Articles in Healthy Cooking

extra virgin olive oil potato chips

Spain is a country loved by culinary cognoscente for its extraordinarily diverse range of classics and creativity. But in every restaurant and every casa, there remains one constant ingredient: olive oil. Core to the much-acclaimed Mediterranean diet, its use is so prevalent that olive oil’s healthy values seep into everything. But it was still a surprise when I encountered “extra virgin” potato chips available in pharmacies here, which unlike their U.S. counterparts generally sell only medicine and skin-care products.

Potato chips condoned by medical experts? I needed no more encouragement to go out and test my options. I gathered four chip brands from Spanish grocery stores and the one from the pharmacy, all advertised as “made with olive oil” — most with an alluring cruet of olive oil on the package. A few brands claimed to use 100% olive oil, but only the pharmacy-stocked San Nicasio brand qualified their chips and the oil they fried them in as “extra virgin.”

San Nicasio went a step further, specifying the D.O. of both the olive oil and the potatoes (seriously, a Denominacion of Origen for potatoes?), the low-sodium Himalayan pink salt and the temperature at which the chips were fried in one of the most award-winning oils in the world, made by Almazaras de la Subbetica of Cordoba, Spain. The company clearly was fanatical about the quality of the chip. That all sounded intriguing but it was now time for the true measure — a blind taste test.

First, the smell test for freshness. As most olive oil fans know, olive oil is best when fresh and three environmental factors will have a negative effect on smell, taste and physical qualities: oxygen, light and excessive heat or cold. Rancidity is usually the most obvious signal that the oil has lost its best values. If you’ve ever smelled a stale jar of peanuts or worse yet, bit into one, you know the telltale flavor.

The selection of tested Spanish olive oil potato chips. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

The selection of tested Spanish olive oil potato chips. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Cracking open one bag at a time and taking a deep whiff revealed that some brands were past their prime, giving off a flat, almost mechanical aroma or slightly rancid smell, obviously fried with poor-quality oil. Two samples, one from the in-house Hacendado brand of Spain’s largest grocery chain, Mercadona, and San Nicasio had a nice, light aroma of potatoes and the San Nicasio chips smelled of fresh olive oil. It wasn’t until later that I learned the San Nicasio brand seals their airtight bags with nitrogen to avoid having the oil’s quality be degraded by exposure to oxygen. This attention to detail obviously worked.

Next, I evaluated visual cues of color, size and thickness. Two appeared darker and overcooked, the Hacendado and Lay’s Artesanal chips were almost too perfectly platinum blond and the San Nicasio brand was a fairly rich, natural yellow color. From an “eat with your eyes” perspective, I was drawn again to the rich-colored chips.

Finally, the true test of a potato chip: its flavor and crunch. Being all about the same thickness, they each delivered on the crunch test. But the real divide was apparent in the taste. I was looking for lightly salted, true potato flavor and a clean finish that would indicate quality olive oil. I’ll admit the Lay’s Artesanal came in a solid second for lightly salted flavor and crunch and being the largest chip manufacturer in the world, it should have enough experience to deliver the goods. But after all that testing, the San Nicasio chip I found in the pharmacy won across all categories. Healthy, flavorful and downright yummy.

Do you need a prescription from your doctor to indulge in San Nicasio chips? Not likely. But for fans of these thin, crispy wafers, you can at least tell yourself that they’re a health food.

Potato chips and eggs, a Spanish tapa.

Potato chips and eggs, a Spanish tapa. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Fried Eggs and Chips

Prep time: 0 minutes

Cooking time: 5 minutes

Total time: 5 minutes

Yield: 4 appetizer servings

Like elsewhere in the world, potato chips are most frequently enjoyed as a side snack to a midday meal or a sporting event. But in Spain, they are often included in scrambled eggs for mid-morning breakfast or paired with fried eggs for a rich tapas experience.

I first tried this dish presented by Spanish chef María José San Román while at Nancy Harmon Jenkins‘ Amorolio event in Tuscany and thought it a stroke of genius. I later discovered it’s a long-standing classic Spanish tapa for the home table. I’ve tried them both ways, but I’m partial to the liquid egg yolk and crispy-edged white atop the whole gooey mess.

Ingredients

Extra virgin olive oil, 1/4-inch deep in saucepan

2 whole eggs

1 7-ounce bag of best-quality salted potato chips (In the U.S., chef José Andres sells the San Nicasio brand under his own label.)

Directions

1. Heat olive oil until just below smoke point.

2. Gently pour in whole eggs and cook until the white edges are crispy and the yolks still liquid.

3. Plate with a thin layer of chips, topped by the eggs. Break the yolks and sprinkle with more potato chips, giving the dish a gentle mix to incorporate.

Main photo: Extra virgin olive oil potato chips. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

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Zuppa alla Frantoiana is a rich Tuscan winter soup. Credit: Aurelio Barattini

An apple a day might keep the doctor away, but according to studies on diet, a bowl of soup a day can help you keep that New Year’s resolution to lose weight.

When I think of hearty, healthy soups, I think of Tuscany, so I asked chef Aurelio Barattini to share two classic soups of Lucca.

Zuppa di farro, a thick soup made with dried borlotti beans, features farro, aka spelt, a whole grain that has been popular in Italy since ancient Roman times. “The contrast between the velvety mashed beans and the chewiness of the farro has a wonderful mouthfeel and really showcases the intense natural creaminess of the beans, but without needing any dairy at all,” Barattini says.

The other soup, a rich mix of vegetables and beans, is called zuppa alla frantoiana, named for the Italian word for an olive press because it features a final finish of newly pressed Tuscan olive oil, which “is characterized by an intense flavor, spicy and pungent,” Barattini says. “This soup has all the flavors of Tuscany and we enjoy it accompanied by a local wine like our red Malolina that we make ourselves.”

Zarro di farro is a thick winter soup from Tuscany.

Zuppa di farro is a thick soup made with borlotti beans and spelt, with a drizzle of olive oil. Credit: Chef Aurelio Barattini

Tuscan Farro Soup (Zuppa di farro)

Courtesy of chef Aurelio Barattini, from the restaurant Locanda Antica de Sesto in Lucca, Italy

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: 1 1/2 hours, plus overnight resting

Total time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

14 ounces dried borlotti beans

4 to 6 sage leaves

6 cloves garlic

Salt

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, preferably from Lucca, plus more to finish

1 small onion, finely minced

1 medium carrot, finely minced

1 stalk celery, finely minced

2 rosemary stems

2 to 3 marjoram stems

2 tablespoons tomato concentrate

7 ounces farro, rinsed

Black pepper

Directions

1. Soak the beans in water overnight in a soup pot.

2. Drain water, cover the beans with clean water and add sage leaves and 2 cloves of garlic. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer.

3. When almost tender, season to taste with salt and continue simmering until tender. Add more water as needed.

4. Meanwhile, put the olive oil in a pan and sauté the onion, carrot, celery, remaining 4 cloves of garlic, rosemary and marjoram until light golden. Add the tomato concentrate and about 1 cup of the beans’ cooking liquid. Simmer until thick, and then combine with the beans.

5. Pass the bean mixture through a food mill until smooth, then return to the soup pot and bring to a boil.

6. Add the farro and cook on low heat for about 40 minutes, until the farro is tender.

7. Serve in a bowl topped with a drizzle of olive oil and freshly ground black pepper.

Lucca’s Bean and Vegetable Soup (Zuppa alla Frantoiana)

Courtesy of chef Aurelio Barattini of Locanda Antica de Sesto in Lucca, Italy

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 1 hour, plus overnight resting

Total time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Ingredients

21 ounces dried beans

3 cloves of unpeeled garlic, plus 1 peeled clove

2 to 3 sage leaves

Salt

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more to finish

1 potato, peeled and diced

1 leek, thinly sliced

3 to 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 zucchini, diced

1 bunch Swiss chard, diced

1 bunch kale, diced

2 cups diced cabbage

Red pepper flakes

8 ounces pancetta, minced

1 small onion, very finely minced

2 celery stalks, very finely minced

2 carrots, very finely minced

1 cup finely minced fresh basil, thyme, parsley and rosemary, divided

2 tablespoons tomato concentrate

1 sage leaf

Toasted baguette slices

Directions

1. Soak the beans in water overnight.

2. Drain and put the beans into a soup pot with 1 gallon of water, 3 cloves of unpeeled garlic, 2 sage leaves and a pinch of salt, simmer on medium until tender.

3. Meantime, in a separate pot sauté the potato and leek in oil until half cooked. Add the zucchini, chard, kale and cabbage and cook until tender. Season to taste with red pepper flakes.

4. Put 2/3 of the cooked beans through a food mill and remove any skins. Add the pureed beans, whole beans and the vegetables into the soup pot and simmer for about a half-hour. Season with salt and pepper.

5. Meantime, in a small frying pan, sauté the pancetta with the onion, celery and carrots until tender, about 12 minutes. Stir in 1/2 cup of the herbs and tomato concentrate and simmer another 5 minutes. Add this mixture to the soup pot and bring to a low boil.

6. Mince together the remaining 1/2 cup herbs, sage leaf and remaining garlic clove and stir into the soup.

7. Top the soup with a drizzle of olive oil and serve with bread.

Main photo: Zuppa alla Frantoiana is a rich mix of vegetables and beans. Credit: Chef Aurelio Barattini

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Black-eyed peas and greens for the New Year. Credit: Harriet Sugar Miller

In the 19th century, many African-Americans brought in the New Year with Hoppin’ John — a dish made with black-eyed peas and collard greens, among other ingredients, and thought to bring prosperity and luck. Those folks were onto something, according to the authors of “Becoming Vegan: Express Edition,” an award-winning guide to plant-based diets. By eating beans and greens regularly, they say, people can improve their fortune — or at least their health — year-round.

Beans and greens are the meat and potatoes of our modern era, say dietitians Vesanto Melina and Brenda Davis, whose book “Becoming Vegan” won the 2014 Canada Book Awards. Beans — more specifically legumes, which include beans, peas and lentils, but “beans” will be used here as a catch-all term — along with dark leafy green vegetables provide the backbone for creating really healthy meals, they say.

Beans, greens: good for your heart, bones, blood sugar and more

“Beans are a fabulous source of protein,” Melina says. “And we all know that beans are good for the heart.”

Their viscous fiber — the kind that forms a gel when combined with water — binds cholesterol and then helps move it through your stool and out the body. She says that collards are full of viscous fiber and really good at binding cholesterol, too.

All that gel-like fiber in Hoppin’ John also helps regulate your blood sugar. Once you’ve swallowed a bite, the stomach churns it up like a blender and then sends the liquids into your small intestine, where proteins, fats and carbohydrates get broken down for your body to use. Tiny blood vessels in the intestine’s lining allow nutrients — including glucose — to pass into the blood. The gummy fiber, however, slows down the release of sugars into your bloodstream.

Beans and greens, says Melina, are also both great sources of folate — a B vitamin that helps keep your DNA working properly.

And new research on beans shows that they appear to be good for the bones, too, Davis adds. Beans are rich sources of nutrients that promote healthy bones: protein and folate, magnesium and calcium. But another compound in beans — phytic acid — binds to many minerals, and until recently, authorities believed that would negatively impact bone health. Recent research, however, suggests that phytic acid may actually protect against bone loss.

Beans, beans: The more you eat, the more you …

The reason beans cause flatulence and greens don’t is yet another compelling incentive for embracing the powerful seeds. “That’s your gut at work fermenting carbohydrates in the beans’ fiber into compounds that fight disease,” Davis says.

Once fiber has passed through your small intestine, it reaches the large intestine and then either passes out the body through stool or gets eaten — or fermented — by healthy bacteria that live in your gut. The fermentable carbohydrates in beans go even further,  Davis says. “They serve as prebiotics, stimulating the growth of those friendly bacteria in the colon.”

Fermentation transforms carbohydrates in the fiber into compounds that help regulate appetite and blood sugar, control inflammation and fight cancer. They also aid your immune system by nourishing your intestinal lining, the barrier that keeps pathogens from traveling between your gut and blood. (Greens from the cruciferous family — collards, kale, mustard greens, for example — help build and repair that lining, too.)

What happens in your gut, scientists are learning, is crucial for your health, says Davis, and in most people, flatulence is easily controlled. When it comes to eating beans, soak and cook them well and make sure your gut has lots of healthy microbes to digest them, she suggests.

Tips for fending off flatulence

In their book, “Becoming Vegan,” Davis and Melina offer several tips for handling beans, including these guidelines:

— Soak them for at least 6 to 8 hours or overnight in lots of water: 3 cups for every cup of beans. Then put them in a colander and rinse well.

— Place soaked beans and fresh water into a heavy pot, again using 3 cups of water per cup of beans.

— Add a 2-inch to 6-inch strip of kombu, a sea vegetable containing enzymes that help break down the gas-producing carbohydrates.

— Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until beans are very well cooked, usually 1 to 1 1/2 hours, less for very small beans, more for very large ones.

— Skim off and discard any white foam. That, too, contains gassy starches.

— Add spices. Many common seasonings help counteract the production of gas: garlic, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, cumin, turmeric and black pepper, for example.

— Go slowly: Your colon needs time to build up its reserves of good bacteria that digest those fermentable carbs. If you’re just beginning to embrace beans in your diet this new year, start with small portions.

By eating beans regularly, you’ll soon be hoppin’ with healthy microbes.

Main photo: Beans and greens. Credit: Harriet Sugar Miller

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Toshikoshi Soba With Kakiage Tempura. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

After moving to the United States, I was fascinated and eventually hooked by the way Americans welcome the new year. There were New Year’s Eve parties peppered with all kinds of excitement: sexy dresses, endless champagne, playful party props, dancing, counting down the seconds and kissing whomever is near while listening to “Auld Lang Syne.” None of these elements — except counting down the seconds — exist in our Japanese tradition. I was brought up in a culture in which welcoming the new year is a spiritually refreshing traditional event, packed with ancient superstitions and customs, that extends from the end of the old year into the first three days of the new.

In Japan, New Year’s Eve is as important as Christmas Day in Western countries. It is a solemn moment for us to reflect on ourselves, looking back at the past year. What kinds of sins and mistakes did we commit? Did we do anything especially good? By identifying these elements, we try not to carry bad luck into the new year. We also try to complete unfinished tasks. The new year must be a fresh start, without unwanted baggage from the old year. During this period in the Shinto religion, we observe a change in the god of the year. At the end of the year, we express thanks to the departing god for protection during the past year. On the first of January, we welcome a new god and ask for his favor in the new year.

Nearly all the Japanese population eats soba (buckwheat noodles) on New Year’s Eve. This is one of the superstitions involving new year culinary traditions. When you visit Japan at this time of the year you see signs at restaurants and food stores, many of them written on handmade washi paper with bold ink brush strokes, notifying customers that they will offer Toshikoshi soba, the buckwheat noodles especially eaten on Dec. 31. Toshikoshi soba itself is really nothing special as a dish. It is actually the same soba noodles consumed during the rest of the year.

The tradition of eating soba at the end of each year goes back to the latter part of the Edo period (1600-1868). Because buckwheat flour does not have gluten, the cooked noodles break apart easily. Hence, our superstitious ancestors concluded that eating soba at the end of the year helps to cut off bad luck and bad omens that plagued us during the old year.

If you want to test this superstition or at least participate in a delicious tradition, here is one important reminder: You need soba noodles made from 100 percent buckwheat flour. Japanese and Asian stores in America, and even some American ones, carry soba noodles, but many of them are made from a combination of buckwheat and other flours. These noodles won’t break so easily, so they won’t separate you from last year’s bad luck!

Soba meets its match

Tempura is a perfect accompaniment to soba. My mother prepared a feast at the end of every year, but simple soba noodles with shrimp tempura were the highlight of the meal. The live shrimp were sent to us by one of my father’s patients as a thank-you gift on Dec. 31 for as long for as I can remember. After eating the tempura and soba, all of us were certain of a very healthy, good year.

After the meal, close to midnight, we would head to the nearby Buddhist temple, where the priests performed a special service welcoming the new year for the community. A large bonfire, created for the warmth and for burning old talismans and any unwanted documents from the past, brightened up dark, cold environment. As we watch the fire and listened to the temple bell tolling 108 times, our past sins and errors were dispelled so we could to welcome the fresh start for the new year. People quietly greeted each other with “Omedeto gozaimasu” (Happy New Year), and the voices and people soon disappeared into the dark in every direction. Each headed to enjoy brief sleep before the next morning’s pilgrimage to a Shinto shrine to make the new year offering and prayers. This was followed by the huge New Year’s Day festive feast, Osechi-ryori, a meal packed with additional symbolic and good fortune food items.

If you want to enjoy an important part of our tradition, here is the recipe for Toshikoshi soba. As I mentioned, make sure to secure 100 percent buckwheat noodles for this special occasion. The tempura accompaniment here is called kakiage tempura. Chopped shrimp and vegetables are deep-fried in the form of a delicious pancake.

Dozo Yoi Otoshio! (Please have a good end of the year!)

Toshikoshi Soba With Kakiage Tempura

Adapted from Hiroko’s American Kitchen

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 10 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients 

Canola oil or vegetable oil for deep-frying

1/2 cup frozen green peas

1/2 cup eggplant, finely diced

1/2 ounce kale, julienned

5 ounces peeled and deveined shrimp, cut into 1/2 inch pieces

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons tempura flour or a blend of 80% cake flour and 20% cornstarch

3/4 cup cold water

14 ounces dried soba noodles (preferably 100% buckwheat noodles)

5 cups hot noodle broth

1 tablespoon grated ginger

1 tablespoon scallion

Directions

1. Heat 3 inches of the canola oil in a heavy skillet to 350 F. Place a slotted spoon in the oil and allow it to heat to the temperature of the oil to prevent the batter from sticking to it.

2. Bring a large pot of water to a boil over medium heat. In a bowl, toss the green peas, eggplant, kale and shrimp with 2 tablespoons of the tempura flour. In another bowl, mix the remaining tempura flour with the cold water. Stir with a fork until smooth. Add the tempura batter to the shrimp mixture and mix with a large spoon.

3. Using the large spoon, scoop 1/4 of the shrimp mixture from the bowl and pour it into the slotted spoon that was warming in the oil. Immediately lower the slotted spoon into the heated oil and submerge the shrimp mixture. Leaving the spoon in place, cook the mixture (kakiage) for 1 1/2 minutes or until the bottom side is cooked. Using a steel spatula, remove the kakiage from the slotted spoon and let it float free in the oil. Cook the kakiage for about 4 minutes, or until lightly golden, turning it a few times during cooking. Transfer the cooked kakiage to a wire rack set over a baking sheet and let drain. Repeat the process for the remaining batter.

4. While cooking the kakiage, cook the soba noodles in a boiling water for 1 minute less than the suggested cooking time on the package. Drain the noodles in a colander and rinse them under cold tap water. Drain the noodles and keep them in the colander.

5. Prepare a kettle of boiling water. Pour the boiling water over the cooked noodles to re-warm them. Drain the noodles and divide them into bowls. Bring the noodle broth to a simmer in a medium pot over medium heat. Pour the hot broth into the bowls. Divide the kakiage tempura among the bowls. Garnish with the ginger and scallions and serve.

Main photo: Toshikoshi Soba With Kakiage Tempura. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

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Aromatic Fish Meze. Credit: Cordell Barron

It’s that time of year again. Wherever I turn, I see beautiful and seductive images of food. When I’m tempted — and fortunate enough — to eat too much, I needn’t worry, for there’s plenty of dietary advice waiting for me. Somehow, though, in these short, dark days of our winter, the recipe suggestions accompanying that advice never seem quite so tantalizing as those lovely dishes I’d been tempted by. So what can I do? I can turn for help to those wise thinkers of Greek antiquity.

Mezes are often described as small plates of food made for sharing, and they are. But it’s not the whole picture. The origins of mezes can be traced to travelers in the ancient world, who relied for sustenance on the goodwill of the people they met on their journeys. Refreshments offered were simple — from the garden or hillsides, store-cupboard or pot — and no one was turned away from the table.

As these ancient societies developed political and social systems, and became wealthier, intellectual and cultural life developed, too. Since the days of classical Greece (5th century BC to 3rd century AD), the Western tradition has had the words to describe and give shape to many of the sciences – zoology, archaeology, anthropology, biology — including the art and science of good eating and drinking, or gastronomy.

What’s in a word?

Today, the word gastronomy can sometimes have disagreeable associations — of gluttony, waste and ostentatious wealth. But in its original meaning, it described a way of eating and drinking that led to health and enjoyment, a balance of science and art. For the ancients, this meant not only feeding our five senses — sight, sound, smell, taste, touch — but also the sense they considered most important of all, the spirit of connectedness with the food on the table and with each other. It was this feeling, they believed, that led to good digestion and thus to good health.

Those ancient thinkers had another word, too, whose meaning has changed over the centuries — diaita, or diet. The Oxford Dictionary tells us that diet means “a prescribed course of food” or to “restrict oneself to special food, especially to control weight.” But to the ancient Greeks, diaita meant “way of life.” And the meze table was right at the center of their way of life.

The meze table

Mezes, when enjoyed as a diaita, provide fulfillment in a whole, human, sense — they feed our senses as well as our stomachs. The meze table is a colorful place, full of enticing aromas and often surrounded by loud chatter. With bowls of olives, salates (dips), piles of small pies, stuffed leaves, crunchy nuts, bright vegetables, tangy cheeses and yogurt, meat tidbits or well-flavored fish, the six senses are well looked-after. Dishes are put together with thought and to complement each other: Little salt is needed when there are olives on the table; chewy currants add sweetness to stuffings; capers “lift” pulse dishes; crunchy, fresh cucumber and radishes lighten preserved foods; octopus, razor shells and sea urchins intrigue; herbs and olive oil aromatize and dazzle.

A meze table can be very simple — a few olives, fresh vegetables, cheese, something “left over” — or can comprise more complex dishes. It can be for one or two, or for many, and its few gastronomic principles make pleasurable work for the cook: Flavorings are used to supplement and enhance, not to overwhelm; fresh ingredients are seasonal, garnishes edible; and fine local foods are the most preferred. The meze table is a place where our modern understanding of the word diet is turned upside down. Instead of restricting ourselves to what we think we shouldn’t eat — full-fat, calorie-laden olive oil, cheese, nuts — we free ourselves to enjoy the beauty of good food, to wasting nothing and to experimenting with the wild (greens, game), fermented (homemade yogurt, pickles) and often-ignored foods we have nearby.

Meze basics

Preparing attractive mezes doesn’t mean hours in the kitchen working on fussy preparations and mastering complicated cooking techniques. Just find the best suppliers you can, choose food in prime condition, and have a few staples at hand — good-quality olive oil and wine vinegar, olives, almonds, honey, rigani (dried Greek oregano), capers, sea salt, preserved fish, spices, dried fruits.

Now, you’re ready to compose many quick and simple dishes to serve as part of a meze table, such as these small plates of preserved fish:

  • Drain canned sardines and sprinkle with coarse sea salt, freshly ground pepper, a few drops of red wine vinegar, chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley and extra virgin olive oil.
  • Drain canned tuna, separate into chunks and cover with thinly sliced red onion; sprinkle with sumac, extra virgin olive oil and coarse sea salt.
  • Sprinkle sun-dried mackerel with red wine vinegar, extra virgin olive oil and rigani, and serve with kalamata olives and slices of pickled or fresh cucumber.

White Fish With Vinegar and Herbs

Any fresh fish can be cooked this way — small sea bass fillets are a favorite, but the preparation suits more coarsely fleshed, and cheaper, whole white fish or fillets, too. A light dusting of flour keeps the fish from splitting and flaking during cooking and cuts down fish odors in the kitchen.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 10 minutes fillets, 20 minutes whole fish

Total time: 15 to 25 minutes

Yield: 6 meze servings

Ingredients

1 pound fish fillets or 6 small white fish, heads discarded, gutted and scaled

1 teaspoon coarse-grain sea salt, or to taste

1/2 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper, or to taste

3 tablespoons garbanzo bean flour and 1 tablespoon plain flour or 4 tablespoons plain flour

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, or to taste

3 tablespoons good-quality wine vinegar

2 tablespoons hot water

2 tablespoons rigani (dried Greek oregano) or fresh rosemary

3 bay leaves

For serving

Small sprigs of rigani or fresh rosemary

Small black olives such as Greek Elitses or Niçoise

Directions

1. Wipe both sides of the fillets with a damp cloth or rinse whole fish and pat dry. Dust with half the salt and pepper and 2 tablespoons of the flour, cover, and set aside for 30 minutes.

2. Place a large heavy sauté pan over medium-low heat and add half the olive oil. Dust the fish again with half the remaining flour and shake off any excess. When the olive oil is hot but not smoking, gently fry the fish on both sides until pale golden, about 10 minutes for fillets, 15 to 20 minutes for whole fish. The fish is cooked if it flakes easily when you insert a thin knife blade into the thickest part of it; it should be an even white all the way through. Drain between layers of kitchen paper. Strain the frying oil through 2 layers of muslin to remove any residue and set aside.

3. Wipe the pan with kitchen paper and return to low heat. Sprinkle the remaining flour over the bottom of the pan and stir a minute or two with a wooden spoon, until deep golden brown. Stir in the reserved frying oil and the remaining olive oil. The flour and oil will not blend together, but the flour will flavor and color the oil. Add the vinegar, water, rigani, bay leaves and remaining salt and pepper. Stir to mix, and simmer for 2 minutes.

4. Return the fish to the sauté pan, cover and heat through. Transfer to a warm dish, pour over the pan juices and surround with the rigani sprigs. Serve warm or at room temperature, with olives.

Note: To serve later, transfer the fish and sauce to a shallow glass or china dish, add olive oil, tightly cover the dish and refrigerate overnight or for up to 2 days. Turn the fish in the marinade once or twice. Bring to room temperature for serving.

Main photo: Aromatic fish meze. Credit: Cordell Barron

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Chha kroeng is popular across Cambodia, with each city serving up a distinctive recipe. Credit: Will Matsuda

Kunrath Lam remembers the delightful punch of spicy-creamy-sweet in her mother’s cooking while growing up in Cambodia. The key was a blend of lemongrass, turmeric, galangal (a relative of ginger), kaffir lime leaf and roasted peanut sauce. Today that inimitable infusion features prominently on the menu of her St. Paul, Minn., restaurant Cheng Heng.

One dish — Lam’s childhood favorite — is called chha kroeng; chha means stir-fry and kroeng means put together. Local food critics call it a showstopper. One diner wrote on Yelp, “Don’t ask … just order this.”

The Author


Ben Bartenstein

Ben Bartenstein reports for Round Earth Media out of St. Paul, Minn. His writing also appears on the websites for Minnesota Public Radio and Macalester College. Ben is active in the Asian American Journalists Association. Next year, he'll be reporting from Spain and Morocco.

The Photographer


Will Matsuda

Will Matsuda is a senior at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. Majoring in geography and educational studies,  he plans to pursue photojournalism after graduation. He spent the spring semester of his junior year in Morocco, working on a project about underage brides. Find more of his work at williammatsuda.com

 

Chha kroeng is popular across Cambodia, with each city serving up a distinctive recipe. Lam’s version comes from Kampong Cham, her mother’s hometown, where the emphasis is on lemongrass. Beyond its light citrus flavor, lemongrass has a soothing effect, says Lam, 42.

“For us, it’s like a medicine,” she says. “It helps with circulation, and after you eat it, your body feels good. When you feel sick, you drink lemongrass and then you feel better.”

Family-grown lemongrass

Her family grows lemongrass all summer and buys more, for freezing,  from the local farmers market — enough to supply her restaurant during the long Minnesota winter.

As intimately as Lam’s customers know her Cambodian cooking, however, few know how close they came to never tasting the secrets of her kitchen. The family’s nightmare began in April 1975, when soldiers forced them to leave their home in Phnom Penh. “They said to take whatever is necessary for three days and then you’ll be back,” Lam says.

Three days turned into four years. During that time, Pol Pot and his Communist-influenced Khmer Rouge soldiers killed an estimated 2 million Cambodians, almost a fourth of the country’s population and much of its educated elite.

Lam and her family were sent to the jungle, where they endured long, hot days of physical labor with never enough food. Her father was put in charge of more than a hundred buffalo: Lam remembers him counting them again and again because he’d be killed if he lost even one. At age 5, she was sent to the rice fields, though she was much too young for the backbreaking work. Lam’s scarred legs remind her of the beatings she took for being slow at her job.

Her parents were in constant danger because they had university degrees, and the Khmer Rouge targeted people with an education. “It’s lucky my mom and dad didn’t wear glasses, because anyone who wore glasses would be killed,” she says. “When they asked my father to read something, he held the book upside down.”

It isn’t clear how Lam’s family was spared when almost everyone around them was being killed. Lam thinks a Khmer Rouge official, a man her mother had befriended in Phnom Penh, protected them. “He looked ugly and everyone made fun of him,” Lam says, “but my mom always gave him money to buy food and then he became very powerful (under the Khmer Rouge). He found my mom and protected her.”

When the Vietnamese drove the Khmer Rouge out and occupied Cambodia in 1979, Lam’s family fled into the mountains. One night when Lam was 9, her family got separated as they crossed the border into Thailand. After they crawled under a series of three barbed wire fences, Thai soldiers chased after them. Lam hid in a well to avoid detection and found her family in the morning. Eventually, the Lam family ended up in a Thai refugee camp. Then, more luck: A St. Paul church offered to sponsor them. They arrived on a snowy November day in 1983. Lam was almost 11.

“I take nothing for granted,” says Lam, who opened Cheng Heng in 1997. Cheng is the middle name of Lam’s husband, Kevin Cheng Lam. Heng means lucky. Like so many immigrants, Lam wants to share her luck. Over the years she collected the restaurant’s tip money and has used it to build two schools in Cambodia — one just for girls.

Kunrath Lam, owner and chef at Cheng Heng in St. Paul, Minn. Credit: Will Matsuda

Kunrath Lam, owner and chef at Cheng Heng in St. Paul, Minn. Credit: Will Matsuda

Cheng Heng’s Cambodian Chha Kroeng

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 5 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes

Yield: 2 servings

Ingredients

2 stalks of lemongrass, chopped

2 pieces of kaffir lime leaves

1 tablespoon turmeric powder

3 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped

2 shallots, peeled and chopped

1 tablespoon galangal, chopped

3 ounces sliced eye round beef

2 tablespoons soybean oil for wok

2 tablespoons oyster sauce

1 tablespoon sesame oil

1/2 tablespoon salt

1 tablespoon sugar

1/2 green bell pepper, chopped or shredded

1/2 red bell pepper, chopped or shredded

Couple pieces of broccoli, chopped or shredded

1/4 of a jumbo onion, chopped or shredded

Handful of chopped peanuts

4 to 5 pea pods, chopped or shredded

Roasted peanuts, to garnish

Directions

1. Using a food processor, combine the lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, turmeric, garlic, shallots and galangal until a fine texture is achieved. This is the kroeng.

2. Set two tablespoons of the kroeng aside. Rub the rest of this mixture into the beef to infuse the flavor into the meat. Set this aside for 10 minutes.

3. Place soybean oil in wok, add the reserved kroeng and let it cook at medium heat for 5 minutes, until a pleasant aroma is released. Add the beef, oyster sauce, sesame oil, salt and sugar. Stir-fry for 1 to 2 minutes.

4. Add the remaining ingredients and stir-fry for 3 minutes or until the vegetables are still slightly crunchy.

5. Season with more salt or sugar to taste. Garnish with roasted peanuts and serve with white rice.

Main photo: Chha kroeng is popular across Cambodia, with each city serving up a distinctive recipe. Credit: Will Matsuda 

(Portions of this article first appeared in Mpls. St.Paul Magazine.)

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Simplify side dishes on your Thanksgiving table with easy-to-prepare and healthy vegetable dishes like this stuffed acorn squash. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

It has taken me some analysis of classic side dishes — especially the vegetarian ones — to realize why we tend to get so overwhelmed by Thanksgiving meal planning. We have over-complicated our vegetable dishes.

A green bean casserole or even a sweet potato gratin with marshmallows can be fussier than we realize. The heavy ingredients end up competing with the real taste and appearance of the vegetable.

The summer months, with their ever-flowing bounty of produce from my garden, have taught me to keep it simple, flavorful and fresh. This is also my mantra when I plan my Thanksgiving table.

I have wasted no time in playing around with the harvest table to give it my own personal stamp. This is an interactive process with my children, who like that our Thanksgiving table meshes the traditional with elements of Indian cooking, giving the holiday an Indian-American touch.

Spice up simple side dishes with not-so-simple flavors

My Thanksgiving table gets a nice touch of Indian flavor from all the fragrant spices and herbs at my disposal. I have also worked at simplifying dishes to create an assortment of sides that get done without much fuss — but with that nice boost of flavor.

Whole fragrant spices, such as fennel or cinnamon, tart citrus flavors, and herbs such as sage and cilantro are easy and healthy. They add loads of flavor and pizzazz to that side dish without much effort.

The purpose of the side on the Thanksgiving table is to showcase the bounty of the year — or at least, of the harvest season — and add some flair and color. I try to do that with dishes that don’t take loads of extra time. That can mean a side of serrano-spiked macaroni and cheese, kale livened up with caramelized onions and cumin, roasted beets with a fresh sprinkle of lime and black salt, and variations of sweet potatoes and winter squashes.

Winter squashes and sweet potatoes are not uncommon to Indian (especially Bengali) harvest celebrations, so I feel right at home with them. They also have been created with the perfect color coding for Thanksgiving, when orange, red and golden hues dominate. Those colors balance out the greens on the table, and they are good for you.

The cooking technique that I often favor for Thanksgiving sides is to roast the vegetables, which works very well for the squashes and roots that abound in markets this time of year. You can pop in the vegetables right alongside the turkey. An added plus: Those vegetables can be prepped and assembled ahead of time and then cooked, just in time for dinner.

Simple sides make for a happy cook

Cooking can be enjoyed best when the cook does not get too worn out or overwhelmed in the process.

I am sharing two of my favorite harvest recipes with you here. Both feature minimal prep time and mostly unattended cooking time. Both can be made ahead of time — and reheated to serve on Thanksgiving Day.

The butternut squash recipe uses sage leaves that are still growing or available in abundance in East Coast gardens — including mine — along with a nice bouquet of flavors from panch phoron or the Bengali Five Spice Blend.

The second dish features acorn squash stuffed with finely crumbled tofu, spinach, collard greens, pecans and some coconut milk. It also can be the perfect main dish for someone who is adhering to a vegan or gluten-free diet. I love to make this sometimes with mini-squashes so that everyone can have a personal squash. A dish that does double duty as a centerpiece and meal all at once!

Whole Spice Roasted Butternut Squash With Sage

(Recipe from my cookbook “Spices & Seasons: Simple, Sustainable Indian Flavors.”)

This roasted butternut squash is perfect for simplifying your side dishes at Thanksgiving, with just five minutes of prep time. Credit: Simplify side dishes on your Thanksgiving table with easy-to-prepare and healthy vegetable dishes like this stuffed acorn squash. Credit:  Rinku Bhattacharya

This roasted butternut squash is perfect for simplifying side dishes at Thanksgiving, with just five minutes of prep time. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 45 minutes (mostly unattended)

Yield: Serves 6

Ingredients

1 large butternut squash (about 2 pounds)

2 tablespoons oil

1 teaspoon Bengali Five Spice Blend (panch phoron)

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon ginger paste

Salt to taste (optional, I really do not think that this dish needs it)

1 tablespoon salted butter

15 fresh sage leaves

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 375 F.

2. Peel the squash, remove the seeds and cut the squash into 2-inch chunks.

3. Heat the oil in a skillet. Add the Five Spice Blend and when it crackles, mix in the black pepper and ginger paste and mix well. Add the squash and stir well to coat.

4. Place the seasoned squash on a greased baking sheet.

5. Roast the squash in the oven for about 35 minutes. It should be soft and beginning to get flecks of golden brown at spots. Taste to check if it needs any salt.

6. Heat the butter in a small skillet on low heat for about 2 to 3 minutes until it melts and gradually acquires a shade of pale gold. Add the sage leaves and cook until they turn dark and almost crisp.

7.  Pour over the squash and mix lightly.

8. Serve on a flat plate to showcase the spices and sage.

Rainbow Stuffed Acorn Squash

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes (mostly unattended)

Yield: Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients
4 small acorn squash or other winter squash (use evenly shaped, colorful squash)

2 tablespoons oil

1 medium-sized onion, diced

1 teaspoon grated ginger

3 cups of chopped spinach

1 cup (about 12 ounces) crumbled tofu

1 teaspoon garam masala

1 teaspoon cumin coriander powder

1/2 cup chopped pecans

Salt to taste

1/2 cup coconut milk

3 tablespoons fresh lime juice (about 1 juicy lime)

1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro

2 tablespoons pomegranate seeds

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 350 F.

2. Place the squashes in a single layer and bake for 15 minutes. Cool.

3. While the squash is cooking, heat the oil and add in the onion and cook until soft. Add in the ginger and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes. Add in the spinach; cook until just wilted. Add the tofu and mix well.

4. Stir in the garam masala and the cumin-coriander powder with the pecans, salt and coconut milk and mix well. Bring to a simmer.

5. Carefully cut the tops from the squashes using a crisscross motion to follow the grooves of the squash and remove the top.

6. Remove the seeds and scoop out the flesh, leaving the shell intact.

7. Add the flesh to the spinach tofu mixture and mix and mash. Add in the lime juice and cilantro and some of the pomegranate seeds. Turn off the heat.

8. Stuff the prepared filling into the squash shells.

9. This can be served right away or set aside and then heated for 10 minutes in a hot oven before serving.

Main photo: Simplify side dishes on your Thanksgiving table with easy-to-prepare and healthy vegetable dishes like this stuffed acorn squash. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya 

 

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Cranberry sauce. Credit: Harriet Sugar Miller

As you’re simmering your cranberries with sweetness this holiday season, you can thank Mother Nature for their astringent qualities.

The compounds that produce the cranberry’s bite — their proanthocyanins (PACs) — not only ward off enemies such as small animals and insects but provide possible health benefits for us human predators.

PACs in cranberries have extremely strong chemical bonds, says Amy Howell, Ph.D., a research scientist at Rutgers University. Instead of being broken down and absorbed into the blood, they appear to travel intact and take their benefits with them, to various parts of your body.

While cranberry juice’s ability to efficiently fight infections has been called into question, Jeffrey Blumberg has done research to identify why there may be conflicting results, and Howell is among those who suggest potential health benefits in areas such as these:

  • Stomach and bladder: You may already be familiar with how cranberries are reported to benefit these organs. PACs bind to harmful bacteria that cause ulcers and urinary tract infections and thus keep those bugs from adhering to the stomach lining and bladder walls. If the bacteria can’t stick, then they can’t multiply and cause damage, Howell says. “Thus, they harmlessly leave the body.”
  • Mouth: The same action happens here. PACs can help bind bacteria that contribute to decay and gum disease.
  • Intestines: But it’s new research on how cranberry’s PACs behave in the gut of model animals that’s getting berry scientists  excited. PACs can improve the bacteria in the colon,  Howell says, and compounds produced by those bacteria have far-reaching effects on your health.

“A top story on cranberry right now, just published in a very prestigious journal [Gut], is beautiful evidence for how compounds in cranberries — PACs in particular — act in the gut,” says Mary Ann Lila, director of the Plants for Human Health Institute at North Carolina State University.

Fermentable fiber and your health

When it comes to fiber, “fermentable” is the latest buzzword. Once foods have been digested in the small intestine, the parts that aren’t digestible — their fiber — then travel to the large intestine. There, healthy bacteria feed on certain plant fibers and ferment them into important fatty acids. In turn, those fatty acids get absorbed into the blood and help control blood sugar, appetite and inflammation. They also help enrich your gut lining, which acts as a barrier to keep harmful particles from leaking out or in.

Some plants provide the raw materials for producing those good bacteria. They’re called “prebiotic” because they are prequels to healthy probiotic bugs.

Amy Howell at cranberry harvest. Credit: Emily Bittenbender.

Amy Howell at cranberry harvest. Credit: Emily Bittenbender

And that’s where cranberries come in. “The fiber in cranberry skins serves as a prebiotic to help establish colonies of probiotic bacteria,”  Howell says. In addition, she is researching the possibility that cranberry’s PACs may help keep harmful bacteria such as E coli from invading the gut.

“This is very, very, very exciting stuff,” Lila says. “The cranberry PACs were able to create a healthy population of gut bacteria in those animals and protect against obesity, insulin resistance and inflammation caused by a poor diet,” she says.

In addition to PACs, cranberries have about 150 healthy compounds, as identified in research led by Jonathan Bock and Howell on esophageal and pharyngeal cancer — vitamins C and E; anthocyanins, which act as antioxidants and give them their vivid color; quercetin and myricetin, which bind minerals (iron and copper) that promote oxidation. Howell suggests that many of the compounds in cranberries may protect DNA from damage caused by oxidation and help guard against inflammation in body tissues beyond the colon.

  • Cardiovascular system: Research suggests that regularly consuming cranberry products “can reduce key risk factors for heart disease,” says Howell, by reducing inflammation and oxidation of harmful LDL cholesterol and by increasing good HDL cholesterol and the flexibility of arteries.
  • Brain: Scientists think that some of these anti-inflammatory compounds may also protect the brain against damage caused by stroke or aging, Howell says.
  • Cancer: Preliminary studies, all done in lab animals and cell cultures, suggest that cranberry’s compounds have the potential to inhibit tumor growth of some types of cancer, but much research remains to be done, suggests Howell.

If you’re still stirring those cranberries, you may be wondering whether all that cooking will destroy their healthy benefits. Howell suggests that “cranberry PACs are not seriously damaged by cooking or processing.” But other health-promoting compounds may be damaged by heat, and the effects of cooking on foods “is an area that needs considerably more research,” says Ron Prior, a research chemist at the University of Arkansas. In general, harsh cooking methods will result in degradation.

Cranberries in bowls. Credit: Holly Botner / Jittery Cook

Cranberries in bowls. Credit: Holly Botner / Jittery Cook

With all the scientists out there investigating berries, the dream is that there will be a verdict on cranberries by next season’s holidays. For this year, however, we’re sticking to a quick cooking method — in hopes of pleasing some hungry guts. Should we tell them about the microbes?

Quick Cranberry Sauce, with healthy bugs

Courtesy of Reveena Rothman-Rudnicki/ Raveena’s Kitchen

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 5 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Yield: 8 servings, 1/2 cup each

Ingredients

4 cups fresh cranberries

1 cup water

1 teaspoon cinnamon

2 oranges, juice and zest

1 teaspoon grated ginger

4 to 6 tablespoons maple syrup

Handful pecans

Directions

1. Put cranberries and water in a medium saucepan, cover and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 3 to 4 minutes.

2. Take off heat. Add cinnamon, orange juice and zest, ginger and maple syrup. Sprinkle pecans on top.

3. Cranberries have no sugar, so you do have to sweeten them. Start with 4 tablespoons, let the dish sit for a while, then decide whether you want more.

Main photo: Cranberry sauce. Credit: Harriet Sugar Miller

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