Articles in Healthy Cooking
A few carrots that didn’t get pulled one summer made their beautiful lacy flowers the next year, and it was easy to see that those blooms looked a lot like Queen Anne’s lace, cilantro blossoms and the diminutive chervil flower. Were they somehow related? More than just a pretty face, I knew there was something behind these flowers and the gorgeous vegetables I loved, something that united them and their forms, flavors and behaviors. But what?
I took those unread botany books off the shelves and found out that yes, these were all members of the umbellifer family and they all make umbel-like flowers, though varying enormously in size. This family includes a lot of wild but familiar plants, including the deadly hemlock, and it turns out that — minus the hemlock — they all happen to be harmonious in our mouths, both the vegetables and the many herbs in that family.
It’s all relative when it comes to vegetables
I started looking more into plant families, who is in them, their stories, their shared characteristics and the way they play in our kitchens. Like people, plant family members are indeed relatives.
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The daisy (composite) family, a group of ruffians, includes the prickly artichokes and cardoons; salsify and scorzanera all with their habit of oxidizing; the bitter chicories; plus milk thistle, dandelion and burdock — a feisty bunch of plants. Break any of the roots and a thick white sap appears. Taste it and you will recoil from its bitterness. But a lot of these bitter plants are good for the liver, it turns out. Interesting.
Members of the nightshade family have been universally resisted wherever they’ve been introduced. Tomatoes were thought to cause stomach cancer. The Russian Orthodox Church believed potatoes were not food because they weren’t mentioned in the Bible, and besides, why eat what a dog didn’t even find interesting? Eggplant was thought to cause leprosy, and the consumption of eggplant (and nightshades in general) stimulates the pain of arthritis, which is why some people avoid it, even today. Belladonna got its name because when ingested, the pupils of the eyes grew large and dark, which was considered a form of beauty in women. The difficulties in this family, presumed or real, are due to alkaloids that can be deadly in large quantities but helpful in smaller ones; we all get our eyes dilated by the optometrist so the doctor can look deeply into our eyes, though not because of their lustrous beauty.
The chenopods, or goosefoots (yes, I looked at a goose’s gnarly foot to confirm the association), include spinach, chard, beets, wild spinach or lamb’s-quarters, and all are related to quinoa and amaranth, whose leaves can be and are eaten as well as the seeds. Speaking broadly, they are interchangeable in the kitchen with respect to flavor. And if you have chard bolting in your garden, might you still be able to eat the leaves as they becomes smaller and further apart on their ever-lengthening stems? Indeed you can. And at this stage they taste more like some of the wild greens they’re related to. This is the kind of stuff that I find fascinating!
Anyone who gardens has opportunities that deepen one’s vegetable literacy and excitement. You’ll find treasures that won’t appear in your supermarket, such as coriander buds that are still green and moist, so surprising in the mouth and so well-paired with lentils. You get to see — and eat — the whole plant, not just the parts and pieces that show up in the store. Broccoli leaves, as well as the crowns and stems, are quite tasty, and the same is true of radish and kohlrabi leaves.
Leeks produce enormous ribbons of leaves, sometimes referred to as flags, and indeed you can wave them back and forth to signal someone, if need be. When left in the garden over winter, the shanks can grow to a few feet in length(!), by which time a firm core has formed, too dense to eat, but a great ingredient for soup stock. When a leek is left in the garden long enough to bloom, its enormous spherical flower mimics that of the pretty chive blossom. And when you finally encounter a mature leek in the garden you can see that it is a mighty and noble vegetable (one variety is named King Richard). Is it surprising that the leek is the national symbol of Wales?
The name knotweed (the family that includes rhubarb, sorrel and buckwheat) refers to jointed stems, but you might see that the blossoms of these plants resemble the kind of embroidery that consists of little knots. Not the botanical definition, but my own, and you may have your own interpretation of names, too. I might add it doesn’t take much imagination to bring these three challenging plants together in a recipe.
Does any of this matter? Yes and no. We can still buy vegetables and cook them without knowing a bit of botany or history. But it is enormously fun to bring the familial nature of vegetables into view, to know that what relates in the garden often does so in the kitchen, which encourages both confidence and daring. And if you garden at all, your eyes will be open to possibilities that just don’t exist elsewhere.
To me, vegetable literacy enriches our world — and our culinary possibilities — by regarding the whole, wonderful plant and its relatives, not just the pieces and parts of a few cultivars.
Top photo: Deborah Madison holds an allium. Credit: Christopher Hirsheimer
The latest news is good news, but it isn’t really new news.
It was 20 years ago almost to the day that my editor at Bantam Books buttonholed me in a hallway in Cambridge, Mass., and said: “We have to do a book about this.”
She was talking about the Mediterranean diet, subject of heated discussions at the First Mediterranean Diet Conference, organized by the Harvard School of Public Health and Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust, an organization that I had founded with my colleagues Greg Drescher and the late Dun Gifford. The book that resulted was “The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook,” published by Bantam in 1993. And from that day to this I have never ceased believing that this smart, sensible and delicious diet is also one of the healthiest ways of eating that we know, and the easiest to adopt and put on our families’ tables.
Mediterranean diet evidence piles up
So it’s just plain gratifying to have confirmation from the latest and most impressive study, published a few days ago on the New England Journal of Medicine’s website and creating a firestorm of comment in the media and on the Internet. What makes the study truly significant is not just the prestige of the Spanish medical researchers who conducted it meticulously, but also the large cohort (more than 7,000 people) and the long duration (more than five years). In fact, the study was cut short because the results were so clear that it seemed unfair to the control group not to let them in on the good news.
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And what is the good news? Following a traditional Mediterranean diet — rich in vegetables, fruits, and legumes, with a low consumption of meat and dairy products, and with plenty of seafood and plenty of extra-virgin olive oil — brings a healthful outcome. Lots of healthful outcomes. In the case of this study, researchers were looking at cardiovascular disease. The conclusion? A traditional Mediterranean diet can reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease by at least 30%.
Some commenters have called that insignificant, but if you come from a family with a genetic predisposition to heart disease (as I do, both my parents and at least half my grandparents died of stroke and related problems), that’s significant. For me, it is enough to want to follow this diet to the end of my days.
Fortunately, that’s not hard to do. Because the best news of all about the Mediterranean diet is that it is very easy for most Americans to follow. It emphasizes dishes with ingredients that are easy to find in any supermarket, that are easy to prepare, and that are easy to eat because they are all so darned delicious. It doesn’t require fancy ingredients, trips to exotic neighborhoods, or long hours over a hot stove to eat well the Mediterranean way.
But if you are an adherent of what we might call the traditional American diet, it will require some adjustment.
First , cut out processed food entirely. If you read Michael Moss’s new book, “Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” you will be compelled to do exactly that. No industrial fats, no added salt, no added sugar.
Then, be prepared to spend more time shopping than most of us do cooking. You need more time at the produce section than standing over a hot stove. Take time to select fresh, seasonal, well-raised fruits and vegetables. These do not necessarily need to be organic, but it helps. Choose produce from as close to home as possible, whether you shop in a local supermarket or are lucky to have a good four-seasons farm stand near where you live.
When it comes time to cook, make it simple:
- Steaming vegetables and tossing them in extra virgin olive oil with finely chopped garlic and herbs is about as complicated as you want to get.
- Grill or oven-roast a piece of fish and serve it with a dribble of olive oil, chopped herbs and a spritz of lemon.
- Make a soup or a pasta sauce by cooking fresh or canned tomatoes with garlic, onion and some chopped basil, then purée for a soup or cook down a little more to thicken for a pasta sauce.
- Soak a batch of dried legumes, such as beans, chickpeas, fava beans, etc., and cook till done, then use half of them in your tomato soup and freeze the other half for another recipe later in the week.
- Make whole-grain bread the only bread on your table. Do away with sweet muffins and sugary breakfast pastries.
- Drink a glass of wine with your dinner.
- Make dessert a piece of fresh seasonal fruit.
- Above all, switch from whatever fats you now use, such a butter, lard or canola, to extra virgin olive oil, which is the finest kind. Use an expensive high-quality oil for garnishing, and a cheaper one for all your cooking, but always choose extra virgin. An aspect of olive oil untouched on in the Spanish study is the presence in extra virgin olive oil of health-giving antioxidant polyphenols that are lacking in regular or refined oil.
And, as the waiter says when he sets down a plate before you: Enjoy!
Top photo: Elements of a classic Mediterranean diet. Credit: Prudencio Alvarez Carballo/iStock
Cultures all around the world have rejuvenating herbal tonics, taken to strengthen and support the body. Think of the spring tonics our grandparents knew and swore by. A number of these elixirs are also aphrodisiacs, employed to arouse our emotions and feelings of love. With Valentine’s Day coming up, what better time to give them a try?
Botanical aphrodisiacs are often highly-prized and costly (ginseng, for example), but the romantic cocktails, cupcakes and sorbet (we got inventive!) below call for five main ingredients that are inexpensive and readily available in the U.S.
Aphrodisiac list to remember
Each has a cultural tradition of promoting health and well being while also supporting libido: Ashwagandha, native to India; damiana, found in Central and South America; horny goat weed from China; maca from Peru; and schisandra from China. All can be obtained as organic dried herbs or powders from Starwest Botanicals. Many are also available from Frontier Coop. Organic fairly-traded Ayurvedic herbs can be found at Banyan Botanicals, and if you’d like to try growing any of these plants yourself, Horizon Herbs can supply seeds.
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You may be inspired to try these treats for Valentine’s day but remember they can be enjoyed any time, alone or with a partner. Here’s to health and pleasure!
Evening Energizing Cocoa
Ashwagandha, Withania somnifera, a relative of the tomato, is one of the most important tonic and restorative herbs in Ayurveda, India’s ancient science of life and medicine. In India, ashwagandha root is traditionally boiled in milk as a drink. It has a slightly bitter taste, so we like to combine it with cocoa to make a relaxing and restorative evening drink, adding the aphrodisiac effects of chocolate to that of the ashwagandha.
½ to 1 teaspoons ashwagandha powder
2 teaspoons cocoa powder (or to taste)
¼ teaspoon cardamom powder
1 cup milk or almond milk per person
10 drops vanilla essence
honey or maple syrup to taste
1. Mix dry ingredients in a saucepan.
2. Add milk and bring just to the boil, then remove from heat.
3. Add in the vanilla and sweetener to taste.
* * *
Damiana Iced Tea
Damiana, Turnera diffusa, is a tonic herb found in Texas, Central America and tropical parts of South America. Damiana is a tonic for both sexes, balancing hormones and supporting the nervous system as well as increasing libido.
2 heaped teaspoons damiana
1 heaped teaspoon mint
some rose petals
1. Put ingredients into a jug.
2. Pour boiling water on them, brew for 5 minutes.
3. Strain and chill.
4. Serve over ice.
* * *
Horny Goat Weed Liqueur
Horny goat weed, or Epimedium, is an herb worth trying for the name alone. It is grown as ground-cover plant in dry shade, and the species used as aphrodisiacs are Epimedium grandiflorum, E. sagittatum and E. brevicornum. The leaves, which can be used fresh or dried, have a pleasant mild taste and a mild stimulant effect.
Makes about two weeks’ supply for one person.
A handful of dried horny goat weed leaves
A slice or two of orange
3 or 4 cardamom pods
1 tablespoon brown sugar
About a cup of whisky
1. Loosely fill a jam jar (roughly ½ pint size) with the dry ingredients
2. Pour in enough whisky to fill the jar and submerge the contents.
3. Put the jar in a warm dark place for two weeks then strain and bottle.
4. Enjoy a small liqueur glassful, sipped slowly, as and when you wish.
* * *
Maca Cupcakes With Vanilla Fudge Icing
Maca, Lepidium meyenii, looks a bit like a turnip and is a staple in the high Andes. Its strengthening and hormone balancing benefits are cumulative over long periods, though some people find it immediately stimulating. The powder smells like butterscotch, but blander and with a slightly bitter taste. Maca can be added to porridge, breads and cakes. Our favorite maca recipe is for these cupcakes. Matthew loves the combination of hard, sweet icing, a soft, light cake and sensuous strawberry melting in the mouth.
Makes 10 to 12 cupcakes
Ingredients for cupcakes
½ tablespoon vinegar
1 tablespoon corn syrup or honey
4 tablespoons butter
½ cup light brown sugar
½ cup milk or oat milk
1 cup white flour
2 tablespoons maca powder
1 tablespoon boiling water
½ teaspoon baking soda
1. Warm vinegar, corn syrup, butter and sugar together in a pan.
2. When softened, beat until mixture becomes a creamy batter.
3. In another container, mix milk, flour and maca powder.
4. When well blended into a runny batter, pour over the cake batter.
5. Mix the two batters together to form a semi-liquid mixture.
6. Pour into 10 or 12 muffin cases.
7. Bake at 180 C (350 F) for 15 to 20 minutes, until golden on top and cooked through.
8. Cool, and add icing, as below.
Vanilla Fudge Icing
For 10 or 12 cupcakes
1 teaspoon butter
1½ cups sugar
½ cup milk
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
10 small, very ripe strawberries
1. Melt butter and sugar in a saucepan.
2. Add milk and stir continually until it reaches boiling point.
3. Continue cooking until the mixture arrives at the soft ball stage (115 C, 240 F).
4. Cool a little, add vanilla extract and beat until smooth.
5. Spread on the cup cakes.
6. If the icing gets too stiff, warm it over hot water.
7. Decorate the top of each cupcake with a small, very ripe strawberry while the icing is still soft.
* * *
Schisandra Syrup and Sorbet
Schisandra, Schisandra chinensis, berries are the fruit of a Chinese vine in the magnolia family and are known as “five flavor berries” for their complex taste. Besides their aphrodisiac effect, they promote overall health and vitality, improve memory and concentration and help protect the liver, support the endocrine system and act as a powerful antioxidant.
Ingredients for syrup
1 cup schisandra berries
3 cups water
1 cup sugar
1. Put schisandra berries into a pan.
2. Add the water and simmer gently with the lid on for 30–40 minutes.
3. This stage is complete when the berries have given their brown-black color to the water.
4. Allow to cool for a few minutes.
5. When almost cool, put in blender and blend for a few moments.
6. Strain through a sieve.
7. Add sugar, and bring to a boil, cooking for a couple of minutes longer.
8. Allow to cool, giving a rich syrup
Ingredients for sorbet
1 cup schisandra syrup (as above)
Juice of 2 or 3 oranges, freshly squeezed
1 ripe banana
1. Mix the syrup and orange juice.
2. Peel and slice the banana and freeze it.
3. When frozen or nearly frozen, add the banana to the syrup mix.
4. Beat with a hand blender until creamy, then freeze again.
5. Serve in a chilled dish.
Top photo: Ashwaganda. Credit: Julie Bruton-Seal
Indian food lovers in the United States often have a vague concept of what biryanis are — a perception that stems from Indian restaurants that spike basmati rice with spices and dot it with either pieces of meat or vegetables. From the Persian biriyan (to fry before cooking), true biryanis were introduced and made popular by several invaders; the Moghuls were a prime influence, having gathered their knowledge from the Persians. The Nawabs of Lucknow and the Nizams of Hyderabad also popularized these layered meat-rice-nut dishes all across India, where there are more than 35 varieties.
The fancier the occasion, the more elaborate the biryani — some even included pounded silver leaves. I consider such biryanis to be meals in themselves; the only accompaniments they need are a simple yogurt-based raita (even a bowl of plain yogurt will suffice), pickles (either homemade or store-bought), and flame-toasted lentil wafers (papads).
The constitution of a biryani is rather simple. First, meat is often marinated and braised, spiced and simmered in various sauces. To prepare the rice layer, clarified butter is perfumed with whole spices, and sometimes with nuts and raisins. Then basmati rice is steeped in the butter (with water) to partially cook it. Finally, alternating layers of the meat curry and rice pulao are spread in a casserole and baked until the flavors mingle and the rice grains are tender. Although many of the biryanis are meat-based, vegetarians have adapted these dishes to include legumes and vegetables.
Kichidi, a savory and soothing porridge
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love biryanis, but the dish that gets no respect is one that is a close sibling, albeit a dowdy one in some Indians’ minds. Kichidis are soothing and simple porridges usually eaten when convalescing from an illness. The easily digestible grains, when eaten with plain yogurt, make for a comforting meal. Often, the trilogy of pickles, papads and yogurt accompanies kichidis to complement the porridge’s softness with pungency and crunch.
Of all the stories I heard in my childhood days, the one that always made me sit up and listen was this one about kichidis. To set the stage, it’s helpful to know about Akbar, the third and highly revered emperor of the Moghul empire, who ascended the throne at the tender age of 13, around 1556. Over the course of his rule, he developed a deep bond and friendship with his trusted inner circle adviser, Birbal, whose wit, impartiality, compassion and intelligence were legendary. Stories were penned over the years that regaled many a child at bedtime. This one particularly stuck with me, appealing to my culinary sensibilities.
Birbal listened patiently to the poor Brahmin’s predicament. The Brahmin, with teeth still chattering from the previous night’s bone-chilling experience in the frigid waters of the lake, recounted how he was promised 100 rupees for spending the night in its icy bed. He had managed to survive the frigidity by cozy thoughts that his children’s bellies would soon be filled with the help of this small fortune. He called upon Rama for strength, hands folded in pious servitude, looking toward a lighted oil lamp 200 feet away for the only flicker in an otherwise charcoal-black night. His prayers helped him make it to the crack of dawn, when he emerged from the lake with frozen, shriveled skin but a warmed heart filled with the hope of a hot meal for his hungry babies.
The court ministers marveled at the Brahmin’s fortitude and quizzed him at length on his successful survival. But once they heard that he had made it through with the “warmth” from the flickering light 200 feet away, they refused him his meager prize.”You cheated us you insolent man,” they fumed. “You heated yourself with the oil lamp 200 feet away.” The Brahmin’s earnest pleadings fell on deaf ears even when he insisted on presenting his case to the usually fair-minded emperor, Akbar.
Birbal stroked his beard as he listened to the Brahmin’s misery. It was time to teach the cruel ministers and Akbar a lesson. He invited them to a simple dinner of kichidi in his palatial courtyard. With help from the Brahmin, he lit a small fire from dried twigs. He fashioned a supporting structure 50 feet high from which dangled a large earthenware pot filled with rice, lentils and gold-yellow turmeric. The crowds gathered and waited with growing impatience for the humble, delicately spiced porridge.
Akbar’s anger rose along with the wisps of smoke from the pitiful twig fire as he demanded explanation for Birbal’s obvious stupidity in trying to cook a pot of kichidi 50 feet away from such a weak flame. “Jahanpana,” he said with respect, addressing him as King of the World, “if a flickering light 200 feet away could warm a Brahmin standing in waist-high icy-cold water, why can’t I cook this kichidi only fifty feet away.” Akbar realized his folly, duly reprimanded his ministers, and ordered them to pay the Brahmin five times what was promised to him. Birbal once again prevailed!
Rice-Lentil Porridge with Caramelized Onion (Pyaaz kichidi)
Makes 6 servings (about ½ cup each)
1 cup uncooked white basmati or long-grain rice
½ cup split and skinned green lentils (mung/moong dal — yellow in this form)
4 cups cold tap water
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
2 tablespoons ghee or melted butter
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 medium-size red onion, cut in half lengthwise and thinly sliced
2 to 4 fresh green Thai, cayenne or serrano chilies, stems removed, slit in half lengthwise (do not remove seeds)
1 medium-size tomato, cored and finely chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
1 teaspoon coarse kosher or sea salt
¼ teaspoon black peppercorns, coarsely cracked
1. Plunk the rice and dal into a medium-size saucepan and add enough water to cover the grains. With your fingertips gently rub and swish the grains, at which point the water will get cloudy. Pour the water out and repeat three to four times, until the water remains relatively clear; drain.
2. Add 4 cups cold water to the pan and bring it to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring once or twice to separate the grains. Skim off any suds that may float to the top. Stir in the turmeric, lower the heat to medium, and simmer, partially covered, until most of the water evaporates. Cover the pan and continue to simmer about 5 minutes.
3. Turn off the burner and allow the pan to sit undisturbed an additional 5 to 10 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, heat the ghee in a medium-size skillet over medium-high heat. Sprinkle in the cumin and let it sizzle, turn reddish brown, and smell nutty, about 10 to 15 seconds. Immediately add the onion and chilies and stir-fry 4 to 6 minutes, until the onion turns purple-brown, 5 to 7 minutes. This is a good time to make sure your stove fan is on because of the pungent fumes from the roasting chilies.
5. Add the remaining ingredients and stew the mélange, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the tomato softens, 2 to 4 minutes.
6. Scrape the skillet’s contents into the now-cooked rice-lentil mixture and mix well; serve.
Tip: If onions, chilies and tomatoes bother your stomach, leave them out. The humble cumin seeds and ghee are equally satisfying on their own.
Top photo: Indian kichidi. Credit: Raghavan Iyer
I don’t know anyone who wakes up on Jan. 1 cheering, “Woo-hoo, I can’t wait to go on a diet.” Most of us hate to diet. But as a rite of passing into a new year with well-intentioned resolution, The Diet is an annual dilemma that needs to be looked at a bit differently. In this first month of 2013, let’s resolve not to diet. Let’s anti-diet.
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You can already see the ads on TV. Lose weight with this system, here’s an impossible-to-believe before-and-after shot of [insert you] after some charlatan’s weight-loss scam. We know most of these don’t work and don’t last. You’ve got the low-carb diet, the calorie-restriction diet, the açai berry diet — all cruel and unusual over a prolonged period. And not sustainable either.
This discussion is mostly for post-holiday bellies and diminishing a gut that’s bigger now than it was before Thanksgiving. It is not for anyone diagnosed as morbidly obese. For that you need medical advice. But anyone looking for a resolution you can live with should be thinking about wellness. And that means a new way of eating and of shopping, getting into a heartfelt ritual of improving the quality of the food you eat.
Here are five candid points that have helped me and could possibly help you.
1. Eat clean
This means getting habituated to eating better, shopping for, and simply cooking, fresh fruits and vegetables and a piece of meat or fish for dinner. Stay away from what I view as unclean food, usually posing as low-calorie frozen dinners. They’re not lean on unnatural ingredients and certainly not anything resembling cuisine. Another example is a commercial spinach dip available at a big box member store. It’s got an ingredient label of biblical proportions. Sure, the dip’s got spinach and dairy, but it also includes hydrolized soy protein, high fructose corn syrup. What’s this stuff? Why not wilt some fresh spinach (or defrost frozen spinach) and mix it with some garlic, Worcestershire and real sour cream or thick yogurt? Dinner is perhaps a serving of fresh chicken with two vegetables. Those vegetables might be steamed peas and mashed sweet potato. That’s clean.
2. Stop eating crap
Yes, I said crap. The commercial spinach dip, mentioned above, is unnatural. Potato chips as a side dish with a sandwich are nutritionally ridiculous. Cheetos, as yummy as they are for salt addicts, are not food. Twizzlers aren’t food. Pizza has trick nutrition, because with it calories and fats can pile up fast. I recommend avoiding it while you’re getting started this year. Ignore nutritionists who encourage daylong snacking. I say stop snacking, and this should help a few pounds here and there melt away.
Don’t forget the stop-eating-crap rule when you’re eating out too. Over the next couple of weeks, don’t get trapped in the salad-is-diet-food myth. There’s low nutrition in lettuce and lots of calories in dressing. When you find yourself out for lunch or dinner, make your own meal. Look over a menu to see what ingredients are on it, then ask the waiter to tell the chef you want the chicken breast out of the chicken sandwich and bring it with the side of chard that comes with the steak entrée. Sometimes the chef can be very obliging.
3. Get used to being a little hungry
This rule goes well with the stop-snacking rule. Some experts say hunger pangs send the body into starvation mode. Snacking your way to satiety is self-defeating.
A few hunger pangs are a sign your stomach is getting accustomed to less. Also, eat dinner early so you’re up more hours to burn calories. You may go to bed a bit hungry, but there’s always breakfast eight hours away.
4. Go to a farmers market
You’ll eat seasonally and you’ll be able to practice one of the best pieces of nutrition advice ever to come along: Eat your colors. Buy orange produce such as winter squash, yams, carrots and oranges. Go green with chard, spinach, kale, broccoli, even frozen peas. Get your red from beets, red cabbage and pomegranates. If you hate beets, don’t eat them. The variety from eating colors keeps boredom at bay. A farmers market will awaken your interest in fresh food, which obviously requires some skill to cook, and that brings me to the next rule.
5. Learn to cook
Zester readers may know more than the average reluctant cook about getting a meal on the table, but many people indulge their interest in food by eating out and making excuses for not cooking.
You won’t think that time spent cooking robs you of time spent doing other things if you decide that cooking is one of those other things. Taking charge of what goes into your body benefits you on many fronts: your budget, your nutrition and your control of all ingredients that enter your body. If you regard the knobs on a stove like they’re controls on a nuclear reactor, then cook in your microwave. About 99% of homes have microwaves. I’ve used the microwave to cook an entire meal that’s clean, nutritious and not too expensive.
Ultimately if you can make yourself a reasonable promise, you’ll feel better, you’ll lose that holiday gut, and you may well be on your way to some new good habits.
“Baked” Chicken From the Microwave
1 whole cut-up fryer, bones in, pieces rinsed and dried with paper towel
Salt and ground black pepper
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon oregano (leafy type, not powdered)
Few sprinkles paprika, for color and a bit of kick
1. To make the breasts of relative size to the rest of the pieces, cut the breasts in half crosswise. Arrange chicken pieces on a microwavable large dinner plate like spokes, with the plump ends along the rim of the plate and narrower ends toward the center.
2. Season with salt and pepper, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with oregano and paprika. Do not cover.
3. In a microwave equipped with a turntable, microwave on high, in 5-minute intervals, for up to a total of 10 to 15 minutes*, until meat is browned and no longer pink inside.
4. Serve with fresh microwaved green beans and half a sweet potato.
* Depending on microwave’s wattage power, your chicken may cook very quickly or slowly. At home, mine is done in about 12 minutes. At a friend’s house with an older model, the chicken was done in 14 minutes. You can stop the microwave at any time to check progress.
This is the easiest type of produce to microwave.
1 medium-sized yam
Dab of butter
1. Halve yam lengthwise. Lay both pieces on a large dinner plate, flat side down. Puncture several air slits in the skin for steam to escape. Do not cover.
2. Microwave on high for 5 minutes. Test doneness by piercing with sharp knife. If it glides easily into the yam, the yam is done. If not, microwave 1 minute more.
3. Turn yam halves over, cut slits and top each with a small dab of butter. Serve hot.
Microwaved Fresh Green Beans With Butter
Serves 2 or 3
⅓ pound green beans (pick tender ones instead of big fat ones)
Sprinkling of salt
1 pat of butter
1. Trim stems off beans. Set beans in a shallow bowl with a tablespoon of water. Sprinkle with salt. Set dab of butter in center.
2. Cover the bowl with a plate. Steam-microwave for 90 seconds. If the beans are still too crunchy for your taste, microwave for another 15 seconds. Scoop the beans out of bowl with a slotted spoon and set on the serving plate with the chicken and yam.
Healthy “baked” chicken, green beans and yams from the microwave. Credit: Elaine Corn
Sometimes luck is in the pantry. On New Year’s Day, good friends from distant parts phoned to say they’d be in town unexpectedly. Could they come for lunch? They’d bring a bottle of wine left over from celebrations the night before. But, with nothing open except the local 7-Eleven, what on earth would we eat?
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But a determined search yielded treasures. Fortunately I found in the pantry cupboard a package of little fagioli del Purgatorio, purgatory beans. Gustiamo.com imports them from Umbria in Italy, and they’re so tiny they need almost no soaking at all. I set them in a small bowl, poured boiling water over and let them sit for an hour or so while I rummaged for something appropriate to add to them. There were the scallops, of course, but only three-quarters of a pound, plenty for two, not really enough for four.
Frozen treasure when there’s nothing to eat
But way in the back of the freezer was a half-pound bag of sweet little Maine shrimp, left over from the last harvest a year ago.
And I can almost always drum up an onion or a leek, a piece of celery, a carrot or two and inevitably several cloves of garlic. So the beans got drained and steamed until tender, with a clove of garlic, several sprigs of thyme from the winter garden, and a dollop of new olive oil, then lightly crushed and mixed with the vegetables, including half a red pepper I managed to rescue from a terminal state, all chopped and sautéed in olive oil to bring out their sweet flavors. Then it was time for the shrimp, by now somewhat softened
. Turned into the warm beans, they immediately loosened up and released their briny aromas without any further cooking at all.
The dish was evolving but definitely lacking something — a hint of acid perhaps? Lemon juice helped, but then I found the most fortuitous serendipity in a package I’d only just received — sun-dried California tomatoes, cut in julienne strips. Put up by Mooney Farms in Chico, Calif., they’re marketed as Bella Sun Luci. They provided the very zing that the beans had been lacking — a good thing, I think, to keep on the pantry shelf for just such an occasion.
In praise of the wok
By now, things were starting to look better, but lunch was less than an hour away. The scallops got seared in the wok in olive oil. (I have an ongoing argument about olive oil in the wok with wok star Grace Young, author of “The Breath of a Wok.” I’m all for it. She’s just as firmly against it.) And let me add a word in praise of that incredible kitchen vessel — nothing at all, in my experience, beats a wok for frying. The way it concentrates and focuses the heat, the frying medium (olive oil or not, depending on your taste), and the subject of the exercise, whether scallops or tofu or onions and ginger, is quite incredible. More and more often these days, I find myself turning to my old wok, bought in Hong Kong many decades ago and still a faithful companion in the kitchen.
Those scallops for example: They had no need for any dredging in flour or cornstarch. Thoroughly dried with paper towels and dropped into oil so hot it was just starting to break out a wisp of smoke, they seared almost instantly into crisp golden-brown disks that were crusty on the outside, tender within. So I spread the shrimp and bean mix in a fairly deep gratin dish, first dribbling oil over the bottom, then nestled the browned scallops in wherever they would fit, and topped the whole with toasted breadcrumbs, a fresh grating of Parmigiano-Reggiano, and another dribble of olive oil backward and forward over the top. Into a very hot oven it all went, just long enough to produce a gratin, a bubbling crust on the surface, and there I was, ready for unexpected guests.
Who, in the end, called and said they actually had misjudged the distance and the threat of snow and wouldn’t be coming after all. Tant pis pour eux, we invited in the neighbors and ate to our hearts’ (or our bellies’) content. A good way to start off a new year.
Gratin of What I Found in the Pantry
The best shrimp to use are small Maine shrimp. If you must use larger shrimp, buy wild ones if you can. They will have been frozen, but they still have much nicer flavor than farmed shrimp, which are unfortunately quite ubiquitous.
Be sure to ask for “dry” scallops — scallops that have not been soaked in STP (sodium tri-polyphosphate), a bath that keeps them white. While apparently harmless, STP causes scallops to exude a milky liquid when sautéing and they will never brown properly.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
1 cup small white dried beans, preferably fagioli del Purgatorio
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, crushed with the flat blade of a knife
1 cup mixed chopped vegetables, such as, onion, garlic, celery, red or green pepper, carrot
2 or 3 tablespoons chopped green herbs (e.g., basil, parsley, thyme)
Freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of chili pepper (optional)
½ to ¾ pound shrimp (see note above)
Juice of half a lemon
¾ pound dry sea scallops
¼ cup dry bread crumbs
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1. Put the beans in a small bowl and pour boiling water over. Let them sit for about an hour to soften slightly. Then drain and transfer to a saucepan with more water to cover, plus 1 tablespoon of olive oil, and 1 crushed garlic clove. Bring to a simmer over medium-low heat and simmer, covered, until tender, about 30 to 40 minutes. Toward the end of the cooking time, add a good pinch of salt to the beans.
2. While the beans are cooking, prepare the vegetables, chopping them all into regular dice. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a skillet over medium heat and sauté the vegetables until they are softened and releasing their perfume. Stir in a couple of tablespoons of herbs, a little more salt, and black pepper. Add a pinch of ground chili pepper if you wish.
3. When the beans are done, drain excess water, leaving just a small amount of liquid. Stir in the prepared vegetables.
4. If using Maine shrimp or other small shrimp, stir them into the beans while they’re still hot. If you must use larger shrimp, cut them into half-inch pieces and stir into the beans. Taste the beans and adjust the seasoning, adding more salt and/or pepper, and a spritz of lemon juice.
5. In a sauté pan or a wok, heat 2 or 3 tablespoons of olive oil. While the oil is heating, slice the scallops in half horizontally and dry them thoroughly with paper towels. As soon as the oil is hot, slide the scallops in and cook quickly, turning once, until the scallops are golden-brown on both sides. You may have to do this in batches.
6. Turn the oven on to 425 F. Have ready an oval gratin dish. Rub a little more olive oil over the bottom of the dish, then spoon the shrimp-bean mixture into the dish. Tuck the browned scallops into the bean mixture so that just their curving tops stick out. Sprinkle with bread crumbs and grated cheese and dribble the remaining olive oil over the top.
7. Transfer to the preheated oven and bake until the top is crisp and bubbly. Remove and serve immediately.
Top photo: Wok. Credit: Flickr / avlxyz
The cooking of Kerala Muslims owes as much to the Yemeni Arab traders as it does to the culinary traditions of its native Kerala, India. Consider alissa, a wholesome wheat and meat porridge, hand-rolled wafer-thin ari pathiri (rice bread), or muttamala served over pinnanathappam, (delicate thin strings of egg yolks cooked in sugar syrup served over steam-cooked cardamom-scented egg white pudding).
Centuries before Mahmud of Ghazni attacked northern India in A.D. 1000, the southwestern coastal region of the Indian Ocean between India, the Persian Gulf and East Africa was an area of active commercial exchange. People along these coasts excelled in maritime trade with distant lands, and by the early Christian period South India was transformed into a commercial hub linking the West and the East through coastal and inland routes. A flourishing spice trade between southwestern India and the Arabs of coastal Yemen and Oman flourished.
More about Kerala on Zester Daily:
Arab traders left their shores in July, at the height of the southwestern monsoon season, to go to Kerala, the heart of the pepper country. They returned carrying their precious cargo of many spices as the northwest monsoons arrived in November.
When the relentless monsoons prompted several Arab merchants to stay back until favorable travel weather returned, many settled down and married local women. The alliance was solemnized with the payment of a token bride price, and the local brides and their children were initiated into Islam. Muslims of Kerala, known as Mappilas, account for nearly a quarter of the state’s population.
Influenced by the culinary traditions of traders from the Persian Gulf and leaning heavily on the Kerala spice combinations, Mappila cuisine is known for its distinct taste. It is unlike the Muslim-influenced, rich Mughlai cuisine of North India. In Mappila cuisine, rice, coconut, coconut milk and coconut oil are liberally used. Black pepper is a predominant spice, followed by cinnamon, cloves and cardamom. Rice is the staple grain of Kerala. But because their Arab husbands preferred bread, the ingenious Mappila women created breads made with rice — pathiri.
More than any other Mappila dish, alissa is most strongly rooted to Arab cuisine. Unlike any other Kerala preparation, its main ingredient is wheat and traditionally cinnamon is the only spice used.
This thick porridge is made with wheat from which bran is removed along with meat or chicken. The dish is garnished with thinly sliced shallots, raisins and cashews fried in ghee. It is one of the dishes served as a starter before ghee rice or biryani at north Kerala Muslim weddings.
Many variations around the world
Alissa is quite similar to harisa, a recipe preserved over centuries by the people of the Middle East. Recipes for this dish are found in 10th-century Baghdadi cookbook “Annals of the Caliph’s Kitchen,” “Sufi Cuisine” and the Iraqi cookbook “Delights from the Garden of Eden.”
It was called hareesa in medieval Baghdad, and it’s called herise in many parts of Turkey, where it is served at weddings. In Lebanon, hreessey is a comfort food in the villages when the weather turns cold. Various versions of this porridge made with wheat, barley or semolina were prevalent wherever Arab traders traveled, from Morocco to Muslim Andalusia.
“From the 7th century until today, harisa was a kind of porridge made from pounded wheat, butter, meat, and spices” writes Clifford A.Wright in his article “Gruel, Porridge, and the ‘First Foods’ of Tunisia.” As they break the fast during Ramadan in the Middle East, there are certain dishes that are always served, h’riss being one of them. In her article “Breaking the Fast” in Saveur, Anissa Helou writes: “This deeply satisfying dish of spiced meat and creamy wheat berries is most often made with lamb, but it’s particularly delicious when made with chicken. The version we ate was drizzled with ghee blended with bzar, which gave the h’riss a warm, toasty flavor.”
And harisa of the Middle East became alissa in Kerala. A more elaborate version, called haleem, is popular in north India.
The following recipe for alissa is adapted from Malabar Muslim cookery by Ummi Abdulla.
For the alissa:
1½ cups skinless wheat
1 large onion cut into slices
Salt to taste
2 pounds of chicken or mutton cut into pieces
1½ inch piece of cinnamon stick
For the garnish:
2 tablespoons ghee, plus extra for serving
½ shallot thinly sliced
1 tablespoon raisins
8 to 10 cashew nuts
1. Soak wheat in water for an hour and drain.
2. In a stock pot, combine wheat, chicken or mutton, sliced onion, cinnamon and salt along with 10 to 12 cups water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and cook until the wheat is very tender and broken down.
3. Remove from the stove and mash well until it reaches porridge-like consistency.
4. Heat ghee in a small skillet and add cashews. As the cashews begin to change color, add the raisins. Toast until cashews are golden brown and raisins have plumped up. Remove the fried cashews and raisins from the skillet and set aside.
5. In the same ghee, fry shallot slices until golden. Combine with fried nuts and raisins.
To serve, ladle alissa into serving bowls and top with fried onions, raisins and cashews. Drizzle more ghee over the top and serve hot.
Photo: Alissa. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran
Zester Daily readers have shown an appreciation for a stunning variety of stories over the past year. A quick scan of the 2012 reader favorites reveals a yen for Ruth Bourdain’s dishes, cuisine from every corner of the world, food preservation, photography, films, wine insider news and a treasured recipe for flavored marshmallows — as well as a critique of American taste.
Snippets of the 12 most popular Zester Daily contributors’ stories, plus the five most popular Soapboxes, are below. Follow the story links to read the complete text. Follow the contributor links to read more by each author.
The stories are listed in reverse order.
Top contributors’ stories of 2012
12. THE ORIGINS OF CURRY by Raghavan Iyer: Before I try to define the word “curry,” let me create an image for you from my college laboratory days in India where I pursued a degree in chemistry over 20 years ago. As I busied myself measuring crystals of …
11. OLD-SCHOOL SOY SAUCE by Manuela Zoninsein: There’s no one right ritual or rule to guide your eating extravaganza on Jan. 23. The Chinese New Year involves a number of great food traditions. Dumplings are reminiscent of coins in ancient China and will thus bring …
10. TEN BEST FOODIE FLICKS by David Latt: If cold weather traps you indoors for months each winter, you might run through your queue of streaming movies pretty quick. Why not entertain yourself with a library of the best …
9. HOW KERMIT LYNCH TAUGHT AMERICANS HOW TO DRINK WINE by Patrick Comiskey: Forty years ago, Kermit Lynch abandoned the handmade purse industry and opened a wine shop in Berkeley, Calif., and in doing so, became one of the great innovators of …
8. WINE’S ACCUSED GRIFTER, RUDY KURNIAWAN by Corie Brown: By the summer of 2006, when I first noticed Rudy Kurniawan at Christie’s in Beverly Hills, he had transformed the market for old wine from a sleepy backwater into a high-stakes free-for-all. Only the richest wine collectors knew him. Or thought they did …
6. EATING TO BEAT CANCER: DIET MAY PROVE TO BE A CURE by Harriet Sugar Miller: Last night, it was cauliflower curry on a bed of leeks while my husband grilled his own slab of meat. The night before I ate solo — and downed an enormous bag of kale chips (please don’t tell him) flavored with cashew dust and too much …
4. IN DEFENSE OF TRUFFLE OIL by Lynne Curry: Midwinter is high season for fresh truffles in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. With the help of an experienced truffle hunter (or a trained dog), I could spend …
2. CANNING JARS FROM FAUX TO BEST PRESERVING CHOICES by Susan Lutz: About six months ago, I salvaged a beautiful marinara sauce jar that I intended to refill with home-canned sweet pickles made using my mother’s recipe. And if I hadn’t taken a 12-week course to become a certified Master Food Preserver, I might have …
1. FLAVORED MARSHMALLOWS MADE FROM SCRATCH by Charles Perry: When you hand people homemade marshmallows, they’re always dazzled. These are actual marshmallows, but with a lush, moist texture you never find in store-bought versions. If you want your friends to keep thinking you’re a wizard, don’t tell them how simple it is …
Top Soapboxes of 2012
5. DÍA DE LOS MUERTOS IS FOR AMERICANOS, TOO by Veronica Gonzalez-Smith: In the small town of El Paso, Texas, my siblings and I grew up at a unique intersection of Mexican and American culture. As kids, we traveled in and out of …
4. THE INFANTALIZATION OF AMERICAN TASTE by Michael Krondl: Though the plague of cupcake shops has not spared any city in this great union, it would be hard to find one that illustrates my point better than …
3. CALIFORNIA’S EXCITING NEW WINES BUCK THE MAINSTREAM by Eric Asimov: We live in the most wonderful era in history to love wine. Right now, Americans have access to a greater diversity of wines than ever before, wines made in more styles from more …
2. THE FORGOTTEN QUINCE by Jane McMorland Hunter: Nowadays most people hardly know what a quince looks like. Until the 19th century, it was a commonplace orchard fruit throughout North America and Europe; now it has become …
1. RUTH BOURDAIN DISSES AND DISHES WITH ZESTER by Ruth Bourdain: It’s been more than two years since the debut of Ruth Bourdain, the sensational and often raunchy Twitter persona whose name and sensibilities are a mashup/spoof of former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl and outspoken celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. The true identity of Ms. Bourdain is still under wraps, but her tweets show her to be ….
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And that’s our list for 2012 … Here’s to discovering Ms. Bourdain’s identity in 2013!
Photo illustration, clockwise from top left:
Ruth Bourdain. Credit: Ruth Bourdain
Indian spices (originally published in 660 Curries). Credit: Ben Fink
Homemade marshmallows dusted with confectioners’ sugar. Credit: StockFood
Photo illustration credit: Karen Chaderjian