Articles in Healthy Cooking
Chef Giacomino Drago smiles a lot. The youngest member of a family of cooks to immigrate from Sicily, Drago, along with his brothers, has opened a dozen restaurants in Los Angeles, many in Beverly Hills, over the past four decades.
A contributor to the “Beverly Hills Centennial Cookbook,” Drago declares that using the highest quality, freshest ingredients is the essence of Italian cooking. In his video he demonstrates an easy-to-prepare, classic Italian panzanella salad with diet-friendly spelt instead of bread.
Drago enjoys cooking. He smiles as he drops a handful of spaghetti into one of the half dozen pots of salted water on the stove and when he quickly renders a red onion into a mound of thin, pungent ribbons.
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Come to Italy, he says, and one of the first salads you will eat is one made with vine-ripened tomatoes, basil, red onions, extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, and salt and pepper. Simplicity, he says several times, is the essence of Italian cooking. Find the freshest, highest-quality ingredients and prepare them in what Drago calls the rustic way, roughly cut so the dish is not overly fussy. The result is delicious, healthy food that is easy and fun to make.
A panzanella salad is the perfect dish for summer. To pursue the “current fashion,” as he puts it, he has traded spelt for bread in a signature salad at Via Alloro in Beverly Hills. He chose spelt because it has a refreshing texture and nutty quality that contrasts well with the acid of the tomato and vinegar. A heritage grain and cousin to wheat, spelt was developed hundreds of years ago as a flour in bread making. High in protein and fiber, Drago says spelt is heart-healthy because it is high in niacin. Because “panzanella” refers to a bread (“pane”) salad, it might be more accurate to call chef’s creation a speltzanella.
Chef Drago loves all his restaurants. But he designed the kitchen at Via Alloro in a special way. The area where the line cooks work is a horseshoe space with stoves in the middle and counters running along the walls. There are no dead-ends in this kitchen. Moving efficiently Drago and Executive Chef Paolo Sicuro prepare dishes with an unhurried ease, transferring their love of cooking onto the plates.
Fresh tomatoes are key to the flavor and pleasures of the salad. To protect the tomatoes’ richness of flavor, Drago insists they must never be refrigerated. That is why buying tomatoes from farmers markets is so important. Supermarket tomatoes may have been refrigerated for days, even weeks during their journey from the field to your kitchen.
Drago is precise about his cooking but flexible in terms of ingredients and seasoning. When cooking at home, he encourages that you use only ingredients you enjoy. If you do not like onions, don’t use them in the salad. The same goes for cucumbers and ground black pepper.
To capture all the tomato juice, chef cuts the tomatoes over the bowl. Use a variety of tomatoes for contrasts in shape, color and flavor. For the demonstration, Drago and Siruro used vine ripened, cherry and grape tomatoes. Yellow and heirloom tomatoes could also be added for contrast. To make the onion slices more “friendly,” Drago suggests double rinsing in water. This will result in a more mild flavor. Not widely available, spelt berries can be purchased in specialty markets and ordered online from purveyors such as Bob’s Red Mill. Cooked like pasta in boiling salted water, kosher salt should be used for the cleanest taste. Chef Drago uses English or hothouse cucumbers for the dish. If those are not available, Persian cucumbers would be a good substitute because they have a lower water content than garden cucumbers. The spelt may be cooked ahead and refrigerated. The other ingredients should be prepared immediately before serving to preserve their freshness.
- 3 tablespoons spelt
- 2 medium-sized tomatoes, washed, stem removed, cut into a small dice, reserving the liquid
- 5 cherry tomatoes, washed, quartered
- 5 plum tomatoes, washed, quartered
- 1 small hothouse cucumber, washed, skin on, a small dice the same size as the tomatoes (optional)
- ¼ medium red onion, washed, root and stem removed, thin sliced (optional)
- 4 fresh basil leaves, washed, pat dried, roughly torn or chopped
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- Pinch of salt to taste
- Pinch of freshly ground black pepper to taste (optional)
- 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
- Add kosher salt to three quarts of water. Bring to a rapid boil. Add spelt. Boil uncovered 30-50 minutes or longer depending on the desired doneness. Taste at 30 minutes to determine what is al dente for you and then again at 10-minute intervals until you reach the texture you like. I prefer cooking the spelt 50 minutes. Drain and set aside to cool
- Using a sharp paring knife, cut the tomatoes over the salad bowl to capture all the juices.
- Cut the skin-on cucumber into pieces similar in size to the tomatoes and add to the bowl.
- Slice the red onion. Submerge in cold water, rinse, drain, submerge in fresh cold water, rinse and drain. Add to the tomatoes and cucumbers.
- Add the cooked spelt berries.
- Roughly chop the basil leaves or tear them with your hands. Add to the salad bowl.
- Toss the spelt, vegetables and aromatics with the extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar.
- Season with sea salt to taste and freshly ground black pepper, as desired.
- Serve as a salad or a side with grilled meats, fish and poultry.
We live in a time when child hunger operates undercover. We rarely see the images of sunken eyes and distended bellies that we commonly associate with hunger. Yet many of America’s children face the double blow of being undernourished and overfed. One in five is food insecure and one in three is overweight. They get plenty of calories, fat, sugar and salt in their daily diets, but not enough of the vitamins and minerals required for their growing bodies.
Such a complicated problem requires a multi-pronged approach, and FoodCorps aspires to be part of the solution. Our nationwide team of young adult leaders tries to provide kids access to “real food” that will help them grow up healthy. We do that by teaching kids about foods that are locally grown and nutritious, based on the USDA’s MyPlate recommendations.
In addition, we teach them how to cook such foods and grow them themselves in their school gardens. We also help introduce these foods into their school cafeterias since kids spend most of their time at school. Schools also happen to be where low-income children consume the most calories each day, so it’s a good place to begin fostering life-long healthy habits.
Postville, Iowa, the community I serve, calls itself the “Hometown to the World.” A small town in northeast Iowa surrounded by farmland, Postville is full of diversity with families from Mexico, Guatemala, Kenya and beyond. Almost 80 percent of the students served by the Postville Community School District receive free or reduced-price lunches. Knowing that so many families depend on these meals — and not knowing what foods are available at their homes – makes the food served at school even more vital. It must be fresh, healthy and satisfying.
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Nutrition education is one part of FoodCorps’ approach to solving both hunger and obesity. Iowa’s Department of Public Health offers a program called Pick a Better Snack. I visit 11 elementary classrooms each month to teach students about a new fruit or vegetable, often one that many of them have never tried. Through such encounters, students learn how fiber regulates their digestion and why they need at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day.
In March, I offered the students samples of three vegetables: cauliflower, celery and purple cabbage. After telling one class that I couldn’t give them more because they were going to lunch right after, one girl proclaimed, “But we’re just trying to be healthy!”
Tracking food’s path from seed to plate
FoodCorps also tries to create a connection between children and the path food takes from seed to plate. Postville has a large community garden, an oasis in a landscape dominated by corn and soybean fields. A few community volunteers and I help kids from the 4H Club as they plant vegetables in the spring, maintain them through the summer and then, come fall, harvest them for the school lunch line. The kids have seen the kohlrabi they have harvested appear in the cafeteria’s “extras” line, which gives them a sense of accomplishment by providing real food for themselves and their classmates.
Finally, FoodCorps’ approach gives students the chance to actually eat foods grown by local farmers. This has prompted changes in school kitchens. In Postville, there has been a shift in the cafeteria climate: using scratch cooking instead of ready-to-eat. The kitchen staff no longer simply unwraps and reheats food. This requires more staff, more equipment, more time. Change has been slow; gone are the days of chicken nuggets and french fries, and at first, the kids complained.
Nowadays, though, I see them making connections that they may not have before. They know that the purple cabbage I serve them during snack time is the same kind that they tried during the Purple Power Wrap taste test last month, and that purple cabbage can be grown right in their community.
Hunger is a complicated issue that will require changes in our economy, politics and society. For hungry children, those things don’t matter in the short-term. But by working in the schools, where children often eat two of their meals and usually a snack or two, FoodCorps is helping educate them about making healthier choices as well as teaching them to grow a thing or two for themselves.
FoodCorps Service Member Ashley Dress won the 2014 FoodCorps Victory Growers Award “for a compelling account of hunger and food insecurity,” winning a $5,000 prize for her service site, the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative. The award, sponsored by C&S Wholesale Grocers, highlights that many children struggle with hunger and food insecurity, and that the food they receive at school is the most important meal they will get all day.
Funding for FoodCorps is provided by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, AmeriCorps, and a diverse array of private and public donors, including the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT). NCAT is the host for FoodCorps in Iowa, working with local partners in Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Decorah, Des Moines and Waterloo. Find out more about NCAT and the FoodCorps team in Iowa at www.facebook.com/FoodCorpsIowa or https://www.ncat.org/midwest/
Main photo: Ashley Dress helps Addison Neville, a preschooler at Iowa’s St. Joseph Community School, plant pepper seeds. Credit: Teresa Knutson
Having been raised under the shade of a sweet cherry tree, I always took great pride in asserting Michigan’s cherry dominance. It was not until researching this piece that I made a shocking discovery: Most sweet cherries are grown in the West. To be specific, Utah, California and Oregon.
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Next, I discovered that Utah also supported its sweet cherry stronghold by designating the cherry as its state fruit back in 1997. Meanwhile, Michigan is still trying to make up its mind about that subject. Proposed legislation designating a state fruit has been stalled in committee for more than a year, with heavy opposition from the blueberry contingent. Not only was my state not among the Top 3, it couldn’t even muster sufficient political muscle behind its homegrown sweet cherries. I never would have guessed that a simple story about a spicy cherry salsa would cause me such emotional upheaval.
Despite my disappointment in this news, I still am crazy about sweet cherries in June and July. I like to throw them on waffles in the morning, salads in the afternoon and start any party with a simple, kicked-up cherry salsa, especially if it’s an impromptu gathering and I’ve only got 15 minutes before running out the door. This light, fruity salsa is sure to disappear as fast as guacamole on Cinco de Mayo or cherry pie on the fourth of July. But that’s another story with a happier ending, because cherry pie uses tart cherries, and Michigan wins that contest hands down.
- 1 pound sweet cherries, pitted
- ½ pound fresh or canned pineapple
- 1 jalapeño pepper
- Juice of 1 lime
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon Aleppo chili pepper, or to taste
- ¼ cup parsley, minced
- Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor and pulse until the mixture reaches a chunky sauce consistency.
- This can be served immediately, but it is best if allowed to marinate for up to three hours while the sweet and spicy flavors get to know each other. Serve with tortilla chips.
Main photo: Sweet cherry-pineapple salsa. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
It’s a strange world, where we pick flower buds, spread them out to dry in the sun, then leave them to macerate in salt or vinegar. If they are left undisturbed on their spiny bushes, caper buds burst into glorious bloom in the early morning sunshine. For a few short hours, their long, waving stamens are irresistible to bees, then their lovely pink-white petals quickly wither in the strong afternoon sun. Who could possibly have discovered that, once “cured” (dried, salted or soaked in vinegar), the rather vegetal-tasting caper bud develops a delicate, earthy flavor with a lovely floral overtone? It’s this symphony of tastes that make capers so alluring.
Source of wealth for islanders
The appeal of capers has been long-lasting and far-reaching. Until recently, few caper flowers were ever seen on the Greek Cycladic islands of Santorini, Andros, Folegandros, or coastal Crete and Cyprus, as the buds were rarely given the chance to flower. In Greece, capers have always been a valued local food and flavoring, and the caper trade a source of wealth for the islanders.
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Caper seeds have been found in Belgian ditches dating as far back as the Middle Ages. And early British cookbooks contain recipes for mutton and skate with caper sauce, and suggest liberal use of capers in salads and with cold meats. Since the caper bush, or shrub (capparis spinosa), can’t thrive in these countries, capers had to be traded. So what was it that made them so attractive to those medieval northern Europeans?
It may have been the plant’s good-health qualities that have given it such value throughout its long history. There is evidence that the Sumerians (circa 2000 B.C.) used capers medicinally, and it’s obvious that the ancient Greeks understood the process necessary to turn caper buds into delicious capers: In the 4th century B.C., the “father of botany,” Theophrastus, remarked in his seminal work, “Enquiry into Plants,” that the wild caper plant appeared not to like cultivated land and those grown in such conditions produced smaller, softer capers of inferior flavor. They still do.
How capers work
When capers, caper leaves or berries are cured, an enzymatic reaction takes place and a flavanoid glycoside, glucocapparin, a mustard-oil that gives the caper its taste, is released from the plant tissues. In this, capers resemble their cousins in the cabbage family — cress, mustards, horseradish — all of which contain mustard-oil glycosides. Another of its flavonoids is rutin, a strong antioxidant which, pharmacologically speaking, improves capillary function. It’s considered to be anti-rheumatic, and therefore an effective treatment for arthritis and gout, a diuretic and, in non-medical-speak, a “liver protector” and “kidney disinfectant.”
An attempt at caper-gathering
The caper plant loves hot, dry summers with a smattering of spring rainfall, making the Aegean Mediterranean, swept by a strong sea breeze, the perfect home. There, the caper plant can nestle into the cracks and crevices of cliffs and stone walls.
But it was only when I tried to preserve my own capers for my Santorini cookery school that I realized just how difficult it was to create their lovely, tart pungency. The first problem was in the gathering of them—the best crops of buds always seemed to be just out of reach, dangling over alarmingly-steep cliffs. The bushes’ thorny stems make picking them painful work and a good harvest requires near-daily collections over four to five weeks, as the buds don’t all develop at the same time.
Local skilled gatherers pick young, tender leaves at the same time as the buds, for pickling. Later in the summer, after the caper buds that managed to escape the earlier harvest have flowered and fruited, the berries are collected and preserved in brine. For finest flavor, Cycladic islanders preserve wild capers in salt. It’s worth searching for these at home, as they have less of the acidic tang of vinegar-preserved capers and a greater depth of flavor. Interestingly, though, the most rutin is found in the dried buds, a process that, until recently, was a common way of curing capers on Santorini.
If you are in doubt as to the difference in taste and texture between wild and cultivated capers, don’t take my word for it — try both together. And perhaps spare a thought too for those great sages of the past, who so well-appreciated that food not only had to do you good, but had to taste good, too.
Paired with tomatoes
In early summer on Santorini, tomato plants give in to the dry heat and collapse, dotting the island’s gray, volcanic soil with ripe, tiny, deep-crimson tomatoes. For a few short weeks, they can be made into this pretty meze.
To prepare salt-preserved capers for the table, soak them in several changes of cold water; brine- and vinegar-preserved capers only need rinsing.
Variation: Although it takes more work, this dish is at its traditional best when the olives, capers and garlic are mashed in a mortar or bowl before you add the vinegar and olive oil. The sauce texture will be coarser, but its flavor will be more refined.
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 24 tiny, or cherry, tomatoes
- ¼ teaspoon sugar (if tomatoes aren't sun-ripened, optional)
- 1 cup Greek cracked green or Nafplion olives, or brine-packed, pit-in, Spanish green olives
- 2 tablespoons salt-packed (or brine- or vinegar-preserved) capers, soaked, rinsed, and patted dry
- 1 small clove garlic, minced
- ½ teaspoon red-wine vinegar
- 3 to 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh fennel fronds or flat-leaf parsley, for garnish
- 4 thin slices whole-wheat or country-style bread, toasted
- In a small, heavy skillet over very low heat, heat the olive oil. Add the tomatoes, sprinkle with the sugar, cover, and cook for about 3 minutes, or until their skins split. Set aside in the skillet to cool.
- Make the sauce: Blanch the olives in boiling water for 5 seconds. Drain, pit, and chop. In a food processor, combine the olives, capers, and garlic. Process until well mixed. With the machine running, add the vinegar, drop by drop, then the olive oil (to taste) in a steady stream.
- Spread the sauce over a small platter. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the tomatoes to the platter. Garnish with fennel or parsley. Cut each slice of toast into 4 triangles. Sprinkle the bread with the liquid remaining in the tomato pan.
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.
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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.
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
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 cup fresh mint leaves, coarsely chopped
Mint sprigs for garnishing
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
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
3 sweet peppers, halved
8 ounces mozzarella cheese (sliced)
1 large tomato, chopped
6 sprigs basil
Salt and pepper to taste
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.
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
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)
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.
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
1 cup tart cherries, pitted
½ cup honey
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.
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.
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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.
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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
Black-eyed peas, also known as cowpeas or field peas, are a staple of many cultures around the world. Black-eyed peas have been cultivated in Africa for thousands of years and traveled to the New World with slaves who were brought to the Americas.
Every New Year’s Day, I am sure to have black-eyed peas and rice on my table. They are considered good luck, just as greens represent money. The greens can be collards, mustard, kale, Swiss chard, even cabbage. There would usually be a couple of meaty smoked pork hocks simmered with the black-eyed peas and the greens when I was growing up, a tradition I still follow, although I may substitute the hock with smoked bacon. Commonly known as Hoppin’ John, the mix of black-eyed peas and rice is a Southern staple that has spread nationwide.
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Guyana, a small country in South America, has a dish called Cook-Up Rice, which is eaten on New Year’s eve. Like Hoppin’ John, it is a mix of rice and legumes, such as black-eyed peas or pigeon peas. Simmered with coconut milk, meat and aromatics, the rice and peas cook up into a flavorful meal.
Black-eyed peas, which are actually legumes, are usually found in the supermarket dried. But during summer and fall you can often find fresh black-eyed peas in the pod at your local farmers market. When fresh, they quickly become tender when cooked, making them a good source of protein for a cool summer salad.
The inspiration for this salad is Hoppin’ John. Rice-shaped orzo pasta is used instead of actual rice. The addition of a variety of fresh vegetables and a Creole spiced herb vinaigrette make this vegan salad perfect as a main dish or as a side dish with an assortment of grilled foods.
- 1 cup orzo pasta
- 4 cups cooked black eyed peas
- 1 cup sweet corn
- 1 chopped bell pepper
- 2 scallions, sliced on diagonal
- 2 tomatoes, seeded and chopped
- ½ cup champagne vinegar
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1½ teaspoons Creole seasoning
- ½ teaspoon sea salt
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, lightly chopped
- Cook the orzo according to package directions, drain and rinse with cold water.
- Place the cooked pasta, black-eyed peas, corn, bell pepper, scallion and tomatoes into a medium bowl.
- In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, oil, Creole seasoning, salt and thyme.
- Pour the dressing over the other ingredients, mixing well to distribute the dressing.
- Let the salad sit for at least an hour to let the flavors meld.
Main photo: Black-eyed peas fresh from the pod. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee
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.
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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.
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.
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
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