Articles in Healthy Cooking
I pause, unsure how my question will be received. “Have you had kale chips?”
That was the first time I posed the question to a patient in a medical exam room. With more than a decade of practicing internal medicine under my belt, I had never felt particularly inspired or successful in counseling my patients about their weight. Then I attended Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives (HKHL), an annual medical conference at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, Calif., a gathering aimed at training doctors in nutrition and cooking. Within weeks upon my return, I was “prescribing” my first recipe.
Like many of my patients in the San Francisco Bay Area, John, who is in his late 40s, is overweight. He has never been successfully motivated to slim down because no “diet” has ever worked for him. When I bring up his chart and show him his body mass index (BMI), he says, ”I’m fat, but nothing I try ever works.”
Chipping away at the weight issue
“What do you eat on an average day?” I ask. “Do you eat fruits and vegetables?” John says he loves vegetables and loves to cook. He even volunteers at a local farmers market. But he has a weakness: “Chips,” he says. “I can’t stop eating chips.” John’s idea of chips is the potato variety, soaked in fat, fried and overly salted. I suggest he try kale chips and give him a simple recipe (see below). I tell him he can eat as many as he likes.
A month later, John has lost 5 pounds and is perceptibly happier and more confident. “Doc,” he says, “No doctor has ever given me a recipe before. Those kale chips are so good! Thank you.”
Granted, obese patients need more than a recipe for kale chips to find their way to a healthy weight, but a simple nutritious and non-fattening recipe is a first step and a great incentivizer. By giving John a fantastic-tasting substitute for his beloved chips rather than forbidding him to eat one of his favorite treats, I was able to convey that a different way of eating would allow him to enjoy snacks while feeling healthier and losing weight along the way.
Healthy recipe Rx
When doctors discuss food, it’s usually in the context of nutrition rather than flavor, as in: “You’ve really got to cut back on the junk food.” Well, patients know that, they just may not know what to replace their junk food with. What if doctors began giving out simple recipes for healthful, whole-food alternatives before they handed out prescriptions for cholesterol-lowering medication? Or gave a prescription for exercise and a decadent tasting fruit-based dessert to help control blood pressure?
Traditionally, medical schools do not include coursework in nutrition or, certainly, in cooking, and insurance companies are unlikely to reimburse for nutritional counseling. It’s much faster and easier to write a prescription for a drug, and because it may require no change in lifestyle or self-discipline on the part of patients, they may prefer a pill as well. And if the doctors themselves aren’t the best role models, due to long work hours and the same poor dietary and exercise habits she is asking her patients to rectify, they may not have credibility behind their message.
How do we change this? First, doctors must learn about nutrition and healthy cooking. Showing patients how to shop and cook, and giving them actual recipes should be the next step doctors take. This would instigate a cultural shift and require advocating for insurance coverage, but the change would improve the nation’s health and save health-care dollars in the long run.
Cooking for the cure
Dr. David Eisenberg, a professor at Harvard Medical School, is devoted to this idea. He founded Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives with the goal of turning physicians into foot soldiers in the war against obesity and other nutrition-related diseases. Over a four-day course each March, doctors swap scalpels for chef’s knives, and white coats for aprons, as they attend cooking demonstrations and get hands-on in the kitchen. They leave the conference with a changed perspective and a renewed zeal to talk prevention.
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An HKHL alumnus, Dr. John Principe, completely restructured his Chicago-area practice and now has a teaching kitchen. Principe, who says that he had been “burnt to a crisp by the methods of conventional medicine,” credits Eisenberg and HKHL for saving his career. “The ability to empower people to take control of their health through the simple tools of a knife, fire and water is amazing,” he says. “It’s primitive but essential!”
A sprinkling of other programs around the country are also taking the initiative in teaching doctors how to cook. Dr. Robert Graham, associate program director for the Internal Medicine Residency at New York City’s Lenox Hill Hospital, runs a six-week program to instruct medical residents in nutrition, weight management and exercise. Students take cooking classes at the Institute of Culinary Education. The University of Massachusetts Medical School offers cooking classes tailored to physicians’ medical specialties, and Tulane University’s Medical School and Johnson and Wales University recently established the first Culinary Medicine collaboration, with the goal of pairing physicians and chefs.
So picture this: At your next checkup, you’ll be weighed in, get your blood pressure checked, and your latest cholesterol and blood sugar numbers. Then your doctor will hand you her favorite kale chip recipe or one that turns frozen bananas into ice cream. It seems far-fetched now, but it would make medical and fiscal sense to make such a scenario a reality in the immediate future.
Dr. Shiue’s Kale Chips
1 head kale, washed and completely dried
a few pinches of salt, to taste
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
1. Wash whole kale leaves, shake out or dry in a salad spinner, then place on a rack to dry thoroughly. Depending on your temperature and humidity conditions, this can take an hour or several hours. Alternatively, dry thoroughly with towels.
2. Preheat oven to 275 F.
3. Once kale leaves are completely dried, tear leaves off the fibrous central stem into bite-size (potato chip sized) pieces and place onto two baking sheets in a single layer with some space around each leaf.
4. Sprinkle on salt and drizzle with a small amount of olive oil, about 1 tablespoon per baking sheet. Toss with tongs to evenly distribute salt and oil.
5. Place prepared kale leaves into the preheated oven, and bake for 20 minutes, turning over leaves halfway through baking.
Variations: Experiment with tasty seasonings, including cayenne pepper with a squeeze of lime juice, Bragg Nutritional Yeast and nori furikake.
Top photo: Baked kale chips. Credit: iStockphoto
Broccoli rabe is the new spinach, as one twentysomething, let-me-reinvent-the-wheel food blogger called it. Yeah, broccoli rabe is healthy, but if it doesn’t taste great no one will eat it.
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Let’s get rid of some confusion: broccoli rabe, broccoli rape, broccoli raab, rapini, Chinese flowering cabbage are all the same thing. It’s unrelated to spinach. But we can’t get rid of all confusion because broccoli, cabbage, kohlrabi, cauliflower, rapini and turnip tops are all botanically related.
Furthermore cime di rape, friarelli and broccoli rabe are often confused by the very people who are famous for cooking them, the Neapolitans. You’ve got to admire a people who have a website devoted to friarelli, though. Friarelli refers specifically to young broccoli rabe, and the dish is made by boiling the vegetables in water, draining them, and then frying them in olive oil with garlic and salt.
Broccoli rabe is very popular in southern Italy, where this bitter tasting green is cooked in a variety of ways to make it more palatable. It has been popular for a long time. Plutarch, the second-century Greek essayist, wrote about broccoli rabe in a story about the Roman general Manius Curius, who, after a long and successful career, retired to his modest home in the country. One day some Samnite ambassadors came and found him boiling greens like broccoli rabe or turnip tops. They offered him some gold and he responded by asking why a person satisfied with such a supper would need gold.
I was in Naples when I first had friarelli at the restaurant Donna Margherita at Vico Alabardieri. The dish called salsicce e friarelli was made of sausage taken out of its skin and flattened into two patties and fried in olive oil along with the friarelli that was cooked in olive oil, garlic and red chile flakes. This was served with French fries and lemon. It was great.
On another occasion I had pizza con salsiccia e friarelli, and I thought this one of the finest pizzas I’ve ever had. It’s sometimes called pizza pulcinello, named after Pulcinella, the comic character of the 17th-century Neapolitan commedia dell’arte. The pizza is made with mozzarella and small slices of sausages and drizzled olive oil. When I had it the crust was thick with risen sides and it was cooked in a wood-fired oven, which left appetizing black marks on the bottom of the pizza.
A simple broccoli rabe preparation is easy and brings out the richness of the hearty vegetable. You can use it to top a pizza or pair it with sausage like the dishes I enjoyed in Naples, or use it in myriad other ways because it’s versatile in its simplicity.
Boil the broccoli rabe until soft in about 12 minutes then drain and transfer to a sauté pan with some olive oil and chopped garlic. Sizzle for a few minutes then serve with salt and lemon juice if desired.
Broccoli rabe with garlic and olive oil. Credit: LittleNY Photography and Design/iStock
“One of the most significant medical discoveries of the 21st century is that inflammation is the common thread connecting chronic diseases,” writes Dr. Mark Hyman, author of several books on health and wellness. The conditions he’s talking about include diabetes, heart disease, obesity and even cancer, all driven by inflammatory foods in your diet. But the good news is there are lots of foods to decrease inflammation, too.
Cut your finger, and observe what happens: redness, swelling, thumping pain. That’s the process of inflammation — the immune system rushing in, sending growth signals to the skin and blood vessels to help repair damaged tissues. Now imagine you have a chronic wound that just won’t heal. ”It’s like wild fire out of control,” Dr. William Li told USA Today, describing the inflammatory process that drives the proliferation of cancerous cells.
When the immune system detects cancer, it produces inflammatory molecules to help put out the fire. But tumor cells are sneaky. They mask themselves to keep the immune system from prevailing and feed off the growth signals that inflammation creates. What’s more, cancer cells initiate inflammation on their own, secreting inflammatory chemicals that cause more proliferation and growth, and the cascade continues. The cancer cells increase exponentially, refusing to die like normal cells, producing masses called tumors that generate blood vessels on their own so they can nourish themselves, grow bigger and spread.
Fat cells, too, secrete inflammatory chemicals, underscoring the link between obesity and chronic disease.
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So what causes chronic inflammation?
Hyman blames the usual culprits, including lack of exercise, stress, overeating, refined carbs, processed foods, sugars and artificial sweeteners, imbalances in gut bacteria, insufficient fiber, dairy, gluten and bad fats.
Unlike proteins, which our body breaks down into amino acids, the fats we eat get incorporated directly into our cell membranes, said Jeanne Wallace, a Ph.D. in nutrition who has reviewed the thousands of studies on diet and cancer. In a multi-step process, those fats then signal our cells to secrete chemicals that are either inflammatory or anti-inflammatory. The good fats — the ones that get converted into prostaglandin E3s and signal cells to reduce inflammation — include omega 3 fatty acids, she explained, found in abundance in wild, fatty fish, in animals raised on pastures and in a few plant foods, including flax, chia and walnuts to some degree.
The bad guys are certain omega 6 fatty acids from commercially-raised animals and trans fats from fried and processed foods, including oils that are hardened via the process of hydrogenation and turned into shortening, into some margarines and sometimes into commercial nut butters. These fats get converted into prostaglandin E2s and other chemicals that promote inflammation.
The bad guys, however, can also include plant sources high in omega 6 fatty acids– beans, grains, nuts, seeds and especially their oils, Wallace said.
The problem here is that fat conversion can go either way, she said. The fat may be converted into healthy or unhealthy prostaglandins, depending on your insulin levels and other factors in your body, and we have very little control over the process. Wallace, who counsels cancer patients on diet and supplements, recommends eating these whole plant foods in moderation and avoiding most plant oils, which contain an overabundance of omega 6s. Olive oil is her oil of choice because of the abundance of omega 9 fatty acids, neutral in their effects on inflammation, along with other compounds that impede it.
Through her extensive research, Wallace has identified these foods to fight inflammation.
Top foods to decrease inflammation:
10 Apples and apple cider. Wallace, however, advises her clients with blood sugar issues to avoid fruit juice because of the sugars and to eat apples along with a little protein or fat, which will slow down the sugars’ absorption.
9 Brightly colored berries. These are also on Wallace’s top 10 list of foods that regulate blood sugar.
8 Olive oil. Buy cold-pressed, extra virgin oil in dark bottles, Wallace advised. And when you cook with it, use a low temperature and don’t let it smoke.
7 Hot peppers. They’re high in capsaicin, a potent compound that generates heat and inhibits inflammation.
6 Onions. Have you ever known a vegetable so sweet yet so mighty? According to onion experts, the best ones are the red and yellow-skinned varieties grown in northern soils. Peel them gently, then cut them and then let them sit for a half hour to develop the full complement of healthy compounds.
5 Grass-fed, grass-finished (often called pastured) organic meat, dairy and eggs. Visit the Eat Wild website to find good local sources of these products. And when in doubt, ask farmers what they feed their animals to increase omega 3s. You don’t want “grain-fed,” which increases omega 6s.
4 Leafy green vegetables, especially spinach. Wash these vegetables well even if the package says they’ve been pre-washed because the threat of the E. coli contamination is real. Cook spinach to help you absorb its minerals.
3 Green tea. Look for fresh-smelling, green leaves, especially gyokuros and senchas
2 Wild, fatty, cold-water fish Choose fish that are small and eat low on the food chain, including anchovies, sardines, herring and wild salmon. Here’s a list of some good salmon choices, including canned salmon from BPA-free cans. Also, eat the fat, which contains the healthy omega 3s.
1 Culinary seasonings. Curry, ginger, garlic and parsley top the list of foods that fight inflammation. All herbs and spices are rich in antioxidants, Wallace said, which help protect fragile omega 3 oils from turning rancid when heated. Even more significant, they inhibit inflammation-promoting molecules (called nuclear factor kappa B) that cancer cells secrete. In fact, some scientists suggest that spice consumption might explain why cancer incidence is so much lower in India than in most Western countries, giving “the spice of life” its most significant spin yet.
Simple Spicy Salmon, With Ginger Juice and Garlic
My secret to moist, tasty salmon is a clay baking dish, which is available in most kitchen specialty stores. You have to soak it in cold water for half an hour before using it and then place it, along with the ingredients, in a cold oven. Trust me. I’ve cracked many a clay vessel.
4 cloves garlic, chopped, divided in half
3 heaping tablespoons grated ginger
4 tablespoons lemon juice, freshly squeezed
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 large pieces of wild salmon
Pinch of red pepper flakes
1. Soak the pot in cold water for half an hour.
2. Prepare the sauce. Chop the garlic first. It needs to sit about 15 minutes before cooking to develop its host of cancer-fighting compounds. Grate the ginger, then squeeze the juice out of it into a mixing bowl. Add the lemon juice, salt, pepper and half the garlic and stir.
3. Place the fish in the clay pot and add the sauce. Sprinkle red pepper on top and then cover.
4. Place covered clay pot in a cold oven, then turn the oven to 350 F and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until fish is flaky. Add the remainder of the garlic at the end.
Top photo: Simple spicy salmon, with ginger juice and garlic. Credit: Harriet Sugar Miller
Chinese meat demand overtook that of the United States in 1992, and according to the Earth Policy Institute, the Chinese were eating more than double the amount of meat that Americans were consuming last April.
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Traditionally, Chinese cuisine demanded far less meat than today’s Western diets as it was often used sparingly for stocks and sauces, as flavoring or as garnish to add texture to veggie-based dishes. Meat, especially pork, has always signified wealth and thus, with rising incomes, Mainlanders in China have wholeheartedly embraced a meat-heavy diet to demonstrate success. Pork and also fish are particularly important at business meals, as conspicuous consumption is said to “give face,” or demonstrate prestige and respect, to guests.
Chefs teaching classic Chinese vegetarian recipes
Not all Chinese are moving in this direction, though. I recently attended a monthly cooking class hosted at Tianchu Miaoxiang organized by Sixth Step Buddhist Retreat, a program that invites Beijing residents to spend a weekend in nature, meditating and learning about the Buddhist lifestyle.
Each month, free classes are organized to help residents learn how to cook non-meat dishes using seasonal ingredients. This time, Chef Tian, a Sichuanese chef, taught us to cook with mushrooms, eggplant and Chinese yam, known in Mandarin as “shanyao” 山药 This tuber is grown in areas surrounding Beijing and throughout northern China.
Before winter comes to an end, head to your local Chinatown or Asian specialty food shops and take advantage of these two (translated) recipes.
I included the Chinese ingredient names for rare items so you can show this to the shopkeeper, assuming s/he can read Chinese characters.
Faux Coral Fish Rolls (珊瑚鱼卷)
The original recipe suggests imitation fish 素鱼一条 but I don’t like to cook with imitation meats and moreover this will be hard to find outside of Greater China.
For the fish rolls:
1 package tofu skins 豆腐皮
1 kilogram shitake mushrooms 鲜香菇
1 kilogram winter bamboo 冬笋
1 medium-sized carrot 胡萝卜
1 kilogram eryngii mushrooms 杏鲍菇 (or any other type of mushroom you enjoy)
1 bunch coriander 香菜
½ green and red bell pepper each 青红椒
1 celery stalk 芹菜(for garnish)
2 grams salt
2 grams mushroom powder (non-meat bullion works) 蘑菇精
Optional: 1 can of imitation ham 素火腿 (can be bought at Chinese shops)
1. Cut the tofu skins into squares about 3×3 inches (these will be used like taco shells).
2. Julienne the shitake, bamboo, carrot and eryngii.
3. Separate the coriander leaves from the stems and save both.
4. Thinly slice the bell peppers and if you’d like, the imitation ham.
5. Take the celery and slice thinly length-wise; flute the tail.
6. Steep all ingredients in water until ready to use (the celery tails will curl).
7. Take all ingredients out of the water and layer atop the tofu skins. Roll the tofu skins up (like a soft taco or burrito), then tie closed with the coriander stems; set aside.
8. Microwave the tofu rolls for 1 minute.
For the sauce:
3 grams oil
Minced ginger to taste
10 grams ketchup
5 grams tomato sauce
10 grams sugar
8 grams white vinegar 白醋
½ cup of water
1. In a wok, heat the oil and cook the ginger until fragrant, then add the ketchup, tomato sauce until bubbling then add sugar and white vinegar; cook until the sugar melts and add a ½ cup of water until it boils.
2. Take the boiled tomato sauce and pour atop the micro-waved rolls; use the bell pepper strips and fluted celery to garnish.
XO Sauce Eggplant Sticks (XO 茄条)
Serves 8 to 10 as an amuse-bouche, canapé or appetizer
2 Asian eggplants (the long variety not the round one), sliced into sticks (the size of French fries will do)
2grams minced ginger
XO sauce (a fermented and flavorful fish paste available at any Asian goods food shop; as it’s usually made with shrimp or fish, if you are vegan ask for 素XO浆)
2 grams garlic oil (you can make this by adding a few garlic heads to vegetable oil and letting it sit)
2 grams salt
2 grams mushroom powder
8 to 10 narrow cocktail glasses
1. Place the eggplant on a microwave-safe plate and cover with plastic wrap; microwave for 5 to 10 minutes.
2. In a large bowl, place the cooked eggplant, ginger, garlic oil, salt, and mushroom powder together and mix together until ingredients are distributed evenly.
3. Spoon the eggplant mixture into the cocktail glasses and press down.
4. Spoon XO sauce atop the mixture, garnish with the coriander leaves leftover from the tofu rolls.
Crispy Chinese Yam (酥山药)
200 grams Chinese yam
Tempura powder (to coat)
Spiced salt (a dash)
Green and red bell pepper, minced (for garnish)
1. Cut the yam into ½-inch slices and blanch in boiling water briefly before dropping into cold water and leaving until ready to use again.
2. Pour oil into a wok until it is about 2 inches deep and heat until 250 F (or the surface is starting to undulate).
3. Take the yam slices and drop into the tempura powder until evenly coated, then drop into the oil and deep fry until the exterior turns a golden yellow; remove with chopsticks or a slotted spoon and place on paper towels to let dry.
4. Drop the minced red and green pepper and drop into the wok with the remaining oil, fry until fragrant and then add the fried yam slices, turning over in the oil until evenly cooked. 5. Sprinkle with spiced salt.
6. Remove with slotted spoon onto plate; eat immediately.
Top photo: Eggplants in cups. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein
Eat more fish. That’s one of the prerequisites of the Mediterranean diet. We all know fish is good for us, yet Americans eat less than 16 pounds a year, man, woman and child. And for a lot of us, this sumptuous route to a healthy diet is simply unheard of. Astonishingly, there are people in this country who have never tasted fish.
Well, I was lucky. I grew up and learned to eat and cook in New England, on the coast of Maine where fish and seafood are considered a normal, customary part of each week’s menu. We weren’t Catholics, but we still ate fish on Fridays, possibly because there was a greater selection on that day. And of course we ate Maine lobster, scallops and crab. But the chef d’oeuvre of my mother’s kitchen was baked stuffed haddock, which I loved so much that later, when I went away to school, my mother always made it for that first welcome-home supper of vacation. She stuffed the whole fish with something like poultry stuffing — sagey, bread-crumby, oniony, thymey, peppery, and delicious — and then served it with a white sauce with sliced hard-boiled eggs in it. This doesn’t sound as enticing now as it was back then; tastes change with time, but I think if my mother were alive now and made that for me, I would tuck into it with just as much gusto as I did when I was 15.
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Explore beyond tuna and shrimp
I’ve always been perplexed at the indifference so many Americans, especially those away from the coasts, display toward seafood. Tuna is our favorite fish, but the greatest quantity we consume by far is canned. That’s a good thing, too, because canned tuna is mostly albacore and not the gravely endangered bluefin. Shrimp is our second favorite and that’s not good because, as delicious as some shrimp can be, most are raised on vast shrimp farms by environmentally destructive, highly questionable practices that yield a tasteless lump of rubbery resistant flesh, good as a foil for cocktail sauce and not much else. If you can get wild shrimp, fantastic! But most of us can’t.
Home cooks steer away from fish because it’s expensive and they don’t know how to prepare it, and then it stinks up the kitchen. Tasteless frozen pre-cooked shrimp and canned tuna require no preparation, which may be a large part of their appeal. Why bother with anything else?
Bother for these reasons: a) because any seafood made at home will be cheaper and probably tastier than in a restaurant; b) because it’s actually very easy to prepare; and c) because, the greatest selling point, it is unassailably good for you. Despite some popular beliefs that fish contains harmful amounts of mercury, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health concluded in a meta-analysis back in 2006 (published in the Journal of the American Medical Assn., or JAMA) the health risks from consuming fish are unsubstantiated and have been greatly exaggerated. A much greater risk, said Dr. Eric Rimm, co-author of the study, “is in store for those who avoid fish entirely.”
Even the ultra-conservative American Heart Assn. suggests two seafood meals a week, and the Mediterranean diet recommends “at least” two or three servings weekly for everyone, including children.
“I could never get my kid to eat fish.” I hear you, loud and clear.
Fish for small-fry
Try this: Make fish fingers or nuggets by cutting up some halibut (or salmon grouper, mahi-mahi or the like). Kids love anything fried and crunchy, that they can eat with their hands. Set up three bowls, one with flour in it, one with a well-beaten egg or two, and one with good unflavored bread crumbs seasoned with a pinch of salt and, if your kids will tolerate greenery, some very finely minced parsley. Have a skillet with a skiff of olive oil in the bottom (2 tablespoons or so, depending on the size of the pan) ready to go on the stove.
Now dip each fish finger into the flour, rolling it to coat thoroughly, and shake off the excess. Dip the flour-coated fish into the beaten egg, letting the excess drip off. Put the egg-coated fish into the bowl with the breadcrumbs and roll it around, pressing on all sides so the breadcrumbs adhere. When all your fish fingers are done, set the skillet over medium heat and as soon as the oil is hot, add the fish fingers in a single layer—do it in two or more batches if you have to. Fry until crisp and brown on one side, then turn and fry on the other. By the time the bread-crumb coating is toasty brown, the inside will be cooked through. Serve with plenty of lemon wedges to squeeze on top.
Fish recipe with no fishy smell
Here’s another, only slightly more complicated treatment for those of you who worry about smelling the house up with fishy odors. For each serving, take a square sheet of heavy aluminum foil. Spread about a teaspoon of olive oil over the center, then set a piece of firm-textured fish (see the suggestions above) on it. Add a few disks of carrot and potato, blanched until just starting to tenderize, a slender ring of a smallish red onion, a few slices of zucchini, and perhaps a sliver of red pepper, green chili pepper or a couple of very small grape tomatoes. Fresh herbs are also nice with this—chives, thyme sprigs, or coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley or basil. Sprinkle another teaspoon of oil over the top, add a genteel spritz of lemon juice, and then pull the corners of the foil up and twist them to seal, making a loose packet. Set the packets on a tray and transfer the tray to a preheated 400-degree oven. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the fish is done and the carrot and potato slices are tender. Serve in the packets — no fuss, no muss, no cleanup, and no fishy smell in the kitchen.
The message from the Mediterranean? Fish is good for you, it’s simple and easy to prepare, and, as those Harvard researchers determined, the health risks are minimal compared to the benefits. Farmed fish or wild (and the greatest percentage of our seafood consumption these days comes from aquaculture), it’s all to the good.
Top photo: Seafood display. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Along with the return of robins and whirling bees, I count the appearance of dandelions among the first signs that spring has officially arrived. I look forward to seeing their cheery butter-yellow flowers, and admire their tenacity as plants. It takes a survivor’s spirit and dogged determination to thrive in the manner of dandelions, growing everywhere from lush fields to the worst of disturbed ground, even in cracks of sidewalks. As much as I admire dandelions’ perseverance, I also particularly enjoy them as a food. Their edgy bitter green flavor is a welcome addition to mealtime after a long winter filled with dreary grey skies and heavy slow-cooked dishes.
Every part of the dandelion plant is edible. Perhaps you’ve enjoyed a salad of bitter greens served with bacon and a splash of vinegar, or savored a cup of dandelion root coffee. You may even have delighted in dandelion flower fritters or sipped dandelion wine. But have you eaten every part of the dandelion?
Where to look for the best dandelions
I learned from edible wild plants expert Samuel Thayer how to eat two of the less commonly eaten parts of dandelions, the flower stalks and crowns. After a few years experience eating them, I’d say that dandelion crowns are among my favorite spring foods.
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To find the best dandelion flower stalks to use as food, seek out large plants in shady areas. These grow in tall grass, which forces the stalk to grow quite long in order for the flower to not be obscured by grass. Longer stalks mean more food with less picking. Seek out the youngest, most pale green flower stalks, as they will be most tender.
Remove the flower heads from the stalks (and be certain to eat them or make dandelion wine). Boil whole flower stalks in boiling water for 10 minutes, as recommended by Thayer, then drain them. Serve dandelion stalk “noodles” dressed with a little butter and salt, or incorporate them into your favorite dishes as a vegetable.
Harvesting dandelion crowns takes a bit more technique. The crown of the dandelion is the tight knot where the leaves meet the tap root. Even in a large plant, it may not be more than a single bite, but it is a very satisfying one. Seek out young spring dandelion plants that have not yet flowered. Look for plants with a tight nest of new buds at their core.
If you are harvesting an entire dandelion plant, either because you intend to eat it, or because you are, gasp, weeding it, the first step is to wash the plant free of as much dirt as possible. Cut off the root, and peel away the outer leaves, and you will be left with the little nugget that is the crown. Rinse it again as thoroughly as possible under running water because it is likely to be very dirty.
Thayer, however, has come up with a clever method of harvesting dandelion crowns without all of the dirt. He uses a sturdy teaspoon with sharpened edges to selectively harvest crowns from the plants. I’ve found that a grapefruit spoon with serrated edges or a pocketknife also work well. Again, seek out large dandelion plants that have yet to flower. Use your spoon or knife to carve a cone-shaped piece of crown right out of the plant, which is still in the ground. Harvested in this manner, the plants require little additional rinsing to remove any remaining grit and dirt. Even if you intend to later remove the entire plant, if you find that you particularly enjoy dandelion crowns, harvesting them in this manner saves time.
Dandelion crowns have a touch of the same bitterness as dandelion leaves and feel like a solid bite of vegetable in the mouth. Use dandelion crowns as you would asparagus, adding them to any soup, salad, or stir-fry. They can be eaten raw, but I prefer to serve them cooked.
My favorite way to serve “yard artichokes” is similar to how I’d serve real artichokes. Steam prepared dandelion crowns until they can easily be pierced with a knife, usually around 10 minutes. While they are steaming, prepare small ramekins full of melted butter kissed with a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of salt. Dip the steamed dandelion crowns into the butter bath before enjoying the tender morsels like the toast of spring that they are.
Top photo: Dandelions. Credit: Erica Marciniec
When I was just married I went with my new husband to a famous Jewish restaurant in London. I scanned the menu anxiously searching for something green.
“Excuse me,” I asked, “Do you have any vegetables, please?”
“Yes,” the waiter answered seriously, “we have dill pickles and latkes.”
That exchange demonstrates so much of what is wrong with traditional Ashkenazi fare. Certainly the food is delicious, rib-sticking and very tasty. Look at menus solid with dishes like matzo ball soup and kreplach, the delicious triangles of pasta filled with chopped meat floating generously in rich broth. There are slices of corned beef with a liberal side of deep fried potato latkes and over-large slices of lockshen pudding — noodles mixed with dried fruit and masses of fat and sugar. Of course all these dishes are wonderful and immersed with flavor and Jewish tradition. Lighter versions of some of the recipes form part of my book, “Jewish Traditional Cooking.” But maybe it would be sensible to serve one of these recipes as a treat or delicacy accompanied by a liberal quantity of vegetables and fruit, not all of them together at a single meal.
A diet for survival
The traditional Ashkenazi diet evolved from a fragile East-European existence and the shtetl — impoverished, flimsy villages.
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If people were fortunate enough to have a chicken, probably only for a festival, it was an old boiler, and in true Ashkenazi tradition it would have been placed in a large cooking pot with root vegetables and masses of water to make a soup. This soup would be extended with matzo balls or any kind of dough and rough bread, along with chopped gizzards and heart, and meat from the chicken’s neck. The neck skin would be separately stuffed with chopped fat and peppery flour and stitched, then roasted with the bird to create another meal called helzel. Those bubbas, grandmothers and mothers, knew that they could keep hunger at bay by adding calorie-laden extras. The chicken would likely be served at the festival meal with kasha, rice, potatoes or barley.
We are now in the 21st century and Ashkenazi tradition still follows that regimen. Jewish people manifest significant problems connected with obesity, including the so-called Jewish Disease, diabetes. Heart disease and cancers are known to be exacerbated by a high fat, high protein diet.
Adapting the Ashkenazi diet for the 21st century
So maybe it’s time to acknowledge this and accept change, as I did after marrying a lovely Sephardi man. After the Diaspora, the Sephardic Jews looked about their surroundings and adopted the cooking methods of their new neighbors using masses of cheap vegetables and fruits, cooking with olive oil rather than the artery-clogging schmaltz of their Jewish cousins. Instead of relying on frying or interminable stewing to add flavor, they began seasoning their food with fresh herbs, creating fragrant dishes redolent with glorious spices and mouthwatering taste.
When I wrote “Jewish Traditional Cooking” I wanted to include the inherited foods but lighten them where possible. Many of the appetizers are vegetable-based: baba ganoush, a fragrant Asian dish based on oven-roasted vegetables, and soup mit nisht – the ultimate low-calorie cauliflower soup that tastes of heaven but relies on the freshness of a good cauliflower, onions and a light stock and herbs. Lockshen pudding has exchanged its ancient stodgy image for a healthier alternative by adding masses of freshly grated apple, vanilla, mixed spices and fresh lemon zest.
Passover is no longer a stomach-clutching kilo-raising event in our home. We adore the lightness of a carrot and almond bake which rises soufflé-like for any chef, and the spinach and leek roulade with its lighter cheese filling still satisfies. For a modern Jewish woman understanding tradition and the demands of religion and custom, I looked to Morocco where I learned to cook fish in a tiny Fez kitchen with a mixture of fresh vegetables and a fabulous stuffing so that it can be eaten hot or cold. Turkish tradition showed me how to stuff a whole vegetable and experiment with butternut squash as the base for a stuffing of toasted pine nuts, lentils, brown rice, currants and masses of chopped mint, parsley and cilantro.
I believe that Ashkenazi Jews have to look to their Sephardi cousins to learn how to eat in the 21st century. They may not survive their traditional diet.
Top photo: Ruth Joseph. Credit: Western Mail, Thompson House, Cardiff
A few carrots that didn’t get pulled one summer made their beautiful lacy flowers the next year, and it was easy to see that those blooms looked a lot like Queen Anne’s lace, cilantro blossoms and the diminutive chervil flower. Were they somehow related? More than just a pretty face, I knew there was something behind these flowers and the gorgeous vegetables I loved, something that united them and their forms, flavors and behaviors. But what?
I took those unread botany books off the shelves and found out that yes, these were all members of the umbellifer family and they all make umbel-like flowers, though varying enormously in size. This family includes a lot of wild but familiar plants, including the deadly hemlock, and it turns out that — minus the hemlock — they all happen to be harmonious in our mouths, both the vegetables and the many herbs in that family.
It’s all relative when it comes to vegetables
I started looking more into plant families, who is in them, their stories, their shared characteristics and the way they play in our kitchens. Like people, plant family members are indeed relatives.
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The daisy (composite) family, a group of ruffians, includes the prickly artichokes and cardoons; salsify and scorzanera all with their habit of oxidizing; the bitter chicories; plus milk thistle, dandelion and burdock — a feisty bunch of plants. Break any of the roots and a thick white sap appears. Taste it and you will recoil from its bitterness. But a lot of these bitter plants are good for the liver, it turns out. Interesting.
Members of the nightshade family have been universally resisted wherever they’ve been introduced. Tomatoes were thought to cause stomach cancer. The Russian Orthodox Church believed potatoes were not food because they weren’t mentioned in the Bible, and besides, why eat what a dog didn’t even find interesting? Eggplant was thought to cause leprosy, and the consumption of eggplant (and nightshades in general) stimulates the pain of arthritis, which is why some people avoid it, even today. Belladonna got its name because when ingested, the pupils of the eyes grew large and dark, which was considered a form of beauty in women. The difficulties in this family, presumed or real, are due to alkaloids that can be deadly in large quantities but helpful in smaller ones; we all get our eyes dilated by the optometrist so the doctor can look deeply into our eyes, though not because of their lustrous beauty.
The chenopods, or goosefoots (yes, I looked at a goose’s gnarly foot to confirm the association), include spinach, chard, beets, wild spinach or lamb’s-quarters, and all are related to quinoa and amaranth, whose leaves can be and are eaten as well as the seeds. Speaking broadly, they are interchangeable in the kitchen with respect to flavor. And if you have chard bolting in your garden, might you still be able to eat the leaves as they becomes smaller and further apart on their ever-lengthening stems? Indeed you can. And at this stage they taste more like some of the wild greens they’re related to. This is the kind of stuff that I find fascinating!
Anyone who gardens has opportunities that deepen one’s vegetable literacy and excitement. You’ll find treasures that won’t appear in your supermarket, such as coriander buds that are still green and moist, so surprising in the mouth and so well-paired with lentils. You get to see — and eat — the whole plant, not just the parts and pieces that show up in the store. Broccoli leaves, as well as the crowns and stems, are quite tasty, and the same is true of radish and kohlrabi leaves.
Leeks produce enormous ribbons of leaves, sometimes referred to as flags, and indeed you can wave them back and forth to signal someone, if need be. When left in the garden over winter, the shanks can grow to a few feet in length(!), by which time a firm core has formed, too dense to eat, but a great ingredient for soup stock. When a leek is left in the garden long enough to bloom, its enormous spherical flower mimics that of the pretty chive blossom. And when you finally encounter a mature leek in the garden you can see that it is a mighty and noble vegetable (one variety is named King Richard). Is it surprising that the leek is the national symbol of Wales?
The name knotweed (the family that includes rhubarb, sorrel and buckwheat) refers to jointed stems, but you might see that the blossoms of these plants resemble the kind of embroidery that consists of little knots. Not the botanical definition, but my own, and you may have your own interpretation of names, too. I might add it doesn’t take much imagination to bring these three challenging plants together in a recipe.
Does any of this matter? Yes and no. We can still buy vegetables and cook them without knowing a bit of botany or history. But it is enormously fun to bring the familial nature of vegetables into view, to know that what relates in the garden often does so in the kitchen, which encourages both confidence and daring. And if you garden at all, your eyes will be open to possibilities that just don’t exist elsewhere.
To me, vegetable literacy enriches our world — and our culinary possibilities — by regarding the whole, wonderful plant and its relatives, not just the pieces and parts of a few cultivars.
Top photo: Deborah Madison holds an allium. Credit: Christopher Hirsheimer