Articles in Healthy Cooking

Main photo: Cooked nabemono ingredients. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

After graduating from university, I got a secretarial job in a Tokyo office. Among the many tasks to which I was assigned, including the ridiculous role of serving cups of tea to company guests and my male office colleagues, there was one that I loved to perform every time: finding the best hot pot (nabemono) restaurant for our office New Year’s party. I was always hungry for good food, and the search — long before the Internet — was an interesting and challenging assignment.

Nabemono is a dish in which many varieties of very fresh raw or partially prepared ingredients are cooked in a large pot over a tabletop gas burner at the dining table. The dish is consumed throughout all seasons, but winter is the best time because the dish warms up your entire body.

Unlike most Japanese meals, for which all of the prepared foods are served in individual small plates, empty serving bowls for nabemono are placed in front of each diner. Nabemono dining is a communal affair with the large cooking pot at the center of the table shared among the diners. At the yearly party everyone, even some of my male colleagues who would never dream of setting foot in a kitchen, helped cook the dish at the table while sipping beer or sake. The animated conversation ranged from how to cook the ingredients correctly to critiques of recent ball games. When the food is cooked, each diner carefully fetches the very hot items from the pot, transferring them into their own small bowl. There is often dipping sauce for each diner in small cups. The cooking is done in several batches. After the first batch is cooked and consumed, a second batch of ingredients is added to the pot. This repeated process continues until all is consumed. It’s a body and spirit warming, fun meal.

There are more than a hundred nabemono dishes across Japan, many of regional origin that make use of local ingredients. Some of the popular ones that Americans may recognize include shabu shabu (paper thin sliced beef cooked along with vegetables in kelp stock and served with flavored sauce) and sukiyaki (thinly sliced beef cooked in sweetened soy sauce along with vegetables). Other popular nabemono dishes employ tofu, shelled oysters, chicken, pork, assorted seafood, duck or vegetables.

One attribute common to all nabemono dishes is that they’re filled with plenty of vegetables, typically about 50% protein and 50% vegetables. Nabemono dishes, therefore, are a wonderful way to enjoy more vegetables in your diet. If you wish, a 100% vegetarian or vegan nabemono can be quite good, but I always like to include some protein in my nabemono to make the meal more satisfying in flavor and more balanced nutritionally.

The nabemono dining style originated in rural Japan, particularly the cold north. A large house, typically, was occupied by three or four generations of family members and equipped with an irori hearth at its center. This hearth was large enough so that all family members could sit around the fire for meals and warmth. A long iron pole with a hooked end was hung from the ceiling over the hearth and the hook held a large iron cooking pot that was placed directly over the fire. Meals were cooked in this one pot and shared by all.

However, building an irori hearth in a modern urban house with a single-generation family is not at all practical. In 1969, Iwatani Company invented a table top butane gas burner, thereby allowing Japanese family to enjoy nabemono anytime, anyplace. A slightly improved version of that tabletop gas burner is still in production, and is a very convenient piece of equipment even in American kitchen. I highly recommend that you get one (or even and electric or induction version) and start making nabemono and other tabletop fare at your home.

One special joy of nabemono dining comes at the very end of the meal, when the ingredients have all been cooked. You’ll find a highly flavored, concentrated sauce on the bottom of the pot that is perfect to mix with cooked rice for a very special dish. We add the cooked rice and some water, if necessary, and cook it until each grain of rice absorbs the full flavor of the sauce and is well heated. The rice is wonderfully delicious as is, or you can break one or two eggs into the pot, break the yolks, stir with the rice and cook until the eggs are barely done.

Stovetop Sukiyaki

Here is a sukiyaki recipe adopted from Hiroko’s American Kitchen (page 161). I created this recipe so that you can enjoy the traditional full flavor of sukiyaki meal without getting any special tools or ingredients such as table top gas burner and thinly sliced meat. This recipe also has three times more vegetables than meat. You will prepare this sukiyaki meal in a skillet in the kitchen and serve it at the table.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: Four servings

Ingredients

6 large cremini mushrooms

2 ounces carrot

6 ounces cabbage

10 ounces purple potato

2 ounces red bell pepper

2 ounces orange bell pepper

7 ounces red Swiss chard

2 boned short-rib (1 pound)

8 cipollini onions, peeled

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 teaspoons sugar

2 1/2 tablespoons butter

4 to 6 tablespoons shoyu (Japanese soy sauce)

1/2 cup sake

1/2 cup water

Directions

1. Cut each mushroom in quarters. Cut the carrot, cabbage, purple potato, red bell pepper and orange bell pepper into bite sized pieces. Cut the Swiss chard into half lengthwise in the center along the stem, and then, into 2-inch thick slices crosswise. Cut each short-rib into about 10 thin slices (about 2-inch x 2-inch square).

2. Place the potato and cipollini onion in a large pot with cold water to cover over high heat, bring it to a simmer, and cook about 7 minutes. After cooking the potato and cipollini for 7 minutes add the carrot, cabbage and bell peppers to the pot. Cook the vegetables for 3 more minutes. Drain all of the cooked vegetables in a strainer and air dry.

3. Season the beef with salt and pepper on both sides. Heat the butter in a skillet over medium heat and sprinkle half of the sugar over the butter. Add the beef, sprinkle the remaining sugar over the beef, and cook the beef until both sides are golden, or for about 5 to 6 minutes total. Transfer the beef to a platter.

4. In a small saucepan add the sake and shoyu and cook it over high heat until the volume reduces to half. Turn off the heat.

5. Add the mushrooms, stem part of the Swiss chard and drained vegetables to the skillet. Cook the vegetables until the surfaces of each vegetable are lightly golden, or for about 3-4 minutes. Turn the vegetables once over for even browning. Turn off the heat.

6. Push the vegetables to one side of the skillet and return the beef to the skillet. Pour the reduced sake and shoyu over the beef and vegetables and turn on the heat to medium-high heat. Add the leafy part of the Swiss chard to the skillet and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, frequently basting the beef and vegetables with the sauce.

7. Divide the vegetables and beef among deep bowls and serve.

Main photo: Cooked nabemono ingredients. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

Read More
Beluga Lentil, Roasted Vegetable Gluten-Free Breakfast. Credit: David Latt

The pursuit of a healthy diet is frequently lamented as an exercise in deprivation. Often the ingredients that must be given up are ones that delight the palate and excite the soul. Chef Paul Fields saw no such deprivation when he signed on to be the chef at the upscale, gluten-free Inn on Randolph in Napa, California. He serves a breakfast of Beluga lentils with roasted vegetables, sausage and a poached egg.

The Napa Valley is renowned for quality vineyards and award-winning restaurants. The city of Napa is less well-known. Recently in the news because of an earthquake that caused considerable damage in the downtown commercial district, the city is reviving and becoming a locus for inventive chefs and quality accommodations.

Fields is one of those chefs drawn to the valley’s bounty of agricultural products. He prides himself on being a good purveyor. He collaborates with local farmers and has a garden on the property so the produce he cooks comes fresh and organic to his kitchen. For him, no matter what a guest’s dietary restrictions might be, his goal is to create nutritious, well-plated delicious meals.

In search of a breakfast that would do just that, Fields turned to an old favorite: lentils.

Hungry guests about to begin a day of wine tasting, cycling or hiking in the valley need a hearty meal. Often regarded as low on the culinary totem pole, lentils are a heritage legume, mentioned in the Bible and served around the globe as a source of low-cost protein that is rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber. It is cultivated in a rainbow of colors and sizes including the Red Chief, the brown Pardina, the Crimson and the French Green. For his signature breakfast dish, Fields uses the glossy black Beluga lentil.

Fields accomplishes a bit of magic with what some might call the most prosaic of ingredients — a handful of lentils, a carrot, a piece of squash and an egg. A combination of contrasting flavors and textures, the dish is delicious and visually beautiful, a good way to begin the day.

Beluga Lentil, Roasted Vegetable Gluten-Free Breakfast

In addition to being gluten-free, the dish can be vegetarian-vegan when the butter, sausage and egg are omitted.

The organic Beluga lentils that Fields uses come from the Timeless Food company based in Conrad, Montana. To add heat without spiciness, dried cayenne peppers cook along with the lentils and charred onion.

Adding to the convenience of the dish, the lentils, roasted vegetables and sausages may be cooked beforehand and reheated just before serving. Only the poached egg should be prepared at the last minute.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 35 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1/2 medium yellow onion, washed, peeled, root and stem removed, roughly chopped

1 whole dried cayenne pepper

1 cup black Beluga lentils

2 1/2 cups water

4 carrots, washed, peeled, root and stem removed, cut on the bias or into rounds

1 cup squash (butternut or acorn), washed, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch chunks or long slabs

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

4 sausage links, chicken apple sausage or use what you like from your local market

1 tablespoon sweet butter

5 tablespoons sherry vinegar, divided

4 large eggs

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar, heated over a low flame, reduced to 1 tablespoon

2 tablespoons micro-greens (kale, chives, pea shoots), washed, dried and Italian parsley leaves, finely chopped

1/2 cup parsley leaves, washed, dried, roughly chopped

Directions

1. In a large saucepan or small pot, heat ½ tablespoon olive oil. Sauté the onion over medium heat until lightly charred. Add dried cayenne pepper and continue sautéing 5 to 6 minutes. Add lentils and water. Stir well.

2. Bring to a simmer and cook for 25 to 35 minutes uncovered or until the lentils are a little softer than al dente. Set aside.

3. Preheat oven to 450 F. Toss carrots and squash with 1/2 tablespoon olive oil, season with sea salt and black pepper.

4. Place on a baking sheet lined with a Silpat sheet or parchment paper. Using tongs, turn after 10 minutes and cook about a total of 15 to 20 minutes or until al dente. Remove and reserve.

5. Large sausages can be prepared whole, in which case the skin should be punctured all over with a sharp paring knife so the sausages do not swell during cooking, or cut into 1/2-inch rounds or 2-inch bias-cut pieces. Heat a sauté pan over a medium flame. Place the sausages into the pan and sear on all sides, using tongs to turn them frequently. When the sausages are cooked, remove from the pan, drain on a paper-towel-lined plate and reserve.

6. Heat a large sauté pan. Transfer the lentils from the pot to the sauté pan. Simmer to reduce the liquid by half. Add butter and combine with the lentils’ broth to create a sauce. Stir well.

7. Add 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar to brighten the flavors. Taste and adjust the flavors using sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, a bit more butter and vinegar. The sauce should be thick, so, if needed, simmer a few minutes longer to reduce excess liquid.

8. Fill a medium-sized sauce pan or a small pot with a quart of water. Add the remaining 4 tablespoons vinegar, which will help coagulate the egg white around the yolk. Bring to a simmer.

9. If the lentils, roasted vegetables and sausage have been prepared ahead, reheat.

10. Open an egg, being careful not to break the yolk. Stir the hot vinegar water before sliding in the egg. The gentle vortex helps shape the egg.

Cook 3 1/2 minutes for a loose yolk and 4 1/2 to 5 minutes for a medium yolk. Fields suggests using a kitchen timer so the eggs do not overcook.

Using a slotted spoon, remove the poached egg from the water and drain on a paper towel for 2 to 3 seconds.

11. If possible, heat the plates. Drizzle or use the back of a spoon to mark each plate with a small amount of the reduced balsamic vinegar, which is not only decorative but adds another layer of sweet-acidic flavor.

12. Put the carrots into the pan with the lentils and toss well to coat with the sauce. Place the squash on each plate. Spoon the lentils and carrots onto the squash. Add the sausage and top with the poached egg.

13. Dust with sea salt and black pepper. To add color and a little crunch, sprinkle micro-greens and chopped Italian parsley leaves on top. Finish with sea salt and a drizzle of olive oil.

Serve hot.

Main photo: Beluga Lentil, Roasted Vegetable Gluten-Free Breakfast. Credit: David Latt

Read More
Sam Fromartz's newest book will have you smelling and tasting the featured breads. Credit: Sam Fromartz

Sam Fromartz’s new book, “In Search of the Perfect Loaf, A Home Baker’s Odyssey,” is a departure. The journalist and editor began his career as a reporter at Reuters, and his previous book, “Organic, Inc.,” was a standard work of nonfiction about the evolution of the organic food industry. But as his hobby became his subject, the writer leaped into the picture of this book.


In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey
By Samuel Fromartz, Viking, 2014, 320 pages
» Enter here for a chance to win a free copy
» Click here to buy the book


“Baking for me was relief from my daily grind of journalism,” Fromartz said in a phone interview. “I really enjoyed the moment in the day when I would leave my keyboard and just bake, shape loaves, bake them. I really didn’t want to lose that sense of specialness, of what bread meant in my life. I thought if I mixed it up in my work too much, it would just become part of my job. I really didn’t want to do that.”

Fromartz let his curiosities guide his book's odyssey. Credit: Samuel FromartzAs the recession downsized his income, however, everything became a potential topic. In a single afternoon, he lost most of his steady freelancing gigs. Querying a contact at the travel magazine “Afar,” he proposed a story about going to Paris to study baguette baking.

The editor said yes, and the adventure began. Consider yourself lucky that his escape became his work, because the result is a really nice journey through baking led by a skilled reporter.

“This book was a lot more personal,” said Fromartz. “It wasn’t a journalistic investigation. But I am a reporter, so all of those tools I use in my work became tools I used in the book.”

Tools like reading, asking questions and framing the answers in good stories. There are some beautiful descriptions, like the one at Della Fattoria, a bakery in Petaluma, California.

“Everyone seemed to be working at a pace just short of a jog,” he writes, setting the stage for each reader to witness, as he did, the bread baking one morning. The baker-writer joins the action, helping shape loaves of bread. But once the actual baking begins, he stands on the sidelines and tells us plainly what he sees. We readers fall into the rhythm of the observed work.

Samuel Fromartz, author of "In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker's Odyssey." Credit: Susan Biddle

Samuel Fromartz, author of “In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey.” Credit: Susan Biddle

As a small herd of bakers usher hundreds of would-be breads into the oven, Fromartz puts you right there, watching the “dance of the peels,” as loaves go into the oven, and then come out. You are just shy of smelling the bread and tasting it.

The pacing of the stories and information are spot-on. Fromartz takes you through a long baking lesson, baker by baker, describing the process and progress. Beginning with baguettes, which were a challenge for him to bake at home, you learn as much or more about the social history of this bread and its place in French culture as you do about the practical route he found to making this loaf.

Yes, there are elaborate recipes, heavy on method, at the end of chapters in case you want to bake along. But no baking is required to enjoy the research he presents as part of his journey. This odyssey is not just for serious home bakers or professionals, but also for anyone mildly curious about wheat.

Guided by his curiosities

“I wanted to understand things for myself,” he said. “A lot of baking books dealt with some of the questions I had, but there was no sort of central resource, and no book that tied together everything from the origins of grains to sourdough microbiology to how to shape a loaf.”

Writing the book really answered his curiosities. His dives into sourdough are deep; at one point he compares cultivating sourdough cultures to farming, and nurturing microlivestock. Holding all this heady material together is the importance of craft, and what he got out of learning a craft at the hands of people who really value bread, its historic framework and its future.

One of the most surprising discoveries he found on his journey was learning about flour, specifically locally grown and milled grains. As he started using local grains, and flour that came from small mills, he realized how variable bread’s main ingredient could be.

“It made me realize what’s been lost and sacrificed along the way in that quest for uniformity,” he said. Anything that threatened that uniformity got lost, like grains with different flavors, and non-standard types of gluten or proteins.

“When you’re reading about the Romans and you read about all the different breads they made with barley and spelt, chick pea flour and everything else, all of those breads and grains were lost,” he said. Now, these grains are sometimes used as animal feed. But at one time they were eaten by people and prized.

“My sense is those guys probably knew something about flavor,” he said. “We have this real singular expectation of what bread should be. “Even whole-wheat loaves generally estimate that puffy bread ideal. “When you have such a narrow idea of what bread should be, you lose a lot of possibilities.”

Exploring those possibilities through different grains and flours engages him as a baker. It’s useful ecologically, too. Pursuing lesser-known grains is good for agricultural diversity and dietary diversity.

When I was reading, I was worried that baking might have lost some charm for the writer. But by the end of the book, he says he’s been able to protect his special connection to baking. I wanted to know how he preserved it. His answer was reassuring, if elliptical.

“I still bake a lot and baking is really a part of me,” he said. “I want to keep that sense of discovery about it. So I think will.”

Main photo: Sam Fromartz’s newest book will have you smelling and tasting the featured breads. Credit: Sam Fromartz

Read More
Pirjati Zelje (braised cabbage). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Cabbage is the Rodney Dangerfield of vegetables: It doesn’t get any respect. It gets a bad rap. Cabbage never gets mentioned as one of the hip vegetables like kale. It’s not a super-vegetable like broccoli rabe. It’s not an adorable vegetable like baby Brussels sprouts. It’s not a “cool” vegetable. It’s stodgy and old-fashioned. I mean, they make sauerkraut from it.

All those cooler vegetables just mentioned, though, owe their existence to cabbage. The big green head we associate with cabbage today was not always what cabbage was. Today there are hundreds of varieties of cabbage that have developed from the progenitor cabbage, called the wild cabbage, including the many forms of cabbage and further horticultural developments such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, broccoliflower, broccoli rabe and kohlrabi.

Botanists divide the cabbage into five groups. It is the head cabbage, green, red, crinkly-leafed or Savoy cabbage, that I’m speaking of. But there are some 400 varieties of head cabbage.

The cabbage is probably native to the Mediterranean, but in Roman times the head cabbage we think of as cabbage today did not exist. The Romans had only leafy cabbage, probably kale. There are some obscure references by Roman naturalists Pliny and Columella to what has been taken by some to be head cabbage. These descriptions refer to heads of the plant being a foot in diameter, but it is not at all clear whether this refers to a compact headed cabbage that we know today or is simply an expression referring to the above ground portion of the plant.

The wealthy citizens of Rome, in the period after Cato the Elder (mid-second century BC), thought of cabbage as poor people’s food as we know from the description in Juvenal’s satire when he described the difference between the food that the patron ate, namely olives to garnish an excellent fish, and the food of the client, who finds cabbage in his “nauseous dish.”

It seems that the head cabbage we know today was developed in Germany in the 12th century. Soon it would be the single most common plant in the medieval garden.

Cabbage rolls. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Cabbage rolls. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

It’s not a popular vegetable today, but it is a vegetable that does draw the curious cook. The most obviously intriguing thing to do with cabbage is to separate the leaves and then stuff them by rolling them up. There are many great preparations for cabbage from sauerkraut, to kimchi, to coleslaw, and every culture has a recipe for stuffed cabbage. Here are two recipes for cabbage lovers from cabbage-loving Slovenia and Croatia, next door to Italy.

Braised Cabbage

Cabbage is a very popular vegetable in the Balkans, served raw, in the form of sauerkraut and cooked in a variety of ways. In the northern part of the former Yugoslavia, today’s Slovenia and parts of Croatia, cabbage may be cooked with sour cream or tossed with noodles and smoked bacon. In Bosnia or Montenegro, it might be cooked with tomatoes. This recipe from Slovenia is typically served as a bed for a roast duckling.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 55 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 bay leaves

2 tablespoons tomato paste mixed with 2 tablespoons water

1 cup dry white wine

One 2-pound green cabbage, cored and sliced as thin as vermicelli

15 peppercorns

8 juniper berries, lightly crushed

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

1. In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then add the bay leaves and cook until they begin to sizzle. Reduce the heat to medium and very carefully add the tomato paste and wine, which will spurt and splatter rather dramatically.

2. Continue cooking for a minute then add the cabbage, peppercorns, juniper berries and thyme. Mix so the cabbage is covered with sauce.

3. Add the lemon juice and continue to braise over medium heat until the cabbage softens, 6 to 8 minutes.

4. Reduce the heat to low, season with salt and pepper, and cook until the cabbage is completely soft, about 45 minutes. Correct the seasoning and serve hot.

Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

These cabbage rolls are a winter specialty known as arambašici in their home of Sinj, a town near the Dinaric Alps on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. Traditionally, this casserole of stuffed cabbage leaves is made from a whole head of cabbage that has been prepared as sauerkraut. Each sauerkraut leaf, or as in this recipe cabbage leaf, is stuffed with beef, pork and bacon, and flavored with lemon zest, onion, garlic, cloves and cinnamon. Each roll-up is separated from the other with pieces of pršut (Croatian prosciutto) and smoked tongue.

Arambašici can be made with fresh cabbage leaves or grape leaves, too. My recipe uses fresh cabbage, which is the easiest to find and is what a cook from Sinj would use in the summer. Many cooks also like to make the casserole in the evening and then reheat it the next day, and you should consider doing that as it is delicious.

The casserole cooks a long time so the meats are very tender and the cabbage leaves become silky. The smoked bacon, smoked pork, smoked tongue and prosciutto can all be picked up at the deli counter of most supermarkets.

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 4 hours

Yield: 20 to 26 rolls, or about 6 servings

Ingredients

1 large green cabbage (about 2 3/4 pounds), central core removed

1 1/4 pounds boneless beef neck meat or beef chuck, finely chopped

5 ounces smoked bacon (preferably) or lean slab bacon, finely chopped

2 ounces beef fat (suet), finely chopped

6 ounces boneless pork shoulder or neck meat, finely chopped

2 large onions, chopped

3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

Grated zest from 1 lemon

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon unsalted butter or beef fat for greasing

One 4-inch-long beef marrow bone (optional)

1 ounce smoked pork (any cut), finely chopped

2 ounces prosciutto, thinly sliced into strips

2 ounces smoked tongue (optional), thinly sliced into strips

1 cup water and more as needed

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 300 F.

2. Remove and discard any of the outermost leaves of the cabbage that are blemished. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt and plunge the whole cabbage in and cook until the leaves can be peeled away without ripping, about 10 minutes. Drain well and, when cool enough to handle, separate the leaves carefully, setting them aside.

3. In a large bowl, mix together the beef, bacon, suet and pork. Add the onions, garlic, lemon zest, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, salt and pepper and mix well with your hands.

4. Arrange a cabbage leaf in front of you with the stem end closest to you. Place 2, 3 or 4 tablespoons (depending on the size of the leaf) of filling on the end closest to you, then roll away once, fold in the sides and continue rolling away until you get a nice, neat package.

5. Continue with the remaining cabbage leaves. Arrange the cabbage rolls side by side, seam side down, in a lightly greased 13- x 9- x 2-inch casserole (you may need to use two casseroles), making sure you leave some room for the beef marrow bone. Sprinkle the chopped smoked pork over the cabbage rolls.

6. Place the prosciutto and smoked tongue slices (if using) between the cabbage rolls. Pour the water over the cabbage rolls and cover with aluminum foil. (The casserole can be refrigerated at this point to bake later.)

7. Bake until the cabbage rolls are very soft, slightly blackened on top and bubbling vigorously, about 4 hours.

8. Serve hot or let cool to room temperature and serve as an appetizer the next day.

Main photo: Pirjati Zelje (braised cabbage). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Read More
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

Read More
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

Read More
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

Read More
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

Read More