Articles in Health w/recipe

Yellow corn soup with sautéed crab and chives. Credit: David Latt

As this best part of summer delivers a ready-to-eat bounty of fresh vegetables to the kitchen, Luigi Fineo, executive chef at West Hollywood’s RivaBella Ristorante, shows off a large bowl of Iowa yellow corn. With one taste, Fineo knew what he would do with these fat sun-ripened kernels. He would make a healthy, sweet tasting soup.

The youngest of five, Fineo grew up in southern Italy in Gioia del Colle. Like many chefs, he learned to love cooking in his mother’s kitchen. Helping to prepare the family’s meals, she taught him the basics. That early training would serve him well as he worked in demanding restaurants around the world from Francesco Berardinelli’s Shooeneck Ristorante in Falzes, Italy, to Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif..

From the outside, RivaBella has the appearance of just another upscale restaurant. Inside, the sprawling interior is set-dressed to look like an elegant version of a rustic Italian country inn. Full-sized trees and a 7-foot tall brick hearth dominate the interior. During the day when the retractable ceiling is open, the bright blue Southern California sky hangs overhead.

The current menu recalls the kitchen of Fineo’s mother and the refinements of his colleague, owner-chef Gino Angelini, who helped popularize quality Italian cooking in Los Angeles. The entrees include fine-dining versions of Italian classics: risotto with porcini mushrooms, spinach lasagna, Veal Milanese and pasta with broccolini and salmoriglio.

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A bowl of Iowa corn used to make a yellow corn soup with sautéed crab and chives, prepared by Chef Luigi Fineo in the kitchen at RivaBella Ristorante, West Hollywood, Calif. Credit: David Latt

Reflecting his time spent in Santa Monica’s La Botte where he earned a Michelin star, Fineo also enjoys using the high-tech tools that are popular in many contemporary restaurant kitchens.

For his slow-cooked lamb shoulder ragù, he adds summer flavor with peaches he dehydrates, then rehydrates in a white wine bath flavored with cinnamon, anise and bay leaves. The handmade pappardelle he serves with the ragù is made with flour, flavored with a fine pistachio powder that is first frozen in liquid nitrogen before being  ground into the fine powder.

Of the corn, by the corn and for the corn

When I first tasted the corn soup at RivaBella, it was so velvety, I asked if heavy cream or butter were used. The answer was neither.

In his kitchen for the video demonstration, Chef Fineo explained that he did not need cream or butter to create his soup. All he needed was farm-fresh Iowa corn, a little water, a pinch or two of salt and a lot of stirring.

Usually when Fineo makes soups, he begins with a sauté of shallots and aromatics. Cooking with corn, he’s inclined to roast the kernels. But with this sweet corn, he decided he didn’t need to add flavor and he didn’t need to employ any high-tech machines. To prepare his corn soup, he would return to the basics he learned from his mother.

Yellow Sweet Corn Soup

Total Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Because, essentially there is only one ingredient, use high quality, fresh corn to create a soup that is healthy and delicious. When picking corn, choose ears that have green, healthy husks and kernels that are plump. If the kernels are indented or the husks are brown, choose different ears. In the restaurant, the soup is served with fresh crabmeat to enhance its upscale qualities. But Fineo recommends that the soup is a treat served entirely as a vegetarian or vegan dish.

Ingredients

  • 12 ears yellow corn, shucked, washed, pat dried
  • ¾ cup water
  • Sea salt to taste
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh chives
  • ½ cup crab meat, preferably crab leg meat (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon butter (optional)
  • 2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil (optional)
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper (optional)

Directions

  1. Using a sharp knife, cut the raw kernels from the cobs.
  2. Working in batches, two cups at a time, place the kernels into a large blender and blend with just enough water, about one tablespoon water for each cup of kernels. To create a vortex, if needed, add more water.
  3. Blend each batch about 45 seconds.
  4. Again, working in batches, strain the resulting corn mash through a chinois or a fine meshed strainer, capturing the liquid in a large bowl. To release all the liquid, press on the corn mash gently, using the back of a large ladle or large kitchen spoon.
  5. Transfer the corn juice to a large saucepan or small stock pot and place uncovered on the stove.
  6. Using high heat, bring the liquid to a boil and then lower to medium.
  7. Using a wire whisk, gently stir the liquid 30 to 40 minutes until reaching the desired thickness. Very importantly, the liquid must be stirred constantly to prevent the corn’s sugars from sticking to the bottom and burning.
  8. As the liquid thickens, lower the heat.
  9. Taste and add sea salt as desired. Serve hot, topped with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of finely chopped chives.
  10. Optionally, in a non-stick pan on low heat, sauté the crab pieces in olive oil or butter until crispy on all sides, then place one or two pieces on top of each bowl of soup and garnish with chives and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Instead of crab, Chef Fineo also recommends using shrimp or scallops.
  11. Season with a pinch of sea salt and black pepper. Drain the crab on a paper towel. Place on top of the soup. Drizzle with olive oil and finely chopped chives.

Main photo: Yellow corn soup with sautéed crab and chives. Credit: David Latt

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Purple cauliflower, yellow sweet pepper and tomato salad. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Think of the platter as a palette, and your vegetables as swaths of paint that fill in the color of the canvas. This is what every August provides as our tomato plants and other garden vegetables are going crazy and this means we should be thinking colorful salads.

This is both an appetizing and beautiful way to present what usually becomes an accompaniment to grilled foods. Salads of heirloom tomatoes are a favorite this time of year. But remember there are lots of heirloom cultivars besides tomatoes such as purple cauliflower or yellow sweet peppers. And don’t ignore the non-heirloom tomatoes such as Big Boys or Early Girls because they have their uses too.

There are heirloom varieties of all vegetables, not just tomatoes, and there are plenty of hybrid accidents too. Colored varieties of cauliflower such as the purple one here called Graffiti are not genetically engineered but rather a blend of heirloom varieties, or naturally occurring accidents or hybrids grown from them. Purple cauliflower gets its color from anthocyanins, the antioxidant also found in red wine. It has a sweeter and nuttier taste than white cauliflower. The yellow sweet pepper called for below is usually the yellow version of the cultivar known as cubanelle, but use any yellow pepper you find.

The great thing about summer salads is that they are easily prepared since you’ll be letting the natural flavors and juices of the vegetables themselves tell the story rather than relying on a heavy load of seasoning or dressing. They can also be grilled first if you like and then served at room temperature later.

These platters of vegetables don’t really require recipes, although I do provide them as you could just assemble them following the photos and your inspiration. See the photographs for an idea of how they should look on the platter.

Mussel and tomato salad. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Mussel and Tomato Salad. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Mussel and Tomato Salad

Cultivated mussels are sold today already cleaned. You can save further time by hard-boiling and cooking the green beans at the same time in the same pot. This salad stands alone but can also accompany simple pasta or grilled meat.

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

2 large eggs

16 green beans, trimmed and cut in ½-inch pieces

2 pounds mussels, debearded and rinsed

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Juice of 1 lemon

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

Salt to taste

10 ripe but firm cherry tomatoes

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

4 salted anchovy fillets, rinsed (optional)

Directions

1. Bring a saucepan of water to a boil over high heat, then hard boil the eggs for exactly 10 minutes. After the water has been boiling for 3 minutes with the eggs, add the green beans, and drain both the eggs and green beans together at the 10 minute mark. Plunge the eggs into ice water and shell the eggs once they are cool and quarter lengthwise.

2. In a large pot with about ½ inch of water, steam the mussels over high heat until they open, about 5 minutes. Discard any mussels that remain firmly shut. Remove and set aside.

3. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and salt to taste.

4. Put the tomatoes in a serving platter. Remove all but 8 of the mussels from their shells and scatter them over the tomatoes, tossing a bit. Scatter the green beans around the tomatoes. Sprinkle with the black pepper and pour on half of the dressing. Garnish the edge of the platter with the egg quarters and mussels in their shell. Place the anchovies, if desired, in the center of the platter, making two X shapes, and pour the remaining dressing on top. Serve immediately or within 2 hours, but do not refrigerate.

Tomato, eggplant and ricotta salad. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Tomato, Eggplant and Ricotta salad. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Tomatoes, Eggplant and Ricotta Salad

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

Olive oil for frying

One 1-pound eggplant, cut into ½-inch slices

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1½ teaspoons red wine vinegar

1 garlic clove, very finely chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 large tomatoes (about 1¼ pounds), sliced into rounds

½ pound fresh ricotta cheese

12 fresh basil leaves

1. Preheat the frying oil in a deep fryer or an 8-inch saucepan fitted with a basket insert to 375 degrees F.

2. Cook, turning once, the eggplant slices until golden brown, about 7 minutes. Remove and set aside to drain on a paper towel covered platter until cool.

3. In a small bowl or glass, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, garlic, salt, and pepper.

4. Arrange the tomatoes in a shallow serving bowl or on a platter and arrange the eggplant arrange them. Drizzle the dressing over the vegetables and then garnish with dollops if ricotta cheese and basil leaves. Serve at room temperature.

Purple Cauliflower, Yellow Sweet Pepper, Tomato Salad

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 30 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

1½-pound head of purple cauliflower, trimmed

2 large and fleshy yellow sweet peppers (cubanelle)

4 ripe tomatoes, cut into wedges

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1½ teaspoons white wine vinegar

1 garlic clove, very finely chopped garlic

Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

8 fresh basil leaves

Directions

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat then place the whole cauliflower in so the florets are not covered with water and will only steam. If they are submerged you will lose the beautiful purple color. Cook until a skewer can be pushed through the stem with a little resistance, about 10 minutes. Remove the cauliflower carefully so it doesn’t bread and set aside to cool. Cut off the largest and hardest part of the stem and discard.

2. Meanwhile, place the peppers on a wire rack over a burner on high heat and roast until their skins blister black on all sides, turning occasionally with tongs. Remove the peppers and place in a paper or heavy plastic bag to steam for 20 minutes, which will make them easier to peel. When cool enough to handle, rub off as much blackened peel as you can and remove the seeds by rubbing with a paper towel (to avoid washing away flavorful juices) or by rinsing under running water (to remove more easily).

3. Arrange the cauliflower in the center of a platter and surround with the roasted peppers and tomatoes. Drizzle with the olive oil, vinegar and garlic. Season with salt and pepper and garnish with basil leaves and serve at room temperature.

Main photo: Purple Cauliflower, Yellow Sweet Pepper and Tomato Salad. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Garlic is one of the foods that the National Cancer Institute says can reduce the risk of several types of cancer. Credit: Harriet Sugar Miller

Garlic, broccoli, green tea and turmeric: Health experts keep telling us to consume these foods to fight cancer.

But articles from a New York Times science journalist are challenging the view that diet can prevent cancer. The evidence on the influence of specific foods is weak, George Johnson wrote in a series of recent columns and in a book just released in paperback. Johnson reported that the results of studies connecting diet and cancer were conflicting and the numbers of preventable cases, small.

Ergo, diet doesn’t matter?

Diet certainly matters, says Stephanie Maxson, senior clinical dietitian at the University of Texas’ MD Anderson Cancer Center, the country’s leading cancer treatment hospital, according to U.S. News & World Report’s most recent rankings. Eating a plant-based diet, as opposed to a diet high in fat or animal protein, is important for preventing cancer as well as all chronic disease, she says.

Faced with this competing points of view, we must make many decisions each day about what to feed ourselves and our families. How do we evaluate the research when it’s not perfect? How do we make the best decisions for our health? Here are five starting points:

1. Why is the evidence is conflicting?

The evidence is often conflicting because the science is complicated, says Maxson.

“It’s true that the research findings regarding individual foods and nutrients are often inconclusive. But this is not because diet has no effect has cancer risk. It’s because the study of food and nutrients is very complex,” she says.

The nutrients contained in a head of broccoli, for example, will depend on the cultivar, where and how it was grown and how it’s prepared, she says. “How the nutrients in a food behave in the body depends on all the other foods it’s consumed with, the genetics of the person consuming it, and the microorganisms in the colon of the person consuming the food.”

Variables like these can explain why one study might find broccoli protective and another not, and as scientists unravel the nuances, they’re able to design better research. “We’re only beginning to understand the complexities of diet, nutrition and cancer relationships,” says Dr. Stephen Clinton, a researcher and physician who, along with a small group of scientists, is currently revising the U.S. government’s dietary guidelines.

2. Are there research-based guidelines on diet and cancer?

If you do a PubMed search, you’ll come up with more than 50,000 studies on diet and cancer. How are we to make sense of them?

The American Institute of Cancer Research and its partner, the World Cancer Research Fund (AICR/WCRF), can serve as guides. These two nonprofit organizations study the studies.

Since the 1990s, a panel of AICR/WCRF experts — researchers and physicians from around the world– have been reviewing the evidence and producing periodic reports as well as broad dietary guidelines, which are used by hundreds of cancer treatment centers, including MD Anderson. “AICR/WCRF is the world’s preeminent organization working to define evidence-based recommendations regarding how diet and nutrition impacts cancer risk and survivorship,” says Clinton.

While the recommendations are for preventing cancer because that’s where most of the research is focused, cancer survivors, they say, should also follow these guidelines once treatment is completed. The suggestions include:

  • Be lean. As the columnist points out, obesity increases the risk of many common cancers; body fat produces hormones that drive cancer growth.
  • Consume plant foods primarily.
  • Eat a variety of them.

Despite the inherent flaws in scientific research, “the evidence that whole diets involving a wide variety of plant foods provides real protection remains as strong as ever,” said AICR’s director of research in response to the columns.

Garlic in bunches. Credit: Harriet Sugar Miller

Garlic in bunches. Credit: Harriet Sugar Miller

3. What about specific foods and nutrients?

As part of its review process, AICR/WCRF judges the strength of the evidence on various foods and nutrients.

AICR/WCRF reports that there’s “probable” evidence that foods containing lycopene (tomato sauce, for example) or selenium (Brazil nuts, broccoli, garlic) decrease risk of prostate cancer and that diets high in calcium increase risk.

There’s “convincing” evidence that foods with fiber decrease risk of colorectal cancer and that red and processed meat increase it, they say.

Most often, however, the organizations deem the evidence “limited” or “suggestive,” meaning that more study is needed.

“We know of many food constituents that have anti-cancer properties,” says Dr. Steven Zeisel, director of the University of North Carolina’s Nutrition Research Institute and a member of AICR/WCRF’s expert panel that reviews all the studies. Garlic, broccoli, green tea and turmeric, for example, have been shown to fight cancer through extensive good research, he says. “But we do not know precisely which mixture of these constituents works best.”

Guidelines thus focus on patterns that decrease risk, such as plant-based diets, rather than individual nutrients or foods, he says. “What you eat certainly matters.”

4. How much cancer may be preventable?

According to AICR/WRCF estimates, approximately one-third of the most common cancers in the U.S. are preventable by a healthy diet and weight along with physical activity. For some types, the estimates for preventability are particularly high: colorectal, 50%; endometrial and esophageal, almost 60% and 70%, respectively.

In the U.S. alone, that’s nearly 375,000 cases of preventable cancer each year, said AICR’s director of research in a letter to the New York Times.

You can’t just look at each food individually and calculate risk, says its director of communications. “You have to look at the total diet and how all the foods you choose to eat and avoid together impact your cancer risk. You owe it to yourself to play the odds.”

5. What might your plate look like?

Playing the odds according to AICR‘s New American Plate design is fairly straightforward:

Fill at least two-thirds of your plate with plant foods, at most one-third with animal foods. Control portion sizes. Limit red meat to no more than 18 ounces weekly. As for dairy products, however, the evidence is still uncertain.

Meanwhile, as we continue the inevitably long wait for sufficient research-based evidence to warrant public policy on cancer and diet, I’ll be sticking to healthy plant-heavy patterns, lunching on this Mediterranean salad and not worrying about an occasional dollop of tzatziki. A walloping portion? Now that’s another story.

Holly Botner, the Jittery Cook at jitterycook.com/

Holly Botner, the Jittery Cook at jitterycook.com

 

 The following recipe is  courtesy of The Jittery Cook.

Jittery Cook’s Fattoush Salad

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 7 minutes

Total Time: 27 minutes

Yield: 4 meal-sized servings

All times are estimates. Cooking time for the pita varies from 7 to 10 minutes.

Ingredients

  • ½ small head romaine, torn
  • 1 bunch flat leaf parsley, chopped
  • 1 bunch mint, chopped
  • 2 cups mâche (lamb's lettuce)
  • 1 cup arugula
  • 6 red radishes, cut into thin half moons
  • 12 cherry tomatoes, cut into quarters
  • 6 Lebanese cucumbers, cut into chunky half moons (not peeled)
  • 1 red onion, cut into small strips
  • For the pita:
  • 1 large whole wheat pita
  • 3 teaspoons zataar
  • olive oil to lightly coat pita
  • For the dressing:
  • 2 lemons, juice only
  • ⅓ cup olive oil (or more, if lemons are large)
  • 1 heaping tablespoon sumac
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • salt to taste

Directions

  1. Attack alliums first! Peel onion very gently, then cut it into a few parts and let it sit for a half hour before cutting finely and adding to salad. Smash garlic, let it sit for at least 10 minutes, then mince just before adding it to dressing.
  2. Separate the pita through the center, into two circular halves. Coat the insides lightly with olive oil and sprinkle on zataar. Cut into long strips, then bake at 350 F for 7-10 minutes, until crisp.
  3. Combine salad ingredients, dressing ingredients, and toss salad with dressing. Add pita to dressed salad. Either break strips into chips and toss with dressed salad—or serve in long strips for dramatic flair.

Main photo: Garlic is one of the foods that the National Cancer Institute says can reduce the risk of several types of cancer.  Credit: Harriet Sugar Miller

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Chef Drago's diet-friendly spelt panzanella salad. Credit: David Latt

Chef Giacomino Drago smiles a lot. The youngest member of a family of cooks to immigrate from Sicily, Drago, along with his brothers, has opened a dozen restaurants in Los Angeles, many in Beverly Hills, over the past four decades.

A contributor to the Beverly Hills Centennial Cookbook,” Drago declares that using the highest quality, freshest ingredients is the essence of Italian cooking. In his video he demonstrates an easy-to-prepare, classic Italian panzanella salad with diet-friendly spelt instead of bread.

Drago enjoys cooking. He smiles as he drops a handful of spaghetti into one of the half dozen pots of salted water on the stove and when he quickly renders a red onion into a mound of thin, pungent ribbons.

Come to Italy, he says, and one of the first salads you will eat is one made with vine-ripened tomatoes,  basil, red onions, extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, and salt and pepper. Simplicity, he says several times, is the essence of Italian cooking. Find the freshest, highest-quality ingredients and prepare them in what Drago calls the rustic way, roughly cut so the dish is not overly fussy. The result is delicious, healthy food that is easy and fun to make.

A panzanella salad is the perfect dish for summer. To pursue the “current fashion,” as he puts it, he has traded spelt for bread in a signature salad at Via Alloro in Beverly Hills. He chose spelt because it has a refreshing texture and nutty quality that contrasts well with the acid of the tomato and vinegar. A heritage grain and cousin to wheat, spelt was developed hundreds of years ago as a flour in bread making. High in protein and fiber, Drago says spelt is heart-healthy because it is high in niacin. Because “panzanella” refers to a bread (“pane”) salad, it might be more accurate to call chef’s creation a speltzanella.

Chef Drago loves all his restaurants. But he designed the kitchen at Via Alloro in a special way. The area where the line cooks work is a horseshoe space with stoves in the middle and counters running along the walls. There are no dead-ends in this kitchen. Moving efficiently Drago and Executive Chef Paolo Sicuro prepare dishes with an unhurried ease, transferring their love of cooking onto the plates.

Fresh tomatoes are key to the flavor and pleasures of the salad. To protect the tomatoes’ richness of flavor, Drago insists they must never be refrigerated. That is why buying tomatoes from farmers markets is so important. Supermarket tomatoes may have been refrigerated for days, even weeks during their journey from the field to your kitchen.

Drago is precise about his cooking but flexible in terms of ingredients and seasoning. When cooking at home, he encourages that you use only ingredients you enjoy. If you do not like onions, don’t use them in the salad. The same goes for cucumbers and ground black pepper.

Diet-Friendly Spelt Panzanella Salad

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour

Total Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings as a salad portion, 2 servings as an entrée.

To capture all the tomato juice, chef cuts the tomatoes over the bowl. Use a variety of tomatoes for contrasts in shape, color and flavor. For the demonstration, Drago and Siruro used vine ripened, cherry and grape tomatoes. Yellow and heirloom tomatoes could also be added for contrast. To make the onion slices more “friendly,” Drago suggests double rinsing in water. This will result in a more mild flavor. Not widely available, spelt berries can be purchased in specialty markets and ordered online from purveyors such as Bob’s Red Mill. Cooked like pasta in boiling salted water, kosher salt should be used for the cleanest taste. Chef Drago uses English or hothouse cucumbers for the dish. If those are not available, Persian cucumbers would be a good substitute because they have a lower water content than garden cucumbers. The spelt may be cooked ahead and refrigerated. The other ingredients should be prepared immediately before serving to preserve their freshness.

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons spelt
  • 2 medium-sized tomatoes, washed, stem removed, cut into a small dice, reserving the liquid
  • 5 cherry tomatoes, washed, quartered
  • 5 plum tomatoes, washed, quartered
  • 1 small hothouse cucumber, washed, skin on, a small dice the same size as the tomatoes (optional)
  • ¼ medium red onion, washed, root and stem removed, thin sliced (optional)
  • 4 fresh basil leaves, washed, pat dried, roughly torn or chopped
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • Pinch of salt to taste
  • Pinch of freshly ground black pepper to taste (optional)
  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

Directions

  1. Add kosher salt to three quarts of water. Bring to a rapid boil. Add spelt. Boil uncovered 30-50 minutes or longer depending on the desired doneness. Taste at 30 minutes to determine what is al dente for you and then again at 10-minute intervals until you reach the texture you like. I prefer cooking the spelt 50 minutes. Drain and set aside to cool
  2. Using a sharp paring knife, cut the tomatoes over the salad bowl to capture all the juices.
  3. Cut the skin-on cucumber into pieces similar in size to the tomatoes and add to the bowl.
  4. Slice the red onion. Submerge in cold water, rinse, drain, submerge in fresh cold water, rinse and drain. Add to the tomatoes and cucumbers.
  5. Add the cooked spelt berries.
  6. Roughly chop the basil leaves or tear them with your hands. Add to the salad bowl.
  7. Toss the spelt, vegetables and aromatics with the extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar.
  8. Season with sea salt to taste and freshly ground black pepper, as desired.
  9. Serve as a salad or a side with grilled meats, fish and poultry.

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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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