Articles in Healthy Cooking

Tiny tomatoes with caper and green olive sauce.

It’s a strange world, where we pick flower buds, spread them out to dry in the sun, then leave them to macerate in salt or vinegar. If they are left undisturbed on their spiny bushes, caper buds burst into glorious bloom in the early morning sunshine. For a few short hours, their long, waving stamens are irresistible to bees, then their lovely pink-white petals quickly wither in the strong afternoon sun. Who could possibly have discovered that, once “cured”  (dried, salted or soaked in vinegar), the rather vegetal-tasting caper bud develops a delicate, earthy flavor with a lovely floral overtone? It’s this symphony of tastes that make capers so alluring.

Source of wealth for islanders

The appeal of capers has been long-lasting and far-reaching. Until recently, few caper flowers were ever seen on the Greek Cycladic islands of  Santorini, Andros, Folegandros, or coastal Crete and Cyprus, as the buds were rarely given the chance to flower.  In Greece, capers have always been a valued local food and flavoring, and the caper trade a source of wealth for the islanders.

Caper seeds have been found in Belgian ditches dating as far back as the Middle Ages. And early British cookbooks contain recipes for mutton and skate with caper sauce, and suggest liberal use of capers in salads and with cold meats. Since the caper bush, or shrub (capparis spinosa), can’t thrive in these countries, capers had to be traded. So what was it that made them so attractive to those medieval northern Europeans?

It may have been the plant’s good-health qualities that have given it such value throughout its long history. There is evidence that the Sumerians (circa 2000 B.C.) used capers medicinally, and it’s obvious that the ancient Greeks understood the process necessary to turn caper buds into delicious capers: In the 4th century B.C., the “father of botany,” Theophrastus, remarked in his seminal work, “Enquiry into Plants,” that the wild caper plant appeared not to like cultivated land and those grown in such conditions produced smaller, softer capers of inferior flavor. They still do.

How capers work

When capers, caper leaves or berries are cured, an enzymatic reaction takes place and a flavanoid glycoside, glucocapparin, a mustard-oil that gives the caper its taste, is released from the plant tissues. In this, capers resemble their cousins in the cabbage family — cress, mustards, horseradish — all of which contain mustard-oil glycosides. Another of its flavonoids is rutin, a strong antioxidant which, pharmacologically speaking, improves capillary function. It’s considered to be anti-rheumatic, and therefore an effective treatment for arthritis and gout, a diuretic and, in non-medical-speak, a “liver protector” and “kidney disinfectant.”

Caper bush in Santorini

A caper bush grows in Santorini, Greece. Credit: Rosemary Barron

An attempt at caper-gathering

The caper plant loves hot, dry summers with a smattering of spring rainfall, making the Aegean Mediterranean, swept by a strong sea breeze, the perfect home. There, the caper plant can nestle into the cracks and crevices of cliffs and stone walls.

But it was only when I tried to preserve my own capers for my Santorini cookery school that I realized just how difficult it was to create their lovely, tart pungency. The first problem was in the gathering of them—the best crops of buds always seemed to be just out of reach, dangling over alarmingly-steep cliffs. The bushes’ thorny stems make picking them painful work and a good harvest requires near-daily collections over four to five weeks, as the buds don’t all develop at the same time.

Local skilled gatherers pick young, tender leaves at the same time as the buds, for pickling. Later in the summer, after the caper buds that managed to escape the earlier harvest have flowered and fruited, the berries are collected and preserved in brine. For finest flavor, Cycladic islanders preserve wild capers in salt. It’s worth searching for these at home, as they have less of the acidic tang of vinegar-preserved capers and a greater depth of flavor. Interestingly, though, the most rutin is found in the dried buds, a process that, until recently, was a common way of curing capers on Santorini.

If you are in doubt as to the difference in taste and texture between wild and cultivated capers, don’t take my word for it — try both together. And perhaps spare a thought too for those great sages of the past, who so well-appreciated that food not only had to do you good, but had to taste good, too.

Paired with tomatoes

In early summer on Santorini, tomato plants give in to the dry heat and collapse, dotting the island’s gray, volcanic soil with ripe, tiny, deep-crimson tomatoes. For a few short weeks, they can be made into this pretty meze.

To prepare salt-preserved capers for the table, soak them in several changes of cold water; brine- and vinegar-preserved capers only need rinsing.

Tiny Tomatoes with Caper and Green Olive Sauce

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 5 minutes

Total Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 8 meze servings or serves 4 as a first course

Variation: Although it takes more work, this dish is at its traditional best when the olives, capers and garlic are mashed in a mortar or bowl before you add the vinegar and olive oil. The sauce texture will be coarser, but its flavor will be more refined.

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 24 tiny, or cherry, tomatoes
  • ¼ teaspoon sugar (if tomatoes aren't sun-ripened, optional)
  • For the caper and green olive sauce:
  • 1 cup Greek cracked green or Nafplion olives, or brine-packed, pit-in, Spanish green olives
  • 2 tablespoons salt-packed (or brine- or vinegar-preserved) capers, soaked, rinsed, and patted dry
  • 1 small clove garlic, minced
  • ½ teaspoon red-wine vinegar
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • For serving:
  • 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh fennel fronds or flat-leaf parsley, for garnish
  • 4 thin slices whole-wheat or country-style bread, toasted

Directions

  1. In a small, heavy skillet over very low heat, heat the olive oil. Add the tomatoes, sprinkle with the sugar, cover, and cook for about 3 minutes, or until their skins split. Set aside in the skillet to cool.
  2. Make the sauce: Blanch the olives in boiling water for 5 seconds. Drain, pit, and chop. In a food processor, combine the olives, capers, and garlic. Process until well mixed. With the machine running, add the vinegar, drop by drop, then the olive oil (to taste) in a steady stream.
  3. Spread the sauce over a small platter. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the tomatoes to the platter. Garnish with fennel or parsley. Cut each slice of toast into 4 triangles. Sprinkle the bread with the liquid remaining in the tomato pan.

 

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Peaches for the Fourth of July

Our forefathers weren’t thinking of holiday fare or locavores when they signed the Declaration of Independence, but the Fourth of July fortuitously falls at a time of fabulous local food abundance. And seeking out local food is the patriotic thing to do. Fresh fruits and vegetables connect us in a literal and visceral way to our land, and buying them is good for our local environment, farmers and economies. Your purchase will support your community, give you an opportunity to interact with your local growers and food artisans, and provide you with the best-tasting food around.

While the Fourth doesn’t have the same gastronomic weight as the winter holidays, the possibilities are endless, but should start with whatever looks good at your local farmers market. If you don’t want to commit to a wholly local Fourth, just feature one local food — maybe the mint in your julep, the cabbage in your slaw, or the chicken on your grill. Or buy some local tomatoes, herbs, and cheeses and have a localicious pizza party.

Make this the year you declare your independence from high-fat, high-sugar crackers, chips, dips, cookies, and other processed holiday foods. Swap them out for low-calorie, high-nutrition fruits and vegetables from local farms, and this will be your best Fourth ever!

If you need help finding local foods, enter your ZIP code into Local Harvest. In just a few clicks, you’ll find many ways to connect with local producers and celebrate food sovereignty by eating fresh, delicious foods from your local farms and gardens.

mint soda

Make a cool mint soda for hot summer days. Credit: Cara Cummings

Cool Mint Soda

Mint is an all-time favorite for keeping cool in the summer, but chamomile, or lemon verbena, or any herb that strikes your fancy will also work in this recipe. Double it if you’re expecting a crowd.

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cooking Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

1 cup sugar

1 cup water

1 cup fresh mint leaves, coarsely chopped

Mint sprigs for garnishing

Sparkling water

Directions

1. Make simple syrup by dissolving the sugar in the water in a saucepan over medium heat.

2. Turn the heat off and stir in the chopped mint leaves. Let sit for a couple of minutes. When the mixture is cool, strain the mint leaves out.

3. Add two to four tablespoons (to taste) of the mint syrup to a glass of sparkling water. Add a mint sprig as a garnish.

Grilled stuffed peppers

Grilled stuffed peppers are a quick Fourth of July favorite. Credit: Cara Cummings

Grilled Stuffed Peppers

Use red, yellow or green bell peppers, or Italian or Hungarian sweet peppers.

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cooking Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 40 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

3 sweet peppers, halved

8 ounces mozzarella cheese (sliced)

1 large tomato, chopped

6 sprigs basil

Salt and pepper to taste

Olive Oil

Directions

1. Cut each pepper in half and remove seeds. Fill each pepper with the chopped tomato, and drizzle olive oil over the top of the tomatoes.

2. Add a slice of mozzarella on top of the tomatoes, and then add a dash of salt and pepper and a sprig of basil.

3. Place the filled pepper halves on a hot grill, but not directly over the flame. Cover and grill for about 30 minutes, or until the pepper is soft.

Pesto-flavored potatoes

Use pesto to add a light, summer flavor to potatoes. Credit: Cara Cummings

Parsley Pesto Potatoes, Grilled

Herb pesto is quick and easy to make in a food processor. Make a double batch, and use the extra on crackers or sandwiches.

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cooking Time: 45 minutes

Total Time: 55 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

 Ingredients

1 cup fresh parsley, stems and leaves

1 cup pecans (you can substitute walnuts or pine nuts)

¼ cup hard cheese such as romano, grated

¼ cup olive oil

1 clove garlic, minced

Salt, to taste

1 to 2 pounds small new potatoes (or large potatoes cut into chunks)

Directions

1. To make the parsley pesto, put all the ingredients, except the potatoes, into a food processor and blend until well mixed.

2. In a large mixing bowl, toss the potatoes with the pesto.

3. Place the potatoes on a piece of foil on a hot grill, away from the direct flame. Cover the grill and cook until tender, about 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the size of the potatoes. When you can easily pierce them with a fork, they’re done. Top with extra pesto if you like.

Peaches for the Fourth of July

Make a quick, easy, and delicious dessert using fresh peaches. Credit: Cara Cummings

Grilled Peaches with Tart Cherries

While the grill is still hot, make this quick, easy, and delicious dessert. If you have a big group, slice up some local watermelons, muskmelons, and honeydew melons on the dessert table alongside the grilled peaches.

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cooking Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

3 peaches

1 cup tart cherries, pitted

½ cup honey

Olive oil

Directions

1. Cut the peaches in half and remove the pits. Coat the peaches in olive oil. If you have a citrus-infused olive oil, that is particularly nice!

2. Fill each peach half with some cherries, and drizzle with honey.

3. Place the peaches on the medium-hot grill for 10 to 15 minutes, or until soft.

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Black-eyed peas with Swiss chard. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

How did the black-eyed pea become a symbol of good luck? No one knows for sure but a good guess is that an ancient farmer, through practical experience knew that spent black-eyed pea plants could enrich his soil and therefore he considered them good luck.

As with all legumes, black-eyed peas have nitrogen-giving nodules on their roots and are for this reason often used as green manure or forage. There are five species of Vigna unguiculata, or black-eyed pea.

The black-eyed pea is one of the oldest plants known to agricultural man. It is thought the black-eyed peas were first cultivated in Ethiopia from 4000 to 3000 B.C. In records from the ancient kingdom of Sumer in Mesopotamia about 2350 B.C. a plant called lu-ub-sar, which appears to give the modern Arabic word for bean, lūbya, may have been the black-eyed pea.

It also appears that the ancient Egyptian bean known as iwryt, described from the Old Kingdom (2686 B.C.-2100 B.C.) onward, was the black-eyed pea and workmen at Deir al-Medina received beans as part of their wages. In Pharaonic medicine they were used to treat constipation.

The black-eyed pea arrived in Italy about 300 B.C. where it was grown by the Romans. The depiction of the plant called fasilus in the lavishly illustrated sixth-century codex of the first-century Greek pharmacologist Dioscorides’ work “De material medica” (“On medical matters”) appears to be the black-eyed pea.

And in Africa the black-eyed pea is one of the most important vegetables. The pods containing the seeds are about a foot long and they are known in the American South as cowpea, crowder or Southern pea.

The black-eyed pea likely made its voyage to the New World in the 17th century. It appears in many dishes, but this Syrian and Lebanese one is nice to be served as part of a meze table.

Swiss Chard with Black-Eyed Peas (Silq bi’l-Lubya)

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour

Total Time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

This is a wonderful Lebanese and Syrian dish to make with fresh black-eyed peas, but dried will do just as well. The usually rough taste of Swiss chard is mellowed considerably with the onions and coriander in this preparation.

Ingredients

  • 1½ cups (about ¾ pound) dried black-eyed peas, soaked in water to cover overnight or 4 cups fresh black-eyed peas (about 14 ounces)
  • 2 pounds Swiss chard, heavy stalks removed, washed well
  • 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 4 to 5 large garlic cloves, peeled and mashed in a mortar with 2 teaspoons salt
  • ½ cup finely chopped fresh coriander leaves
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground cumin seeds

Directions

  1. Place the peas in a pot of cold water to cover and bring to a boil. Cook until tender, about 1 hour for dried peas and about 18 minutes for fresh. Drain and set aside.
  2. Meanwhile, place the Swiss chard in a large pot with only the water adhering to it from its last rinsing. Turn the heat to high, cover, and wilt, 5 to 7 minutes, turning a few times with long tongs. Drain, and squeeze out excess liquid. Chop coarsely and set aside.
  3. In a large sauté pan or casserole, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then cook the onion until translucent, about 8 minutes, stirring. Add the Swiss chard, garlic mash, coriander, and cumin. Reduce the heat to low and cook until fragrant and tender, about 30 minutes. Stir in the peas and cook until heated through, about 10 minutes, and serve.

Main photo: Black-eyed peas with Swiss chard. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Black-eyed peas, also known as cowpeas or field peas, are a staple of many cultures around the world. Black-eyed peas have been cultivated in Africa for thousands of years and traveled to the New World with slaves who were brought to the Americas.

Every New Year’s Day, I am sure to have black-eyed peas and rice on my table. They are considered good luck, just as greens represent money. The greens can be collards, mustard, kale, Swiss chard, even cabbage. There would usually be a couple of meaty smoked pork hocks simmered with the black-eyed peas and the greens when I was growing up, a tradition I still follow, although I may substitute the hock with smoked bacon. Commonly known as Hoppin’ John, the mix of black-eyed peas and rice is a Southern staple that has spread nationwide.

Guyana, a small country in South America, has a dish called Cook-Up Rice, which is eaten on New Year’s eve. Like Hoppin’ John, it is a mix of rice and legumes, such as black-eyed peas or pigeon peas. Simmered with coconut milk, meat and aromatics, the rice and peas cook up into a flavorful meal.

Black-eyed peas, which are actually legumes, are usually found in the supermarket dried. But during summer and fall you can often find fresh black-eyed peas in the pod at your local farmers market. When fresh, they quickly become tender when cooked, making them a good source of protein for a cool summer salad.

The inspiration for this salad is Hoppin’ John. Rice-shaped orzo pasta is used instead of actual rice. The addition of a variety of fresh vegetables and a Creole spiced herb vinaigrette make this vegan salad perfect as a main dish or as a side dish with an assortment of grilled foods.

Black-Eyed Pea Salad. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

Black-Eyed Pea Salad. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

Black-Eyed Peas Salad

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 30 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 cup orzo pasta
  • 4 cups cooked black eyed peas
  • 1 cup sweet corn
  • 1 chopped bell pepper
  • 2 scallions, sliced on diagonal
  • 2 tomatoes, seeded and chopped
  • ½ cup champagne vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1½ teaspoons Creole seasoning
  • ½ teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, lightly chopped

Directions

  1. Cook the orzo according to package directions, drain and rinse with cold water.
  2. Place the cooked pasta, black-eyed peas, corn, bell pepper, scallion and tomatoes into a medium bowl.
  3. In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, oil, Creole seasoning, salt and thyme.
  4. Pour the dressing over the other ingredients, mixing well to distribute the dressing.
  5. Let the salad sit for at least an hour to let the flavors meld.

Main photo: Black-eyed peas fresh from the pod. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

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Saffron Almond Milk. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran

In tropical south India, our pantry had shelves running the length of walls that stored all types of basic provisions. Large brass containers held various dried legumes and smaller containers held dried spices and nuts. But saffron was not among them. My mother kept it in a small jar inside a large locked metal cupboard along with her silver utensils used for special occasions. She called it kumkumapoo — flower of the kumkuma plant; kumkuma is saffron’s Sanskrit name. The precious bottle came out only when special treats were made at home.

Saffron in cooking

Saffron has been a classic ingredient in various cuisines since ancient times. It is a versatile spice that adds a new dimension to savory and sweet dishes. Saffron threads are soaked in water, broths or other liquids, which become infused with the flavor and orange-yellow coloring, and then added to a dish.

Typically, the saffron threads are crushed or ground before soaking them. Saffron threads may also be ground or crushed into a powder and added to a dish. Good quality saffron develops to a bright golden yellow color, poorer quality saffron to either a pale straw color or bright orange.

From paella to risotto to biriyani, saffron is the main flavoring ingredient in various rice as well as meat dishes. There are numerous desserts that incorporate saffron for its color and flavor. It is widely featured in Spanish, Mediterranean, Persian, Iranian, Iraqi, Indian, Greek, Moroccan and Italian cuisines. Saffron from Iran, India and Spain are considered the best quality.

Where does it come from?

Saffron, the spice obtained from the gently dried stigmas of the purple saffron crocuses (Crocus sativus), has remained the world’s most expensive spice throughout history. Saffron’s unmistakable traits are its color and flavor. Since the strength of color determines its flavor, the higher the coloring strength, the higher its value. Saffron is sold as threads or as a ground powder. It is usually sold by the gram — just a small bunch of slender red threads. Fortunately, most recipes call for just a pinch, and a pinch of saffron goes a long way. It is grown primarily in Iran (more than 90% of the world production), followed by Spain, Greece, India (Kashmir) Egypt, Morocco and Turkey.

Why the high price?

An ounce of Spanish saffron costs about $54 and, when it is labeled pure, the price can go up to $77. The orange-red threads of saffron are very expensive for several reasons. Cultivation of saffron requires particular climate and soil conditions. The flowers have to be individually handpicked in the autumn when fully open. Saffron stigmas are harvested between dawn and 10 a.m., as they lose their color and aroma if left too long in the plant. Each crocus flower only produces three stigmas of saffron and thousands of blossoms are needed to produce even a small amount of spice. The stigmas have high moisture content and are gently dried for preservation.

Saffron’s history

The history of saffron goes back to ancient Egypt and Rome, where it was used as a dye, in perfumes, and as a drug, as well as for culinary purposes. It was known since antiquity in Persia, Mesopotamia and surrounding areas. Cultivation of saffron was also widespread in Asia Minor far before the birth of Christ. There are conflicting accounts about saffron’s arrival in South and East Asia. One theory is that when Persia conquered Kashmir, Persian saffron crocuses were transplanted to Kashmir. It is believed to have reached China in the 7th century. Arabs introduced saffron in Spain by 960. Cultivation spread to Italy, France and Germany when crusaders returned from Asia Minor with saffron corms.

Many uses of saffron

Saffron is used as an aromatic, and also used in perfumes and dyes. Saffron is often added to many food products simply as a coloring, such as cheese, soups and even various alcohols.

Saffron has very significant nutrients and chemical compounds that provide many health benefits. Saffron is an important ingredient in a number of Ayurvedic, Chinese, Unani and Tibetan medicines. According to Ayurvedic medicine, it is oily and light in properties, bitter in taste, and helps to pacify vata, pitta and kapha (air, fire and earth, the three fundamental body humors that make up one’s constitution, according to Ayurveda).

Saffron is used by Ayurvedic practitioners to treat asthma, arthritis, cold, cough and flu, acne and skin diseases, inflammation and indigestion. It is also a cooling spice and said to be an effective antidepressant. Some studies have shown that saffron contains antioxidants and other healthful properties that may help prevent cancer.

Saffron Almond Milk

On a hot summer day a cool glass of soothing and wholesome almond milk flavored with saffron makes the perfect thirst quencher. Here is a recipe for this delicious cold drink made with almonds, saffron and milk.

Ingredients

½ cup slivered almonds and few extra for garnish
½ cup water
3½ cups low fat (2%) milk
⅓ cup sugar
5 cardamom pods crushed
10 to 15 strands saffron

Directions

1. In a blender, grind the almonds with half cup of water to a smooth paste.

2. Bring the milk to a boil in a heavy bottomed vessel. Take a tablespoon of hot milk and add to the saffron strands and set aside.

3. Add the sugar, saffron soaked in milk and cardamom to the milk and bring back to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes.

4. Stir in the almond paste and simmer at medium heat for another five minutes. Keep stirring the pot. Remove from the stove and keep it covered.

5. Chill in the refrigerator and garnish with silvered toasted almonds and a pinch of saffron before serving.

Main photo: Saffron almond milk. R.V. Ramachandran

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Mulligatawny soup with kombucha squash served with a red cabbage, apple and carrot salad. Credit: Carole Murko

Honor thy food? I thought I already did that. Food had always been the centerpiece of my existence. I am half Italian. It’s what we talk about. What’s for breakfast? What’s for lunch? What are you cooking for dinner? That was before the life-changing green juice and Rice Biriyani.

I didn’t think I needed to do anything differently. Since childhood, we always ate together as a family. Everything was cooked from scratch with the finest ingredients. We had a garden then, and now I have my own. I laughed when I learned about the Slow Food movement because I had already lived that. Food and family were so central that I created Heirloom Meals, a storytelling platform to share our connection with family recipes, heritage, stories and tips. Who ate better than my family? We had balanced meals with meats, vegetables and a starch. A simple dessert topped it off.

Then food-related allergies struck. My husband Jim developed celiac disease. I became a student of gluten-free cooking and adapted recipes so Jim could eat without noticing a limitation. All was well until I developed stomach issues, the kind the pharmaceutical industry has convinced us can be cured with a pop of a pill.

Intuitively, I knew a change of diet could cure my acid reflux, but adding more dietary restrictions was daunting. I tried eliminating certain foods but eventually cheese and crackers would appear in my shopping cart. I love cheese and crackers. And coffee. How could I give up my morning elixir?

Yet I hadn’t felt quite right, and I questioned why. I ate almost 100% organic foods. I had grass-fed meats, pasture-raised chickens and wild fish. We were gluten-free and had lots vegetables. Why didn’t I feel 100% great?

In early February, I was lucky to be introduced to Nancy Lee, a local herbalist, private ayurvedic, and macrobiotic chef and healer. She was exactly what I needed. I was coming off flu and did not have the energy to embrace a new diet and cooking regime alone. Lee’s program included her coming to my house and cooking one meal a day with me. So I thought, “I want to do this.” What I got was so much more than a cleanse. I learned about eating and spirituality.

Lesson No. 1

Chewing one’s food seems like a simple and basic principle of eating. I never gave it much thought. I’ve always been a speedy eater. I love my food hot. I can’t stand lukewarm food, and I have spent my life inhaling meals. Lee’s first lesson: Digestion begins in your mouth. The word “mastication” popped into my head. M-a-s-t-i-c-a-t-i-o-n.  Hmmmmm … I don’t really chew my food. There is problem No. 1. I don’t even think about chewing. I just experience the flavors as quickly as possible and swallow.

Although I’m deeply grateful for the wonderful food I eat, I have never taken much time to pray over it. I hadn’t looked at the food and imagined how it will nourish and heal my body. I viewed food as the enemy for much of my life. I bought into the media’s view of the perfect woman. I sought a lithe, fit body. It never occurred to me that stopping or pausing before diving into a meal would awaken me to a food experience I had never had. I learned I had been living a warped food contradiction: I loved to make delicious food to nourish others but secretly despised that same food.

Lesson No. 2

Honor your food. Next, chew it. Check, check. The act of eating has become a spiritual experience. I’ve become present with the food. I understand that food has a life essence and energy and that certain foods cleanse and heal organs. The philosophy of honoring our food and treating our bodies with absolute reverence is vital.

My cleanse and restorative regime focused on my digestion, my heart and my hormones. We ate many and varied foods, and we drank three infusions: nettle, red clover and oat straw. Imagine drinking an infusion of red clover, nettles or oat straw every day and allowing them to pack a vitamin and nutritional punch in the most soothing way. Red clover purifies the blood and lowers bad cholesterol. It also is a great source of calcium, magnesium and vitamin C. Oat straw is known to reduce cholesterol, increase libido and strengthen nerves. According to herbalist Susan Weed, 1 cup of oat straw infusion contains 300 milligrams of calcium. Swigging a nettle infusion is said to strengthen bones, thicken hair, clarify skin, ease seasonal allergy symptoms and ease  GERD.

Combined with a green juice in the morning and lunches of such dishes as kichari, Rice Biriyani and mulligatawny soup with sides of steamed carrots, burdock root and daikon radish, and some form of salad, the cleanse was beyond successful.

I am off coffee. People comment that I look 10 years younger. My energy is even throughout the day and I feel happy.

Sample Menu: — Steamed carrots, burdock root, daikon and squash with brown rice and a pressed cabbage salad with sesame seeds.

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Grilled vegetables to light up a Meatless Memorial Day. Credit: Sarsmis / iStockphoto

Peggy Neu knows Meatless Monday is an easy way to reduce meat without a lot of sacrifice. But what happens when Meatless Monday and Memorial Day converge? What about the sizzling barbecue ribs? What about pleasing a holiday crowd with varying tastes? What about the kids?

Neu sees an opportunity.

She’s president of The Monday Campaigns, and when she spoke about the growth of Meatless Monday this spring at TEDxManhattan, she told the crowd that research shows that people tend to see Monday as a chance for a fresh start. With respect to health, people are more likely to make a change Monday than any other day. A study of health-related Google searches over a multiyear period showed a consistent pattern of Monday spikes. “It’s kind of like a mini New Year’s, but you get 52 chances to stay on track,” Neu said.

AUTHOR


Pam WeiszPam Weisz is Deputy Director of Change Food,  a nonprofit that works to raise public awareness and educate consumers about problems with the U.S. food system. Learn more at www.changefood.org.

Isn’t New Year’s more pleasurable? That’s exactly Neu’s hope for Meatless Monday. At TEDxManhattan, she said that it’s important to make the day “a fun ritual, something that people look forward to” and to approach it as “choice and moderation, giving people vegetarian choices rather than taking something (meat) away.”

So if it’s sizzle you want from your barbecue, there are plenty of cool ways to grill vegetables too. (See tips at the end of this story.) If it’s variety you crave, former Meatless Monday Web editor Tami O’Neill suggested “know when you won’t notice,” as in that freshly wrapped burrito or five-alarm chili in which the flavor might be just as wonderful without packing in the meat.

For kids, the fun particularly matters. Some tips from Meatless Monday include:

– Let kids choose a fruit or vegetable to include in a Meatless Monday dinner. They can help research how to prepare it.

– Involve kids in cooking. Their participation will vary depending on age and ability, but cooking is fun and preparing new foods helps demystify them.

The Monday Campaigns has a site filled with tips for cooking with kids, recipes for different ages and other resources at www.thekidscookmonday.org.

The idea behind Meatless Monday is simple. Launched in 2003 as a nonprofit initiative of The Monday Campaigns, in collaboration with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, it asks people to give up meat one day a week, and the name tells you what to do and when to do it.

There’s plenty of science to support the concept. Cutting down on meat can help reduce the risk of obesity, cancer, diabetes and heart disease. There are also environmental benefits. Meat production uses vast quantities of both fossil fuels and water; and industrial agriculture, which produces the bulk of the meat sold in the U.S., is linked to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, air and water pollution, and other environmental ills.

Meatless Monday’s reach is global. It has since been adopted across the U.S. and in 30 countries. Restaurants, school districts and media outlets such as the Food Network, Self and Prevention have signed on, offering special Meatless Monday menus and recipes. Celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Padma Lakshmi, Al Gore and Paul McCartney have endorsed the campaign.

“To me, though, the most powerful aspect of Monday as a behavior-change idea is that we can do it together,” Neu told the audience at TEDxManhattan. “How cool is it that this Monday there are going to be people in Iran that will be doing a Meatless Monday and they’re going to do it because they share the same goals, to be healthier and to have a healthier planet. … I think sometimes by synchronizing even simple actions, we can synchronize our hearts and our minds around bigger ideals.”

(See Neu’s TEDxManhattan talk below on YouTube.)

The Meatless Monday website offers an abundance of recipes, searchable by category or ingredients. Numerous food and health websites, bloggers and others also feature Meatless Monday recipes on a regular basis.

Vegetarian grilling tips for Meatless Monday

For those pondering how Meatless Monday can mesh with barbecues as summer begins, The Monday Campaigns offers a list of grilling tips, including:

1. Many vegetables can be thrown right on the grill with just a light brushing of olive oil (with delicious results)! Fresh corn, tomatoes, asparagus, eggplant, zucchini, squash and bell peppers are just some to try.

2. Kabobs are a barbecue staple that make the perfect meatless entree. Add tofu cubes, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, roasted potatoes or just about any other vegetable that strikes your fancy.

3. Grilled fruit is amazing too. For a sweet side dish or dessert, try peaches, pineapples, plums, melons, kiwis, pears or figs with a touch of honey marinade.

4. Swap a hamburger for a portobello mushroom burger or grilled eggplant slices. Put the barbecued veggies on a bun and add your favorite toppings, such as avocados, caramelized onions, roasted red peppers or an olive spread.

Peggy Neu at TEDxManhattan. Credit: Screenshot from TEDxManhattan on YouTube.com

Peggy Neu at TEDxManhattan. Credit: Screenshot from TEDxManhattan on YouTube.com

5. Try a veggie burger recipe that celebrates hearty ingredients such as black beans, lentils, quinoa and chickpeas. You can also find healthy pre-made patties at supermarkets and natural food stores.

6. Make a delicious, smoky pizza pie right on the grill — all you need is pizza dough, sauce and your favorite vegetables thinly sliced or pre-grilled.

7. Use your favorite marinade recipe to add flavor to extra firm tofu cubes. Grill them up and add them to a salad, serve them with veggies or enjoy them on their own.

8. Add grilled vegetables to a filling summer salad. Garnish fresh lettuces with a bit of fruit, feta cheese and olive oil to complete the dish; or think beyond lettuce and concoct a bean or grain salad.

9. Consider your sides when planning a meatless barbecue. Pasta salads, raw vegetables and hummus dip are great ways to turn your plant-based dishes into a full meal.

10. End the meal on a healthy note with a tray of fresh fruit, a parfait or homemade smoothies.

Trying new recipes and methods of cooking can help turn Meatless Monday into an opportunity to add variety to your diet and explore new tastes. At the same time, as Neu said, “You can draw inspiration and feel part of a larger movement trying to improve our health and the health of the planet.”

Main photo: Grilled vegetables to light up a Meatless Memorial Day. Credit: Sarsmis/iStockphoto

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Prebiotic stars among spring vegetables. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman

Probiotics have been quite the hot topic for some time now. We are beginning to understand more about the importance of these beneficial bacteria, or microflora, in our guts — not only in maintaining digestive health, but also in boosting our immune systems. At a minimum, if you’ve seen Jamie Lee Curtis extolling the virtues of Activia yogurt in television commercials, you may have some vague idea that probiotics are the answer to undisclosed, unseemly tummy issues, especially if you are a middle-aged woman.

Some of the advertising claims for commercial yogurts can be a bit far-fetched or vague, but there is now a lot of good evidence in the scientific literature supporting the benefits of probiotics, including immunity enhancement, improvement of lactose digestion, treatment of diarrhea in infants and treatment of constipation, improved tolerance to antibiotic therapy and reduced symptoms of respiratory infections. Cultures around the world that eat fermented foods like yogurt, kefir and kimchi have been on to this for centuries.

The secret to probiotics

I thought I understood the concept of probiotics until I heard a talk by nutritionist and Stanford University dietitian Jo Ann Hattner. She coauthored, with Susan Anderes, “Gut Insight: Probiotics and Prebiotics For Digestive Health and Well-Being.” What I had not understood was that probiotics do not thrive on their own. They have to be replaced every few days, and they have to be nourished.

“Bacteria have to eat, too,” Hattner says, and it turns out there are certain foods they really love. These are foods that are high in specific nondigestible, fermentable carbohydrates (fibers), or prebiotics. The fibers are not digested in the stomach — they survive its acidity, and when they arrive in the colon they are fermented by the beneficial microflora that they encounter there. Scientists believe that the acids resulting from this fermentation decrease the pH levels in the colon, and this is detrimental to the survival of pathogenic bacteria. Probiotics and prebiotics have a synergistic relationship and the end result for us, the host, is increased gastrointestinal health and boosted immunity.

Prebiotic foods to consider

Scientists have begun to isolate some of these prebiotic elements. Measurable amounts of two of them, oligosaccharides and inulin, have been found in bananas, chicory root, burdock, dandelion greens, garlic, onions, leeks, globe artichokes, Jerusalem artichokes, jicama, mushrooms, green tea, wild blueberries, kiwis, salsify, whole wheat, barley, and rye. These are foods that Hattner designates as “prebiotic stars.” Other foods that scientists are studying because they think they have “prebiotic potential” include apples, berries, raisins, tomatoes, greens, legumes, oats, brown rice, whole grain corn, buckwheat, flaxseed, almonds and honey. However, they need more human studies before they can be assessed as “stars.”

Spring is a great season to take advantage of many of the “prebiotic stars.” I’ve built a big bowl using six prebiotic stars and potentials, which I top with yogurt, so the synergistic relationship between these ingredients begins on the plate itself. Mind you, I am not one to create dishes because of health-related attributes in the ingredients — deliciousness is always my goal. The stew is a wonderful Mediterranean stew, and the big bowl makes a wonderfully hearty vegetarian meal. The prebiotic/probiotic attributes in the dish are a healthy and delightful coincidence.

In this dish, the prebiotic stars and potential stars are:

  • Onion
  • Garlic
  • Artichokes
  • Fava beans
  • Greens
  • Barley

The probiotic bonus is the garlic yogurt that garnishes the big bowl.

Big Bowl With Barley, Spring Vegetable Stew and Yogurt

Serves 4

Ingredients

For the stew:

Juice of 1 lemon

6 baby artichokes or small artichokes

2 tablespoons olive oil

½ pound spring onions, white and light green parts only, chopped (about 1½ cups)

½ cup chopped celery, preferably from the heart of the bunch

1 bulb green garlic, papery shells removed, chopped

1 large fennel bulb (1 to 1¼ pounds), trimmed, quartered, cored, and chopped (3 to 3½ cups chopped)

½ cup water

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 bunch baby turnips, with greens, turnips scrubbed and quartered, greens stemmed and washed

1½ pounds fava beans, shelled

2 tablespoons chopped fennel fronds or chopped fresh mint (or a combination)

3 cups cooked barley

1⅓ cups Greek yogurt, with 1 mashed garlic clove stirred in if desired
Chopped fresh dill, parsley or mint (or a combination) for garnish

Directions

1. Fill a bowl with water and add lemon juice. Trim the artichokes, quarter them and place in the water as you go along.

2. Heat oil over medium heat in a large, heavy, lidded skillet or Dutch oven and add onions and celery. Cook, stirring, until tender, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, stir for about a minute, until you can smell the fragrance of the garlic, and add fennel and a generous pinch of salt. Cook, stirring often, for another 5 to 8 minutes, until the fennel has softened.

3. Drain artichoke hearts and add to the pan, along with the baby turnips. Cook, stirring often, for 5 minutes. Add ½ cup water and salt to taste and bring to a simmer. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes.

4. Meanwhile, blanch the turnip greens in a pot of salted boiling water for 2 to 3 minutes, until tender. Using a skimmer or a slotted spoon, transfer to a bowl of cold water, then drain and squeeze out excess moisture. Chop medium-fine. Bring the pot of water from the greens back to a boil and drop in the shelled favas. Boil 1 minute, then transfer to a bowl or cold water. Drain and skin the favas. Set aside.

5. When the simmering vegetables are very tender and fragrant, stir in the blanched turnip greens, skinned favas, the chopped fennel fronds and/or mint and simmer for 5 more minutes. Taste and adjust salt and pepper.

6. Spoon a generous serving of cooked barley into each wide bowl. Top with the vegetables, making sure to spoon broth over the barley. Place a spoonful of yogurt on top, sprinkle with parsley, dill or mint, and serve.

Main photo: Prebiotic stars among spring vegetables. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman

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