Articles in Healthy Cooking

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

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?

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.

Garlic in bunches. Credit: Harriet Sugar Miller

Garlic in bunches. Credit: Harriet Sugar Miller

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.

Holly Botner, the Jittery Cook at jitterycook.com/

Holly Botner, the Jittery Cook at jitterycook.com

 

 The following recipe is  courtesy of The Jittery Cook.

Jittery Cook’s Fattoush Salad

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 7 minutes

Total Time: 27 minutes

Yield: 4 meal-sized servings

All times are estimates. Cooking time for the pita varies from 7 to 10 minutes.

Ingredients

  • 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
  • For the pita:
  • 1 large whole wheat pita
  • 3 teaspoons zataar
  • olive oil to lightly coat pita
  • For the dressing:
  • 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

Directions

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

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Megan Miller of Bitty Foods. Credit: Jonathan Snyder

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.

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.

“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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. We could reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 18% if insects become a part of the mainstream food supply.
  5. 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.

Bitty_choc-chip

Bitty_choc-chip
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Chocolate chip with cricket flour. Credit: Jonathan Snyder

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.

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.

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Chef Drago's diet-friendly spelt panzanella salad. Credit: David Latt

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.

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.

Diet-Friendly Spelt Panzanella Salad

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour

Total Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings as a salad portion, 2 servings as an entrée.

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.

Ingredients

  • 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

Directions

  1. 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
  2. Using a sharp paring knife, cut the tomatoes over the salad bowl to capture all the juices.
  3. Cut the skin-on cucumber into pieces similar in size to the tomatoes and add to the bowl.
  4. Slice the red onion. Submerge in cold water, rinse, drain, submerge in fresh cold water, rinse and drain. Add to the tomatoes and cucumbers.
  5. Add the cooked spelt berries.
  6. Roughly chop the basil leaves or tear them with your hands. Add to the salad bowl.
  7. Toss the spelt, vegetables and aromatics with the extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar.
  8. Season with sea salt to taste and freshly ground black pepper, as desired.
  9. Serve as a salad or a side with grilled meats, fish and poultry.

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Fighting Hunger: Ashley Dress helps Addison Neville, a preschooler at Iowa's St. Joseph Community School, plant pepper seeds. Credit: Teresa Knutson

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.

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

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Sweet cherry-pineapple salsa. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

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.

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.

Sweet Cherry-Pineapple Salsa

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 15 minutes

Yield: 4 cups

Ingredients

  • 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

Directions

  1. Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor and pulse until the mixture reaches a chunky sauce consistency.
  2. 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 

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Tiny tomatoes with caper and green olive sauce.

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.

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.”

Caper bush in Santorini

A caper bush grows in Santorini, Greece. Credit: Rosemary Barron

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.

Tiny Tomatoes with Caper and Green Olive Sauce

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 5 minutes

Total Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 8 meze servings or serves 4 as a first course

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.

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 24 tiny, or cherry, tomatoes
  • ¼ teaspoon sugar (if tomatoes aren't sun-ripened, optional)
  • For the caper and green olive sauce:
  • 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
  • For serving:
  • 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh fennel fronds or flat-leaf parsley, for garnish
  • 4 thin slices whole-wheat or country-style bread, toasted

Directions

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

 

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Peaches for the Fourth of July

Our forefathers weren’t thinking of holiday fare or locavores when they signed the Declaration of Independence, but the Fourth of July fortuitously falls at a time of fabulous local food abundance. And seeking out local food is the patriotic thing to do. Fresh fruits and vegetables connect us in a literal and visceral way to our land, and buying them is good for our local environment, farmers and economies. Your purchase will support your community, give you an opportunity to interact with your local growers and food artisans, and provide you with the best-tasting food around.

While the Fourth doesn’t have the same gastronomic weight as the winter holidays, the possibilities are endless, but should start with whatever looks good at your local farmers market. If you don’t want to commit to a wholly local Fourth, just feature one local food — maybe the mint in your julep, the cabbage in your slaw, or the chicken on your grill. Or buy some local tomatoes, herbs, and cheeses and have a localicious pizza party.

Make this the year you declare your independence from high-fat, high-sugar crackers, chips, dips, cookies, and other processed holiday foods. Swap them out for low-calorie, high-nutrition fruits and vegetables from local farms, and this will be your best Fourth ever!

If you need help finding local foods, enter your ZIP code into Local Harvest. In just a few clicks, you’ll find many ways to connect with local producers and celebrate food sovereignty by eating fresh, delicious foods from your local farms and gardens.

mint soda

Make a cool mint soda for hot summer days. Credit: Cara Cummings

Cool Mint Soda

Mint is an all-time favorite for keeping cool in the summer, but chamomile, or lemon verbena, or any herb that strikes your fancy will also work in this recipe. Double it if you’re expecting a crowd.

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cooking Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

1 cup sugar

1 cup water

1 cup fresh mint leaves, coarsely chopped

Mint sprigs for garnishing

Sparkling water

Directions

1. Make simple syrup by dissolving the sugar in the water in a saucepan over medium heat.

2. Turn the heat off and stir in the chopped mint leaves. Let sit for a couple of minutes. When the mixture is cool, strain the mint leaves out.

3. Add two to four tablespoons (to taste) of the mint syrup to a glass of sparkling water. Add a mint sprig as a garnish.

Grilled stuffed peppers

Grilled stuffed peppers are a quick Fourth of July favorite. Credit: Cara Cummings

Grilled Stuffed Peppers

Use red, yellow or green bell peppers, or Italian or Hungarian sweet peppers.

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cooking Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 40 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

3 sweet peppers, halved

8 ounces mozzarella cheese (sliced)

1 large tomato, chopped

6 sprigs basil

Salt and pepper to taste

Olive Oil

Directions

1. Cut each pepper in half and remove seeds. Fill each pepper with the chopped tomato, and drizzle olive oil over the top of the tomatoes.

2. Add a slice of mozzarella on top of the tomatoes, and then add a dash of salt and pepper and a sprig of basil.

3. Place the filled pepper halves on a hot grill, but not directly over the flame. Cover and grill for about 30 minutes, or until the pepper is soft.

Pesto-flavored potatoes

Use pesto to add a light, summer flavor to potatoes. Credit: Cara Cummings

Parsley Pesto Potatoes, Grilled

Herb pesto is quick and easy to make in a food processor. Make a double batch, and use the extra on crackers or sandwiches.

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cooking Time: 45 minutes

Total Time: 55 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

 Ingredients

1 cup fresh parsley, stems and leaves

1 cup pecans (you can substitute walnuts or pine nuts)

¼ cup hard cheese such as romano, grated

¼ cup olive oil

1 clove garlic, minced

Salt, to taste

1 to 2 pounds small new potatoes (or large potatoes cut into chunks)

Directions

1. To make the parsley pesto, put all the ingredients, except the potatoes, into a food processor and blend until well mixed.

2. In a large mixing bowl, toss the potatoes with the pesto.

3. Place the potatoes on a piece of foil on a hot grill, away from the direct flame. Cover the grill and cook until tender, about 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the size of the potatoes. When you can easily pierce them with a fork, they’re done. Top with extra pesto if you like.

Peaches for the Fourth of July

Make a quick, easy, and delicious dessert using fresh peaches. Credit: Cara Cummings

Grilled Peaches with Tart Cherries

While the grill is still hot, make this quick, easy, and delicious dessert. If you have a big group, slice up some local watermelons, muskmelons, and honeydew melons on the dessert table alongside the grilled peaches.

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cooking Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

3 peaches

1 cup tart cherries, pitted

½ cup honey

Olive oil

Directions

1. Cut the peaches in half and remove the pits. Coat the peaches in olive oil. If you have a citrus-infused olive oil, that is particularly nice!

2. Fill each peach half with some cherries, and drizzle with honey.

3. Place the peaches on the medium-hot grill for 10 to 15 minutes, or until soft.

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Black-eyed peas with Swiss chard. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

How did the black-eyed pea become a symbol of good luck? No one knows for sure but a good guess is that an ancient farmer, through practical experience knew that spent black-eyed pea plants could enrich his soil and therefore he considered them good luck.

As with all legumes, black-eyed peas have nitrogen-giving nodules on their roots and are for this reason often used as green manure or forage. There are five species of Vigna unguiculata, or black-eyed pea.

The black-eyed pea is one of the oldest plants known to agricultural man. It is thought the black-eyed peas were first cultivated in Ethiopia from 4000 to 3000 B.C. In records from the ancient kingdom of Sumer in Mesopotamia about 2350 B.C. a plant called lu-ub-sar, which appears to give the modern Arabic word for bean, lūbya, may have been the black-eyed pea.

It also appears that the ancient Egyptian bean known as iwryt, described from the Old Kingdom (2686 B.C.-2100 B.C.) onward, was the black-eyed pea and workmen at Deir al-Medina received beans as part of their wages. In Pharaonic medicine they were used to treat constipation.

The black-eyed pea arrived in Italy about 300 B.C. where it was grown by the Romans. The depiction of the plant called fasilus in the lavishly illustrated sixth-century codex of the first-century Greek pharmacologist Dioscorides’ work “De material medica” (“On medical matters”) appears to be the black-eyed pea.

And in Africa the black-eyed pea is one of the most important vegetables. The pods containing the seeds are about a foot long and they are known in the American South as cowpea, crowder or Southern pea.

The black-eyed pea likely made its voyage to the New World in the 17th century. It appears in many dishes, but this Syrian and Lebanese one is nice to be served as part of a meze table.

Swiss Chard with Black-Eyed Peas (Silq bi’l-Lubya)

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour

Total Time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

This is a wonderful Lebanese and Syrian dish to make with fresh black-eyed peas, but dried will do just as well. The usually rough taste of Swiss chard is mellowed considerably with the onions and coriander in this preparation.

Ingredients

  • 1½ cups (about ¾ pound) dried black-eyed peas, soaked in water to cover overnight or 4 cups fresh black-eyed peas (about 14 ounces)
  • 2 pounds Swiss chard, heavy stalks removed, washed well
  • 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 4 to 5 large garlic cloves, peeled and mashed in a mortar with 2 teaspoons salt
  • ½ cup finely chopped fresh coriander leaves
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground cumin seeds

Directions

  1. Place the peas in a pot of cold water to cover and bring to a boil. Cook until tender, about 1 hour for dried peas and about 18 minutes for fresh. Drain and set aside.
  2. Meanwhile, place the Swiss chard in a large pot with only the water adhering to it from its last rinsing. Turn the heat to high, cover, and wilt, 5 to 7 minutes, turning a few times with long tongs. Drain, and squeeze out excess liquid. Chop coarsely and set aside.
  3. In a large sauté pan or casserole, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then cook the onion until translucent, about 8 minutes, stirring. Add the Swiss chard, garlic mash, coriander, and cumin. Reduce the heat to low and cook until fragrant and tender, about 30 minutes. Stir in the peas and cook until heated through, about 10 minutes, and serve.

Main photo: Black-eyed peas with Swiss chard. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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