Articles in Healthy Cooking

Saffron Almond Milk. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran

In tropical south India, our pantry had shelves running the length of walls that stored all types of basic provisions. Large brass containers held various dried legumes and smaller containers held dried spices and nuts. But saffron was not among them. My mother kept it in a small jar inside a large locked metal cupboard along with her silver utensils used for special occasions. She called it kumkumapoo — flower of the kumkuma plant; kumkuma is saffron’s Sanskrit name. The precious bottle came out only when special treats were made at home.

Saffron in cooking

Saffron has been a classic ingredient in various cuisines since ancient times. It is a versatile spice that adds a new dimension to savory and sweet dishes. Saffron threads are soaked in water, broths or other liquids, which become infused with the flavor and orange-yellow coloring, and then added to a dish.

Typically, the saffron threads are crushed or ground before soaking them. Saffron threads may also be ground or crushed into a powder and added to a dish. Good quality saffron develops to a bright golden yellow color, poorer quality saffron to either a pale straw color or bright orange.

From paella to risotto to biriyani, saffron is the main flavoring ingredient in various rice as well as meat dishes. There are numerous desserts that incorporate saffron for its color and flavor. It is widely featured in Spanish, Mediterranean, Persian, Iranian, Iraqi, Indian, Greek, Moroccan and Italian cuisines. Saffron from Iran, India and Spain are considered the best quality.

Where does it come from?

Saffron, the spice obtained from the gently dried stigmas of the purple saffron crocuses (Crocus sativus), has remained the world’s most expensive spice throughout history. Saffron’s unmistakable traits are its color and flavor. Since the strength of color determines its flavor, the higher the coloring strength, the higher its value. Saffron is sold as threads or as a ground powder. It is usually sold by the gram — just a small bunch of slender red threads. Fortunately, most recipes call for just a pinch, and a pinch of saffron goes a long way. It is grown primarily in Iran (more than 90% of the world production), followed by Spain, Greece, India (Kashmir) Egypt, Morocco and Turkey.

Why the high price?

An ounce of Spanish saffron costs about $54 and, when it is labeled pure, the price can go up to $77. The orange-red threads of saffron are very expensive for several reasons. Cultivation of saffron requires particular climate and soil conditions. The flowers have to be individually handpicked in the autumn when fully open. Saffron stigmas are harvested between dawn and 10 a.m., as they lose their color and aroma if left too long in the plant. Each crocus flower only produces three stigmas of saffron and thousands of blossoms are needed to produce even a small amount of spice. The stigmas have high moisture content and are gently dried for preservation.

Saffron’s history

The history of saffron goes back to ancient Egypt and Rome, where it was used as a dye, in perfumes, and as a drug, as well as for culinary purposes. It was known since antiquity in Persia, Mesopotamia and surrounding areas. Cultivation of saffron was also widespread in Asia Minor far before the birth of Christ. There are conflicting accounts about saffron’s arrival in South and East Asia. One theory is that when Persia conquered Kashmir, Persian saffron crocuses were transplanted to Kashmir. It is believed to have reached China in the 7th century. Arabs introduced saffron in Spain by 960. Cultivation spread to Italy, France and Germany when crusaders returned from Asia Minor with saffron corms.

Many uses of saffron

Saffron is used as an aromatic, and also used in perfumes and dyes. Saffron is often added to many food products simply as a coloring, such as cheese, soups and even various alcohols.

Saffron has very significant nutrients and chemical compounds that provide many health benefits. Saffron is an important ingredient in a number of Ayurvedic, Chinese, Unani and Tibetan medicines. According to Ayurvedic medicine, it is oily and light in properties, bitter in taste, and helps to pacify vata, pitta and kapha (air, fire and earth, the three fundamental body humors that make up one’s constitution, according to Ayurveda).

Saffron is used by Ayurvedic practitioners to treat asthma, arthritis, cold, cough and flu, acne and skin diseases, inflammation and indigestion. It is also a cooling spice and said to be an effective antidepressant. Some studies have shown that saffron contains antioxidants and other healthful properties that may help prevent cancer.

Saffron Almond Milk

On a hot summer day a cool glass of soothing and wholesome almond milk flavored with saffron makes the perfect thirst quencher. Here is a recipe for this delicious cold drink made with almonds, saffron and milk.

Ingredients

½ cup slivered almonds and few extra for garnish
½ cup water
3½ cups low fat (2%) milk
⅓ cup sugar
5 cardamom pods crushed
10 to 15 strands saffron

Directions

1. In a blender, grind the almonds with half cup of water to a smooth paste.

2. Bring the milk to a boil in a heavy bottomed vessel. Take a tablespoon of hot milk and add to the saffron strands and set aside.

3. Add the sugar, saffron soaked in milk and cardamom to the milk and bring back to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes.

4. Stir in the almond paste and simmer at medium heat for another five minutes. Keep stirring the pot. Remove from the stove and keep it covered.

5. Chill in the refrigerator and garnish with silvered toasted almonds and a pinch of saffron before serving.

Main photo: Saffron almond milk. R.V. Ramachandran

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Mulligatawny soup with kombucha squash served with a red cabbage, apple and carrot salad. Credit: Carole Murko

Honor thy food? I thought I already did that. Food had always been the centerpiece of my existence. I am half Italian. It’s what we talk about. What’s for breakfast? What’s for lunch? What are you cooking for dinner? That was before the life-changing green juice and Rice Biriyani.

I didn’t think I needed to do anything differently. Since childhood, we always ate together as a family. Everything was cooked from scratch with the finest ingredients. We had a garden then, and now I have my own. I laughed when I learned about the Slow Food movement because I had already lived that. Food and family were so central that I created Heirloom Meals, a storytelling platform to share our connection with family recipes, heritage, stories and tips. Who ate better than my family? We had balanced meals with meats, vegetables and a starch. A simple dessert topped it off.

Then food-related allergies struck. My husband Jim developed celiac disease. I became a student of gluten-free cooking and adapted recipes so Jim could eat without noticing a limitation. All was well until I developed stomach issues, the kind the pharmaceutical industry has convinced us can be cured with a pop of a pill.

Intuitively, I knew a change of diet could cure my acid reflux, but adding more dietary restrictions was daunting. I tried eliminating certain foods but eventually cheese and crackers would appear in my shopping cart. I love cheese and crackers. And coffee. How could I give up my morning elixir?

Yet I hadn’t felt quite right, and I questioned why. I ate almost 100% organic foods. I had grass-fed meats, pasture-raised chickens and wild fish. We were gluten-free and had lots vegetables. Why didn’t I feel 100% great?

In early February, I was lucky to be introduced to Nancy Lee, a local herbalist, private ayurvedic, and macrobiotic chef and healer. She was exactly what I needed. I was coming off flu and did not have the energy to embrace a new diet and cooking regime alone. Lee’s program included her coming to my house and cooking one meal a day with me. So I thought, “I want to do this.” What I got was so much more than a cleanse. I learned about eating and spirituality.

Lesson No. 1

Chewing one’s food seems like a simple and basic principle of eating. I never gave it much thought. I’ve always been a speedy eater. I love my food hot. I can’t stand lukewarm food, and I have spent my life inhaling meals. Lee’s first lesson: Digestion begins in your mouth. The word “mastication” popped into my head. M-a-s-t-i-c-a-t-i-o-n.  Hmmmmm … I don’t really chew my food. There is problem No. 1. I don’t even think about chewing. I just experience the flavors as quickly as possible and swallow.

Although I’m deeply grateful for the wonderful food I eat, I have never taken much time to pray over it. I hadn’t looked at the food and imagined how it will nourish and heal my body. I viewed food as the enemy for much of my life. I bought into the media’s view of the perfect woman. I sought a lithe, fit body. It never occurred to me that stopping or pausing before diving into a meal would awaken me to a food experience I had never had. I learned I had been living a warped food contradiction: I loved to make delicious food to nourish others but secretly despised that same food.

Lesson No. 2

Honor your food. Next, chew it. Check, check. The act of eating has become a spiritual experience. I’ve become present with the food. I understand that food has a life essence and energy and that certain foods cleanse and heal organs. The philosophy of honoring our food and treating our bodies with absolute reverence is vital.

My cleanse and restorative regime focused on my digestion, my heart and my hormones. We ate many and varied foods, and we drank three infusions: nettle, red clover and oat straw. Imagine drinking an infusion of red clover, nettles or oat straw every day and allowing them to pack a vitamin and nutritional punch in the most soothing way. Red clover purifies the blood and lowers bad cholesterol. It also is a great source of calcium, magnesium and vitamin C. Oat straw is known to reduce cholesterol, increase libido and strengthen nerves. According to herbalist Susan Weed, 1 cup of oat straw infusion contains 300 milligrams of calcium. Swigging a nettle infusion is said to strengthen bones, thicken hair, clarify skin, ease seasonal allergy symptoms and ease  GERD.

Combined with a green juice in the morning and lunches of such dishes as kichari, Rice Biriyani and mulligatawny soup with sides of steamed carrots, burdock root and daikon radish, and some form of salad, the cleanse was beyond successful.

I am off coffee. People comment that I look 10 years younger. My energy is even throughout the day and I feel happy.

Sample Menu: — Steamed carrots, burdock root, daikon and squash with brown rice and a pressed cabbage salad with sesame seeds.

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Grilled vegetables to light up a Meatless Memorial Day. Credit: Sarsmis / iStockphoto

Peggy Neu knows Meatless Monday is an easy way to reduce meat without a lot of sacrifice. But what happens when Meatless Monday and Memorial Day converge? What about the sizzling barbecue ribs? What about pleasing a holiday crowd with varying tastes? What about the kids?

Neu sees an opportunity.

She’s president of The Monday Campaigns, and when she spoke about the growth of Meatless Monday this spring at TEDxManhattan, she told the crowd that research shows that people tend to see Monday as a chance for a fresh start. With respect to health, people are more likely to make a change Monday than any other day. A study of health-related Google searches over a multiyear period showed a consistent pattern of Monday spikes. “It’s kind of like a mini New Year’s, but you get 52 chances to stay on track,” Neu said.

AUTHOR


Pam WeiszPam Weisz is 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.

Isn’t New Year’s more pleasurable? That’s exactly Neu’s hope for Meatless Monday. At TEDxManhattan, she said that it’s important to make the day “a fun ritual, something that people look forward to” and to approach it as “choice and moderation, giving people vegetarian choices rather than taking something (meat) away.”

So if it’s sizzle you want from your barbecue, there are plenty of cool ways to grill vegetables too. (See tips at the end of this story.) If it’s variety you crave, former Meatless Monday Web editor Tami O’Neill suggested “know when you won’t notice,” as in that freshly wrapped burrito or five-alarm chili in which the flavor might be just as wonderful without packing in the meat.

For kids, the fun particularly matters. Some tips from Meatless Monday include:

– Let kids choose a fruit or vegetable to include in a Meatless Monday dinner. They can help research how to prepare it.

– Involve kids in cooking. Their participation will vary depending on age and ability, but cooking is fun and preparing new foods helps demystify them.

The Monday Campaigns has a site filled with tips for cooking with kids, recipes for different ages and other resources at www.thekidscookmonday.org.

The idea behind Meatless Monday is simple. Launched in 2003 as a nonprofit initiative of The Monday Campaigns, in collaboration with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, it asks people to give up meat one day a week, and the name tells you what to do and when to do it.

There’s plenty of science to support the concept. Cutting down on meat can help reduce the risk of obesity, cancer, diabetes and heart disease. There are also environmental benefits. Meat production uses vast quantities of both fossil fuels and water; and industrial agriculture, which produces the bulk of the meat sold in the U.S., is linked to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, air and water pollution, and other environmental ills.

Meatless Monday’s reach is global. It has since been adopted across the U.S. and in 30 countries. Restaurants, school districts and media outlets such as the Food Network, Self and Prevention have signed on, offering special Meatless Monday menus and recipes. Celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Padma Lakshmi, Al Gore and Paul McCartney have endorsed the campaign.

“To me, though, the most powerful aspect of Monday as a behavior-change idea is that we can do it together,” Neu told the audience at TEDxManhattan. “How cool is it that this Monday there are going to be people in Iran that will be doing a Meatless Monday and they’re going to do it because they share the same goals, to be healthier and to have a healthier planet. … I think sometimes by synchronizing even simple actions, we can synchronize our hearts and our minds around bigger ideals.”

(See Neu’s TEDxManhattan talk below on YouTube.)

The Meatless Monday website offers an abundance of recipes, searchable by category or ingredients. Numerous food and health websites, bloggers and others also feature Meatless Monday recipes on a regular basis.

Vegetarian grilling tips for Meatless Monday

For those pondering how Meatless Monday can mesh with barbecues as summer begins, The Monday Campaigns offers a list of grilling tips, including:

1. Many vegetables can be thrown right on the grill with just a light brushing of olive oil (with delicious results)! Fresh corn, tomatoes, asparagus, eggplant, zucchini, squash and bell peppers are just some to try.

2. Kabobs are a barbecue staple that make the perfect meatless entree. Add tofu cubes, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, roasted potatoes or just about any other vegetable that strikes your fancy.

3. Grilled fruit is amazing too. For a sweet side dish or dessert, try peaches, pineapples, plums, melons, kiwis, pears or figs with a touch of honey marinade.

4. Swap a hamburger for a portobello mushroom burger or grilled eggplant slices. Put the barbecued veggies on a bun and add your favorite toppings, such as avocados, caramelized onions, roasted red peppers or an olive spread.

Peggy Neu at TEDxManhattan. Credit: Screenshot from TEDxManhattan on YouTube.com

Peggy Neu at TEDxManhattan. Credit: Screenshot from TEDxManhattan on YouTube.com

5. Try a veggie burger recipe that celebrates hearty ingredients such as black beans, lentils, quinoa and chickpeas. You can also find healthy pre-made patties at supermarkets and natural food stores.

6. Make a delicious, smoky pizza pie right on the grill — all you need is pizza dough, sauce and your favorite vegetables thinly sliced or pre-grilled.

7. Use your favorite marinade recipe to add flavor to extra firm tofu cubes. Grill them up and add them to a salad, serve them with veggies or enjoy them on their own.

8. Add grilled vegetables to a filling summer salad. Garnish fresh lettuces with a bit of fruit, feta cheese and olive oil to complete the dish; or think beyond lettuce and concoct a bean or grain salad.

9. Consider your sides when planning a meatless barbecue. Pasta salads, raw vegetables and hummus dip are great ways to turn your plant-based dishes into a full meal.

10. End the meal on a healthy note with a tray of fresh fruit, a parfait or homemade smoothies.

Trying new recipes and methods of cooking can help turn Meatless Monday into an opportunity to add variety to your diet and explore new tastes. At the same time, as Neu said, “You can draw inspiration and feel part of a larger movement trying to improve our health and the health of the planet.”

Main photo: Grilled vegetables to light up a Meatless Memorial Day. Credit: Sarsmis/iStockphoto

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Prebiotic stars among spring vegetables. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman

Probiotics have been quite the hot topic for some time now. We are beginning to understand more about the importance of these beneficial bacteria, or microflora, in our guts — not only in maintaining digestive health, but also in boosting our immune systems. At a minimum, if you’ve seen Jamie Lee Curtis extolling the virtues of Activia yogurt in television commercials, you may have some vague idea that probiotics are the answer to undisclosed, unseemly tummy issues, especially if you are a middle-aged woman.

Some of the advertising claims for commercial yogurts can be a bit far-fetched or vague, but there is now a lot of good evidence in the scientific literature supporting the benefits of probiotics, including immunity enhancement, improvement of lactose digestion, treatment of diarrhea in infants and treatment of constipation, improved tolerance to antibiotic therapy and reduced symptoms of respiratory infections. Cultures around the world that eat fermented foods like yogurt, kefir and kimchi have been on to this for centuries.

The secret to probiotics

I thought I understood the concept of probiotics until I heard a talk by nutritionist and Stanford University dietitian Jo Ann Hattner. She coauthored, with Susan Anderes, “Gut Insight: Probiotics and Prebiotics For Digestive Health and Well-Being.” What I had not understood was that probiotics do not thrive on their own. They have to be replaced every few days, and they have to be nourished.

“Bacteria have to eat, too,” Hattner says, and it turns out there are certain foods they really love. These are foods that are high in specific nondigestible, fermentable carbohydrates (fibers), or prebiotics. The fibers are not digested in the stomach — they survive its acidity, and when they arrive in the colon they are fermented by the beneficial microflora that they encounter there. Scientists believe that the acids resulting from this fermentation decrease the pH levels in the colon, and this is detrimental to the survival of pathogenic bacteria. Probiotics and prebiotics have a synergistic relationship and the end result for us, the host, is increased gastrointestinal health and boosted immunity.

Prebiotic foods to consider

Scientists have begun to isolate some of these prebiotic elements. Measurable amounts of two of them, oligosaccharides and inulin, have been found in bananas, chicory root, burdock, dandelion greens, garlic, onions, leeks, globe artichokes, Jerusalem artichokes, jicama, mushrooms, green tea, wild blueberries, kiwis, salsify, whole wheat, barley, and rye. These are foods that Hattner designates as “prebiotic stars.” Other foods that scientists are studying because they think they have “prebiotic potential” include apples, berries, raisins, tomatoes, greens, legumes, oats, brown rice, whole grain corn, buckwheat, flaxseed, almonds and honey. However, they need more human studies before they can be assessed as “stars.”

Spring is a great season to take advantage of many of the “prebiotic stars.” I’ve built a big bowl using six prebiotic stars and potentials, which I top with yogurt, so the synergistic relationship between these ingredients begins on the plate itself. Mind you, I am not one to create dishes because of health-related attributes in the ingredients — deliciousness is always my goal. The stew is a wonderful Mediterranean stew, and the big bowl makes a wonderfully hearty vegetarian meal. The prebiotic/probiotic attributes in the dish are a healthy and delightful coincidence.

In this dish, the prebiotic stars and potential stars are:

  • Onion
  • Garlic
  • Artichokes
  • Fava beans
  • Greens
  • Barley

The probiotic bonus is the garlic yogurt that garnishes the big bowl.

Big Bowl With Barley, Spring Vegetable Stew and Yogurt

Serves 4

Ingredients

For the stew:

Juice of 1 lemon

6 baby artichokes or small artichokes

2 tablespoons olive oil

½ pound spring onions, white and light green parts only, chopped (about 1½ cups)

½ cup chopped celery, preferably from the heart of the bunch

1 bulb green garlic, papery shells removed, chopped

1 large fennel bulb (1 to 1¼ pounds), trimmed, quartered, cored, and chopped (3 to 3½ cups chopped)

½ cup water

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 bunch baby turnips, with greens, turnips scrubbed and quartered, greens stemmed and washed

1½ pounds fava beans, shelled

2 tablespoons chopped fennel fronds or chopped fresh mint (or a combination)

3 cups cooked barley

1⅓ cups Greek yogurt, with 1 mashed garlic clove stirred in if desired
Chopped fresh dill, parsley or mint (or a combination) for garnish

Directions

1. Fill a bowl with water and add lemon juice. Trim the artichokes, quarter them and place in the water as you go along.

2. Heat oil over medium heat in a large, heavy, lidded skillet or Dutch oven and add onions and celery. Cook, stirring, until tender, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, stir for about a minute, until you can smell the fragrance of the garlic, and add fennel and a generous pinch of salt. Cook, stirring often, for another 5 to 8 minutes, until the fennel has softened.

3. Drain artichoke hearts and add to the pan, along with the baby turnips. Cook, stirring often, for 5 minutes. Add ½ cup water and salt to taste and bring to a simmer. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes.

4. Meanwhile, blanch the turnip greens in a pot of salted boiling water for 2 to 3 minutes, until tender. Using a skimmer or a slotted spoon, transfer to a bowl of cold water, then drain and squeeze out excess moisture. Chop medium-fine. Bring the pot of water from the greens back to a boil and drop in the shelled favas. Boil 1 minute, then transfer to a bowl or cold water. Drain and skin the favas. Set aside.

5. When the simmering vegetables are very tender and fragrant, stir in the blanched turnip greens, skinned favas, the chopped fennel fronds and/or mint and simmer for 5 more minutes. Taste and adjust salt and pepper.

6. Spoon a generous serving of cooked barley into each wide bowl. Top with the vegetables, making sure to spoon broth over the barley. Place a spoonful of yogurt on top, sprinkle with parsley, dill or mint, and serve.

Main photo: Prebiotic stars among spring vegetables. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman

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Morel mushrooms. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Fungi foragers will always recall the first time they spied a morel popping up from a lush blanket of white trillium and jack-in-the-pulpits covering forest floors in May. It might be a bit like the  excitement that ’49ers felt during the California Gold Rush, when they panned streams for hours and came up with a single gleaming nugget. But while that gold is long gone, morel mushrooms continue to be the ultimate sustainable prize. Year after year, when the weather is moist enough and warm enough to wake them up, morel mushrooms grace the outdoors with edible treasure.

Morels are richly flavored, nutty and earthy in taste and meaty in bite. Shaped like little bell caps with crinkly honeycomb bodies, morels are harvested commercially in Oregon, where most U.S. restaurants procure them, but only during a brief time in spring. Although morels can be found in the wild in heavily forested areas along both coasts, it is the Midwest that dominates spontaneous production, and Michigan is probably best known for delivering the goods.

Last May, I took my first hike in search of morels with the National Morel Mushroom Festival’s five-time champion, Anthony Williams of Boyne City, Mich. Williams is highly regarded for consistently finding mother lodes of morels, and mushroom fans say that he knows more about morels than almost anyone on the planet. And since locations that hold the most promise are often closely guarded family secrets passed down through generations, who better to guide my first foray into the forest in search of some shrooms?

Mushroom hunters let their T-shirts do the talking. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Mushroom hunters let their T-shirts do the talking. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Williams offers a few points of advice: Walk fast and cover a lot of ground. No point wasting time until you find the right spot. Keep your eyes up and looking out, not down at your feet. And don’t slow down until you spy something promising. Then start circling because where there’s one, chances are there’s more.”

“Make sure to pinch them off at the base of the stem between your finger and thumb,” he added. “Don’t pull them out by the root. You’ll be leaving spores for next year’s harvest.”

I was almost giddy with anticipation when we headed out on our first trek. Guided by dead and dying elm, ash and poplar trees that often provide the best environment for finding morels, we hurried past ankle-deep fields of wild leeks that most any chef would drool over. But after 2½ hours of hiking, we found not even a glimmer of a morel.

But after a three-hour trek the next day, we emerged victorious, with a small paper bag of treasure (Another of Williams’ rules: “Whatever you do, don’t store them in plastic”).

It was time to discover the best way to enjoy them.

I wanted the most popular recipe for morels to be exotic, something that would match the challenge of finding them. While Williams was happy to tell many long tales as we hiked along, the simplest story he shared was the family favorite for preparation.

“When I was little, the whole family would get up early on Sunday, pack a picnic and get out in the woods to gather morels,” he said. “At lunchtime, we’d take a break, unpack the camp stove, a giant cast iron skillet and a stick of butter.”

Anthony Williams, the National Morel Mushroom Festival five-time champion. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Anthony Williams, the National Morel Mushroom Festival five-time champion. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

“The very best way to prepare morels is to simply pile the mushrooms in a pan of melted butter and cook them down a bit. Then sprinkle with a little salt and pepper and load them on a plate. After feasting on our finds, we’d head out for more.”

Important note about mushroom hunting

Because touching or eating the wrong kind of fungi can be deadly, it is important to know that mushroom hunting must be done with care. The best rule of thumb is not to touch anything unless you are sure you know what it is. If in doubt, leave it out. Many organizations in prime mushroom areas offer guided tours during the season, which are a great way to learn the safest method to identify, find and harvest mushrooms.

If you want to try your hand at unearthing some morels, you can join other like-minded hunters at the National Morel Festival held May 15 to 18 in Boyne City, Mich. You might get lucky – even without the “mushroom whisperer” at your side.

Sautéed Morel Mushrooms

There are plenty of restaurants that compete for Best of Show in the Taste of Morels competition during the National Morel Mushroom Festival held every May in Boyne City, Mich. To my  good fortune, I sampled every one of  more than a dozen different approaches last year, but most everyone at the festival, including the winning chefs, acknowledged that the longtime regional favorite is hard to improve upon.

Ingredients

1 pound fresh morel mushrooms

1 stick butter

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Directions

1. Clean the mushrooms by slicing them in half, inspect for bugs and gently brush away any dirt. Don’t rinse with water.

2. Heat a large heavy skillet until medium hot. Add a stick of butter. As soon as the butter has melted, add the mushrooms and sauté until slightly softened and just cooked through.

Morel mushrooms. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

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Main photo: Fish a la Archestratus with tilapia, foreground, and Salmon, Badass Cavalryman Style. Credit: Charles Perry

Most fish are so delicate we add only minimal flavoring, probably nothing more than a squeeze of lemon these days. The ancient Greeks and Romans, in no position to use lemon juice because the lemon hadn’t arrived, tended to use vinegar. Sometimes, they even added cheese.

It’s a slick idea. Give it a try.

We know this because a Greek foodie named Archestratus sampled fish all around the eastern Mediterranean, and around 330 B.C. he wrote a poem about his findings. It has not survived complete, and we aren’t even sure about its title — it has been referred to as “Gastronomia” and “The Life of Luxury,” among other names. Most of the surviving fragments appear in a book called “The Deipnosophists,” which was written some five centuries later, ample testimony to its fame.

Here is one fragment: “Whenever Orion is setting in the heavens and the mother of the wine-bearing grape clusters is casting away her long hair, then it is the time to have a baked sargue sprinkled with cheese — a large one, and piping hot, and cut with sharp vinegar.”

Well, it was a poem; these days even the most bizarro food writer wouldn’t dream of referring to grapevines losing their hair. As for sargue (or sargo), it’s a member of the bream family that is well regarded in the Mediterranean today, but Archestratus recommended his preferred treatment for bland fish, topping it with cheese as well as sprinkling it with vinegar (which I think works better here than lemon juice). I suggest using it on tilapia, a bland fish that is readily available.

Archestratus lived in a Greek colony in Sicily, and in another passage he associates the idea of sprinkling cheese on fish with the Syracusans, who would, of course, have used some kind of Sicilian cheese. What was that cheese like? We don’t know.

However, in the Middle Ages, the Arabs imported Sicilian cheese (jubn siqilli) and added it to vegetable dishes at the same time as spices, suggesting that it was grated, so you could use Sicilian ricotta salata or even Parmesan or Romano. This is the oldest recipe I ever make for fun, rather than research.

Fish a la Archestratus

Serves 2 

Ingredients

2 tilapia filets, about 10 ounces

1 tablespoon light olive oil

Salt to taste

2 to 3 tablespoons grated ricotta salata, Parmesan or other grating cheese

Vinegar to taste

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.

2. Spread oil in a baking dish.

3. Set the fish in the dish and sprinkle with the salt and cheese. The cheese will melt after 10 minutes, fish will flake at 14 to 15.

4. Serve hot with a sprinkling of vinegar.

* * *

Here’s another simple fish recipe, this one from the 18th century. It appears in Louis Auguste de Bourbon’s “Le Cuisinier Gascon” (1740) as a variation on truite à la hussarde. Hussars were proverbially dashing, impetuous, overbearing, none-too-intelligent cavalrymen who wore flashy uniforms and claimed to be so badass they would be ashamed to not to die by the time they were 30. (A lot of people hoped the same fate for them.)

It’s such a simple dish it scarcely needs a recipe — it’s so simple that a hussar could probably cook it. You just poach the fish and serve it with a sort of 18th-century tartar sauce. If you prefer trout, go ahead and make it with that.

Salmon, Badass Cavalryman Style

Serves 2

Ingredients

For the sauce:

½ cup mayonnaise

3 to 4 teaspoons capers along with ½ teaspoon caper brine

½ teaspoon Dijon mustard, or more to taste

For the fish:

10 ounces salmon filet

Water

1 teaspoon lemon juice or 1 tablespoon dry white wine

Directions

1. Put the mayonnaise into a sauce bowl. Stir in the capers and caper brine, then the mustard. Add the mustard bit by bit, because too much can make the sauce seem salty.

2. Put the filets in a pan. Add water nearly to cover, then the lemon juice.

3 Heat over medium heat, turning the fish after 5 minutes, until the fish flakes easily with a fork, about 10 minutes.

4. Drain the fish and serve hot or cold with the hussar sauce.

Main photo: Fish a la Archestratus with tilapia, foreground, and Salmon, Badass Cavalryman Style. Credit: Charles Perry

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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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