Articles in Health w/recipe

Watercress soup with bread and pear slices. Credit: Sharon Hunt

Watercress is one of those greens that goes in and out of popularity with my friends, although I have been devoted to it for 20 years, after discovering a hummus, tomato and watercress sandwich in a cafe close to where I worked at the time.

The peppery taste of the watercress added a final, perfect note to the tanginess of the hummus and the freshness of the tomatoes. That sandwich became my workday treat, eaten religiously, Monday to Friday, for a couple of years.

Later, when I left the corporate world and returned to cooking for myself, I nibbled watercress while tossing it into salads, learned to make Potage Cressionniere (a soup of potatoes and watercress) in winter and a lighter soup (without the potatoes) in spring and summer, and used it in my own version of that long-gone sandwich.

Historically, watercress thought to fortify mind and body

Nasturtium officinale is the botanical name for watercress. The word Nasturtium comes from the Latin nasus tortus, meaning “twisted nose,” a warning about the effect watercress can have on your nasal passages.

It may be a nose twister, but it is also one of the oldest green vegetables known to man. The ancient Greeks, Romans and Persians loved it. Persian children ate watercress to grow strong, while Persian and Greek soldiers ate it to remain so. Both the Greek general Xenophon and the Persian king Xerxes decreed their troops should eat it for the same reason, with Xenophon once recalling, “How pleasant it is to eat barley cake and some cress when one is hungry by a stream.”

A Greek proverb — “Eat cress and learn more wit” — gave an indication of the vegetable’s contribution to the brain, something Irish monks also understood. They spent months living on watercress and bread to stimulate their brains.

Watercress provides essential vitamins — in particular A and C — as well as calcium, magnesium, folic acid, iodine, sulfur and iron. It is believed to have wonderful cleansing powers and help in curing a variety of ills. (Romans and Anglo-Saxons used it as a treatment for baldness.) It was also eaten to provide courage and character, and as an aphrodisiac.

The Romans put watercress in salads, dressing it with oil and vinegar, much like we do today.  When Hippocrates — the Greek physician known as the father of Western medicine — founded the first hospital on the island of Kos, Greece, about 400 B.C., he used watercress to treat blood disorders. Twelve centuries later, English herbalist John Gerard championed it as a cure for scurvy in the 1600s. Watercress may also have been eaten at the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving dinner.

A twist from Dickens

In more modern times, the English raised it to something of an institution in watercress sandwiches served at afternoon and high teas. No less than Charles Dickens wrote of it in “Great Expectations,” with Mr. Pumblechook, a corn merchant with a mouth “like a fish,” ordering watercress sandwiches for Pip, the book’s hero, as a supposed kindness although, in truth, Pip didn’t like them.

Others of that time did, though. Watercress was breakfast for the working classes in Victorian Britain, eaten with bread or alone.

“The first coster cry heard of a morning in the London streets is of ‘Fresh wo-orter-creases,’ ” English social researcher Henry Mayhew wrote in his 1851 survey “London Labour and the London Poor.” Surely one of those coster cries must have come from Eliza James. Nicknamed “The Watercress Queen,” James was a watercress seller in the late 1800s and early 1900s, hawking her wares in her Covent Garden stall for more than half a century. She started selling watercress when she was 5, first at factories in Birmingham, then eventually becoming the sole watercress supplier of most hotels and restaurants in London as well as, reputedly, the biggest owner of watercress farms in the world.

Wild watercress

Wild watercress grows in shallow rivers and streams, fading in the dog days of summer and the coldest months of winter. Picking it wild, however, requires great care to ensure the water it grows in is pollution free and the watercress is uncontaminated. Commercially, watercress is cultivated in carefully controlled tanks or water beds.

Although peppery in taste, watercress actually has a cooling effect on the mouth. This is something Taillevent, a 14th-century cook to the Court of France, understood. He included a course of “watercress, served alone, to refresh the mouth” in one of his famous banquet menus.

In North America, watercress is an ingredient in salads, soups and sandwiches. It is a lovely complement to oranges, apples and pears, and also works well with eggs.

When using watercress, leave the stems on because they have the strongest flavor. Try not to overcook it. The leaves are delicate, and long cooking robs them of their flavor. Watercress is best eaten soon after purchasing and should be kept immersed in cold water until it is used. So go ahead, let your nose twist as you enjoy this wonderful green.

A Light Watercress Soup

Serves 4

Ingredients

For the soup:

2½ tablespoons unsalted butter

2 shallots, finely chopped

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1 cup whole milk

1 cup low-sodium vegetable stock

¼ teaspoon salt

3 bunches (about 3 cups) watercress, washed, dried and chopped

¼ cup table cream (10%)

Optional garnishes:

Crème fraîche

Thinly sliced pear

Directions

1. Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook until soft. Stir in the flour and cook for 1 minute.

2. Gradually stir in the milk and vegetable stock, then add the salt. When the soup is near boiling, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 5 minutes.

3. While the soup cooks, bring a large pot of water to boil. Add the watercress to blanch until wilted, but still retaining its bright color. Remove it from the water and place in a bowl of ice water.

4. Squeeze the water out of the cooled watercress and add the watercress to the soup.

5. Carefully purée with a hand blender or in a food processor, adding the cream.

6. Reheat if necessary.

7. Garnish with a dollop of crème fraîche and a few slices of pear if you wish. This soup is delicious hot or cold.

Main photo: Watercress soup with bread and pear slices. Credit: Sharon Hunt

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Rustic Mushroom Soup. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

My journey to being healthy has been one long and twisted adventure, basically covering my entire life. I’ve never been thin, nor do I want to be. I like my curves. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to eat healthy and exercise so I can live the best life I can. That means leaving behind old flavorless “diet” foods from another generation and embracing tasty healthy superfoods.

As a child I remember my mother joining Weight Watchers, and I would sometimes go to meetings with her. I also remember eating some absolutely horrible “diet” food with her. One of my mother’s favorites was toast with cottage cheese on top, sprinkled with cinnamon and Sweet’N Low.

These days, I am now a member of Weight Watchers. I am not on a diet, just being mindful of how I eat and what I eat. For me, this is a logical step on my journey to improving my well-being. I was a caregiver to my mother and single mother to my daughter for so many years I stopped taking care of me. Now it is my turn.

Recently, I discovered mushrooms are a superfood, or a food that is nutrient dense while being low in calories. Some superfoods, such as mushrooms, pomegranates and blueberries, are being studied for their ability to help fight cancer and other diseases.

I was not always able to eat mushrooms. I have a very distinct memory from childhood of mushrooms being sautéed on the stove, and when I smelled them I became nauseated. I hated mushrooms so much they turned my stomach. As an adult, I lost my aversion to mushrooms and enjoy cooking with them often.

Making soup with the superfoods

Rustic Mushroom Soup is very simple and fast to prepare, making it an ideal weeknight meal. Most markets now offer an organic baby leafy greens salad, usually with a mix of chard, spinach and kale. These mixes are great as a salad, but also perfect for tossing into a soup for added nutrition and flavor. And you do not have to prep anything, just open the bag.

Although kale is “so over” for many people, I enjoyed it before it became a superfood and will enjoy it after its 15 minutes of fame are over. Almost any leafy green can be substituted for the baby greens, including collard, mustard and turnip greens, Swiss chard or arugula.

A variety of mushrooms can also be used in this soup. Just chop them into bite-size pieces, then follow the recipe as written.

This soup is healthy, filling and satisfying, and the Weight Watchers Points Plus value for one serving is only 1 point.

Rustic Mushroom Soup

Serves 8

Ingredients

1 tablespoon olive oil

½ medium onion, thinly sliced

4 fresh thyme sprigs

1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano leaves

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 pound crimini or brown mushrooms, quartered or cut into six pieces if large

1 container (32 ounces) vegetable broth

4 cups water

2 cups baby kale, chard or spinach salad mix

Directions

1. In a medium soup pot or saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium flame.

2. Add the onion, thyme, oregano, salt and pepper. Stirring occasionally, cook for 4 to 5 minutes or until the onion is softened.

3. Add the mushrooms and stir well to coat them with the aromatics. Cook 5 to 7 minutes until browned and the mushrooms have released their liquid.

4. Add the vegetable broth and water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Simmer for 20 minutes to allow the flavors to blend.

5. Add the baby greens, cook for 1 to 2 minutes until wilted.

6. Serve with crusty bread and a salad.

Top photo: Rustic Mushroom Soup. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

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Fried breaded fish sticks with tomato sauce. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Sun, Sea & Olives: It isn’t easy getting people to eat what they’re not used to, and if what they’re used to is a hefty steak and baked potato with butter and sour cream on top, it can take a lot of diplomacy to convince the guy (it’s almost always a guy) that fish and salad are a better choice. So what to do?

Aolives

For people who’ve been eating the Mediterranean way for years — lots of vegetables, very little dairy, plenty of seafood, not much meat and an ample glug of olive oil on top — it seems like a no-brainer. The food is delicious even or especially if it’s good for you. How could you not like it? But what about those die-hard American beef eaters? How do you get them to switch to a Mediterranean diet and be happy doing so?

Slowly, slowly and little by little is my advice. Add fish once a week but make it really good — tempting, tasty, irresistible — as in the recipe below for breaded fried fish. Serve it with a spicy salsa made with diced fresh tomatoes, avocados and a little green chili or make a tomato sauce, just like a pasta sauce, only add plenty of crushed red pepper, a bit of cumin and a spritz of lemon juice to liven things up. The walls of culinary resistance may come tumbling down and soon enough you’ll be serving, and loving, braised salmon, crisp green salad and bitter greens to take the place of that baked potato.

Better than an ode to childhood meals

These breaded fried fish sticks are really just a healthy step or two away from the frozen fish fingers that were once every mother’s staple, but making them at home means you can make them so much more healthful. First of all, make your own breadcrumbs from whole-grain bread just by whizzing stale chunks of bread in the food processor until they’re the right consistency. To give bread crumbs more crunch, toast them in a dry skillet over medium heat, tossing and stirring until they are golden. For added crunch, stir a couple of tablespoons of finely chopped or ground walnuts or almonds into the breadcrumbs. And use extra virgin olive oil for frying — no, not the $30 a half-liter bottle that you got from the gourmet shop. There are plenty of cheaper alternatives that are well-made extra-virgins. California Olive Ranch, for instance, is offered on Amazon.com at around $14 per 25.4 ounce bottle — if you buy a case of 12 bottles. And Academia Barilla’s 100% Italiano is $34 for a 3-liter tin, also available online. Both of these are in my experience excellent all-purpose oils that won’t break the bank.

Fried Breaded Fish Sticks

Use a meaty, white-fleshed fish for this; cod, haddock, halibut or hake are all good choices. Buy boneless fillets or have a whole fish boned and filleted. To approximate 2 pounds of fillets, you will need 4 pounds of whole fish (sometimes called “round weight”).

Makes 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

Fish frying. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Fish frying. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

2 pounds white-meat fish fillets (see suggestions above)

½ cup unbleached all-purpose flour

½ cup whole wheat flour

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

¼ to ½ teaspoon ground chili pepper

1 egg

1 cup toasted bread crumbs, preferably made from whole grain bread

¼ cup finely chopped or ground walnuts or almonds

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

Garnish: Tomato sauce, tomato-avocado salsa, or plain lemon juice

Directions

1. Rinse the fish fillets and pat them dry. Run your hands over the fillets to be sure all the pin bones have been removed. If any remain, use tweezers to pull them out.

2. Cut the fillets in smaller pieces, either one piece to a serving or, if you wish, make fish fingers, about 1 inch wide by 2½ inches long.

3. Set out three soup plates. Put the two flours and the salt in one plate and toss together with a fork. Crack the egg into the second plate. Add a teaspoon of water and beat the egg and water together with a fork. Combine the bread crumbs and nuts in the third plate.

4. Dip a piece of fish in the flour, turning it to coat lightly all sides. Shake off any excess. Then dip it in the egg, again turning to coat lightly all sides and letting excess drip off. Finally dip the piece in the bread-crumb-nut mixture, pressing well to let the crumbs adhere to the fish on all sides. Set each fish piece on a wire rack to dry slightly while you finish all of them.

5. Add the oil to a heavy skillet large enough to hold a number of fish pieces in a single layer and set the skillet over medium heat. When the oil begins to shimmer slightly, add as many fish pieces as you comfortably can fit in the pan. The fish should sizzle and brown on one side in 3 to 5 minutes; turn gently, using tongs, and brown the other side. Resist the temptation to keep turning the fish — that will reduce the amount of oil absorbed. When each piece is done, set it on a rack covered with paper towels. (If you’re doing a lot of fish, you might want to transfer the drained pieces to a very low oven — 150 F to keep warm.)

6. When all the fish is done, serve immediately, accompanied by tomato sauce (recipe below), or make a simple tomato-avocado salsa with chopped red onion, a little green chili and basil.

Tomato Sauce

This is a variation on the simple tomato sauce I often serve with pasta. Serve it as is or spice it up with cumin, crushed red chili pepper and a spritz of lemon juice.

Makes about 2 cups of sauce

Ingredients

2 garlic cloves, sliced very thin

1 small green jalapeño pepper, seeded and thinly sliced (optional)

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 (28 ounce) can of whole peeled tomatoes

1 tablespoon minced fresh herbs (flat-leaf parsley, basil, rosemary, thyme) or ½ teaspoon ground cumin

Juice of half a lemon or to taste

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Directions

1. Combine garlic, jalapeño if using, and oil in a saucepan and set over low heat. Let cook very gently, just until the vegetables are softened, but do not let them brown.

2. Add the tomatoes with their liquid and raise the heat to medium low. Add in the minced fresh herbs or the cumin. Simmer while breaking up the whole tomatoes with the side of a spoon as they cook down and the sauce thickens.

3. When the sauce is very thick (after 20 or 30 minutes of simmering), remove from the heat and purée the contents of the pan in a food processor or blender or using a vegetable mill or handheld blender. Taste and add lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste.

Note: If you don’t use all the sauce, it will keep for a week in the refrigerator. You can also freeze it in half-cup quantities to use later for pasta, pizza or in place of commercial ketchup.

Top photo: Fried breaded fish sticks with tomato sauce. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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Broccoli sprout salad. Credit: Holly Botner / jitterycook.com

Broccoli was in the spotlight at the American Institute for Cancer Research’s recent annual conference, where global scientists shared their findings on the connection between diet and cancer. Had the researchers been giving out awards, broccoli’s baby sprouts, not just broccoli, would have snatched gold.

How you prepare broccoli, though, is the key to its cancer-fighting ability, said Elizabeth Jeffery, co-chair of one of the conference’s sessions and a professor in the department of food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her latest research could dramatically change your culinary habits.

Queen of the crucifers

You know the stinky smell that fills your kitchen when you’re cooking broccoli? That’s because of healthy sulfur-filled compounds, which exist in all crucifers. An enzyme in crucifers — marked by that kick you get when you bite into a raw one — turns sulfurs into two cancer-fighting categories:

– Indoles, which help break down hormones as well as target a group of genes that promote prostate cancer. (The latter finding was reported by Wayne State University scientist Fazlul Sarkar at the conference.)

– Isothiocyanates (pronounced eye-so-thigh-o-sigh-a-nates), which counteract carcinogens in general and speed up their removal from the body. (Of course, broccoli also has many more healthy compounds.)

Broccoli bears the crown of queen of the crucifers because compared with other crucifers, it contains more of a particularly important isothiocyanate called sulforaphane.

Because heat degrades the enzyme that produces sulforaphane, many food scientists, until now, have recommended we eat crucifers raw or very lightly cooked. In her recent broccoli research, however, Jeffery has developed a more sophisticated approach to maximizing sulforaphane. Her work shows that how you make the broccoli and what you pair it with are vital.

Tips on handling broccoli

To capitalize on sulforaphane, first cook broccoli lightly, Jeffery said. Steam it in a little liquid for 3 to 4 minutes until bright green, using a steamer so that it doesn’t touch the cooking liquid. Or blanch it for 20 to 30 seconds, no more. Those methods are surprisingly better than eating it raw, she said, because when the enzyme acts on broccoli’s sulfur-containing compounds, the compounds can swing either way — and get turned into sulforophanes, which fight cancer, or nitriles, which don’t. “Every molecule of nitriles formed is a sulforaphane not formed,” Jeffery said. And just a little heat will keep nitriles from forming.

To counteract the enzyme reduction caused by heating Jefferey has a second suggestion:

Eat steamed broccoli along with a little raw crucifer — arugula, watercress, a little wasabi or spicy mustard, or perhaps even better, raw red radish. (The stronger the kick, the more enzyme you’re getting.) Red radishes contain sulforaphane and don’t have the inherent ability to produce nitriles. You don’t need much, Jeffery said — just two to three radishes or a ½ teaspoon of mustard or wasabi. And you don’t have to eat them in the same bite as broccoli, just in the same meal.

Here’s the final and most liberating finding for those of us chained to our kitchens: As long as you eat raw crucifers in the same meal, you can go ahead and cook broccoli any way you want, Jeffery said. The enzymes in the raw crucifers will act on compounds in the cooked ones.

These same suggestions apply to all crucifers that can produce nitriles, she said — including cauliflower, most cabbages and especially Brussels sprouts.

Why broccoli sprouts?

While President George H.W. Bush was banning broccoli on Air Force One back in 1990, Johns Hopkins researcher Paul Talalay was busy exploring the crucifer’s newborn sprouts. What, he wondered, was the ideal number of days needed to germinate seeds to get the best sulforaphane content as well as taste?

The answer: three days. He and his son went on to develop a side business selling young broccoli sprouts. (Talalay, now 91, still collaborates on research and goes to his lab almost every day.)

In contrast to mature broccoli, broccoli sprouts have, on average, 20 times the amount of compounds that develop into sulforaphane, said Yanyan Li, a professor of food science at Montclair State University who is studying sulforaphane. Since the 1990s, researchers have been identifying cancer stem cells in many types of cancer, and Li has recently found that sulforaphane targets breast cancer stem cells at relatively low concentrations.

How much is enough?

To obtain that level of sulforaphane, however, you’d need to eat several pounds of broccoli — or, Li suggested, just a heaping cup of raw sprouts, lightly steamed and consumed along with a few raw radishes. Sulforphane is eliminated from the body relatively quickly, she said, so “eating them three times a day would be ideal to maintain the level.”

For the average person, that’s not really feasible, she acknowledges, and scientists at the conference agreed that eating crucifers four to five times a week is a reasonable goal for most — as long as you chew the vegetables well. By breaking the cell walls, you’re releasing those pungent enzymes.

Jeffery’s lab is now comparing the sulforaphane content in common varieties of broccoli, but that research is not yet ready for prime time.

Broccoli Sprout Salad With Synergy

(Recipe courtesy of Holly Botner, the Jittery Cook)

Serves 2

Ingredients

For the dressing:

½ lemon, juiced

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 clove garlic, minced

½ teaspoon salt

freshly ground black pepper to taste

For the broccoli sprout salad:

2 containers broccoli sprouts

4 red radishes, ½ thinly sliced, ½ julienned

1 handful baby arugula

½ carrot, cut into slivers with a peeler

¼ yellow pepper, finely chopped

1 orange, cut into segments as garnish

Directions

1. Combine all ingredients for the dressing and mix well.

2. Steam the sprouts until bright green, then cut off their green tops to use in the salad.

3. Arrange salad ingredients on two small plates. Spoon dressing lightly over salad.

Top photo: Broccoli sprout salad. Credit: Holly Botner / jitterycook.com

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Mediterranean-style pizza. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Sun, Sea & Olives: Pizza is health food? Yes, it is, at least in the Mediterranean, and that doesn’t mean pizza with beans and tofu, either. Make dough with part whole-wheat flour, keep the toppings simple, don’t overload the cheese, and truly you will have something good to eat, simple to make and totally nourishing. Best of all, in my experience, rare is the child who does not love pizza. Even the pickiest eaters will happily munch on a slice of pizza fresh from the oven.

Aolives

Incidentally, pizza is also a great way to introduce kids to the pleasure of making their food, especially if you give them a choice of toppings to play around with.

Good pizza starts with good dough

Basic pizza dough, according to Neapolitans who know more about it than anyone else, is nothing but flour, water, salt and leavening from dough made the day before — what we call sourdough, though it shouldn’t be sour at all.

In the absence of sourdough, I make pizza dough with a very small amount of instant yeast and add a couple of tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil to make it supple.

I make a starter dough a day or so in advance to give it plenty of time to develop flavor. But this recipe works just as well if you make it all at once, just giving it an hour or so to rise. While the dough is rising, you can caramelize a couple of big, fat onions sliced very thin and make a simple tomato sauce.

What else will you need? Olives — black or green or both? Anchovies if you love them (most kids don’t)? Fresh mushrooms to slice and sauté briefly in olive oil? Fresh, ripe tomatoes sliced not too thin? Garlic sliced the same way? Sweet peppers or perhaps a little chili pepper? Thinly sliced sausage or ham? Cooked greens (kale is wonderful on pizza if handled right)? Ricotta or fresh goat’s cheese? Mozzarella (only the finest kind — not that rubbery stuff from the supermarket)? Flaked tuna? And hard cheese — parmigiano is preferable but a well-aged cheddar will do — to grate on top.

The possibilities are endless; just don’t make pizza a catch-all for what’s tucked in the back of the refrigerator. Remember, fresher is better, and simpler is best of all. The most famous pizza in the world is pizza margherita, made with garlic-enhanced tomato sauce, mozzarella and fresh basil, the leaves torn over the top of the hot pizza when it comes from the oven. Red, white and green, the simple colors of the Italian flag.

Picture 1 of 3

Pizza dough. Credit: Nancy Harmon-Jenkins

Pizza Dough

Makes enough for four 8- to 10-inch pizzas.

Ingredients     

2 cups whole-wheat flour

1 teaspoon instant yeast

1½ to 2 cups warm water

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons plus ½ teaspoon extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon sea salt

Directions

1. Combine  in a bowl 1 cup of whole-wheat flour with the yeast, then stir in 1 cup warm water. Don’t worry if it’s pretty sloppy. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside in a cool place to rise overnight.

2. The next day (or that evening) add the remaining cup of whole-wheat flour. Set aside ¼ cup of all-purpose flour to use on the board and add the remaining 1¾ cups to the dough along with ½ cup warm water, 2 tablespoons of the extra virgin olive oil and a good big pinch of sea salt. Mix all together, then knead in the bowl.

3. When everything has come together, turn it out on a board lightly floured with the remaining ¼ cup of flour. Knead, gradually incorporating the extra flour, until the dough has lost its stickiness. (If necessary, add a little warm water.)

4. Rinse and dry the bowl and smear the remaining ½ teaspoon of oil around the inside. Turn the ball of dough in the oil to coat on all sides, cover once more with plastic and set aside to rise until doubled — about 1 hour. While the dough is rising, make caramelized onions.

Caramelized Onions

Ingredients

1½ to 2 pounds fresh yellow onions, peeled, halved and sliced

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Directions

1. Combine the sliced onions and olive oil in a deep, heavy sauté pan or skillet. Set over medium-low heat and cook very slowly, stirring frequently, for about 30 minutes, until the onions are thoroughly melted and almost dissolved in the oil.

2. Stir in salt and pepper. You may use the onions as-is on the pizza, but if you want to caramelize them, pulling out more of their natural sweetness, raise the heat to medium and continue cooking and stirring another 15 to 20 minutes, watching constantly to be sure they don’t burn. When the onions are done to your liking, remove from the heat and taste, adjusting the seasoning. While the onions are cooking, make tomato sauce.

Tomato Sauce

Use top-quality canned tomatoes with no added seasonings beyond salt.

Ingredients

2 garlic cloves, sliced very thin

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 (28-ounce) can of whole peeled tomatoes

1 tablespoon minced fresh herbs (flat-leaf parsley, basil, rosemary, thyme)

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Directions

1. Combine garlic and oil in a saucepan and set over low heat. Let cook very gently just until the garlic is softened, but do not let it brown.

2. Add the tomatoes with their liquid and raise the heat to medium low. Add in the minced fresh herbs. Simmer while breaking up the whole tomatoes with the side of a spoon as they cook down and the sauce thickens.

3. When the sauce is very thick (after 20 or 30 minutes of simmering), remove from the heat and purée the contents of the pan in a food processor or blender or using a vegetable mill or handheld blender. You should have  about 2 cups of sauce. Taste and add salt and pepper.

Mediterranean-Style Pizza

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 500 F.

2. Punch down the dough, knead it again briefly, then cut into four or five pieces (if you’re using a kitchen scale, each should weigh about 8 ounces).

3. Roll a piece into a ball then, using a rolling pin, roll it out into a disk. Don’t be concerned about rolling a perfect circle — your disk can be oblong or even totally misshapen. The important thing is that the dough should be roughly the same thickness throughout the disk. If you want to be Neapolitan, you can raise a dough edge around the disk, but it’s OK to have it perfectly flat too.

4. Lightly oil a cookie sheet. Stretch the dough on the sheet and dribble a little oil on top. Spoon on the tomato sauce in a thin layer, not trying to cover the dough entirely with sauce. Spread some caramelized onions over the top. Then add other toppings, perhaps dabs of goat cheese, feta or ricotta, maybe a few little cherry tomatoes sliced, or thinly sliced red and green peppers, or some anchovies or squares of bacon or ham. But don’t try to put all of this on top — just experiment with the different pizzas you have available.

5. When the topping is finished, sprinkle some grated cheese over it and dribble on more oil. (Note: If you use cooked kale, spinach or another green vegetable on top, cover the vegetable well with grated cheese and/or oil to keep it from burning in the hot oven.)

6. Slide the sheet into the oven and bake 10 minutes, by which time the dough should be cooked through and everything on top sizzling merrily. Remove, slice and consume immediately.

Top photo: Cooked pizza. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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You can include vegetables such as carrots, turnips, leeks, sweet potatoes and chili peppers in your roasted vegetable medley. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Sun, Sea & Olives: Thumbs up yet again for the Mediterranean diet. Those tireless researchers in Spain who brought us the good news a year ago about positive effects on heart disease and stroke from following a Mediterranean-style diet have added to their pitch: It now looks as though the Med diet can also be beneficial against diabetes, especially among older adults at high risk for heart disease. This is all part of the same large-scale study of the effects of the Mediterranean diet on cardiovascular disease that has been ongoing among several different medical centers in Spain.

Experts, including the Joslin Diabetes Center and the American Heart Association, tell us there’s a clear relationship between diabetes and heart disease. Heart disease and stroke are the main causes of death and disability among diabetics; furthermore, adults with Type 2 diabetes are two to four times more likely to suffer heart disease or stroke than adults without it. So preventing heart disease could begin with preventing Type 2 diabetes.

The details of the latest study-within-a-study are in the January 2014 issue of The Annals of Internal Medicine, Vol. 160, No. 1. The conclusion is already drawing attention from medical and public health establishments. Most significant are the ages of the 3,500 participants (between 55 and 80) and the length of the study (more than four years), indicating, in the words of the lead author of the study, Dr. Jordi Salas-Salvado, that “it’s never too late to switch.” Even for older adults with several markers for a strong risk of heart disease, even without calorie restriction, even without increasing exercise, changing to a Mediterranean-style diet can bring positive results. (And if you do cut calories and bump up the exercise, so much the better.)

And it’s not just diabetes. The Mediterranean diet is also known to be protective against other catastrophic illnesses — heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure (hypertension), certain cancers and neurological decline. Beyond that, the evidence is clear that people who follow a Mediterranean type of diet often not only live longer but have a healthier old age.

Mediterranean diet is simple, easy, inexpensive

So what is this Mediterranean diet that we keep hearing so much about?

I’ve been fortunate for much of my adult life to live, work, cook and raise a family in several Mediterranean countries, and I’ve spent much of the past 20 years studying the diet from that perspective — that is, not of a scientist, a nutritionist or a chef, but simply a person who wants to provide herself, family and friends with good, healthy food and to grow old gradually but gracefully with most systems still in place.

It’s puzzling to me why more people don’t seem able to make the relatively effortless and uncomplicated switch to a Mediterranean way of cooking and eating. After all, it’s simple, it’s easy, it’s not expensive. It requires no ingredients that aren’t readily available in any well-stocked supermarket and no techniques for which a culinary degree is necessary. Anyone who knows how to boil water or fry an egg, anyone who has access to a good supermarket, anyone who’s willing to buy into the idea that investing a bit of time in preparing food is an investment with terrific payoffs in terms of satisfaction as well as good health — anyone like that ought to be able to do this.

If you’re timid, here are a few principles to start you off:

  • Increase the amount of vegetables you consume, especially fresh, seasonal vegetables like, right now, spicy greens, squashes and root vegetables.
  • Replace most of the red meat (beef, pork, lamb) in your diet with fish and legumes — eat fish three times a week, beans at least twice. (That includes lentils, chickpeas, fava, black beans, borlotti and many others — just Google “legumes” for a look at this astonishingly broad category.)
  • Substitute extra virgin olive oil for the other fats you now consume, whether butter or vegetable oils. Use it as a garnish, but use it also for cooking — it is simply not true that you can’t cook with extra virgin.

And here’s a quick and easy recipe, incorporating olive oil and lots of vegetables, to get you on the road to a healthy Mediterranean diet and a more delicious way to eat. Serve this on top of a brown rice pilaf topped with chopped almonds, maybe accompanied by a salad of greens and avocados, and you’ll have a complete meal that is undeniably good-tasting and even more undeniably good for you too:

A Medley of Roasted Winter Vegetables

You may use any of a number of different winter vegetables, mostly roots, for the dish, but count on at least a pound plus a little more for each person, not including garnishes like chili peppers and chopped herbs. To make 4½ pounds of vegetables, I assembled 2 medium beets, 1 smallish celery root, 1 medium sweet potato, 5 small carrots, 2 small white turnips, 2 fat leeks and 6 small potatoes.

Makes 4 servings

Ingredients     

4½ pounds assorted vegetables

2 or 3 garlic cloves

2 celery ribs

2 fresh green chili peppers

Half a medium fresh red sweet (bell) pepper

About ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Pinch of red chili flakes, if desired

Juice of half a lemon

About ¼ cup minced fresh green herbs (flat-leaf parsley and basil, thyme, rosemary or chives)

Directions

1. Set the oven on 400 F.

2. Prepare the vegetables, peeling and trimming them, then cutting them into regular cubes or chunks, not more than 1 to 1½ inches on a side. Coarsely chop the garlic. If using beets, keep them separate from the other vegetables so they don’t bleed their deep, ruddy color into the paler roots. If using leeks, trim, wash and slice about ½-inch thick and set aside. Slice the celery ½-inch thick and set aside. Trim the peppers, sliver lengthwise and set aside.

3. Bring a tea kettle of water to a boil.

4. Combine all the vegetables except the beets, leeks, celery and peppers. In an oven dish large enough to hold everything, toss the vegetables with ¼ cup of oil and the salt and pepper. Add a pinch of red chili flakes if you wish. Stir in the lemon juice and add boiling water to come halfway up the vegetables.

5. In a separate, smaller oven dish, toss the beet chunks with the remaining olive oil plus salt and pepper. (No need to add lemon juice or boiling water.)

6. Set the two dishes in the preheated oven and let them roast, uncovered, for about 25 minutes or until the vegetable chunks are tender all the way through.

7. Remove both dishes from the oven. Add the sliced leeks and celery, along with the slivered peppers, to the vegetable medley and stir everything together so the browned vegetables on top of the dish are mixed in and the paler ones on the bottom are brought to the top. Return the dish to the oven for an additional 15 minutes of roasting.

8. When the main vegetable dish is done, remove and spoon the beets, with some of their juices, into the rest of the vegetables. Sprinkle with the fresh herbs and serve immediately. Note that this is also a dish that does not have to be served piping hot from the oven. Many people prefer it at room temperature or a little warmer.

Variations: You could add a cup or two of cooked beans or chickpeas (garbanzos) to the vegetables after they’ve finished roasting; you could also add a handful of small cremini mushroom caps along with the leeks and celery to the final roasting. If you have leftovers, purée them in a blender or food processor with some chicken or vegetable stock and reheat to make an old-fashioned but deeply satisfying classic French potage bonne femme.

Top photo: You can include vegetables such as carrots, turnips, leeks, sweet potatoes and chili peppers in your roasted vegetable medley. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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Black radish. Credit: Terra Brockman

A few years back, a woman called, begging to come out to my brother’s farm and buy 10 pounds of black radishes. We often get people asking for extra melons, or tomatoes, or even spinach, but someone desperate for black radishes, and a whole bag of them, was a new one. While the roseheart radishes sell themselves once we cut them open to reveal their bright ballgown-fuschia flesh, the sooty black orbs tend to languish like Cinderella in the ashes.

When I asked the woman why she needed them so urgently, she explained that her son had a bad cold with a sore throat and cough, and she knew from prior experience that the best remedy was black radishes. This, too, bore further investigation, so when I met her and handed over the coal-black radishes, I asked what she was going to do with them.

Honey and black radish cold remedy

She described how she would slice off the top and tail, place the radish root side down on the counter and use a small paring knife to hollow out a depression large enough to hold a tablespoon or more of honey. Once that hollowed out spot was filled with honey, she placed the radish in a glass so that the roundest part fit snugly and held it suspended.

“Let it stand overnight, and in the morning, there will be honey-sweetened radish juice in the glass. Drink it and you will feel better!”

Black radish-and-honey cure for a cold. Credit: Terra Brockman

Black radish-and-honey soothes a cold. Credit: Terra Brockman

She mentioned that another way to make the same cold remedy in larger amounts was to cut the black radish into small cubes, put the cubes in a jar, and cover them with honey. Let it sit a day or two, and then take a tablespoon of the honey-radish mixture as needed for your cold or cough.

Of course this sounded like an old wives’ tale. But old wives’ tales exist, and persist, because they have at least a grain of truth, and often much more. A bit of research showed that one black radish has more than the recommended daily allowance of vitamin C, about 25% of the RDA for potassium, plus good amounts of magnesium, iron, sulfur and other nutrients. So the next time I found myself coming down with a cold, I prepared the black radish and honey concoction, and am happy to report that I am a believer.

Black radishes in ancient medicine

It turns out that the black radish (Raphanus sativus varieta niger L.) has a long history of medicinal uses. In ancient Egypt, it was considered sacred and used together with garlic to create a one-two punch to knock out just about any bad bug. In Ayurvedic healing practices, radishes are said to have cleansing effects, helping break down and eliminate toxins and cancer-promoting free radicals. Black radishes have been used as a remedy for respiratory problems in Asia for thousands of years, and in Europe for hundreds of years.

But black radishes are not just medicinal. Along with other winter radishes, they are quick and easy to prepare, and make for a light and lively, guilt-free side dish. Here are just a few ideas for starters.

Raw

  • Put a slice of radish on a bagel, with or without cream cheese.
  • Shred them with apples, pears, carrots and/or fennel, and then sprinkle with herbs, or nestle in arugula for a refreshing salad.
  • Make a topping by grating the radish, adding finely chopped onion, salt, pepper and olive oil. Mix well and let sit for about an hour for the flavors to meld. Serve on crackers or toast.
  • Grate the radish into scrambled eggs.

Cooked

  • Chunk up the radishes and braise in a crockpot with a roast or stew meat.
  • Slice thinly, toss with oil and salt, and bake on a cookie sheet until crispy.
  • Chunk up, toss with oil, salt and herbs, and roast with other root vegetables.
  • Cut into matchsticks, and add to a stir-fry.

With their high water content, winter radishes are also a dieter’s delight, with only about 20 calories per cup. But in that serving is plenty of fiber, vitamin C, folic acid, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus and zinc to nourish your body and hydrate your skin.

And all that health and nutrition come in beautiful packages, from basic black, to classic white (daikon), to bright green (greenheart), to lovely lavender (Korean purple), to brilliant fuschia (roseheart, beauty heart or watermelon radish).

If you can’t find these radishes at your regular grocery store, try an Asian grocery, or a winter farmers market. When you do find them, you might as well get a big bag full, because in sickness or in health, you’ll find winter radishes to be versatile, nutritious and delicious.

Top photo: Black radish. Credit: Terra Brockman

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Grapefruit and avocado salad. Credit: Elaine Corn

As winter salads go, it’s a combination of two fruits you’d never think belong together — avocado and red-fleshed grapefruit. Not pink grapefruit — but red, redder, reddest. The cravings start now, as red grapefruit and avocado appear in stores at the same time, November through April.

The story of this odd combo starts in South Texas, a region with a year-round temperate growing zone and fertile soil enriched by the Rio Grande. The grapefruit and avocado pairing’s origin might be as simple as rhubarb and strawberries sharing a season and ending up in pie together. Or the now-cordial association of summer tomatoes with watermelon. Could it be that South Texas locals, faced with two major simultaneous crops, may have had an inevitable epiphany based more on the avocado than the grapefruit?

The evolution of grapefruit’s redness

Grapefruit isn’t all that versatile. But avocado lovers will stick an avocado into a chicken dish, on top of steak, inside an enchilada, a burrito or a quesadilla. They’ll add chunks of it to a zucchini salad, sneak it into tuna fish, and mash it and use it as frosting on a Jell-O mold. Why not section a grapefruit and toss it with avocado slices? At the very least, the acid from the grapefruit will prevent the avocado from turning brown.

There was plenty of time for the grapefruit and avocado dish to evolve. The first grapefruits in South Texas were white. They got there by Spanish missionaries. In 1929, an accidental sighting of a red grapefruit hanging on a pink grapefruit tree amazed growers. Its flesh was so gorgeous that growers raced to breed redder bud mutations. So many South Texans were naming red grapefruit varieties after themselves that to end the confusion the term “ruby” was adopted for all.

The Ruby Red Grapefruit was the first grapefruit to hold a U.S. patent. Its offspring are trademarked. The Rio Star, which I buy in California, combines the two reddest varieties, Rio Red and Star Ruby. It’s seven to 10 times redder than the original Ruby Red. The Ruby-Sweet is three to five times redder than a Ruby Red. (Sunkist also grows red grapefruit in California and Arizona under the names Star Ruby and Rio Red, among others.)

High time for avocado

As to the avocado, also coming into production in South Texas, the variety there is Lula. It’s much bigger than California’s or Mexico’s Hass, weighing nearly a pound. But the flesh is comparable — buttery with 15% to 26% oil.

Depending on where you live, you’ll use the avocado available. In these pre-Super Bowl times, avocados presumed destined to vats of guacamole are piled high in stores and priced low.

To offset grapefruit’s acid, the typical dressing for grapefruit avocado salad trends sweet. The dressing turns pink from red onion and red wine vinegar, a suitable color for a really red grapefruit.

Grapefruit and Avocado Salad With Pink Poppy Seed Dressing

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

½ medium red onion, in chunks

½ cup red wine vinegar (not too darkly colored)

½ cup sugar

¼ teaspoon dry mustard or prepared Dijon

⅓ cup vegetable oil

⅓ cup olive oil

¼ cup fresh chopped cilantro leaves

⅓ cup fresh chopped mint leaves

2 tablespoons finely minced jalapeño, divided

1½ tablespoons poppy seeds

3 red grapefruits

3 just-ripe avocados (not too soft)

Butter lettuce

Lime wedges

Directions

1. To make the dressing, in a blender or food processor, combine onion, vinegar, sugar and mustard. With machine running, slowly add all the oil. With one or two bursts, pulse in the prepped cilantro, mint, half the jalapeño, and poppy seeds. You should have about 2 cups.

2. Using a long sharp knife, slice off skin and all of the bitter white pith from each entire grapefruit. Holding the grapefruit in one hand and working over a bowl, cut in between the membranes to release the sections.

3. Squeeze the juice from the membranes into the dressing; discard the membranes.

4. Slice avocados ¼-inch thick. Arrange grapefruit sections and avocado slices on butter lettuce. Spoon dressing over the fruit. Squeeze lime juice over each salad. Sprinkle with remaining minced jalapeño and serve.

The dressing and the grapefruit may be prepared several hours ahead of serving, covered and refrigerated. The avocados and lettuce should be prepared just before serving.

Top photo: Grapefruit and avocado salad. Credit: Elaine Corn

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