila, because wild berries have to struggle in nature on their own, without human help.

Berry powders vary in quality, says Lila, depending on how they’re made. Often they’re spray dried, a process that uses gas to break down the fruits and destroys many phytonutrients.

Whole berries, on the other hand, are freeze-dried, which simply removes the water and retains all the good properties. “It’s the best way to preserve polyphenols,” Lila says. But the sugars become very concentrated and the process is expensive, making them a risky option for anyone with a sweet tooth and an addiction gene.

That would be me. As far as I’m concerned, the best thing about picking frozen berries is that I’m forced to control an unwavering urge to nosh. Have you ever tried biting into an icy fruit?

Main photo: Mary Ann Lila, with colleague Sally Gustafson, at North Carolina State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute. Credit: Courtesy of Plants for Human Health Institute

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Rustic Mushroom Soup. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

My journey to being healthy has been one long and twisted adventure, basically covering my entire life. I’ve never been thin, nor do I want to be. I like my curves. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to eat healthy and exercise so I can live the best life I can. That means leaving behind old flavorless “diet” foods from another generation and embracing tasty healthy superfoods.

As a child I remember my mother joining Weight Watchers, and I would sometimes go to meetings with her. I also remember eating some absolutely horrible “diet” food with her. One of my mother’s favorites was toast with cottage cheese on top, sprinkled with cinnamon and Sweet’N Low.

These days, I am now a member of Weight Watchers. I am not on a diet, just being mindful of how I eat and what I eat. For me, this is a logical step on my journey to improving my well-being. I was a caregiver to my mother and single mother to my daughter for so many years I stopped taking care of me. Now it is my turn.

Recently, I discovered mushrooms are a superfood, or a food that is nutrient dense while being low in calories. Some superfoods, such as mushrooms, pomegranates and blueberries, are being studied for their ability to help fight cancer and other diseases.

I was not always able to eat mushrooms. I have a very distinct memory from childhood of mushrooms being sautéed on the stove, and when I smelled them I became nauseated. I hated mushrooms so much they turned my stomach. As an adult, I lost my aversion to mushrooms and enjoy cooking with them often.

Making soup with the superfoods

Rustic Mushroom Soup is very simple and fast to prepare, making it an ideal weeknight meal. Most markets now offer an organic baby leafy greens salad, usually with a mix of chard, spinach and kale. These mixes are great as a salad, but also perfect for tossing into a soup for added nutrition and flavor. And you do not have to prep anything, just open the bag.

Although kale is “so over” for many people, I enjoyed it before it became a superfood and will enjoy it after its 15 minutes of fame are over. Almost any leafy green can be substituted for the baby greens, including collard, mustard and turnip greens, Swiss chard or arugula.

A variety of mushrooms can also be used in this soup. Just chop them into bite-size pieces, then follow the recipe as written.

This soup is healthy, filling and satisfying, and the Weight Watchers Points Plus value for one serving is only 1 point.

Rustic Mushroom Soup

Serves 8

Ingredients

1 tablespoon olive oil

½ medium onion, thinly sliced

4 fresh thyme sprigs

1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano leaves

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 pound crimini or brown mushrooms, quartered or cut into six pieces if large

1 container (32 ounces) vegetable broth

4 cups water

2 cups baby kale, chard or spinach salad mix

Directions

1. In a medium soup pot or saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium flame.

2. Add the onion, thyme, oregano, salt and pepper. Stirring occasionally, cook for 4 to 5 minutes or until the onion is softened.

3. Add the mushrooms and stir well to coat them with the aromatics. Cook 5 to 7 minutes until browned and the mushrooms have released their liquid.

4. Add the vegetable broth and water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Simmer for 20 minutes to allow the flavors to blend.

5. Add the baby greens, cook for 1 to 2 minutes until wilted.

6. Serve with crusty bread and a salad.

Top photo: Rustic Mushroom Soup. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

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Pasta (pennucce) with broccoli rabe and garlic-anchovy-chili sauce. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Sun, Sea & Olives: If you’ve spent this apparently endless winter as I have, in the icy-cold, snow-raddled Northeastern U.S., you are by now, like me, longing for a bit of sunshine, a sprinkle of warm weather, a hint that spring is just around the next bend. But with yet another big snowstorm predicted to hit by midweek, I’m still counting on trustworthy brassicas to liven my table until the first asparagus starts to sprout.

AolivesAnd trustworthy those brassicas, aka cruciferous vegetables, are. (Why cruciferous? Before the flower opens, the four closed petals form a little cross atop the bud.) By any name, his big family covers an ample range of members, including, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, turnips, wasabi and even radishes. All, without exception, are huge nutritional powerhouses, sources of important phytochemicals (plant-based, naturally occurring chemicals), especially of various carotenoid and sulfur-containing compounds that may be important cancer fighters. This is nutrition-speak for saying, yes, they are very, very good for you! You can taste it in their characteristic spicy pungency.

They are also, when properly prepared, incredibly delicious — though you wouldn’t think so from generations of picky eaters, including at least one president of the United States, who have turned up their noses, and rightly so, at the sulfurous aromas of overcooked broccoli and cabbage, evocative of nothing so much as boardinghouse (or boarding school) kitchens.

Brassica vegetables perfectly suited to Mediterranean cooking

But believe me, it takes no great cooking skills to bring these vegetables to their full glory. In fact, several family members (like radishes) benefit from little or no cooking at all. And Brussels sprouts, shaved on the blade of a mandolin (or, to save your fingers, in a food processor), can be tossed with a very simple dressing made from olive oil, lemon juice, a bit of lemon zest, a little spoonful of mustard and a big spoonful of Greek yogurt all mixed together then poured over the sprouts. Leave them to tenderize in the dressing for half an hour before serving, and, if you want a more substantial salad, mix in a chopped hard-boiled egg or two.

Brussels sprouts aren’t actually well known in the Mediterranean, but they should be because they grow well in the cold but not bitter winters that characterize much of the region. Even if not particularly identified with the Mediterranean, they still benefit from a Med treatment in the kitchen: oven-roasting, for instance. Stir halved sprouts with a chopped clove of garlic, maybe a little chopped onion, some slivers of thick-sliced pancetta or country ham, a couple of glugs of olive oil, a sprinkle of salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper, then spread them in a baking dish and set them in a hot oven (400 F) for about 20 minutes, stirring them up a couple of times, until the sprouts are crisp and brown on top and tender but not falling apart.

My all-time favorite member of this vast family, however, is totally Mediterranean, so much so that it was unknown in the United States except to Italian-American gardeners until just a few decades ago. That’s the vegetable known here as broccoli rabe or broccoli raab or rapini — all names that betray its origin in Italian market gardens, where it has long been a winter staple And my favorite way of cooking this delight goes back a long time to when I lived in Rome in the late 1970s and a tiny restaurant in the tiny Piazza Montevecchio offered orecchiette alla barese. Orecchiette are a famous Pugliese pasta — shaped like little ears, which is what orecchiette means. In the town of Bari, Italy, it’s traditionally served with this stupendous steamed broccoli rabe, the whole thing dressed with a mini-sauce of garlic, anchovies and crushed dried chili peppers steeped in hot olive oil.

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Broccoli rabe fresh at the market. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

I’ve made this dish for years — to me it’s the absolute quintessence of the Mediterranean eating, pasta, garlic and good oil with a terrific pungent green, totally vegetarian except for the anchovies (and if you leave them out, you’ll have to add more salt), totally healthful, quick and easy and loved by almost everyone who samples it.

When I made this for Sunday supper, I didn’t happen to have any orecchiette on hand, so I used the whole-wheat pennucce, which look like short, lightly ridged penne, from Benedetto Cavaglieri. That pasta-maker’s wares are available from Williams-Sonoma and a few other online providers. You could also use farfalle, conchiglie or fusilli.

Orecchiette alla Barese

Makes 4 servings

Ingredients

2 bunches broccoli rabe (aka rapini), weighing 1 pound each

Sea salt

2 garlic cloves, minced

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

6 anchovy fillets, chopped, or cut to your size preference

1 small dried hot red chili, crumbled, or hot red pepper flakes to taste

1 pound orecchiette or similar pasta

Directions

1. Clean the broccoli rabe, discarding any wilted or yellowing leaves along with the tough part of the stems. Chop the broccoli rabe in pieces about 1 inch long. Rinse thoroughly and set aside.

2. In a large pasta kettle, bring about 4 cups of water to a rolling boil and add a generous spoonful of salt.

3. While the water is coming to a boil, start the garlic-anchovy sauce by adding the chopped garlic to the olive oil in a small saucepan. Cook over gentle heat just until the garlic bits are soft.

4. Stir in the anchovy pieces and use a fork to crush and mash them into the hot oil.

5. Add the chili pepper and stir. If the pasta is not yet ready, remove from the heat — but heat it again just to the sizzling point before pouring it over the pasta (see below).

6. Tip the pasta into the rapidly boiling water, stir with a long-handled spoon, and cover the pot. As soon as the water boils again, remove the lid and cook — orecchiette will take 12 to 15 minutes to become al dente.

7. Halfway through the cooking time, add the broccoli rabe to the pasta and stir to mix well. Continue cooking until the pasta is done — the broccoli rabe should cook just 5 to 6 minutes, so if you’re using something other than orecchiette, time it according to the package directions.

8. Have ready a warm serving bowl. Heat the olive oil sauce to sizzling if it has been removed from heat.

9. When the pasta is done, but still a bit al dente, drain the pasta and greens and turn them immediately into the warmed serving bowl. Stir to distribute the greens throughout the pasta, then dribble the hot garlic-anchovy-chili oil over the top. Toss again, adding a little more olive oil if you wish, then add a generous amount of ground pepper. Serve immediately.

(Note: Grated cheese is not appropriate with this pasta.)

Top photo: Pasta (pennucce) with broccoli rabe and garlic-anchovy-chili sauce. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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The person who taught me to cook, my beloved stepmother Mary, died in January at the age of 95. She came into my life when I was 14 and motherless, lost in a sea of boys. Our family was in a state of disarray, and with amazing grace, she put it back together again.

Mary, aka Mumsie (my stepsister, who was also part of this wonderful bargain, called her Mumsie, as in “Mumsie and Daughtsie,” so I did too), was a woman of tremendous style and fun. She was also a great cook. I will never grasp how she managed to go seamlessly from being a single mother of one for 15 years to being a wife and mother of five; from turning out meals for two to preparing festive family dinners for seven or more every night when we were all home during school vacations. The French would say of those evenings, “c’était la fête tous les soirs“: It was a party every night.

She made dishes you just didn’t see in mid-1960s suburban Connecticut: ratatouille, pan-cooked Italian peppers, arugula salads. She roasted lamb rare. Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding were not for Christmas dinner; they were for dinner … maybe once a week! So much meat. I always said, when I became a vegetarian in the ’70s, that the reason had nothing to do with principles; I simply had had my quota of meat by then.

Mary tricked my father, who was vegetable-phobic, into eating vegetables. One August night during the summer after they were married, he told her that he didn’t eat corn on the cob because it gave him stomach trouble (he was convinced that all vegetables gave him stomach trouble). She took a paring knife and deftly scored each row down the middle of the kernels. “If you score the kernels,” she told my father, “the corn will be much more digestible.” This was totally bogus, but he fell for it, and from then on we would have amazing corn fests every night throughout the summer. “It’s a short season,” we would say, as we passed the platter around the table for the fourth time, butter dripping down our chins.

My education in the kitchen began with salads. “Go in the kitchen and help Mary with the salad,” my father would say to me and my sister, while he and my brothers carried on in the den. She gave me the ingredients for a vinaigrette, some measuring spoons and a whisk, and told me what to do with them (3 parts oil to 1 part lemon juice or vinegar, dry mustard, salt, pinch of sugar, marjoram, pepper). This was much more fun than washing and drying lettuce (three different kinds — romaine, red leaf and Boston — unlike the iceberg salads with Russian dressing of my childhood), a task I learned early on to relegate to my sister and friends. There were no salad spinners then; we had a folding mesh lettuce basket that you swung around outside, weather permitting, hoping you would not dislocate your shoulder. I learned to slice the mushrooms and the radishes thin, to score the sides of the cucumber before slicing it; I discovered the avocado.

I didn’t grow up cooking by my mother’s side, as some girls did. I was a teenager before I became interested. Then Mary taught me by giving me the tools and telling me what to do or pointing me to a recipe, sometimes from afar. The summer I started cooking (beyond vinaigrette and salads) was the summer between my junior and senior years in high school. I was 17, I had a job at the local newspaper, and my parents were not around much because my father, a writer, was working on a play in New York City. I told Mary I wanted to learn to cook.

“What do you want to cook?”

“The things we eat,” I responded.

I do remember Mary walking me through a very simple spaghetti sauce — showing me how to cook the onion and add the garlic, then brown the meat, etc. But mainly, I would tell Mary what I wanted to cook, and she would tell me what book the recipe was in, the most frequently used being Julia Child’s “The French Chef,” Irma Mazza’s “Accent on Seasoning” and Mildred Knopf’s “Cook, My Darling Daughter.” If I wanted to make something really simple, like broiled lamb chops, she’d just tell me what to buy at the butcher’s and how long to broil the chops on each side.

Every day after work, I would go to the market (and charge the food to my parents), then go home and make dinner for myself and my sister, and whoever else was around (our boyfriends, who knew a good deal when they saw it). Cooking was fun for me, and easy; my food tasted good because I’d had such good food at home, I knew what I wanted it to taste like. By summer’s end I was giving dinner parties, and continued to do this when I returned to boarding school, where I would borrow a teacher’s house from time to time. But it never occurred to me then that I’d make a career of this passion.

My sister and I have always been amused by Mumsie’s adoring, proud line about my work, something she said when I was promoting my second cookbook in the early 1980s. I was preparing a press luncheon that my parents hosted in their beautiful Los Angeles apartment (they had moved to L.A. in the mid-’70s), and she exclaimed  — “she took a frying pan and a piece of paper and forged a career!” But it was Mary who gave me the frying pan … and the wok … and the casserole … and the Sabatier knife, and the food memories and first recipes … and always, the support and encouragement.

Spinach Salad With Mary’s Basic Salad Dressing

The dressing is a slight variation on the recipe for Mary’s Basic Salad Dressing that I published in my first cookbook, “The Vegetarian Feast.” The spinach salad recipe is one I found scrawled on the endpapers of “Accent on Seasoning,” a cookbook Mary used so often that the cover fell off when I removed it from the shelf as I was cleaning out her apartment.

Serves 6

Ingredients

For Mary’s Basic Salad Dressing:

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon white or red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ to ½ teaspoon dry mustard or 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

Freshly ground pepper to taste

1 small garlic clove, put through a press or puréed in a mortar and pestle

½ teaspoon dried marjoram

1 teaspoon chopped fresh herbs (such as tarragon, parsley, dill; optional)

9 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, or a mixture of grapeseed or sunflower oil and olive oil

For the salad:

10 ounces (1 bag) fresh spinach (this was before baby spinach; 1 bag baby spinach could be substituted today)

6 strips crisp bacon

1 bunch scallions, sliced

¼ pound fresh mushrooms, sliced

Directions

1. Whisk together the lemon juice, vinegar, salt, mustard, pepper, garlic and herbs. Whisk in the oil or oils.

2. Stem, wash and dry spinach (Mary underlined “dry” in her handwritten recipe). Put in bowl, crumble bacon over top, add sliced scallions and mushrooms. Chill until ready to serve.

3. Toss with dressing and serve.

Variation: In the recipe scrawled inside Mary’s book, she includes an egg yolk in the vinaigrette.

Top photo: Mumsie, in the kitchen. Credit: Courtesy of Martha Rose Shulman

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Fried breaded fish sticks with tomato sauce. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Sun, Sea & Olives: It isn’t easy getting people to eat what they’re not used to, and if what they’re used to is a hefty steak and baked potato with butter and sour cream on top, it can take a lot of diplomacy to convince the guy (it’s almost always a guy) that fish and salad are a better choice. So what to do?

Aolives

For people who’ve been eating the Mediterranean way for years — lots of vegetables, very little dairy, plenty of seafood, not much meat and an ample glug of olive oil on top — it seems like a no-brainer. The food is delicious even or especially if it’s good for you. How could you not like it? But what about those die-hard American beef eaters? How do you get them to switch to a Mediterranean diet and be happy doing so?

Slowly, slowly and little by little is my advice. Add fish once a week but make it really good — tempting, tasty, irresistible — as in the recipe below for breaded fried fish. Serve it with a spicy salsa made with diced fresh tomatoes, avocados and a little green chili or make a tomato sauce, just like a pasta sauce, only add plenty of crushed red pepper, a bit of cumin and a spritz of lemon juice to liven things up. The walls of culinary resistance may come tumbling down and soon enough you’ll be serving, and loving, braised salmon, crisp green salad and bitter greens to take the place of that baked potato.

Better than an ode to childhood meals

These breaded fried fish sticks are really just a healthy step or two away from the frozen fish fingers that were once every mother’s staple, but making them at home means you can make them so much more healthful. First of all, make your own breadcrumbs from whole-grain bread just by whizzing stale chunks of bread in the food processor until they’re the right consistency. To give bread crumbs more crunch, toast them in a dry skillet over medium heat, tossing and stirring until they are golden. For added crunch, stir a couple of tablespoons of finely chopped or ground walnuts or almonds into the breadcrumbs. And use extra virgin olive oil for frying — no, not the $30 a half-liter bottle that you got from the gourmet shop. There are plenty of cheaper alternatives that are well-made extra-virgins. California Olive Ranch, for instance, is offered on Amazon.com at around $14 per 25.4 ounce bottle — if you buy a case of 12 bottles. And Academia Barilla’s 100% Italiano is $34 for a 3-liter tin, also available online. Both of these are in my experience excellent all-purpose oils that won’t break the bank.

Fried Breaded Fish Sticks

Use a meaty, white-fleshed fish for this; cod, haddock, halibut or hake are all good choices. Buy boneless fillets or have a whole fish boned and filleted. To approximate 2 pounds of fillets, you will need 4 pounds of whole fish (sometimes called “round weight”).

Makes 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

Fish frying. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Fish frying. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

2 pounds white-meat fish fillets (see suggestions above)

½ cup unbleached all-purpose flour

½ cup whole wheat flour

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

¼ to ½ teaspoon ground chili pepper

1 egg

1 cup toasted bread crumbs, preferably made from whole grain bread

¼ cup finely chopped or ground walnuts or almonds

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

Garnish: Tomato sauce, tomato-avocado salsa, or plain lemon juice

Directions

1. Rinse the fish fillets and pat them dry. Run your hands over the fillets to be sure all the pin bones have been removed. If any remain, use tweezers to pull them out.

2. Cut the fillets in smaller pieces, either one piece to a serving or, if you wish, make fish fingers, about 1 inch wide by 2½ inches long.

3. Set out three soup plates. Put the two flours and the salt in one plate and toss together with a fork. Crack the egg into the second plate. Add a teaspoon of water and beat the egg and water together with a fork. Combine the bread crumbs and nuts in the third plate.

4. Dip a piece of fish in the flour, turning it to coat lightly all sides. Shake off any excess. Then dip it in the egg, again turning to coat lightly all sides and letting excess drip off. Finally dip the piece in the bread-crumb-nut mixture, pressing well to let the crumbs adhere to the fish on all sides. Set each fish piece on a wire rack to dry slightly while you finish all of them.

5. Add the oil to a heavy skillet large enough to hold a number of fish pieces in a single layer and set the skillet over medium heat. When the oil begins to shimmer slightly, add as many fish pieces as you comfortably can fit in the pan. The fish should sizzle and brown on one side in 3 to 5 minutes; turn gently, using tongs, and brown the other side. Resist the temptation to keep turning the fish — that will reduce the amount of oil absorbed. When each piece is done, set it on a rack covered with paper towels. (If you’re doing a lot of fish, you might want to transfer the drained pieces to a very low oven — 150 F to keep warm.)

6. When all the fish is done, serve immediately, accompanied by tomato sauce (recipe below), or make a simple tomato-avocado salsa with chopped red onion, a little green chili and basil.

Tomato Sauce

This is a variation on the simple tomato sauce I often serve with pasta. Serve it as is or spice it up with cumin, crushed red chili pepper and a spritz of lemon juice.

Makes about 2 cups of sauce

Ingredients

2 garlic cloves, sliced very thin

1 small green jalapeño pepper, seeded and thinly sliced (optional)

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 (28 ounce) can of whole peeled tomatoes

1 tablespoon minced fresh herbs (flat-leaf parsley, basil, rosemary, thyme) or ½ teaspoon ground cumin

Juice of half a lemon or to taste

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Directions

1. Combine garlic, jalapeño if using, and oil in a saucepan and set over low heat. Let cook very gently, just until the vegetables are softened, but do not let them brown.

2. Add the tomatoes with their liquid and raise the heat to medium low. Add in the minced fresh herbs or the cumin. Simmer while breaking up the whole tomatoes with the side of a spoon as they cook down and the sauce thickens.

3. When the sauce is very thick (after 20 or 30 minutes of simmering), remove from the heat and purée the contents of the pan in a food processor or blender or using a vegetable mill or handheld blender. Taste and add lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste.

Note: If you don’t use all the sauce, it will keep for a week in the refrigerator. You can also freeze it in half-cup quantities to use later for pasta, pizza or in place of commercial ketchup.

Top photo: Fried breaded fish sticks with tomato sauce. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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Broccoli sprout salad. Credit: Holly Botner / jitterycook.com

Broccoli was in the spotlight at the American Institute for Cancer Research’s recent annual conference, where global scientists shared their findings on the connection between diet and cancer. Had the researchers been giving out awards, broccoli’s baby sprouts, not just broccoli, would have snatched gold.

How you prepare broccoli, though, is the key to its cancer-fighting ability, said Elizabeth Jeffery, co-chair of one of the conference’s sessions and a professor in the department of food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her latest research could dramatically change your culinary habits.

Queen of the crucifers

You know the stinky smell that fills your kitchen when you’re cooking broccoli? That’s because of healthy sulfur-filled compounds, which exist in all crucifers. An enzyme in crucifers — marked by that kick you get when you bite into a raw one — turns sulfurs into two cancer-fighting categories:

– Indoles, which help break down hormones as well as target a group of genes that promote prostate cancer. (The latter finding was reported by Wayne State University scientist Fazlul Sarkar at the conference.)

– Isothiocyanates (pronounced eye-so-thigh-o-sigh-a-nates), which counteract carcinogens in general and speed up their removal from the body. (Of course, broccoli also has many more healthy compounds.)

Broccoli bears the crown of queen of the crucifers because compared with other crucifers, it contains more of a particularly important isothiocyanate called sulforaphane.

Because heat degrades the enzyme that produces sulforaphane, many food scientists, until now, have recommended we eat crucifers raw or very lightly cooked. In her recent broccoli research, however, Jeffery has developed a more sophisticated approach to maximizing sulforaphane. Her work shows that how you make the broccoli and what you pair it with are vital.

Tips on handling broccoli

To capitalize on sulforaphane, first cook broccoli lightly, Jeffery said. Steam it in a little liquid for 3 to 4 minutes until bright green, using a steamer so that it doesn’t touch the cooking liquid. Or blanch it for 20 to 30 seconds, no more. Those methods are surprisingly better than eating it raw, she said, because when the enzyme acts on broccoli’s sulfur-containing compounds, the compounds can swing either way — and get turned into sulforophanes, which fight cancer, or nitriles, which don’t. “Every molecule of nitriles formed is a sulforaphane not formed,” Jeffery said. And just a little heat will keep nitriles from forming.

To counteract the enzyme reduction caused by heating Jefferey has a second suggestion:

Eat steamed broccoli along with a little raw crucifer — arugula, watercress, a little wasabi or spicy mustard, or perhaps even better, raw red radish. (The stronger the kick, the more enzyme you’re getting.) Red radishes contain sulforaphane and don’t have the inherent ability to produce nitriles. You don’t need much, Jeffery said — just two to three radishes or a ½ teaspoon of mustard or wasabi. And you don’t have to eat them in the same bite as broccoli, just in the same meal.

Here’s the final and most liberating finding for those of us chained to our kitchens: As long as you eat raw crucifers in the same meal, you can go ahead and cook broccoli any way you want, Jeffery said. The enzymes in the raw crucifers will act on compounds in the cooked ones.

These same suggestions apply to all crucifers that can produce nitriles, she said — including cauliflower, most cabbages and especially Brussels sprouts.

Why broccoli sprouts?

While President George H.W. Bush was banning broccoli on Air Force One back in 1990, Johns Hopkins researcher Paul Talalay was busy exploring the crucifer’s newborn sprouts. What, he wondered, was the ideal number of days needed to germinate seeds to get the best sulforaphane content as well as taste?

The answer: three days. He and his son went on to develop a side business selling young broccoli sprouts. (Talalay, now 91, still collaborates on research and goes to his lab almost every day.)

In contrast to mature broccoli, broccoli sprouts have, on average, 20 times the amount of compounds that develop into sulforaphane, said Yanyan Li, a professor of food science at Montclair State University who is studying sulforaphane. Since the 1990s, researchers have been identifying cancer stem cells in many types of cancer, and Li has recently found that sulforaphane targets breast cancer stem cells at relatively low concentrations.

How much is enough?

To obtain that level of sulforaphane, however, you’d need to eat several pounds of broccoli — or, Li suggested, just a heaping cup of raw sprouts, lightly steamed and consumed along with a few raw radishes. Sulforphane is eliminated from the body relatively quickly, she said, so “eating them three times a day would be ideal to maintain the level.”

For the average person, that’s not really feasible, she acknowledges, and scientists at the conference agreed that eating crucifers four to five times a week is a reasonable goal for most — as long as you chew the vegetables well. By breaking the cell walls, you’re releasing those pungent enzymes.

Jeffery’s lab is now comparing the sulforaphane content in common varieties of broccoli, but that research is not yet ready for prime time.

Broccoli Sprout Salad With Synergy

(Recipe courtesy of Holly Botner, the Jittery Cook)

Serves 2

Ingredients

For the dressing:

½ lemon, juiced

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 clove garlic, minced

½ teaspoon salt

freshly ground black pepper to taste

For the broccoli sprout salad:

2 containers broccoli sprouts

4 red radishes, ½ thinly sliced, ½ julienned

1 handful baby arugula

½ carrot, cut into slivers with a peeler

¼ yellow pepper, finely chopped

1 orange, cut into segments as garnish

Directions

1. Combine all ingredients for the dressing and mix well.

2. Steam the sprouts until bright green, then cut off their green tops to use in the salad.

3. Arrange salad ingredients on two small plates. Spoon dressing lightly over salad.

Top photo: Broccoli sprout salad. Credit: Holly Botner / jitterycook.com

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Mediterranean-style pizza. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Sun, Sea & Olives: Pizza is health food? Yes, it is, at least in the Mediterranean, and that doesn’t mean pizza with beans and tofu, either. Make dough with part whole-wheat flour, keep the toppings simple, don’t overload the cheese, and truly you will have something good to eat, simple to make and totally nourishing. Best of all, in my experience, rare is the child who does not love pizza. Even the pickiest eaters will happily munch on a slice of pizza fresh from the oven.

Aolives

Incidentally, pizza is also a great way to introduce kids to the pleasure of making their food, especially if you give them a choice of toppings to play around with.

Good pizza starts with good dough

Basic pizza dough, according to Neapolitans who know more about it than anyone else, is nothing but flour, water, salt and leavening from dough made the day before — what we call sourdough, though it shouldn’t be sour at all.

In the absence of sourdough, I make pizza dough with a very small amount of instant yeast and add a couple of tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil to make it supple.

I make a starter dough a day or so in advance to give it plenty of time to develop flavor. But this recipe works just as well if you make it all at once, just giving it an hour or so to rise. While the dough is rising, you can caramelize a couple of big, fat onions sliced very thin and make a simple tomato sauce.

What else will you need? Olives — black or green or both? Anchovies if you love them (most kids don’t)? Fresh mushrooms to slice and sauté briefly in olive oil? Fresh, ripe tomatoes sliced not too thin? Garlic sliced the same way? Sweet peppers or perhaps a little chili pepper? Thinly sliced sausage or ham? Cooked greens (kale is wonderful on pizza if handled right)? Ricotta or fresh goat’s cheese? Mozzarella (only the finest kind — not that rubbery stuff from the supermarket)? Flaked tuna? And hard cheese — parmigiano is preferable but a well-aged cheddar will do — to grate on top.

The possibilities are endless; just don’t make pizza a catch-all for what’s tucked in the back of the refrigerator. Remember, fresher is better, and simpler is best of all. The most famous pizza in the world is pizza margherita, made with garlic-enhanced tomato sauce, mozzarella and fresh basil, the leaves torn over the top of the hot pizza when it comes from the oven. Red, white and green, the simple colors of the Italian flag.

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Pizza dough. Credit: Nancy Harmon-Jenkins

Pizza Dough

Makes enough for four 8- to 10-inch pizzas.

Ingredients     

2 cups whole-wheat flour

1 teaspoon instant yeast

1½ to 2 cups warm water

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons plus ½ teaspoon extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon sea salt

Directions

1. Combine  in a bowl 1 cup of whole-wheat flour with the yeast, then stir in 1 cup warm water. Don’t worry if it’s pretty sloppy. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside in a cool place to rise overnight.

2. The next day (or that evening) add the remaining cup of whole-wheat flour. Set aside ¼ cup of all-purpose flour to use on the board and add the remaining 1¾ cups to the dough along with ½ cup warm water, 2 tablespoons of the extra virgin olive oil and a good big pinch of sea salt. Mix all together, then knead in the bowl.

3. When everything has come together, turn it out on a board lightly floured with the remaining ¼ cup of flour. Knead, gradually incorporating the extra flour, until the dough has lost its stickiness. (If necessary, add a little warm water.)

4. Rinse and dry the bowl and smear the remaining ½ teaspoon of oil around the inside. Turn the ball of dough in the oil to coat on all sides, cover once more with plastic and set aside to rise until doubled — about 1 hour. While the dough is rising, make caramelized onions.

Caramelized Onions

Ingredients

1½ to 2 pounds fresh yellow onions, peeled, halved and sliced

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Directions

1. Combine the sliced onions and olive oil in a deep, heavy sauté pan or skillet. Set over medium-low heat and cook very slowly, stirring frequently, for about 30 minutes, until the onions are thoroughly melted and almost dissolved in the oil.

2. Stir in salt and pepper. You may use the onions as-is on the pizza, but if you want to caramelize them, pulling out more of their natural sweetness, raise the heat to medium and continue cooking and stirring another 15 to 20 minutes, watching constantly to be sure they don’t burn. When the onions are done to your liking, remove from the heat and taste, adjusting the seasoning. While the onions are cooking, make tomato sauce.

Tomato Sauce

Use top-quality canned tomatoes with no added seasonings beyond salt.

Ingredients

2 garlic cloves, sliced very thin

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 (28-ounce) can of whole peeled tomatoes

1 tablespoon minced fresh herbs (flat-leaf parsley, basil, rosemary, thyme)

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Directions

1. Combine garlic and oil in a saucepan and set over low heat. Let cook very gently just until the garlic is softened, but do not let it brown.

2. Add the tomatoes with their liquid and raise the heat to medium low. Add in the minced fresh herbs. Simmer while breaking up the whole tomatoes with the side of a spoon as they cook down and the sauce thickens.

3. When the sauce is very thick (after 20 or 30 minutes of simmering), remove from the heat and purée the contents of the pan in a food processor or blender or using a vegetable mill or handheld blender. You should have  about 2 cups of sauce. Taste and add salt and pepper.

Mediterranean-Style Pizza

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 500 F.

2. Punch down the dough, knead it again briefly, then cut into four or five pieces (if you’re using a kitchen scale, each should weigh about 8 ounces).

3. Roll a piece into a ball then, using a rolling pin, roll it out into a disk. Don’t be concerned about rolling a perfect circle — your disk can be oblong or even totally misshapen. The important thing is that the dough should be roughly the same thickness throughout the disk. If you want to be Neapolitan, you can raise a dough edge around the disk, but it’s OK to have it perfectly flat too.

4. Lightly oil a cookie sheet. Stretch the dough on the sheet and dribble a little oil on top. Spoon on the tomato sauce in a thin layer, not trying to cover the dough entirely with sauce. Spread some caramelized onions over the top. Then add other toppings, perhaps dabs of goat cheese, feta or ricotta, maybe a few little cherry tomatoes sliced, or thinly sliced red and green peppers, or some anchovies or squares of bacon or ham. But don’t try to put all of this on top — just experiment with the different pizzas you have available.

5. When the topping is finished, sprinkle some grated cheese over it and dribble on more oil. (Note: If you use cooked kale, spinach or another green vegetable on top, cover the vegetable well with grated cheese and/or oil to keep it from burning in the hot oven.)

6. Slide the sheet into the oven and bake 10 minutes, by which time the dough should be cooked through and everything on top sizzling merrily. Remove, slice and consume immediately.

Top photo: Cooked pizza. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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