Articles in Healthy Cooking
I am not a licorice-lover — far from it — but I have become fanatic about the anise-scented fennel.
The first hint came when I had it slow-braised with a roast and reduced to a mild, sweet, and meltingly delicious vegetable with just the barest hint of anise. The next step was roasting it with Parmesan cheese, which only a fool would turn down. My conversion experience came when I was presented with thinly sliced raw fennel, served in a bowl of lemony ice water, after a meal in Sorrento, Italy.
As a confirmed fennel fanatic and evangelist, my tip for first-timers or skeptics is to try fennel that has been mellowed out through cooking. Chances are you will soon find the sweet, delicately nuanced aroma and flavor of raw fennel also enticing.
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Five reasons to love fennel
- It’s versatile. You can’t really go wrong with fennel, whether you cook it or eat it raw. And all three parts — the base, stalks and feathery leaves — are edible. The bulb is the part most commonly used, cooked with meat, braised on its own, or used in salads or on sandwiches. The stalks can be used for soups, stocks and stews, while the leaves can be used as you would herbs such as parsley, dill, or tarragon.
- Easy to prepare and enjoy raw. You can slice fennel thinly, and mix with a vinaigrette on its own, or toss with a green salad or potato salad. It’s fast, simple, and delicious.
- Easy to cook. For those who don’t like the anise scent and flavor of fennel, try cutting the bulbs into large chunks, and roast them under a chicken or other meat or fish. And no one I know can resist fennel lightly sautéed in wine, cooked in cream, or roasted in the oven with Parmesan.
- Low calories and high nutrition. One cup of sliced fennel has only 27 calories, but large amounts of vitamin C, folate and potassium.
- Its phytochemicals promote health and may fight cancer. Fennel contains many health-promoting phytochemicals, naturally occurring chemical compounds such as the antioxidants rutin and quercitin, and other kaempferol glycosides that also give fennel strong antioxidant activity. But perhaps the most interesting phytonutrient in fennel is anethole — the primary component of its volatile oil, which has antimicrobial and antifungal properties. In animal studies, the anethole in fennel has reduced inflammation and helped prevent cancer. One study showed that anethole stopped breast cancer cells from growing. Researchers have also proposed a biological mechanism that may explain these anti-inflammatory and anticancer effects by showing how anethole is involved in the shutting down of an intercellular signaling system, thus stopping tumor growth.
Of course, the main reason to love fennel is that it is delicious. One of the simplest ways to cook it is this recipe from Jane Grigson’s “Vegetable Book.” Grigson also turns out to be a fennel fanatic, and notes: “My favorite fennel dish, the best one of all by far. The simple additions of butter and Parmesan — no other cheese will do — show off the fennel flavor perfectly. The point to watch, when the dish is in the oven, is the browning of the cheese. Do not let it go beyond a rich golden-brown.”
Fennel Baked With Parmesan Cheese
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cooking Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
Yield: 6 servings as a side dish
6 heads fennel, trimmed, quartered
2 tablespoons butter
freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons (or more) grated Parmesan cheese
1. Cook the fennel in salted water until it is just barely tender.
2. Drain it well and arrange in a generously buttered gratin dish.
3. Be generous, too, with the pepper mill.
4. Sprinkle on the cheese.
5. Put into the oven at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes, or until the cheese is golden brown and the fennel is bubbling vigorously in buttery juices.
You can make this salad as simple or as fancy as you like. Adding sweet dates and salty capers or olives make it exotic, but when you have fresh fennel all you really need is a light vinaigrette.
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cooking Time: 0 minutes
Total Time: 15 minutes
Yield: 2 servings
2 fennel bulbs, thinly sliced, by hand or with a mandoline
Black olives, capers, dates (about 2 tablespoons each, or to taste), optional
Juice of one lemon
3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Rinse the fennel and slice very thinly. Also slice the dates and olives, if you’re adding them.
2. Toss the fennel with the dates, olives and capers.
3. Whisk the lemon juice and olive oil together with a pinch of salt and pepper.
4. Dress the salad and toss to coat well.
Main photo: Fennel in the field. Credit: Terra Brockman
News travels faster in small towns than on social media, so when Parade Magazine announced last week that my hometown of McMinnville, Ore., was a finalist in a race for the Best Main Street in America, the town’s good gossip suddenly took on a national flavor. Parade praised McMinnville’s Third Street for its picturesque main drag, its homegrown festivals and its award-winning restaurants and tasting rooms.
I hope when people come to town they discover that what sets McMinnville apart is the food – not just the restaurants we love, but how differently people eat here. After all, Third Street is not just a quaint strolling village for wine-country tourists — though its antique storefronts, friendly people and the way every person crossing the street stops traffic might suggest otherwise. Third Street, our Main Street, is the backbone for the food system, and all tendrils reach out from it.
Pride in food
Our restaurants use local food as a source of pride and a matter of fact. For Thistle, a farm-to-table restaurant of the highest caliber, sourcing local is its calling card, the ethos that drives its turn-of-the-century (as in, last century) menu. Thistle has received a lot of deserved attention for the almost holy way its chefs approach food, but the truth is nearly all of the great restaurants on Third Street source from home. Bistro Maison, where diners can relax in the most gracious service in wine country, uses local produce because there is simply no better way to coax out exceptional flavors using French techniques. Nick’s Italian Café has long used seasonal eating to give real Italian specialties a wine country kick, topping Neapolitan-style pizza with nettles from near the river or lacing sultry Dungeness crab through its lasagna. When you eat a patty melt at Crescent Cafe, you are tasting the owners’ own cattle. What we’re discovering as each year passes is a small-town food scene rising to the demands of an international wine public but still keeping the flavors, ingredients and traditions of this place alive.
The restaurant scene is easy for tourists to experience. It is not uncommon for us to meet visitors from Texas who flew in just to eat here. But McMinnville is also the first place I have lived where shopping at the grocery store seems to be an afterthought. If you want honey, you’re not buying it in little bear jars from the shelf, you’re probably getting it in two-gallon jugs from your honey guy. If you eat eggs, they are probably from your own chickens or from your best friend’s. Other places may make a fetish out of vegetable growing, but you don’t get points here for growing a garden. If you have the space, you are feeding your family from your backyard. Half of my friends are part of a full community supported agriculture (CSA) diet and eat according to the seasons. When my friend Jasper orders his Stumptown latte at Community Plate, a breakfast and lunch hotspot, he brings the milk from his own cow.
A culture of sharing
People here live truly hyphenated lives, with eggs in many, many baskets, and for most of them, their hyphens connect in some way to the food system. A chiropractor might run a sideline salsa business, a freelance tech guy might have his hand in kimchi, winery owners might share their homemade peppermint bark at a local food swap. Everyone has access to something special and everyone shares.
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Usually, you don’t have a way to get at the fabric of a place until you’ve lived it over time, but for my family, McMinnville was a quick lesson. When we arrived here in December of 2011, I was two months pregnant. When our second child was born, complete strangers walked food into our kitchen every day for three full weeks. Not casseroles, mind you. Full roasted chickens. Lovingly tended sage and rosemary potatoes. Salad greens dotted with edible flowers. What McMinnville understands more than anything else is how to feed people.
People in McMinnville know how good they have it. Not all of Oregon’s small towns have the infrastructure or the climate to eat like this. A few hours south and far to the east, in other small towns, food scarcity is a real issue. In Brownsville, the last grocery store closed shop a few years ago and the town decided to cover over its baseball diamond with a community garden to help people have better access to food. Far to the east, some towns have to drive more than an hour to find a grocery store.
I haven’t decided whether I really want McMinnville to be the Best Main Street in America. The journalist in me gets starry-eyed at the prospect of having our ordinary lives valued on such a national stage. But the budding small-town girl in me keeps thinking about what it really feels like to come in second. In the moment, you feel so close to the prize that it feels like heartbreak, but afterward, all you feel is the drive for improvement, the room for growth.
Win or lose, as every small-town denizen knows, it feels good to be part of the parade. I’ve been in three small-town parades since I moved here and know now that it is like being invited to the table. The joy comes from feeling the energy of the crowd.
Main photo: Community Plate features seasonal ingredients and is the place to be for families, the laptop brigade and local business owners breakfasting before work. Credit: Emily Grosvenor
Garlic, broccoli, green tea and turmeric: Health experts keep telling us to consume these foods to fight cancer.
But articles from a New York Times science journalist are challenging the view that diet can prevent cancer. The evidence on the influence of specific foods is weak, George Johnson wrote in a series of recent columns and in a book just released in paperback. Johnson reported that the results of studies connecting diet and cancer were conflicting and the numbers of preventable cases, small.
Ergo, diet doesn’t matter?
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Diet certainly matters, says Stephanie Maxson, senior clinical dietitian at the University of Texas’ MD Anderson Cancer Center, the country’s leading cancer treatment hospital, according to U.S. News & World Report’s most recent rankings. Eating a plant-based diet, as opposed to a diet high in fat or animal protein, is important for preventing cancer as well as all chronic disease, she says.
Faced with this competing points of view, we must make many decisions each day about what to feed ourselves and our families. How do we evaluate the research when it’s not perfect? How do we make the best decisions for our health? Here are five starting points:
1. Why is the evidence is conflicting?
The evidence is often conflicting because the science is complicated, says Maxson.
“It’s true that the research findings regarding individual foods and nutrients are often inconclusive. But this is not because diet has no effect has cancer risk. It’s because the study of food and nutrients is very complex,” she says.
The nutrients contained in a head of broccoli, for example, will depend on the cultivar, where and how it was grown and how it’s prepared, she says. “How the nutrients in a food behave in the body depends on all the other foods it’s consumed with, the genetics of the person consuming it, and the microorganisms in the colon of the person consuming the food.”
Variables like these can explain why one study might find broccoli protective and another not, and as scientists unravel the nuances, they’re able to design better research. “We’re only beginning to understand the complexities of diet, nutrition and cancer relationships,” says Dr. Stephen Clinton, a researcher and physician who, along with a small group of scientists, is currently revising the U.S. government’s dietary guidelines.
2. Are there research-based guidelines on diet and cancer?
If you do a PubMed search, you’ll come up with more than 50,000 studies on diet and cancer. How are we to make sense of them?
The American Institute of Cancer Research and its partner, the World Cancer Research Fund (AICR/WCRF), can serve as guides. These two nonprofit organizations study the studies.
Since the 1990s, a panel of AICR/WCRF experts — researchers and physicians from around the world– have been reviewing the evidence and producing periodic reports as well as broad dietary guidelines, which are used by hundreds of cancer treatment centers, including MD Anderson. “AICR/WCRF is the world’s preeminent organization working to define evidence-based recommendations regarding how diet and nutrition impacts cancer risk and survivorship,” says Clinton.
While the recommendations are for preventing cancer because that’s where most of the research is focused, cancer survivors, they say, should also follow these guidelines once treatment is completed. The suggestions include:
- Be lean. As the columnist points out, obesity increases the risk of many common cancers; body fat produces hormones that drive cancer growth.
- Consume plant foods primarily.
- Eat a variety of them.
Despite the inherent flaws in scientific research, “the evidence that whole diets involving a wide variety of plant foods provides real protection remains as strong as ever,” said AICR’s director of research in response to the columns.
3. What about specific foods and nutrients?
As part of its review process, AICR/WCRF judges the strength of the evidence on various foods and nutrients.
AICR/WCRF reports that there’s “probable” evidence that foods containing lycopene (tomato sauce, for example) or selenium (Brazil nuts, broccoli, garlic) decrease risk of prostate cancer and that diets high in calcium increase risk.
There’s “convincing” evidence that foods with fiber decrease risk of colorectal cancer and that red and processed meat increase it, they say.
Most often, however, the organizations deem the evidence “limited” or “suggestive,” meaning that more study is needed.
“We know of many food constituents that have anti-cancer properties,” says Dr. Steven Zeisel, director of the University of North Carolina’s Nutrition Research Institute and a member of AICR/WCRF’s expert panel that reviews all the studies. Garlic, broccoli, green tea and turmeric, for example, have been shown to fight cancer through extensive good research, he says. “But we do not know precisely which mixture of these constituents works best.”
Guidelines thus focus on patterns that decrease risk, such as plant-based diets, rather than individual nutrients or foods, he says. “What you eat certainly matters.”
4. How much cancer may be preventable?
According to AICR/WRCF estimates, approximately one-third of the most common cancers in the U.S. are preventable by a healthy diet and weight along with physical activity. For some types, the estimates for preventability are particularly high: colorectal, 50%; endometrial and esophageal, almost 60% and 70%, respectively.
In the U.S. alone, that’s nearly 375,000 cases of preventable cancer each year, said AICR’s director of research in a letter to the New York Times.
You can’t just look at each food individually and calculate risk, says its director of communications. “You have to look at the total diet and how all the foods you choose to eat and avoid together impact your cancer risk. You owe it to yourself to play the odds.”
5. What might your plate look like?
Playing the odds according to AICR‘s New American Plate design is fairly straightforward:
Fill at least two-thirds of your plate with plant foods, at most one-third with animal foods. Control portion sizes. Limit red meat to no more than 18 ounces weekly. As for dairy products, however, the evidence is still uncertain.
Meanwhile, as we continue the inevitably long wait for sufficient research-based evidence to warrant public policy on cancer and diet, I’ll be sticking to healthy plant-heavy patterns, lunching on this Mediterranean salad and not worrying about an occasional dollop of tzatziki. A walloping portion? Now that’s another story.
The following recipe is courtesy of The Jittery Cook.
All times are estimates. Cooking time for the pita varies from 7 to 10 minutes.
- ½ small head romaine, torn
- 1 bunch flat leaf parsley, chopped
- 1 bunch mint, chopped
- 2 cups mâche (lamb's lettuce)
- 1 cup arugula
- 6 red radishes, cut into thin half moons
- 12 cherry tomatoes, cut into quarters
- 6 Lebanese cucumbers, cut into chunky half moons (not peeled)
- 1 red onion, cut into small strips
- 1 large whole wheat pita
- 3 teaspoons zataar
- olive oil to lightly coat pita
- 2 lemons, juice only
- ⅓ cup olive oil (or more, if lemons are large)
- 1 heaping tablespoon sumac
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- salt to taste
- Attack alliums first! Peel onion very gently, then cut it into a few parts and let it sit for a half hour before cutting finely and adding to salad. Smash garlic, let it sit for at least 10 minutes, then mince just before adding it to dressing.
- Separate the pita through the center, into two circular halves. Coat the insides lightly with olive oil and sprinkle on zataar. Cut into long strips, then bake at 350 F for 7-10 minutes, until crisp.
- Combine salad ingredients, dressing ingredients, and toss salad with dressing. Add pita to dressed salad. Either break strips into chips and toss with dressed salad—or serve in long strips for dramatic flair.
Main photo: Garlic is one of the foods that the National Cancer Institute says can reduce the risk of several types of cancer. Credit: Harriet Sugar Miller
Crickets, love ‘em or leave ‘em, are the soundtrack to our summer nights. Megan Miller, co-founder of Bitty Foods, sees them a bit differently.
“When I think of crickets, I think of the future of food,” she says. “Insects are in fact the most efficient form of protein on planet earth.” Miller spoke about the benefits of eating insects at TEDxManhattan, a one-day conference featuring leading innovators in the food movement. (See video of her talk below).
Insects are eaten in many cultures, but Miller is well aware that many people find the idea less than appetizing. Bitty Foods has taken steps to reduce the barriers its products might face by turning crickets into something more palatable.
“It might be difficult for a lot people to consider eating whole insects, but they become a lot more manageable when they’re in the format of cricket flour,” she said.
The flour is made from whole insects dried and milled into a fine powder. Bitty Foods sells the flour, which has been mixed with other ingredients that enable it to be substituted for baking flour, as well as cookies made from cricket flour. These are available in three flavors: chocolate chip, chocolate cardamom and orange ginger.
These products represent the beginning of what is envisioned as a complete line of goods, beyond just snacks. As Miller explains, the vision is to take foods “that are normally completely carb-based and boost them with protein so you end up getting a much more nutritious meal.”
“The basic premise is that we are trying to introduce people in the U.S. to edible insects with delicious foods with good design,” she said. “We have gotten a really great reception faster than we expected.”
Miller lists five of the many reasons why the idea of eating insects should be taken seriously by those concerned about their health and/or the environment:
- Cricket flour has 7 grams of protein per quarter-cup serving as well as healthy fats, vitamins and minerals. Bitty Foods’ cricket flour is also gluten-free.
- Insects can be grown with very little land and very little water. If you feed crickets 10 pounds of feed, they will produce 9 pounds of edible cricket protein. By contrast, it takes 10 pounds of feed to get 1 pound of beef.
- If eating insects becomes common, we could reclaim some of the 30% of the Earth’s land surface — one-third of the Earth — which is currently being used by the livestock industry to grow animals and the grains the animals eat.
- We could reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 18% if insects become a part of the mainstream food supply.
- Having insects take the place of more resource-intensive sources of protein could lower the cost of food all around the world by about 33%. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has published a report concluding that edible insects may be the key to stabilizing the global food supply.
Miller notes that there are 2,000 species of insects that can be, and are, eaten by people. She chose crickets because they don’t carry any diseases that are transmissible to humans and they don’t destroy crops, so people don’t have negative connotations. “I think crickets have a very nice cultural association for Westerners, with the nice chirping and the summer nights,” Miller says.
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Bitty Foods now sells its products through its website, www.bittyfoods.com. The company recently began working with a food distributor and hopes to be in stores within a few months, starting in its home market of the Bay Area and then expanding to New York City.
Miller, who began her career as a trend forecaster and consumer researcher before turning to edible insects, thinks that edible insects are on the cusp of becoming trendy.
“I see a powerful shift happening in the way that people think about food,” she said. “People are more interested in sustainability than ever before and understanding where their food comes from. And thanks to the Internet we’re constantly being exposed to new trends and new ideas and even new cuisines.”
As a result, she predicts, “There’s an emerging edible insect industry in the U.S. In the next decade, insects will move from being a crazy, edgy food to being a completely mainstream food for most people.”
Main photo: Megan Miller in her Bitty Foods kitchen. Credit: Courtesy of Bitty Foods
This story was written by Pam Weisz, deputy director of Change Food, a nonprofit that works to raise public awareness and educate consumers about problems with the U.S. food system. Learn more at www.changefood.org.
Chef Giacomino Drago smiles a lot. The youngest member of a family of cooks to immigrate from Sicily, Drago, along with his brothers, has opened a dozen restaurants in Los Angeles, many in Beverly Hills, over the past four decades.
A contributor to the “Beverly Hills Centennial Cookbook,” Drago declares that using the highest quality, freshest ingredients is the essence of Italian cooking. In his video he demonstrates an easy-to-prepare, classic Italian panzanella salad with diet-friendly spelt instead of bread.
Drago enjoys cooking. He smiles as he drops a handful of spaghetti into one of the half dozen pots of salted water on the stove and when he quickly renders a red onion into a mound of thin, pungent ribbons.
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Come to Italy, he says, and one of the first salads you will eat is one made with vine-ripened tomatoes, basil, red onions, extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, and salt and pepper. Simplicity, he says several times, is the essence of Italian cooking. Find the freshest, highest-quality ingredients and prepare them in what Drago calls the rustic way, roughly cut so the dish is not overly fussy. The result is delicious, healthy food that is easy and fun to make.
A panzanella salad is the perfect dish for summer. To pursue the “current fashion,” as he puts it, he has traded spelt for bread in a signature salad at Via Alloro in Beverly Hills. He chose spelt because it has a refreshing texture and nutty quality that contrasts well with the acid of the tomato and vinegar. A heritage grain and cousin to wheat, spelt was developed hundreds of years ago as a flour in bread making. High in protein and fiber, Drago says spelt is heart-healthy because it is high in niacin. Because “panzanella” refers to a bread (“pane”) salad, it might be more accurate to call chef’s creation a speltzanella.
Chef Drago loves all his restaurants. But he designed the kitchen at Via Alloro in a special way. The area where the line cooks work is a horseshoe space with stoves in the middle and counters running along the walls. There are no dead-ends in this kitchen. Moving efficiently Drago and Executive Chef Paolo Sicuro prepare dishes with an unhurried ease, transferring their love of cooking onto the plates.
Fresh tomatoes are key to the flavor and pleasures of the salad. To protect the tomatoes’ richness of flavor, Drago insists they must never be refrigerated. That is why buying tomatoes from farmers markets is so important. Supermarket tomatoes may have been refrigerated for days, even weeks during their journey from the field to your kitchen.
Drago is precise about his cooking but flexible in terms of ingredients and seasoning. When cooking at home, he encourages that you use only ingredients you enjoy. If you do not like onions, don’t use them in the salad. The same goes for cucumbers and ground black pepper.
To capture all the tomato juice, chef cuts the tomatoes over the bowl. Use a variety of tomatoes for contrasts in shape, color and flavor. For the demonstration, Drago and Siruro used vine ripened, cherry and grape tomatoes. Yellow and heirloom tomatoes could also be added for contrast. To make the onion slices more “friendly,” Drago suggests double rinsing in water. This will result in a more mild flavor. Not widely available, spelt berries can be purchased in specialty markets and ordered online from purveyors such as Bob’s Red Mill. Cooked like pasta in boiling salted water, kosher salt should be used for the cleanest taste. Chef Drago uses English or hothouse cucumbers for the dish. If those are not available, Persian cucumbers would be a good substitute because they have a lower water content than garden cucumbers. The spelt may be cooked ahead and refrigerated. The other ingredients should be prepared immediately before serving to preserve their freshness.
- 3 tablespoons spelt
- 2 medium-sized tomatoes, washed, stem removed, cut into a small dice, reserving the liquid
- 5 cherry tomatoes, washed, quartered
- 5 plum tomatoes, washed, quartered
- 1 small hothouse cucumber, washed, skin on, a small dice the same size as the tomatoes (optional)
- ¼ medium red onion, washed, root and stem removed, thin sliced (optional)
- 4 fresh basil leaves, washed, pat dried, roughly torn or chopped
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- Pinch of salt to taste
- Pinch of freshly ground black pepper to taste (optional)
- 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
- Add kosher salt to three quarts of water. Bring to a rapid boil. Add spelt. Boil uncovered 30-50 minutes or longer depending on the desired doneness. Taste at 30 minutes to determine what is al dente for you and then again at 10-minute intervals until you reach the texture you like. I prefer cooking the spelt 50 minutes. Drain and set aside to cool
- Using a sharp paring knife, cut the tomatoes over the salad bowl to capture all the juices.
- Cut the skin-on cucumber into pieces similar in size to the tomatoes and add to the bowl.
- Slice the red onion. Submerge in cold water, rinse, drain, submerge in fresh cold water, rinse and drain. Add to the tomatoes and cucumbers.
- Add the cooked spelt berries.
- Roughly chop the basil leaves or tear them with your hands. Add to the salad bowl.
- Toss the spelt, vegetables and aromatics with the extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar.
- Season with sea salt to taste and freshly ground black pepper, as desired.
- Serve as a salad or a side with grilled meats, fish and poultry.
We live in a time when child hunger operates undercover. We rarely see the images of sunken eyes and distended bellies that we commonly associate with hunger. Yet many of America’s children face the double blow of being undernourished and overfed. One in five is food insecure and one in three is overweight. They get plenty of calories, fat, sugar and salt in their daily diets, but not enough of the vitamins and minerals required for their growing bodies.
Such a complicated problem requires a multi-pronged approach, and FoodCorps aspires to be part of the solution. Our nationwide team of young adult leaders tries to provide kids access to “real food” that will help them grow up healthy. We do that by teaching kids about foods that are locally grown and nutritious, based on the USDA’s MyPlate recommendations.
In addition, we teach them how to cook such foods and grow them themselves in their school gardens. We also help introduce these foods into their school cafeterias since kids spend most of their time at school. Schools also happen to be where low-income children consume the most calories each day, so it’s a good place to begin fostering life-long healthy habits.
Postville, Iowa, the community I serve, calls itself the “Hometown to the World.” A small town in northeast Iowa surrounded by farmland, Postville is full of diversity with families from Mexico, Guatemala, Kenya and beyond. Almost 80 percent of the students served by the Postville Community School District receive free or reduced-price lunches. Knowing that so many families depend on these meals — and not knowing what foods are available at their homes – makes the food served at school even more vital. It must be fresh, healthy and satisfying.
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Nutrition education is one part of FoodCorps’ approach to solving both hunger and obesity. Iowa’s Department of Public Health offers a program called Pick a Better Snack. I visit 11 elementary classrooms each month to teach students about a new fruit or vegetable, often one that many of them have never tried. Through such encounters, students learn how fiber regulates their digestion and why they need at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day.
In March, I offered the students samples of three vegetables: cauliflower, celery and purple cabbage. After telling one class that I couldn’t give them more because they were going to lunch right after, one girl proclaimed, “But we’re just trying to be healthy!”
Tracking food’s path from seed to plate
FoodCorps also tries to create a connection between children and the path food takes from seed to plate. Postville has a large community garden, an oasis in a landscape dominated by corn and soybean fields. A few community volunteers and I help kids from the 4H Club as they plant vegetables in the spring, maintain them through the summer and then, come fall, harvest them for the school lunch line. The kids have seen the kohlrabi they have harvested appear in the cafeteria’s “extras” line, which gives them a sense of accomplishment by providing real food for themselves and their classmates.
Finally, FoodCorps’ approach gives students the chance to actually eat foods grown by local farmers. This has prompted changes in school kitchens. In Postville, there has been a shift in the cafeteria climate: using scratch cooking instead of ready-to-eat. The kitchen staff no longer simply unwraps and reheats food. This requires more staff, more equipment, more time. Change has been slow; gone are the days of chicken nuggets and french fries, and at first, the kids complained.
Nowadays, though, I see them making connections that they may not have before. They know that the purple cabbage I serve them during snack time is the same kind that they tried during the Purple Power Wrap taste test last month, and that purple cabbage can be grown right in their community.
Hunger is a complicated issue that will require changes in our economy, politics and society. For hungry children, those things don’t matter in the short-term. But by working in the schools, where children often eat two of their meals and usually a snack or two, FoodCorps is helping educate them about making healthier choices as well as teaching them to grow a thing or two for themselves.
FoodCorps Service Member Ashley Dress won the 2014 FoodCorps Victory Growers Award “for a compelling account of hunger and food insecurity,” winning a $5,000 prize for her service site, the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative. The award, sponsored by C&S Wholesale Grocers, highlights that many children struggle with hunger and food insecurity, and that the food they receive at school is the most important meal they will get all day.
Funding for FoodCorps is provided by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, AmeriCorps, and a diverse array of private and public donors, including the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT). NCAT is the host for FoodCorps in Iowa, working with local partners in Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Decorah, Des Moines and Waterloo. Find out more about NCAT and the FoodCorps team in Iowa at www.facebook.com/FoodCorpsIowa or https://www.ncat.org/midwest/
Main photo: Ashley Dress helps Addison Neville, a preschooler at Iowa’s St. Joseph Community School, plant pepper seeds. Credit: Teresa Knutson
Having been raised under the shade of a sweet cherry tree, I always took great pride in asserting Michigan’s cherry dominance. It was not until researching this piece that I made a shocking discovery: Most sweet cherries are grown in the West. To be specific, Utah, California and Oregon.
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Next, I discovered that Utah also supported its sweet cherry stronghold by designating the cherry as its state fruit back in 1997. Meanwhile, Michigan is still trying to make up its mind about that subject. Proposed legislation designating a state fruit has been stalled in committee for more than a year, with heavy opposition from the blueberry contingent. Not only was my state not among the Top 3, it couldn’t even muster sufficient political muscle behind its homegrown sweet cherries. I never would have guessed that a simple story about a spicy cherry salsa would cause me such emotional upheaval.
Despite my disappointment in this news, I still am crazy about sweet cherries in June and July. I like to throw them on waffles in the morning, salads in the afternoon and start any party with a simple, kicked-up cherry salsa, especially if it’s an impromptu gathering and I’ve only got 15 minutes before running out the door. This light, fruity salsa is sure to disappear as fast as guacamole on Cinco de Mayo or cherry pie on the fourth of July. But that’s another story with a happier ending, because cherry pie uses tart cherries, and Michigan wins that contest hands down.
- 1 pound sweet cherries, pitted
- ½ pound fresh or canned pineapple
- 1 jalapeño pepper
- Juice of 1 lime
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon Aleppo chili pepper, or to taste
- ¼ cup parsley, minced
- Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor and pulse until the mixture reaches a chunky sauce consistency.
- This can be served immediately, but it is best if allowed to marinate for up to three hours while the sweet and spicy flavors get to know each other. Serve with tortilla chips.
Main photo: Sweet cherry-pineapple salsa. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
It’s a strange world, where we pick flower buds, spread them out to dry in the sun, then leave them to macerate in salt or vinegar. If they are left undisturbed on their spiny bushes, caper buds burst into glorious bloom in the early morning sunshine. For a few short hours, their long, waving stamens are irresistible to bees, then their lovely pink-white petals quickly wither in the strong afternoon sun. Who could possibly have discovered that, once “cured” (dried, salted or soaked in vinegar), the rather vegetal-tasting caper bud develops a delicate, earthy flavor with a lovely floral overtone? It’s this symphony of tastes that make capers so alluring.
Source of wealth for islanders
The appeal of capers has been long-lasting and far-reaching. Until recently, few caper flowers were ever seen on the Greek Cycladic islands of Santorini, Andros, Folegandros, or coastal Crete and Cyprus, as the buds were rarely given the chance to flower. In Greece, capers have always been a valued local food and flavoring, and the caper trade a source of wealth for the islanders.
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Caper seeds have been found in Belgian ditches dating as far back as the Middle Ages. And early British cookbooks contain recipes for mutton and skate with caper sauce, and suggest liberal use of capers in salads and with cold meats. Since the caper bush, or shrub (capparis spinosa), can’t thrive in these countries, capers had to be traded. So what was it that made them so attractive to those medieval northern Europeans?
It may have been the plant’s good-health qualities that have given it such value throughout its long history. There is evidence that the Sumerians (circa 2000 B.C.) used capers medicinally, and it’s obvious that the ancient Greeks understood the process necessary to turn caper buds into delicious capers: In the 4th century B.C., the “father of botany,” Theophrastus, remarked in his seminal work, “Enquiry into Plants,” that the wild caper plant appeared not to like cultivated land and those grown in such conditions produced smaller, softer capers of inferior flavor. They still do.
How capers work
When capers, caper leaves or berries are cured, an enzymatic reaction takes place and a flavanoid glycoside, glucocapparin, a mustard-oil that gives the caper its taste, is released from the plant tissues. In this, capers resemble their cousins in the cabbage family — cress, mustards, horseradish — all of which contain mustard-oil glycosides. Another of its flavonoids is rutin, a strong antioxidant which, pharmacologically speaking, improves capillary function. It’s considered to be anti-rheumatic, and therefore an effective treatment for arthritis and gout, a diuretic and, in non-medical-speak, a “liver protector” and “kidney disinfectant.”
An attempt at caper-gathering
The caper plant loves hot, dry summers with a smattering of spring rainfall, making the Aegean Mediterranean, swept by a strong sea breeze, the perfect home. There, the caper plant can nestle into the cracks and crevices of cliffs and stone walls.
But it was only when I tried to preserve my own capers for my Santorini cookery school that I realized just how difficult it was to create their lovely, tart pungency. The first problem was in the gathering of them—the best crops of buds always seemed to be just out of reach, dangling over alarmingly-steep cliffs. The bushes’ thorny stems make picking them painful work and a good harvest requires near-daily collections over four to five weeks, as the buds don’t all develop at the same time.
Local skilled gatherers pick young, tender leaves at the same time as the buds, for pickling. Later in the summer, after the caper buds that managed to escape the earlier harvest have flowered and fruited, the berries are collected and preserved in brine. For finest flavor, Cycladic islanders preserve wild capers in salt. It’s worth searching for these at home, as they have less of the acidic tang of vinegar-preserved capers and a greater depth of flavor. Interestingly, though, the most rutin is found in the dried buds, a process that, until recently, was a common way of curing capers on Santorini.
If you are in doubt as to the difference in taste and texture between wild and cultivated capers, don’t take my word for it — try both together. And perhaps spare a thought too for those great sages of the past, who so well-appreciated that food not only had to do you good, but had to taste good, too.
Paired with tomatoes
In early summer on Santorini, tomato plants give in to the dry heat and collapse, dotting the island’s gray, volcanic soil with ripe, tiny, deep-crimson tomatoes. For a few short weeks, they can be made into this pretty meze.
To prepare salt-preserved capers for the table, soak them in several changes of cold water; brine- and vinegar-preserved capers only need rinsing.
Variation: Although it takes more work, this dish is at its traditional best when the olives, capers and garlic are mashed in a mortar or bowl before you add the vinegar and olive oil. The sauce texture will be coarser, but its flavor will be more refined.
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 24 tiny, or cherry, tomatoes
- ¼ teaspoon sugar (if tomatoes aren't sun-ripened, optional)
- 1 cup Greek cracked green or Nafplion olives, or brine-packed, pit-in, Spanish green olives
- 2 tablespoons salt-packed (or brine- or vinegar-preserved) capers, soaked, rinsed, and patted dry
- 1 small clove garlic, minced
- ½ teaspoon red-wine vinegar
- 3 to 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh fennel fronds or flat-leaf parsley, for garnish
- 4 thin slices whole-wheat or country-style bread, toasted
- In a small, heavy skillet over very low heat, heat the olive oil. Add the tomatoes, sprinkle with the sugar, cover, and cook for about 3 minutes, or until their skins split. Set aside in the skillet to cool.
- Make the sauce: Blanch the olives in boiling water for 5 seconds. Drain, pit, and chop. In a food processor, combine the olives, capers, and garlic. Process until well mixed. With the machine running, add the vinegar, drop by drop, then the olive oil (to taste) in a steady stream.
- Spread the sauce over a small platter. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the tomatoes to the platter. Garnish with fennel or parsley. Cut each slice of toast into 4 triangles. Sprinkle the bread with the liquid remaining in the tomato pan.