Articles in Healthy Cooking
I have a repertoire of quick, easy dinners that I make when there is no produce in the house. It does happen; after I return from a trip, in particular, but also there are times when I just haven’t gotten to the market. My favorite pantry dishes are the ones I picked up long ago from an Italian friend who was able to produce the most marvelous simple dinners every evening when he returned from his office, though he hadn’t stopped at the market. He’d whip up a delicious tuna and bean salad, or pasta e fagiole, or pasta with tuna and tomato sauce or penne a l’arabiata, because he always had three canned items in his small cupboard: tuna, beans and tomatoes.
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From him I learned that I must always have these three foods on hand. They don’t have to be fancy and I’m not stuck on any particular type of bean. Right now I have supermarket brand chickpeas, white beans and pintos on my shelf. I have one can of tuna packed in water and another can of tuna packed in olive oil, and I’ve got 28- and 14.5-ounce cans of chopped tomatoes in juice, which is what I prefer (less work), but whole tomatoes will do.
Tuna and bean salad is a meal I make often when I’m on my own. If I have some produce on hand — green beans or cauliflower or some of those beautiful spring onions I’m beginning to see in the farmers markets — I’ll make variations on this simple theme, which requires little more than the tuna and the beans, vinegar, olive oil and whatever seasonings you like. Red onion is standard, parsley is always nice for color. But I never get too elaborate; it’s not a salade Niçoise, after all.
Simple Tuna and Bean Salad
Prep time: 10 minutes
Yield: Serves 4
1 small or 1/2 medium red onion or spring onion, peeled and very thinly sliced
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar
2 5 1/2-ounce cans tuna, packed in water or olive oil, drained
1 15-ounce can cannelini beans, white beans, chickpeas or borlotti beans, drained and rinsed
2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 small or medium garlic clove, finely minced
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 Japanese cucumber, cut in half lengthwise and sliced, for garnish (optional)
1. Place the onion in a bowl and add 1 teaspoon of the vinegar and cold water to cover. Let sit for 5 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water, then dry on paper towels.
2. In a medium bowl or salad bowl, combine the tuna, beans, onions and parsley.
3. In a small bowl or measuring cup, mix together the remaining vinegar, salt to taste, freshly ground pepper, garlic and Dijon mustard. Whisk in the olive oil. Toss with the tuna and beans and serve, garnishing each plate with cucumber slices.
Advance preparation: This will keep for 3 days in the refrigerator.
Two-Bean and Tuna Salad
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 5 minutes
Total time: 15 minutes
Yield: Serves 6
3/4 pound green beans, trimmed
1 small red onion, cut in half and sliced in half-moons
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar
2 5-ounce cans tuna (packed in water or olive oil), drained
1 15-ounce can white beans, cannellinis, chickpeas, or borlottis, drained and rinsed
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons chopped chives
2 teaspoons chopped fresh marjoram or sage
Salt to taste
1 garlic clove, minced or puréed
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1. Bring a medium-size pot of water to a boil, add salt to taste and green beans. Cook for 4 minutes (5 minutes if the beans are thick), until just tender. Transfer to a bowl of cold water and drain. (Alternatively, steam the beans for 4 to 5 minutes.) Cut or break the beans in half if very long.
2. Meanwhile, place sliced onion, if using, in a bowl and cover with cold water. Add 1 teaspoon vinegar and soak 5 minutes. Drain, rinse and drain again on paper towels.
3. Drain tuna and place in a salad bowl. Break up with a fork. Add canned beans, green beans, onion and herbs. Toss together.
4. In a small bowl or measuring cup, whisk together remaining vinegar, salt, garlic and mustard. Whisk in olive oil. Toss with tuna and bean mixture, and serve.
Advance preparation: This will keep for a day in the refrigerator; however, you should keep the green beans separate and toss with the other ingredients just before serving so they retain their bright green color.
Main photo: Two-Bean and Tuna Salad. Credit: Copyright Martha Rose Shulman
Mandy Aftel was well on her way to becoming America’s most highly regarded natural perfumer when she started using essential oils in cooking. She had a book out, “Essence and Alchemy,” and a line of beloved natural perfumes she made by hand in her studio. But while on book tour, she was encountering a troubling problem. She noticed that so many of the people she met said they hated perfume.
“As a perfumer, I wanted to be around people who cared about ingredients, and I found them in the food world,” she said. “For me it’s all about how stunning these aromas are and what you can do with them when you know how they work.”
Aftel, who lives directly behind Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, was no stranger to chefs obsessed with using only the finest quality whole ingredients. But what she needed was a chef who cared very much about aroma, and how it shapes how the mouth experiences food. She found that partner in Daniel Patterson, who has since become famous in his own right as a chef, food writer and primary proponent of California cuisine. Aftel took her traveling perfume organ — a suitcase of sorts in which she carries samples of the essential oils she uses in her studio — and shared them with him.
“He was knocked out, especially with the black pepper essence,” Aftel said.
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Soon, Patterson began incorporating essential oils in his dishes. The two later collaborated on their first shared cookbook, “Aroma: The Magic of Essential Oils in Food and Fragrance.” Since then, Aftel has worked with all manner of people in the food industry to develop aromas for food products based on real, natural essential oils and has become a steady proponent of their use in the home kitchen. More recently, she has developed her own line of essential oil sprays — edible essential oils in an alcohol spray mist — for use in restaurants and home cuisine.
The American food scene has welcomed her approach as a next step in the country’s move back to a more natural relationship with food. A long history exists of using essential oils with cooking. But as with perfume, at the beginning of the 20th century, consumers became enamored of the synthetics because they were cheaper. In the past, people were took active plant material and infused or they were using the essential oils directly. In her new book, “Fragrant,” Aftel has resurrected a number of recipes for staples such as ketchup, which relied heavily on essential oils, and has made the relationship between perfuming and food even more tangible.
“Daniel and I were real trailblazers, because the history had been lost,” Aftel said. “I think it’s so exciting, deeply exciting to have the essence of the plant. It offers insanely creative possibilities and can provide flavor that you really can’t arrive at any other way.”
Aftel discussed how one might go about using essential oils in the kitchen:
What essential oils are safe to ingest?
It’s pretty simple. You should always trust who is providing the oils themselves, but you can eat all of the oils listed on the FDA’s GRAS list (Generally Regarded As Safe).
Can you give me some examples of situations where the essential oil is preferable to the spice?
There’s really no heat in black pepper oil, for example, it’s all in the peppercorn itself. If you used a lot of black pepper to get that black pepper essence it would be way too hot. But if you use a drop of the oil it’s an amazing flavor unto itself. In the middle of winter you might want the flavor of basil, but you don’t want the texture of basil leaves and the ones in winter aren’t really that good anyway. So you use the oil, and just a drop. When you use these oils it’s like being the master of the universe to use just one drop and have the result be so aromatic and lovely.
Where does one begin? What’s a good way to start?
A very good dark chocolate, say 65% dark at least, and vanilla ice cream can be a great place to start. Here’s the pink pepper. The sprays are really idiot proof — they are drops within alcohol and very easy to use. Drops themselves are just so strong, so you might want to use the drops when you are cooking them into something. But if you’re just doing a finishing then I recommend the sprays. Things like rose essence, cinnamon and vanilla, violet, sarsaparilla, all go great with a good vanilla ice cream. Yellow mandarin, cardamom, great with chocolate. Pear and chocolate. Anything that is creamy and rich is a nice base upon which to start because they have their own vibrant character, but they can blend in. The naturals, for better or worse, don’t last. But then again, people are used to the olfactory equivalent of McDonald’s. If you can isolate the aroma and use it in something or another. I like to keep things as simple and beautiful as possible.
Do you think people really think that much about the quality of their spices?
People are very familiar with some spices, but when they became easy to get, the thing that made them so powerful and amazing became less appreciated. People will buy a giant container of cinnamon and then let it languish in their cupboard for years, not understanding that the thing about the cinnamon is slowly going away, its nature is gone. With oils, you can create your own flavor and retain what is so powerful about the natural ingredient. I think it’s a very creative process.
How do you use essential oils in your home cooking?
I love roasted Brussels sprouts. One of the things I’ve found about beef is it’s great with chocolate. It adds a richness to it, a new flavor. I also love roasted red and green peppers with basil oil. The licorice/anise aspect of it really gets out. Or Foster, my husband, will get a tomato soup and I’ll add a little cinnamon, kind of a Mediterranean mix. I love the experience of changing things just a smidge, it makes all of my food experiences very aromatic.
What about drinks?
Drinks are the bridges from perfume to food. I’m thinking a lot about this for my new book with Daniel Paterson. Coffee, tea, wine, alcohol, these are very aromatic experiences. Citrus rinds. When someone has a drink, they are also smelling it. It’s no fluke that the experience people most associate with drink is very aromatic and very convivial. I think the aromatic aspects of it are what make it so wonderful. People take a lot of liberty with experimenting with drinks, in a way they don’t always necessarily do with food. It’s a wonderful bridge toward learning.
Are the oils better than the spices?
The oils, when they are done well, allow you to appreciate the real identity of the spice. A lot of the oils don’t have the sharpness of the spices. When you use the essential oil, you are actually harnessing the best version of the spice and holding on to it. There’s this awful thing that happens when you have access to things because of our global world. They stop being prized. I don’t think luxury should be attached to status. I like to retool the relationships between things that being available and things being prized. I like to prize that experience and have it drop by drop.
Main photo: Perfumer Mandy Aftel now has a line of essential oils for her cooking. Credit: Copyright Emily Grosvenor
Culinary icon Anne Willan has just released “Secrets From the La Varenne Kitchen,” a brief compendium of “50 Essential Recipes Every Cook Needs To Know.” This amazing book includes the recipes that are the backbone course for professional chefs and that Willan’s legendary school Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris has been creating since 1975.
Among the dishes are fish aspic, exquisitely specific details on puff pastry and 10 types of sorbet. But one recipe caught my eye: Court Bouillon — or in rough English translation: “Quick Broth.” As a mom who doesn’t have the time for more intricate recipes and whose two young girls don’t have the palates for aspic yet, I liked the sound of that. I called Anne Willan to get her thoughts.
“It’s very interesting that you’ve chosen court bouillon,” Willan said from her home in Santa Monica, California, “because it’s not something anybody thinks of using nowadays. It really is right in sync with contemporary cooking,” she continued. “It’s very useful because today people always want to cook things healthfully and simply.”
Willan’s definition of court bouillon is simple and clear: “It’s a meatless and fatless broth, so very simple, but something that just adds flavor to whatever’s cooked in it.” The recipe, which is included below, is easy, but I was hoping to get some insider secrets. Willan was happy to comply, although clearly none of this seemed like a big secret to her: “Thinly slice the carrots,” she told me, “so that they give up their flavor in 15 or 20 minutes. Slice the onions fairly thinly, but not to worry about it. The green herbs you just drop in, keep the stems, they have lots of taste.”
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The real secret of court bouillon is properly pairing the food being cooked in the broth with a sympathetic acidic ingredient. Traditionally, the acid used in court bouillon would be vinegar, wine or lemon juice. Willan provided more nuanced distinctions: “For whitefish, I’d probably go for wine, because you don’t want too strong a flavor. For darker fish, possibly lemon juice or vinegar because it balances the stronger flavor of the fish.”
In traditional French cuisine, court bouillon is a liquid used for simmering, and then it’s tossed out. But as we discussed using the broth as a part of the meal, Willan became intrigued, because that’s simply part of her cooking ethos. “Never throw anything away,” she said. “When you’ve got lovely cooking liquid from something like a big salmon, do something with it — fish soup with the leftover.”
I could hear her brain begin to click as she explored the Culinary Thought Experiment: “The liquid will have acquired the flavor of what’s been cooking in it,” she said. “So what I would like to do is boil it down, and make a little sauce with it, mount it with butter or something.”
Then her brain went into high gear: “You could do lovely experiments with it. I certainly haven’t gone into it myself, but you could do an Asian court bouillon, or a hot court bouillon. You’d use chili peppers, wouldn’t you? It’s got to be something pure, hasn’t it?”
From the wisdom behind La Varenne
This was more intriguing than interview questions: Willan was asking and answering herself, giving me a view into a creative culinary mind that has long fascinated me as I’ve gobbled up her writings and her recipes from the classic “From My Château Kitchen” to her dish-y memoir “One Soufflé at a Time.” As she brainstormed the possibilities for court bouillon, her encyclopedic knowledge of cooking became clear, as did her passion for food and good eating.
“Perhaps I’d use coriander instead of parsley. And then, what would you use it for? If you push it a little bit, you could use it for a risotto or cooking quinoa. Or even grits or corn meal.”
By the time we were done, Willan had improvised a court bouillon for down-home Southern cooking and an Asian-influenced broth with the addition of soy sauce, cilantro and rice wine vinegar. She cautioned me against using too much chili pepper if I wanted to try a hot version because the flavor of the pepper would concentrate as the broth cooked down. It was an invigorating conversation — an insight into a culinary mind-set deeply rooted in the basics, but excited to jump in and experiment.
I love my copy of “Secrets from the La Varenne Kitchen,” and I intend to use it to build those basic skills that every cook needs to know — whether they’re a chef at a high-end restaurant or a mom with kids to feed. And court bouillon seems to be an inspired place for me to start. Check out the slideshow that includes Willan’s secrets and two dishes that riff on the recipe.
By Anne Willan, courtesy Spring House Press
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Total time: 25 minutes
Yield: 1 quart
1 quart water
1 carrot, sliced
1 small onion, sliced
1 bouquet garni
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup white wine or 1/3 cup vinegar or 1/4 cup lemon juice
1. Combine all the ingredients in a pan (not aluminum), cover and bring to a boil. Simmer uncovered 15 to 20 minutes and strain.
Main photo: Court Bouillon is tap water with a little bit of salt, peppercorn, sliced onion, parsley, bay leaf, sliced carrot and something acidic — often lemon juice, but equally often white wine and occasionally vinegar. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz
“The world doesn’t want to know the truth about gluten,” graduate student Lisa Kissing Kucek joked last July under a tent at Cornell University’s research farm in Freeville, N.Y. Lightning cut the sky, and we, a group of farmers and bakers, dashed for our cars before she could tell us what she’d discovered.
Now we know. Her research, “A Grounded Guide to Gluten” was published recently in the journal Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety. Kissing Kucek and her colleagues reviewed more than 200 scientific research papers to see what is known about how different wheat varieties and our processing methods affect people’s sensitivity to wheat.
The conclusions of her literature review are cautious, far more so than the declarations made in such books as “Wheat Belly,” which considers modern wheat a chronic poison. Kissing Kucek was curious what wheat actually does in the human body and began by looking at gluten and the pathologies associated with it.
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Her inquiry grew to cover a broad territory, including the problems caused by wheat, how those problems vary by wheat species and variety, and the role of processing methods. It considered everything from celiac disease, wheat allergy and nonceliac wheat sensitivity (NCWS), to fructose malabsorption and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
The review pairs well with other Cornell research. The university and its research partners received a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant in 2011 to look at heritage wheat varieties. Field trials, lab analysis and baking trials are all part of this grant project, which ends in 2016.
Vintage wheat varieties have captured the imagination of a gluten-shy public, and the paper includes thorough descriptions of wheat kernels and wheat genetics. The material is dense, but Kissing Kucek explains it in an easy to follow video presentation.
Many people have trouble digesting fructose and certain carbohydrates, collectively known as FODMAPS. “These individuals experience bloating and gas when consuming large amounts dairy, high fructose corn syrup, stone fruits and wheat,” she said. “As many foods contain FODMAPS, if these individuals only remove wheat gluten from their diet, their symptoms will likely persist.”
Lynn Veenstra, also of Cornell, surveyed fructan research for the paper. Some of the findings she reviewed were featured in a recent Washington Post article about FODMAPS.
Illnesses like nonceliac wheat sensitivity, IBS and fructose malabsorption can be hard to diagnose. But most of the research points to multiple triggers beyond gluten proteins or other parts of wheat.
Little about gluten is straightforward
Contrary to popular or wishful thinking, old wheats don’t wear halos.
“There is no perfect wheat species that reduces all types of wheat sensitivity,” said Kissing Kucek. However, einkorn is promising because it contains fewer celiac reactive compounds than heritage and modern wheat varieties. Einkorn dates from the very early domestication of staple crops; emmer and spelt are also classified as ancient. Heritage or heirloom grains refer to older seed varieties developed before 1950. Modern grain varieties generally have shorter stalks, which allow the plants to receive heavy doses of fertilizer without falling down in the field.
Different wheat varieties vary widely in their reactivity for celiac and wheat allergy. But we don’t know the effect on wheat sensitivity for many of the old or new wheat varieties used in the United States. Europe is screening more varieties. Yet nothing is straightforward when interpreting natural systems.
Figuring out how gluten works in our bodies is tough. Figuring out how growing conditions or plant variety might affect a crop’s potential to harm us is also tough. Understanding the role processing methods play also needs more research, but there’s enough information to cause concern over a few things.
One item —vital wheat gluten — is common in the food supply, and has the potential to cause reactions. It’s used to bind multigrain breads. A cheap protein and a great emulsifier and binder, it’s also widely used in industrial food processing. Irradiated flour and other baking additives also are cited as worrisome.
However, the paper’s section on processing offers some hope, too. Grain sprouting for instance, could help some people digest the complex proteins that give some eaters grief. Longer fermentation also breaks down proteins that can cause some forms of wheat sensitivity.
Other research questions about wheat and gluten are still being charted. A recent Mother Jones story about research at The Bread Lab of Washington State University suggests that modern baking is a bigger culprit than modern wheat. The publication Eating Well also has a new story on gluten by Sam Fromartz called “Unraveling the Gluten-Free Trend.” Like his recent book, “In Search of the Perfect Loaf,” the article nicely navigates the maze of fears about eating wheat and gluten.
Kissing Kucek’s “A Grounded Guide to Gluten” maps the research already done. Like any realistic map, the guide offers facts, not commandments of the “Here Be Dragons” sort. Answers might be found, the paper suggests, in turning to traditions.
This confirms what I’ve long suspected: That we need to unravel some of the processing developed over the last 150 years. In that time, we’ve adopted roller milling, which leaves behind most of the bran and germ. While I never fell out of love with wheat or gluten, I’ve grown enamored of the taste of fresh stone ground flour, and the concept of using all parts of the grain. Perhaps there is something that each lends the other, and to us, as we turn this plant into food. I think that the unity of stone milling is essential to healthy utilization of grains. Some professional bakers believe this too, and are working exclusively with fresh milled whole grain flours.
As people negotiate a friendly relationship with bread, I am hoping that my personal truth about gluten might gain scientific ground.
Main photo: Survey of wheat sensitivity research suggests there may be multiple suspects. Credit: iStock
Popcorn is an ancient superfood — a simple and nutritious form of a 9,000-year-old staple. Popcorn is DIY food preservation at its most basic and most delicious.
Popcorn is simply preserved corn … a way of saving the harvest. Fresh corn can, of course, be boiled, roasted, steamed or baked. But corn became a staple in the Western Hemisphere because it could be dried and stored all winter. Corn was first domesticated in Mexico from a wild grass nearly 9,000 years ago. Archeologists have discovered corncobs from the northern coast of Peru that could date to 6,700 years ago, and scientists believe that this dried corn was eaten as popcorn and ground into corn flour.
First in a historic how-to series for home cooks, canners and kids
Benjamin Franklin remarked on the magical properties of corn that would “pop.” Franklin marveled at the mysterious recipe of “parching corn,” which he wrote about in 1790. He described how the Native Americans “fill a large pot or kettle nearly full of hot ashes, and pouring in a quantity of corn, stir it up with the ashes, which presently parches and burst the grain.” This “bursting” was shocking to Franklin, since it “threw out a substance twice its bigness.” Franklin boasted that popcorn — when ground to a fine powder and mixed with water — created a veritable superfood, claiming that “six ounces should sustain a man a day.”
“Superfood” may seem like a bit of hype for a snack most often eaten while watching bad movies. But in 2012, researchers at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania reported that popcorn has more antioxidant polyphenols than any other fruit or vegetable. One serving provides more than 70% of a person’s daily serving of whole grain, and a single 4-cup portion provides 5 grams of fiber. Popcorn is no longer a guilty pleasure, it’s a virtuous reward.
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The “bursting” that gives popcorn its name is the result of physics inherent in that tiny white or golden nubbin. Inside a popcorn kernel’s outer hull lies the endosperm, which is made of soft starch and a bit of water. Although all types of corn will “pop” to some extent, popcorn will actually explode and turn inside out when heated. To pop successfully, a kernel of dried popcorn should ideally have a moisture level of 13.5% to 14%. When the kernel is heated to an internal temperature somewhere between 400 to 460 F, the water in the endosperm expands, building up pressure that eventually causes the hull to burst. Steam is released and the soft starch inside the kernel puffs up around the shattered hull.
A popcorn worth the obsession
The type of popcorn that comes out of the microwave is often a poor substitute for heritage breeds or locally sourced popcorn. My children and I are currently obsessed with purple popcorn, which we buy dried on the cob at our farmers market or as “Amish Country Purple Popcorn” from the Troyer Cheese Company. I prefer to roast it in a skillet with canola oil and coarse sea salt — simple and basic. My kids’ prefer their popcorn covered in a spice mixture we created, containing cocoa powder, sugar, and cinnamon (though this may counteract some of the health benefits). For adults I add an additional “kick” with cayenne pepper. Try this with a few types of popcorn — each in its own bowl for the sake of comparison — and you’ll have more than a movie snack, you’ll have a healthy, crowd-pleasing conversation starter that won’t last long.
Cinnamon-Cocoa Popcorn With a Kick
Cook time: 15 minutes, no prep time required.
Total time: 15 minutes
Yield: 3 to 4 servings
1/4 teaspoon cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt
1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper (optional)
3 tablespoons canola oil
1/3 cup popcorn kernels
1. Heat a 2- to 3-quart heavy-bottomed saucepan over high heat for 1 to 2 minutes.
2. While pan heats, place cocoa powder, cinnamon, sugar, sea salt and cayenne pepper (if desired) in a small bowl. Stir to combine.
3. Back at the stove, turn heat down to medium high and add oil to heated pan. Carefully place two or three popcorn kernels in oil and cover pan with lid.
4. After test kernels pop, add enough popcorn to cover the bottom of the pan in a single layer — about 1/3 cup.
5. When kernels start to pop, lower heat to medium and shake pan gently until popping stops. (I like to rotate the pan in a circular motion over the burner to keep the popcorn moving.)
6. Pour popped corn into a large bowl. Sprinkle popcorn with topping mixture, toss to coat evenly, and eat immediately. Coated popcorn can be stored in an airtight container for several days, but it will lose a bit of its crunch.
Main photo: American heritage purple popcorn reveals the beauty of this gluten-free, kid-friendly, ancient superfood. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz
Everyone knows that traveling with kids means traveling with snacks. Snacks can help rescue your children from hunger and the ensuing crankiness. Trust us, those satisfied stomachs make for a much happier trip!
It’s easy to fall into the trap of grabbing something unhealthy, greasy or sugary when you’re on the go, because it’s quick and readily accessible. Skip the chips and plan ahead with grab-and-go snacks the whole family can help make.
These seven tried-and-true favorites make great quick bites your family can take on the long road trip to Grandma’s house, perfect little somethings that kids can eat in the backseat while Dad is driving them to soccer practice, or just-in-case nibbles a child can take to a friend’s house. And because kids will help make these treats, they will be able to brag that their delicious snacks are homemade.
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Main photo: Kids love making smoothies — for breakfast or an afternoon snack — because they’re quick and easy, and can be made in so many delicious options! Smoothies can also be made in advance and carried in a travel-friendly water bottle or insulated drink container. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carl Tremblay
Although cauliflowers are sold in our supermarkets all year round, this beautiful member of the wild cabbage family (Brassica oleracea) is at its bright and healthy best in early spring. Cauliflowers harvested at that time have had the benefit of a longer growing season (about 80 days, instead of 50 days for their summer-grown counterparts), allowing their valuable nutrients more time to develop.
The cauliflower, whose name derives from the Latin caulis (stem) and floris (flower) is actually a cabbage bred for its flowers. The edible part of the plant, the head of tender stems and flower buds, is known as a curd. Similarly to broccoli and calabrese (close relatives), the cauliflower stores nutrients for the developing flowers at the base of the buds, so a fresh, crisp curd is packed full of vitamins and minerals. Its Latin botanical name, Brassica oleracea var. botrytis (meaning cluster, or grapelike), is an apt description of this remarkably clever vegetable, which grows with a protective layer of leaves curled around its head.
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Hats off to the French, though, for giving cauliflower (chou-fleur, or cabbage-flower,) a prettier, and horticulturally more correct name, than the rather pedestrian Anglo-Saxon “flower on a stalk.”
There is disagreement over the origin of the cauliflower. Some say it was developed by 11th century Arab gardeners, or by Romans a thousand years earlier. But the wild cabbage grew throughout the ancient eastern Mediterranean and, with its tendency to produce “freaks,” prototypes of the cauliflower probably originated spontaneously in different places. Curious gardeners have since, through seed selection, improved nature’s work and we are now reaping the benefits.
Medieval Italian kitchens and, later, those of Louis XIV of France, served stylish and elegant cauliflower dishes. Catherine de Medici is said to have appreciated the lovely vegetable, and to have introduced it to France to help alleviate arthritis. But its earlier French name, chou de Chypre, suggests it arrived from Cyprus and Cypriots are, understandably, happy to claim its origin. For the past 200 years, the cauliflower has been a popular winter vegetable in northern Europe, but without its former prestige in serious kitchens. Until now.
With cauliflowers piled high in our markets, this inexpensive and highly nutritious brassica is at last losing its humble status and taking its rightful place on our tables. A reputation for being bland and soggy is the fault of the cook, not of the cauliflower. Its very gentleness is the perfect foil to many fine flavors, and it takes only a few minutes to cook.
“Organic” and “local” have real meaning when selecting cauliflowers: snails, aphids and caterpillars love them, so pesticides are often used and, once harvested, their nutrients and flavor dissipate quickly. Most cauliflowers are attractively creamy-white, but we also have wonderfully colorful varieties. Buy cauliflowers that smell and look fresh, with deep-green, outer leaves and tight heads; avoid brown-spotted white ones, or dull-looking purple, yellow or green heads. Size doesn’t affect flavor, but age does: older cauliflowers taste and smell stronger.
Richer in vitamins and minerals than any other brassica, cauliflowers are an excellent source of vitamin C, folic acid and potassium; a very good source of niacin, copper, manganese and vitamins A, K, B5 and B6; and a good source for protein, phosphorous, magnesium and vitamins B2 and B3. Raw, they are even better.
Cauliflower cooks quickly: Keep florets whole or cut large ones in half and simmer in a little water or steam for five minutes. After this time, cauliflower loses 20% to 30% of its phytochemicals; after 10 minutes, 40% disappear. Where possible, cook in ways that don’t commit nutricide – in soups and stews, grilled or baked. In its wonderful ability to host spicy flavors, some of the best preparations for cauliflower can be found in the kitchens of the Indian subcontinent and the Mediterranean. With winter soon drawing to an end, it’s time to enjoy the vegetable that has spent the past three months developing the nutrients we need to take us into a healthy spring.
Simple Greek ways to serve
- Serve raw or lightly-steamed small florets with a dip of mashed anchovy, capers, herbs, and olive oil or with hummus, small radishes and young wild green leaves.
- Mix thinly sliced cauliflower florets and fine-julienned carrots with olive oil, lemon juice, sea salt, lightly chopped flat-leaf parsley, and Greek oregano (rigani ).
- Dip small florets in a light garbanzo-flour batter and gently fry the fritters in olive oil; serve with olive oil and lemon juice mayonnaise, olives, and lemon wedges.
Cauliflower à la Greque
À la Greque (French for “in the Greek style”) describes a method of cooking, one that presumably a French cook/traveler admired and added to his/her own kitchen repertoire. There are many versions of this popular dish, but most are a pale imitation of the original Greek creation. Buy the freshest cauliflower you can find and, for a lightly spiced dish, prepare two hours ahead; for a more mellow taste and texture, leave overnight in the marinade.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 12 minutes
Total time: 17 minutes
Yield: 8 for a meze serving, 4 as a vegetable dish
4 cups small cauliflower florets
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons dried coriander seeds
1 cup dry white wine
3 bay leaves
1/2 tablespoon aromatic honey such as Hymettus
1 tablespoon cracked black peppercorns
Coarse-grain sea salt to taste
4 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon lemon zest, in very thin strips, optional
1. Trim most of the stem from the florets and cut an “x” in the base of each with a small sharp knife. Blanch 1 minute in boiling water, drain, and set aside.
2. Heat the olive oil in a large heavy saucepan over low heat. Add the coriander seeds and florets in a single layer and stir with a wooden spoon to coat with the olive oil. Add the wine, bay leaves, honey, pepper and salt. Bring just to a boil, cover, reduce the heat, and simmer 10 minutes or until tender.
3. Transfer the contents of the pan to a nonreactive bowl and set aside until cool. Cover the bowl and shake it gently to redistribute the marinade.
4. To serve, taste the marinade. If more salt is needed, combine with the parsley. Transfer the cauliflower to a shallow serving bowl and pour over most of the marinade (strain it first, if you prefer). Sprinkle with parsley and lemon zest and serve with the lemon wedges.
Main photo: Buy the freshest cauliflower you can find for Cauliflower à la Greque. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary Barron
I used to think of black-eyed peas as a purely American food, much loved in the South. Despite the time I spent living in Austin, I’ve never made them the way Texans do, using ham hocks or salt pork for flavoring, and I’ve had more than one run-in with staunch traditionalists who have challenged — even berated — my vegetarian approach.
Even now that I’m not a strict vegetarian (albeit it’s the way I eat most of the time) I prefer black-eyed peas that have not been simmered with pork products. I love their earthy depth of flavor and I have never thought, “Gee, these would be really great if they just had some pork to flavor them.” They have plenty going for them on their own.
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As I’ve researched the cuisines of the Mediterranean over the years, I have learned that these beans are an important staple in that part of the world, especially in Greece and North Africa. They are the backbone of some of my favorite Mediterranean dishes.
Black-eyed peas are native to Africa. According to cookbook author and Zester contributor Clifford A. Wright, they had arrived in the northern Mediterranean by about 300 B.C. and were cultivated by the Romans. The beans traveled to South America with the slave trade, but they came to North America via the Mediterranean. They are much loved in Greece, where they are stewed in abundant olive oil, often with greens, or used in lighter salads or bean dishes and seasoned with wild fennel, mint, dill and parsley.
In Tunisia, a country with a rich repertoire of vegetable stews or tagines where you are not likely to see pork with beans (because of Muslim dietary rules), black-eyed peas are simmered with abundant spices, vegetables like greens and fennel, and lots of fresh herbs — cilantro, parsley, mint. The spicy bean tagines are ladled over couscous. These dishes are complex, with an array of seasonings — harissa, caraway and coriander seeds, cumin and garlic.
But my favorite black-eyed peas are the ones that I make year after year. I cook the beans with onion, garlic and bay leaf, then toss them while warm with a cumin-infused vinaigrette, chopped bell peppers, and lots of cilantro. The balance of flavors is perfect. It’s a traditional good-luck dish on New Year’s Day, but it never fails to leave me feeling optimistic about the future — no matter the time of year.
Black-Eyed Peas Salad with Cumin Vinaigrette
You can serve this salad warm or chilled. I often make the beans several days ahead, marinate them in the vinaigrette, and add the chopped pepper and cilantro after I reheat the beans in the vinaigrette.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 1 hour
Total time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Yield: 6 to 8 as a starter, 4 to 6 as a main dish
For the beans:
1 medium onion, cut in half
1 pound black-eyed peas, washed and picked over
2 quarts water
2 or 3 garlic cloves, minced
1 bay leaf
Salt to taste
For the dressing and salad:
1/4 cup red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar
1 garlic clove, minced
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 teaspoons lightly toasted cumin, ground
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 cup broth from the beans
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 large red bell pepper, diced
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1. Combine the onion, black-eyed peas and the water in a soup pot or Dutch oven and bring to a gentle boil. Skim off any foam from the surface of the water. Add the garlic, bay leaf and salt to taste (about 2 teaspoons). Reduce the heat, cover and simmer 30 minutes. Taste and add more salt if desired. Cover and simmer 10 to 15 minutes, until the beans are tender but not falling apart. Remove from the heat. Remove onion halves and bay leaf. Carefully drain the beans through a colander or strainer set over a bowl and transfer to a large salad bowl. Measure out 1/2 cup of the bean broth.
2. In a pyrex measuring cup or small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, garlic, salt, pepper, cumin, and mustard. Whisk in the bean broth, then the olive oil. Taste and adjust seasonings. Stir the dressing into the warm beans. Stir in the red pepper and cilantro, and serve, or allow to cool and serve at room temperature.
Greek Black-Eyed Peas With Wild Fennel
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 1 hour
Total time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Yield: 6 to 8 as a starter, 4 to 6 as a main dish
1 pound black-eyed peas
1/4 cup olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups wild fennel leaves, chopped
1 15-ounce can tomatoes, drained and pureed in a food processor
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Additional chopped fennel for garnish (optional)
1. Wash and pick over the beans. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large, heavy soup pot or Dutch oven and add the onion. Cook, stirring, until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and fennel leaves and cook, stirring, for a minute, until the garlic is fragrant and the fennel beginning to wilt. Stir in the tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Add the black-eyed peas and enough water to cover by an inch, and stir together. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer 30 minutes.
2. Add salt to taste (about 2 teaspoons) and freshly ground pepper, and continue to simmer until the beans are tender, another 15 minutes. Stir in the remaining olive oil. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve warm or hot, garnished with additional chopped wild fennel if desired.
Couscous With Black-Eyed Peas and Chard
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours
Total time: up to 2 hours
Yield: 6 servings
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
Chard stalks, diced
4 large garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon coriander seeds, lightly toasted and ground
1 teaspoon caraway seeds, lightly toasted and ground
2 teaspoons cumin seeds, lightly toasted and ground
2 cups black-eyed peas, rinsed
2 tablespoons harissa (or more to taste; substitute 1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper if harissa is unavailable), plus additional for serving
2 tablespoons tomato paste
Salt, preferably kosher salt, to taste
1 to 1 1/2 pounds Swiss chard, stemmed, washed thoroughly in 2 changes of water, and coarsely chopped
1 large bunch parsley or cilantro (or a combination), stemmed, washed and chopped
2 cups couscous, reconstituted and steamed until fluffy and hot
1. Heat the oil over medium heat in a heavy casserole or Dutch oven and add the onion. Cook, stirring, until tender, about 5 minutes. Add a generous pinch of salt, the chard stalks, garlic and ground spices, and stir together for about a minute, until the garlic is fragrant. Add the black-eyed peas and 3 quarts water, and bring to a gentle boil. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer 30 minutes. Add the harissa or cayenne, the tomato paste and salt to taste, cover and simmer another 15 to 30 minutes, until the beans are tender and fragrant. Strain off 1/2 cup of the liquid and set aside to add to the couscous when you reconstitute it.
2. Stir in the chard a handful at a time, allowing each handful to cook down a bit before adding the next. Simmer 5 to 10 minutes, until the chard is tender and fragrant. Stir in the parsley and/or cilantro and simmer another few minutes. Remove from the heat. Taste and adjust seasonings, adding salt, garlic or harissa as desired.
3. Reconstitute and warm the couscous while the black-eyed peas are cooking. Shortly before serving, transfer to a wide serving bowl, such as a pasta bowl, or directly to wide soup plates. Spoon on the black-eyed peas and greens with plenty of broth, and serve, passing additional harissa at the table.
Main photo: Black-Eyed Peas Salad. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman