Articles in Healthy Cooking
Eat more fish. That’s one of the prerequisites of the Mediterranean diet. We all know fish is good for us, yet Americans eat less than 16 pounds a year, man, woman and child. And for a lot of us, this sumptuous route to a healthy diet is simply unheard of. Astonishingly, there are people in this country who have never tasted fish.
Well, I was lucky. I grew up and learned to eat and cook in New England, on the coast of Maine where fish and seafood are considered a normal, customary part of each week’s menu. We weren’t Catholics, but we still ate fish on Fridays, possibly because there was a greater selection on that day. And of course we ate Maine lobster, scallops and crab. But the chef d’oeuvre of my mother’s kitchen was baked stuffed haddock, which I loved so much that later, when I went away to school, my mother always made it for that first welcome-home supper of vacation. She stuffed the whole fish with something like poultry stuffing — sagey, bread-crumby, oniony, thymey, peppery, and delicious — and then served it with a white sauce with sliced hard-boiled eggs in it. This doesn’t sound as enticing now as it was back then; tastes change with time, but I think if my mother were alive now and made that for me, I would tuck into it with just as much gusto as I did when I was 15.
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Explore beyond tuna and shrimp
I’ve always been perplexed at the indifference so many Americans, especially those away from the coasts, display toward seafood. Tuna is our favorite fish, but the greatest quantity we consume by far is canned. That’s a good thing, too, because canned tuna is mostly albacore and not the gravely endangered bluefin. Shrimp is our second favorite and that’s not good because, as delicious as some shrimp can be, most are raised on vast shrimp farms by environmentally destructive, highly questionable practices that yield a tasteless lump of rubbery resistant flesh, good as a foil for cocktail sauce and not much else. If you can get wild shrimp, fantastic! But most of us can’t.
Home cooks steer away from fish because it’s expensive and they don’t know how to prepare it, and then it stinks up the kitchen. Tasteless frozen pre-cooked shrimp and canned tuna require no preparation, which may be a large part of their appeal. Why bother with anything else?
Bother for these reasons: a) because any seafood made at home will be cheaper and probably tastier than in a restaurant; b) because it’s actually very easy to prepare; and c) because, the greatest selling point, it is unassailably good for you. Despite some popular beliefs that fish contains harmful amounts of mercury, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health concluded in a meta-analysis back in 2006 (published in the Journal of the American Medical Assn., or JAMA) the health risks from consuming fish are unsubstantiated and have been greatly exaggerated. A much greater risk, said Dr. Eric Rimm, co-author of the study, “is in store for those who avoid fish entirely.”
Even the ultra-conservative American Heart Assn. suggests two seafood meals a week, and the Mediterranean diet recommends “at least” two or three servings weekly for everyone, including children.
“I could never get my kid to eat fish.” I hear you, loud and clear.
Fish for small-fry
Try this: Make fish fingers or nuggets by cutting up some halibut (or salmon grouper, mahi-mahi or the like). Kids love anything fried and crunchy, that they can eat with their hands. Set up three bowls, one with flour in it, one with a well-beaten egg or two, and one with good unflavored bread crumbs seasoned with a pinch of salt and, if your kids will tolerate greenery, some very finely minced parsley. Have a skillet with a skiff of olive oil in the bottom (2 tablespoons or so, depending on the size of the pan) ready to go on the stove.
Now dip each fish finger into the flour, rolling it to coat thoroughly, and shake off the excess. Dip the flour-coated fish into the beaten egg, letting the excess drip off. Put the egg-coated fish into the bowl with the breadcrumbs and roll it around, pressing on all sides so the breadcrumbs adhere. When all your fish fingers are done, set the skillet over medium heat and as soon as the oil is hot, add the fish fingers in a single layer—do it in two or more batches if you have to. Fry until crisp and brown on one side, then turn and fry on the other. By the time the bread-crumb coating is toasty brown, the inside will be cooked through. Serve with plenty of lemon wedges to squeeze on top.
Fish recipe with no fishy smell
Here’s another, only slightly more complicated treatment for those of you who worry about smelling the house up with fishy odors. For each serving, take a square sheet of heavy aluminum foil. Spread about a teaspoon of olive oil over the center, then set a piece of firm-textured fish (see the suggestions above) on it. Add a few disks of carrot and potato, blanched until just starting to tenderize, a slender ring of a smallish red onion, a few slices of zucchini, and perhaps a sliver of red pepper, green chili pepper or a couple of very small grape tomatoes. Fresh herbs are also nice with this—chives, thyme sprigs, or coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley or basil. Sprinkle another teaspoon of oil over the top, add a genteel spritz of lemon juice, and then pull the corners of the foil up and twist them to seal, making a loose packet. Set the packets on a tray and transfer the tray to a preheated 400-degree oven. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the fish is done and the carrot and potato slices are tender. Serve in the packets — no fuss, no muss, no cleanup, and no fishy smell in the kitchen.
The message from the Mediterranean? Fish is good for you, it’s simple and easy to prepare, and, as those Harvard researchers determined, the health risks are minimal compared to the benefits. Farmed fish or wild (and the greatest percentage of our seafood consumption these days comes from aquaculture), it’s all to the good.
Top photo: Seafood display. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Along with the return of robins and whirling bees, I count the appearance of dandelions among the first signs that spring has officially arrived. I look forward to seeing their cheery butter-yellow flowers, and admire their tenacity as plants. It takes a survivor’s spirit and dogged determination to thrive in the manner of dandelions, growing everywhere from lush fields to the worst of disturbed ground, even in cracks of sidewalks. As much as I admire dandelions’ perseverance, I also particularly enjoy them as a food. Their edgy bitter green flavor is a welcome addition to mealtime after a long winter filled with dreary grey skies and heavy slow-cooked dishes.
Every part of the dandelion plant is edible. Perhaps you’ve enjoyed a salad of bitter greens served with bacon and a splash of vinegar, or savored a cup of dandelion root coffee. You may even have delighted in dandelion flower fritters or sipped dandelion wine. But have you eaten every part of the dandelion?
Where to look for the best dandelions
I learned from edible wild plants expert Samuel Thayer how to eat two of the less commonly eaten parts of dandelions, the flower stalks and crowns. After a few years experience eating them, I’d say that dandelion crowns are among my favorite spring foods.
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To find the best dandelion flower stalks to use as food, seek out large plants in shady areas. These grow in tall grass, which forces the stalk to grow quite long in order for the flower to not be obscured by grass. Longer stalks mean more food with less picking. Seek out the youngest, most pale green flower stalks, as they will be most tender.
Remove the flower heads from the stalks (and be certain to eat them or make dandelion wine). Boil whole flower stalks in boiling water for 10 minutes, as recommended by Thayer, then drain them. Serve dandelion stalk “noodles” dressed with a little butter and salt, or incorporate them into your favorite dishes as a vegetable.
Harvesting dandelion crowns takes a bit more technique. The crown of the dandelion is the tight knot where the leaves meet the tap root. Even in a large plant, it may not be more than a single bite, but it is a very satisfying one. Seek out young spring dandelion plants that have not yet flowered. Look for plants with a tight nest of new buds at their core.
If you are harvesting an entire dandelion plant, either because you intend to eat it, or because you are, gasp, weeding it, the first step is to wash the plant free of as much dirt as possible. Cut off the root, and peel away the outer leaves, and you will be left with the little nugget that is the crown. Rinse it again as thoroughly as possible under running water because it is likely to be very dirty.
Thayer, however, has come up with a clever method of harvesting dandelion crowns without all of the dirt. He uses a sturdy teaspoon with sharpened edges to selectively harvest crowns from the plants. I’ve found that a grapefruit spoon with serrated edges or a pocketknife also work well. Again, seek out large dandelion plants that have yet to flower. Use your spoon or knife to carve a cone-shaped piece of crown right out of the plant, which is still in the ground. Harvested in this manner, the plants require little additional rinsing to remove any remaining grit and dirt. Even if you intend to later remove the entire plant, if you find that you particularly enjoy dandelion crowns, harvesting them in this manner saves time.
Dandelion crowns have a touch of the same bitterness as dandelion leaves and feel like a solid bite of vegetable in the mouth. Use dandelion crowns as you would asparagus, adding them to any soup, salad, or stir-fry. They can be eaten raw, but I prefer to serve them cooked.
My favorite way to serve “yard artichokes” is similar to how I’d serve real artichokes. Steam prepared dandelion crowns until they can easily be pierced with a knife, usually around 10 minutes. While they are steaming, prepare small ramekins full of melted butter kissed with a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of salt. Dip the steamed dandelion crowns into the butter bath before enjoying the tender morsels like the toast of spring that they are.
Top photo: Dandelions. Credit: Erica Marciniec
When I was just married I went with my new husband to a famous Jewish restaurant in London. I scanned the menu anxiously searching for something green.
“Excuse me,” I asked, “Do you have any vegetables, please?”
“Yes,” the waiter answered seriously, “we have dill pickles and latkes.”
That exchange demonstrates so much of what is wrong with traditional Ashkenazi fare. Certainly the food is delicious, rib-sticking and very tasty. Look at menus solid with dishes like matzo ball soup and kreplach, the delicious triangles of pasta filled with chopped meat floating generously in rich broth. There are slices of corned beef with a liberal side of deep fried potato latkes and over-large slices of lockshen pudding — noodles mixed with dried fruit and masses of fat and sugar. Of course all these dishes are wonderful and immersed with flavor and Jewish tradition. Lighter versions of some of the recipes form part of my book, “Jewish Traditional Cooking.” But maybe it would be sensible to serve one of these recipes as a treat or delicacy accompanied by a liberal quantity of vegetables and fruit, not all of them together at a single meal.
A diet for survival
The traditional Ashkenazi diet evolved from a fragile East-European existence and the shtetl — impoverished, flimsy villages.
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If people were fortunate enough to have a chicken, probably only for a festival, it was an old boiler, and in true Ashkenazi tradition it would have been placed in a large cooking pot with root vegetables and masses of water to make a soup. This soup would be extended with matzo balls or any kind of dough and rough bread, along with chopped gizzards and heart, and meat from the chicken’s neck. The neck skin would be separately stuffed with chopped fat and peppery flour and stitched, then roasted with the bird to create another meal called helzel. Those bubbas, grandmothers and mothers, knew that they could keep hunger at bay by adding calorie-laden extras. The chicken would likely be served at the festival meal with kasha, rice, potatoes or barley.
We are now in the 21st century and Ashkenazi tradition still follows that regimen. Jewish people manifest significant problems connected with obesity, including the so-called Jewish Disease, diabetes. Heart disease and cancers are known to be exacerbated by a high fat, high protein diet.
Adapting the Ashkenazi diet for the 21st century
So maybe it’s time to acknowledge this and accept change, as I did after marrying a lovely Sephardi man. After the Diaspora, the Sephardic Jews looked about their surroundings and adopted the cooking methods of their new neighbors using masses of cheap vegetables and fruits, cooking with olive oil rather than the artery-clogging schmaltz of their Jewish cousins. Instead of relying on frying or interminable stewing to add flavor, they began seasoning their food with fresh herbs, creating fragrant dishes redolent with glorious spices and mouthwatering taste.
When I wrote “Jewish Traditional Cooking” I wanted to include the inherited foods but lighten them where possible. Many of the appetizers are vegetable-based: baba ganoush, a fragrant Asian dish based on oven-roasted vegetables, and soup mit nisht – the ultimate low-calorie cauliflower soup that tastes of heaven but relies on the freshness of a good cauliflower, onions and a light stock and herbs. Lockshen pudding has exchanged its ancient stodgy image for a healthier alternative by adding masses of freshly grated apple, vanilla, mixed spices and fresh lemon zest.
Passover is no longer a stomach-clutching kilo-raising event in our home. We adore the lightness of a carrot and almond bake which rises soufflé-like for any chef, and the spinach and leek roulade with its lighter cheese filling still satisfies. For a modern Jewish woman understanding tradition and the demands of religion and custom, I looked to Morocco where I learned to cook fish in a tiny Fez kitchen with a mixture of fresh vegetables and a fabulous stuffing so that it can be eaten hot or cold. Turkish tradition showed me how to stuff a whole vegetable and experiment with butternut squash as the base for a stuffing of toasted pine nuts, lentils, brown rice, currants and masses of chopped mint, parsley and cilantro.
I believe that Ashkenazi Jews have to look to their Sephardi cousins to learn how to eat in the 21st century. They may not survive their traditional diet.
Top photo: Ruth Joseph. Credit: Western Mail, Thompson House, Cardiff
A few carrots that didn’t get pulled one summer made their beautiful lacy flowers the next year, and it was easy to see that those blooms looked a lot like Queen Anne’s lace, cilantro blossoms and the diminutive chervil flower. Were they somehow related? More than just a pretty face, I knew there was something behind these flowers and the gorgeous vegetables I loved, something that united them and their forms, flavors and behaviors. But what?
I took those unread botany books off the shelves and found out that yes, these were all members of the umbellifer family and they all make umbel-like flowers, though varying enormously in size. This family includes a lot of wild but familiar plants, including the deadly hemlock, and it turns out that — minus the hemlock — they all happen to be harmonious in our mouths, both the vegetables and the many herbs in that family.
It’s all relative when it comes to vegetables
I started looking more into plant families, who is in them, their stories, their shared characteristics and the way they play in our kitchens. Like people, plant family members are indeed relatives.
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The daisy (composite) family, a group of ruffians, includes the prickly artichokes and cardoons; salsify and scorzanera all with their habit of oxidizing; the bitter chicories; plus milk thistle, dandelion and burdock — a feisty bunch of plants. Break any of the roots and a thick white sap appears. Taste it and you will recoil from its bitterness. But a lot of these bitter plants are good for the liver, it turns out. Interesting.
Members of the nightshade family have been universally resisted wherever they’ve been introduced. Tomatoes were thought to cause stomach cancer. The Russian Orthodox Church believed potatoes were not food because they weren’t mentioned in the Bible, and besides, why eat what a dog didn’t even find interesting? Eggplant was thought to cause leprosy, and the consumption of eggplant (and nightshades in general) stimulates the pain of arthritis, which is why some people avoid it, even today. Belladonna got its name because when ingested, the pupils of the eyes grew large and dark, which was considered a form of beauty in women. The difficulties in this family, presumed or real, are due to alkaloids that can be deadly in large quantities but helpful in smaller ones; we all get our eyes dilated by the optometrist so the doctor can look deeply into our eyes, though not because of their lustrous beauty.
The chenopods, or goosefoots (yes, I looked at a goose’s gnarly foot to confirm the association), include spinach, chard, beets, wild spinach or lamb’s-quarters, and all are related to quinoa and amaranth, whose leaves can be and are eaten as well as the seeds. Speaking broadly, they are interchangeable in the kitchen with respect to flavor. And if you have chard bolting in your garden, might you still be able to eat the leaves as they becomes smaller and further apart on their ever-lengthening stems? Indeed you can. And at this stage they taste more like some of the wild greens they’re related to. This is the kind of stuff that I find fascinating!
Anyone who gardens has opportunities that deepen one’s vegetable literacy and excitement. You’ll find treasures that won’t appear in your supermarket, such as coriander buds that are still green and moist, so surprising in the mouth and so well-paired with lentils. You get to see — and eat — the whole plant, not just the parts and pieces that show up in the store. Broccoli leaves, as well as the crowns and stems, are quite tasty, and the same is true of radish and kohlrabi leaves.
Leeks produce enormous ribbons of leaves, sometimes referred to as flags, and indeed you can wave them back and forth to signal someone, if need be. When left in the garden over winter, the shanks can grow to a few feet in length(!), by which time a firm core has formed, too dense to eat, but a great ingredient for soup stock. When a leek is left in the garden long enough to bloom, its enormous spherical flower mimics that of the pretty chive blossom. And when you finally encounter a mature leek in the garden you can see that it is a mighty and noble vegetable (one variety is named King Richard). Is it surprising that the leek is the national symbol of Wales?
The name knotweed (the family that includes rhubarb, sorrel and buckwheat) refers to jointed stems, but you might see that the blossoms of these plants resemble the kind of embroidery that consists of little knots. Not the botanical definition, but my own, and you may have your own interpretation of names, too. I might add it doesn’t take much imagination to bring these three challenging plants together in a recipe.
Does any of this matter? Yes and no. We can still buy vegetables and cook them without knowing a bit of botany or history. But it is enormously fun to bring the familial nature of vegetables into view, to know that what relates in the garden often does so in the kitchen, which encourages both confidence and daring. And if you garden at all, your eyes will be open to possibilities that just don’t exist elsewhere.
To me, vegetable literacy enriches our world — and our culinary possibilities — by regarding the whole, wonderful plant and its relatives, not just the pieces and parts of a few cultivars.
Top photo: Deborah Madison holds an allium. Credit: Christopher Hirsheimer
The latest news is good news, but it isn’t really new news.
It was 20 years ago almost to the day that my editor at Bantam Books buttonholed me in a hallway in Cambridge, Mass., and said: “We have to do a book about this.”
She was talking about the Mediterranean diet, subject of heated discussions at the First Mediterranean Diet Conference, organized by the Harvard School of Public Health and Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust, an organization that I had founded with my colleagues Greg Drescher and the late Dun Gifford. The book that resulted was “The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook,” published by Bantam in 1993. And from that day to this I have never ceased believing that this smart, sensible and delicious diet is also one of the healthiest ways of eating that we know, and the easiest to adopt and put on our families’ tables.
Mediterranean diet evidence piles up
So it’s just plain gratifying to have confirmation from the latest and most impressive study, published a few days ago on the New England Journal of Medicine’s website and creating a firestorm of comment in the media and on the Internet. What makes the study truly significant is not just the prestige of the Spanish medical researchers who conducted it meticulously, but also the large cohort (more than 7,000 people) and the long duration (more than five years). In fact, the study was cut short because the results were so clear that it seemed unfair to the control group not to let them in on the good news.
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And what is the good news? Following a traditional Mediterranean diet — rich in vegetables, fruits, and legumes, with a low consumption of meat and dairy products, and with plenty of seafood and plenty of extra-virgin olive oil — brings a healthful outcome. Lots of healthful outcomes. In the case of this study, researchers were looking at cardiovascular disease. The conclusion? A traditional Mediterranean diet can reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease by at least 30%.
Some commenters have called that insignificant, but if you come from a family with a genetic predisposition to heart disease (as I do, both my parents and at least half my grandparents died of stroke and related problems), that’s significant. For me, it is enough to want to follow this diet to the end of my days.
Fortunately, that’s not hard to do. Because the best news of all about the Mediterranean diet is that it is very easy for most Americans to follow. It emphasizes dishes with ingredients that are easy to find in any supermarket, that are easy to prepare, and that are easy to eat because they are all so darned delicious. It doesn’t require fancy ingredients, trips to exotic neighborhoods, or long hours over a hot stove to eat well the Mediterranean way.
But if you are an adherent of what we might call the traditional American diet, it will require some adjustment.
First , cut out processed food entirely. If you read Michael Moss’s new book, “Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” you will be compelled to do exactly that. No industrial fats, no added salt, no added sugar.
Then, be prepared to spend more time shopping than most of us do cooking. You need more time at the produce section than standing over a hot stove. Take time to select fresh, seasonal, well-raised fruits and vegetables. These do not necessarily need to be organic, but it helps. Choose produce from as close to home as possible, whether you shop in a local supermarket or are lucky to have a good four-seasons farm stand near where you live.
When it comes time to cook, make it simple:
- Steaming vegetables and tossing them in extra virgin olive oil with finely chopped garlic and herbs is about as complicated as you want to get.
- Grill or oven-roast a piece of fish and serve it with a dribble of olive oil, chopped herbs and a spritz of lemon.
- Make a soup or a pasta sauce by cooking fresh or canned tomatoes with garlic, onion and some chopped basil, then purée for a soup or cook down a little more to thicken for a pasta sauce.
- Soak a batch of dried legumes, such as beans, chickpeas, fava beans, etc., and cook till done, then use half of them in your tomato soup and freeze the other half for another recipe later in the week.
- Make whole-grain bread the only bread on your table. Do away with sweet muffins and sugary breakfast pastries.
- Drink a glass of wine with your dinner.
- Make dessert a piece of fresh seasonal fruit.
- Above all, switch from whatever fats you now use, such a butter, lard or canola, to extra virgin olive oil, which is the finest kind. Use an expensive high-quality oil for garnishing, and a cheaper one for all your cooking, but always choose extra virgin. An aspect of olive oil untouched on in the Spanish study is the presence in extra virgin olive oil of health-giving antioxidant polyphenols that are lacking in regular or refined oil.
And, as the waiter says when he sets down a plate before you: Enjoy!
Top photo: Elements of a classic Mediterranean diet. Credit: Prudencio Alvarez Carballo/iStock
Cultures all around the world have rejuvenating herbal tonics, taken to strengthen and support the body. Think of the spring tonics our grandparents knew and swore by. A number of these elixirs are also aphrodisiacs, employed to arouse our emotions and feelings of love. With Valentine’s Day coming up, what better time to give them a try?
Botanical aphrodisiacs are often highly-prized and costly (ginseng, for example), but the romantic cocktails, cupcakes and sorbet (we got inventive!) below call for five main ingredients that are inexpensive and readily available in the U.S.
Aphrodisiac list to remember
Each has a cultural tradition of promoting health and well being while also supporting libido: Ashwagandha, native to India; damiana, found in Central and South America; horny goat weed from China; maca from Peru; and schisandra from China. All can be obtained as organic dried herbs or powders from Starwest Botanicals. Many are also available from Frontier Coop. Organic fairly-traded Ayurvedic herbs can be found at Banyan Botanicals, and if you’d like to try growing any of these plants yourself, Horizon Herbs can supply seeds.
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You may be inspired to try these treats for Valentine’s day but remember they can be enjoyed any time, alone or with a partner. Here’s to health and pleasure!
Evening Energizing Cocoa
Ashwagandha, Withania somnifera, a relative of the tomato, is one of the most important tonic and restorative herbs in Ayurveda, India’s ancient science of life and medicine. In India, ashwagandha root is traditionally boiled in milk as a drink. It has a slightly bitter taste, so we like to combine it with cocoa to make a relaxing and restorative evening drink, adding the aphrodisiac effects of chocolate to that of the ashwagandha.
½ to 1 teaspoons ashwagandha powder
2 teaspoons cocoa powder (or to taste)
¼ teaspoon cardamom powder
1 cup milk or almond milk per person
10 drops vanilla essence
honey or maple syrup to taste
1. Mix dry ingredients in a saucepan.
2. Add milk and bring just to the boil, then remove from heat.
3. Add in the vanilla and sweetener to taste.
* * *
Damiana Iced Tea
Damiana, Turnera diffusa, is a tonic herb found in Texas, Central America and tropical parts of South America. Damiana is a tonic for both sexes, balancing hormones and supporting the nervous system as well as increasing libido.
2 heaped teaspoons damiana
1 heaped teaspoon mint
some rose petals
1. Put ingredients into a jug.
2. Pour boiling water on them, brew for 5 minutes.
3. Strain and chill.
4. Serve over ice.
* * *
Horny Goat Weed Liqueur
Horny goat weed, or Epimedium, is an herb worth trying for the name alone. It is grown as ground-cover plant in dry shade, and the species used as aphrodisiacs are Epimedium grandiflorum, E. sagittatum and E. brevicornum. The leaves, which can be used fresh or dried, have a pleasant mild taste and a mild stimulant effect.
Makes about two weeks’ supply for one person.
A handful of dried horny goat weed leaves
A slice or two of orange
3 or 4 cardamom pods
1 tablespoon brown sugar
About a cup of whisky
1. Loosely fill a jam jar (roughly ½ pint size) with the dry ingredients
2. Pour in enough whisky to fill the jar and submerge the contents.
3. Put the jar in a warm dark place for two weeks then strain and bottle.
4. Enjoy a small liqueur glassful, sipped slowly, as and when you wish.
* * *
Maca Cupcakes With Vanilla Fudge Icing
Maca, Lepidium meyenii, looks a bit like a turnip and is a staple in the high Andes. Its strengthening and hormone balancing benefits are cumulative over long periods, though some people find it immediately stimulating. The powder smells like butterscotch, but blander and with a slightly bitter taste. Maca can be added to porridge, breads and cakes. Our favorite maca recipe is for these cupcakes. Matthew loves the combination of hard, sweet icing, a soft, light cake and sensuous strawberry melting in the mouth.
Makes 10 to 12 cupcakes
Ingredients for cupcakes
½ tablespoon vinegar
1 tablespoon corn syrup or honey
4 tablespoons butter
½ cup light brown sugar
½ cup milk or oat milk
1 cup white flour
2 tablespoons maca powder
1 tablespoon boiling water
½ teaspoon baking soda
1. Warm vinegar, corn syrup, butter and sugar together in a pan.
2. When softened, beat until mixture becomes a creamy batter.
3. In another container, mix milk, flour and maca powder.
4. When well blended into a runny batter, pour over the cake batter.
5. Mix the two batters together to form a semi-liquid mixture.
6. Pour into 10 or 12 muffin cases.
7. Bake at 180 C (350 F) for 15 to 20 minutes, until golden on top and cooked through.
8. Cool, and add icing, as below.
Vanilla Fudge Icing
For 10 or 12 cupcakes
1 teaspoon butter
1½ cups sugar
½ cup milk
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
10 small, very ripe strawberries
1. Melt butter and sugar in a saucepan.
2. Add milk and stir continually until it reaches boiling point.
3. Continue cooking until the mixture arrives at the soft ball stage (115 C, 240 F).
4. Cool a little, add vanilla extract and beat until smooth.
5. Spread on the cup cakes.
6. If the icing gets too stiff, warm it over hot water.
7. Decorate the top of each cupcake with a small, very ripe strawberry while the icing is still soft.
* * *
Schisandra Syrup and Sorbet
Schisandra, Schisandra chinensis, berries are the fruit of a Chinese vine in the magnolia family and are known as “five flavor berries” for their complex taste. Besides their aphrodisiac effect, they promote overall health and vitality, improve memory and concentration and help protect the liver, support the endocrine system and act as a powerful antioxidant.
Ingredients for syrup
1 cup schisandra berries
3 cups water
1 cup sugar
1. Put schisandra berries into a pan.
2. Add the water and simmer gently with the lid on for 30–40 minutes.
3. This stage is complete when the berries have given their brown-black color to the water.
4. Allow to cool for a few minutes.
5. When almost cool, put in blender and blend for a few moments.
6. Strain through a sieve.
7. Add sugar, and bring to a boil, cooking for a couple of minutes longer.
8. Allow to cool, giving a rich syrup
Ingredients for sorbet
1 cup schisandra syrup (as above)
Juice of 2 or 3 oranges, freshly squeezed
1 ripe banana
1. Mix the syrup and orange juice.
2. Peel and slice the banana and freeze it.
3. When frozen or nearly frozen, add the banana to the syrup mix.
4. Beat with a hand blender until creamy, then freeze again.
5. Serve in a chilled dish.
Top photo: Ashwaganda. Credit: Julie Bruton-Seal
Indian food lovers in the United States often have a vague concept of what biryanis are — a perception that stems from Indian restaurants that spike basmati rice with spices and dot it with either pieces of meat or vegetables. From the Persian biriyan (to fry before cooking), true biryanis were introduced and made popular by several invaders; the Moghuls were a prime influence, having gathered their knowledge from the Persians. The Nawabs of Lucknow and the Nizams of Hyderabad also popularized these layered meat-rice-nut dishes all across India, where there are more than 35 varieties.
The fancier the occasion, the more elaborate the biryani — some even included pounded silver leaves. I consider such biryanis to be meals in themselves; the only accompaniments they need are a simple yogurt-based raita (even a bowl of plain yogurt will suffice), pickles (either homemade or store-bought), and flame-toasted lentil wafers (papads).
The constitution of a biryani is rather simple. First, meat is often marinated and braised, spiced and simmered in various sauces. To prepare the rice layer, clarified butter is perfumed with whole spices, and sometimes with nuts and raisins. Then basmati rice is steeped in the butter (with water) to partially cook it. Finally, alternating layers of the meat curry and rice pulao are spread in a casserole and baked until the flavors mingle and the rice grains are tender. Although many of the biryanis are meat-based, vegetarians have adapted these dishes to include legumes and vegetables.
Kichidi, a savory and soothing porridge
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love biryanis, but the dish that gets no respect is one that is a close sibling, albeit a dowdy one in some Indians’ minds. Kichidis are soothing and simple porridges usually eaten when convalescing from an illness. The easily digestible grains, when eaten with plain yogurt, make for a comforting meal. Often, the trilogy of pickles, papads and yogurt accompanies kichidis to complement the porridge’s softness with pungency and crunch.
Of all the stories I heard in my childhood days, the one that always made me sit up and listen was this one about kichidis. To set the stage, it’s helpful to know about Akbar, the third and highly revered emperor of the Moghul empire, who ascended the throne at the tender age of 13, around 1556. Over the course of his rule, he developed a deep bond and friendship with his trusted inner circle adviser, Birbal, whose wit, impartiality, compassion and intelligence were legendary. Stories were penned over the years that regaled many a child at bedtime. This one particularly stuck with me, appealing to my culinary sensibilities.
Birbal listened patiently to the poor Brahmin’s predicament. The Brahmin, with teeth still chattering from the previous night’s bone-chilling experience in the frigid waters of the lake, recounted how he was promised 100 rupees for spending the night in its icy bed. He had managed to survive the frigidity by cozy thoughts that his children’s bellies would soon be filled with the help of this small fortune. He called upon Rama for strength, hands folded in pious servitude, looking toward a lighted oil lamp 200 feet away for the only flicker in an otherwise charcoal-black night. His prayers helped him make it to the crack of dawn, when he emerged from the lake with frozen, shriveled skin but a warmed heart filled with the hope of a hot meal for his hungry babies.
The court ministers marveled at the Brahmin’s fortitude and quizzed him at length on his successful survival. But once they heard that he had made it through with the “warmth” from the flickering light 200 feet away, they refused him his meager prize.”You cheated us you insolent man,” they fumed. “You heated yourself with the oil lamp 200 feet away.” The Brahmin’s earnest pleadings fell on deaf ears even when he insisted on presenting his case to the usually fair-minded emperor, Akbar.
Birbal stroked his beard as he listened to the Brahmin’s misery. It was time to teach the cruel ministers and Akbar a lesson. He invited them to a simple dinner of kichidi in his palatial courtyard. With help from the Brahmin, he lit a small fire from dried twigs. He fashioned a supporting structure 50 feet high from which dangled a large earthenware pot filled with rice, lentils and gold-yellow turmeric. The crowds gathered and waited with growing impatience for the humble, delicately spiced porridge.
Akbar’s anger rose along with the wisps of smoke from the pitiful twig fire as he demanded explanation for Birbal’s obvious stupidity in trying to cook a pot of kichidi 50 feet away from such a weak flame. “Jahanpana,” he said with respect, addressing him as King of the World, “if a flickering light 200 feet away could warm a Brahmin standing in waist-high icy-cold water, why can’t I cook this kichidi only fifty feet away.” Akbar realized his folly, duly reprimanded his ministers, and ordered them to pay the Brahmin five times what was promised to him. Birbal once again prevailed!
Rice-Lentil Porridge with Caramelized Onion (Pyaaz kichidi)
Makes 6 servings (about ½ cup each)
1 cup uncooked white basmati or long-grain rice
½ cup split and skinned green lentils (mung/moong dal — yellow in this form)
4 cups cold tap water
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
2 tablespoons ghee or melted butter
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 medium-size red onion, cut in half lengthwise and thinly sliced
2 to 4 fresh green Thai, cayenne or serrano chilies, stems removed, slit in half lengthwise (do not remove seeds)
1 medium-size tomato, cored and finely chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
1 teaspoon coarse kosher or sea salt
¼ teaspoon black peppercorns, coarsely cracked
1. Plunk the rice and dal into a medium-size saucepan and add enough water to cover the grains. With your fingertips gently rub and swish the grains, at which point the water will get cloudy. Pour the water out and repeat three to four times, until the water remains relatively clear; drain.
2. Add 4 cups cold water to the pan and bring it to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring once or twice to separate the grains. Skim off any suds that may float to the top. Stir in the turmeric, lower the heat to medium, and simmer, partially covered, until most of the water evaporates. Cover the pan and continue to simmer about 5 minutes.
3. Turn off the burner and allow the pan to sit undisturbed an additional 5 to 10 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, heat the ghee in a medium-size skillet over medium-high heat. Sprinkle in the cumin and let it sizzle, turn reddish brown, and smell nutty, about 10 to 15 seconds. Immediately add the onion and chilies and stir-fry 4 to 6 minutes, until the onion turns purple-brown, 5 to 7 minutes. This is a good time to make sure your stove fan is on because of the pungent fumes from the roasting chilies.
5. Add the remaining ingredients and stew the mélange, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the tomato softens, 2 to 4 minutes.
6. Scrape the skillet’s contents into the now-cooked rice-lentil mixture and mix well; serve.
Tip: If onions, chilies and tomatoes bother your stomach, leave them out. The humble cumin seeds and ghee are equally satisfying on their own.
Top photo: Indian kichidi. Credit: Raghavan Iyer
I don’t know anyone who wakes up on Jan. 1 cheering, “Woo-hoo, I can’t wait to go on a diet.” Most of us hate to diet. But as a rite of passing into a new year with well-intentioned resolution, The Diet is an annual dilemma that needs to be looked at a bit differently. In this first month of 2013, let’s resolve not to diet. Let’s anti-diet.
More on healthy eating at Zester Daily:
You can already see the ads on TV. Lose weight with this system, here’s an impossible-to-believe before-and-after shot of [insert you] after some charlatan’s weight-loss scam. We know most of these don’t work and don’t last. You’ve got the low-carb diet, the calorie-restriction diet, the açai berry diet — all cruel and unusual over a prolonged period. And not sustainable either.
This discussion is mostly for post-holiday bellies and diminishing a gut that’s bigger now than it was before Thanksgiving. It is not for anyone diagnosed as morbidly obese. For that you need medical advice. But anyone looking for a resolution you can live with should be thinking about wellness. And that means a new way of eating and of shopping, getting into a heartfelt ritual of improving the quality of the food you eat.
Here are five candid points that have helped me and could possibly help you.
1. Eat clean
This means getting habituated to eating better, shopping for, and simply cooking, fresh fruits and vegetables and a piece of meat or fish for dinner. Stay away from what I view as unclean food, usually posing as low-calorie frozen dinners. They’re not lean on unnatural ingredients and certainly not anything resembling cuisine. Another example is a commercial spinach dip available at a big box member store. It’s got an ingredient label of biblical proportions. Sure, the dip’s got spinach and dairy, but it also includes hydrolized soy protein, high fructose corn syrup. What’s this stuff? Why not wilt some fresh spinach (or defrost frozen spinach) and mix it with some garlic, Worcestershire and real sour cream or thick yogurt? Dinner is perhaps a serving of fresh chicken with two vegetables. Those vegetables might be steamed peas and mashed sweet potato. That’s clean.
2. Stop eating crap
Yes, I said crap. The commercial spinach dip, mentioned above, is unnatural. Potato chips as a side dish with a sandwich are nutritionally ridiculous. Cheetos, as yummy as they are for salt addicts, are not food. Twizzlers aren’t food. Pizza has trick nutrition, because with it calories and fats can pile up fast. I recommend avoiding it while you’re getting started this year. Ignore nutritionists who encourage daylong snacking. I say stop snacking, and this should help a few pounds here and there melt away.
Don’t forget the stop-eating-crap rule when you’re eating out too. Over the next couple of weeks, don’t get trapped in the salad-is-diet-food myth. There’s low nutrition in lettuce and lots of calories in dressing. When you find yourself out for lunch or dinner, make your own meal. Look over a menu to see what ingredients are on it, then ask the waiter to tell the chef you want the chicken breast out of the chicken sandwich and bring it with the side of chard that comes with the steak entrée. Sometimes the chef can be very obliging.
3. Get used to being a little hungry
This rule goes well with the stop-snacking rule. Some experts say hunger pangs send the body into starvation mode. Snacking your way to satiety is self-defeating.
A few hunger pangs are a sign your stomach is getting accustomed to less. Also, eat dinner early so you’re up more hours to burn calories. You may go to bed a bit hungry, but there’s always breakfast eight hours away.
4. Go to a farmers market
You’ll eat seasonally and you’ll be able to practice one of the best pieces of nutrition advice ever to come along: Eat your colors. Buy orange produce such as winter squash, yams, carrots and oranges. Go green with chard, spinach, kale, broccoli, even frozen peas. Get your red from beets, red cabbage and pomegranates. If you hate beets, don’t eat them. The variety from eating colors keeps boredom at bay. A farmers market will awaken your interest in fresh food, which obviously requires some skill to cook, and that brings me to the next rule.
5. Learn to cook
Zester readers may know more than the average reluctant cook about getting a meal on the table, but many people indulge their interest in food by eating out and making excuses for not cooking.
You won’t think that time spent cooking robs you of time spent doing other things if you decide that cooking is one of those other things. Taking charge of what goes into your body benefits you on many fronts: your budget, your nutrition and your control of all ingredients that enter your body. If you regard the knobs on a stove like they’re controls on a nuclear reactor, then cook in your microwave. About 99% of homes have microwaves. I’ve used the microwave to cook an entire meal that’s clean, nutritious and not too expensive.
Ultimately if you can make yourself a reasonable promise, you’ll feel better, you’ll lose that holiday gut, and you may well be on your way to some new good habits.
“Baked” Chicken From the Microwave
1 whole cut-up fryer, bones in, pieces rinsed and dried with paper towel
Salt and ground black pepper
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon oregano (leafy type, not powdered)
Few sprinkles paprika, for color and a bit of kick
1. To make the breasts of relative size to the rest of the pieces, cut the breasts in half crosswise. Arrange chicken pieces on a microwavable large dinner plate like spokes, with the plump ends along the rim of the plate and narrower ends toward the center.
2. Season with salt and pepper, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with oregano and paprika. Do not cover.
3. In a microwave equipped with a turntable, microwave on high, in 5-minute intervals, for up to a total of 10 to 15 minutes*, until meat is browned and no longer pink inside.
4. Serve with fresh microwaved green beans and half a sweet potato.
* Depending on microwave’s wattage power, your chicken may cook very quickly or slowly. At home, mine is done in about 12 minutes. At a friend’s house with an older model, the chicken was done in 14 minutes. You can stop the microwave at any time to check progress.
This is the easiest type of produce to microwave.
1 medium-sized yam
Dab of butter
1. Halve yam lengthwise. Lay both pieces on a large dinner plate, flat side down. Puncture several air slits in the skin for steam to escape. Do not cover.
2. Microwave on high for 5 minutes. Test doneness by piercing with sharp knife. If it glides easily into the yam, the yam is done. If not, microwave 1 minute more.
3. Turn yam halves over, cut slits and top each with a small dab of butter. Serve hot.
Microwaved Fresh Green Beans With Butter
Serves 2 or 3
⅓ pound green beans (pick tender ones instead of big fat ones)
Sprinkling of salt
1 pat of butter
1. Trim stems off beans. Set beans in a shallow bowl with a tablespoon of water. Sprinkle with salt. Set dab of butter in center.
2. Cover the bowl with a plate. Steam-microwave for 90 seconds. If the beans are still too crunchy for your taste, microwave for another 15 seconds. Scoop the beans out of bowl with a slotted spoon and set on the serving plate with the chicken and yam.
Healthy “baked” chicken, green beans and yams from the microwave. Credit: Elaine Corn