Articles in Health

Mary Ann Lila, with colleague Sally Gustafson at North Carolina State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute. Credit: Courtesy of the N.C. State University Plants for Human Health Institute

Fresh local berries in season are a fleeting pleasure in most regions, and until we can virtually reach through the computer screen and grab them off the bush, the choice will come down to frozen berries or imports from faraway. If they’re not kept cool enough, fresh berries shipped long distances can lose important phytonutrients. Unless you’re up for interrogating suppliers, frozen berries are likely your best option, depending on how they’re frozen and thawed.

Mary Ann Lila, director of the Plants for Human Health Institute at North Carolina State University and a berry lover, shares her thoughts on selecting berries when they’re out of season.

How to select and use frozen berries

1. Reject blobs. Have you ever noticed that some packages of frozen berries feel like one big blob while in others, the berries run freely, resembling a sackful of M&Ms? When berries are frozen en masse, they surrender some of their phytonutrients to the moisture that becomes the blob, says Lila.

What you want are IQF berries — individually quick frozen, meaning they’re laid out on a large tray, berry by berry, and then frozen, a process that retains their healthy compounds, keeps them in singular form and thus makes them easier to thaw. How you thaw is crucial.

2. Defrost only the amount you’re planning to eat, consume them the same day and don’t refreeze them, Lila says. “Minimal handling helps the berries retain their ‘ just picked’  flavor and health protective components.”

3. Thaw berries quickly. A long, slow thaw in the fridge or on the counter activates enzymes that start to degrade phytonutrients, she says.

Lila suggests popping a small amount of frozen berries into the microwave for 15 to 20 seconds max just to get the frost off.  She then throws them into her hot morning oatmeal. “The microwave can be devastating if overdone,” she says, so keep the temperature moderate and cooking time short.

4. Gently warm frozen berries on the stovetop, using a double boiler or placing them directly into a pot or pan and stirring continuously so they don’t scorch. A little bit of heat actually breaks down some of the healthy components so they get into your bloodstream faster, Lila says. Again, keep the process short and avoid high heat.

5. Consume the colorful juices left behind. They contain important water-soluble phytonutrients — including anthocyanins, a type of polyphenol that gives berries their red, blue and purple to blackish hues. In nature, anthocyanins protect plants from enemies such as insects and ultraviolet radiation, Lila explained on “The Dr. Oz Show.” In your body, they go straight to your large intestine, where they work with berry fiber and good gut bacteria to fight inflammation.

Lila’s new research suggests that eating berries — any berries — before or after exercising will increase the ability of those anthocyanins to fight inflammation. Her new research also shows that berries have some healthy fat soluble compounds as well, so eat them with a few nuts.

TV screenshot of Mary Ann Lila on "The Dr. Oz Show." Credit: Courtesy of the N.C. State University Plants for Human Health Institute

TV screenshot of Mary Ann Lila on “The Dr. Oz Show.” Credit: Courtesy of the N.C. State University Plants for Human Health Institute

6. How to select and use dried berries.

Dried berries range from the traditional shriveled fruits to the new berries on the block, berry powders and freeze-dried whole fruits.

The traditional dried fruits — the tiny versions dehydrated in the sun — are highly concentrated in natural sugars, and many companies add glucose or other sweeteners. Choose wisely and eat dried fruits in moderation. Wild gojis from the Gobi, for example, are a good option because they’re not sweet and are dense in phytonutrients. All wild berries, if picked when ripe, usually beat out domesticated ones when it comes to producing healthy compounds, says Lila, because wild berries have to struggle in nature on their own, without human help.

Berry powders vary in quality, says Lila, depending on how they’re made. Often they’re spray dried, a process that uses gas to break down the fruits and destroys many phytonutrients.

Whole berries, on the other hand, are freeze-dried, which simply removes the water and retains all the good properties. “It’s the best way to preserve polyphenols,” Lila says. But the sugars become very concentrated and the process is expensive, making them a risky option for anyone with a sweet tooth and an addiction gene.

That would be me. As far as I’m concerned, the best thing about picking frozen berries is that I’m forced to control an unwavering urge to nosh. Have you ever tried biting into an icy fruit?

Main photo: Mary Ann Lila, with colleague Sally Gustafson, at North Carolina State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute. Credit: Courtesy of Plants for Human Health Institute

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Homemade kombucha in process. The SCOBY is floating in the jar. Credit: Hayley Fager

Among the many stinky, potentially explosive things in the world I leave to the professionals, fermentation ranks high on my list. An afternoon with my daughter Hayley, however, opened my eyes to what I have been missing. “It’s a cheap way to feel good,” says my recent college grad surviving on minimum wage. “And kind of critical, considering all of the bubble gum-flavored antibiotics you dosed me with as a child.”

Fermented foods are part of Hayley’s daily routine. She drinks a couple of glasses of homemade kombucha — a bacteria-laced apple cider vinegar — as a snack. Her countertop is cluttered with kimchis and sauerkrauts brewing with all manner of vegetables. “When a vegetable in the fridge is about to go bad, we just cut it up and throw it in a jar with salt and whatever spices and herbs are lying around,” she explains.

When she shows me her SCOBY — symbiotic communities of bacteria and yeast — a white floating island growing on top of a current batch of kombucha, I call a timeout. Really proud of the frugality, my dear, but how does something so gross make you feel good?

“My body now is a well-oiled machine,” Hayley laughs and rests her case.

Her confidence comes from studying books by Sandor Ellix Katz, a fermentation evangelist she discovered while working as an intern with Chefs Collaborative on its Sustainable Food Summit last fall. “He’s given me a healthy respect for gut bacteria,” Hayley notes.

Before Katz became its champion, fermentation was more ignored than dismissed among food professionals. It never went out of style, he told the Chefs Collaborative gathering of environmentally conscious chefs. It was living, neutered, behind the wall of industrial food processing.

We crave fermented foods; think chocolate, cured meats, beer, wine and cheese, he said. “Fermentation creates the strongest flavors,” Katz asserted. “People who have grown up not accustomed to them find them scary … and inaccessible.”

When modern America declared war on bacteria, pasteurizing and sterilizing processed food, Katz believes we robbed food of much of its nutritive value. Worse, we lost our healthy gut bugs in the process, fracturing an elegant symbiotic relationship with the microbial world. With the release of his 2003 book “Wild Fermentation,” Katz began barnstorming the country in the equivalent of a “bring back bacteria” tour.

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Sandor Katz, left, and Rowan Jacobsen discuss the ins and outs of fermentation during the Cultural Ferment panel at the 2013 Chefs Collaborative Summit in Charleston, S.C. Credit: Carolina Photosmith

Katz grew up on sour pickles in New York City, but he didn’t think to ferment on his own until he was diagnosed with HIV and moved to rural Tennessee in search of a way to manage his health through diet. Experiments with making sauerkrauts from old garden cabbages, he says, changed his life. His enthusiasm for fermenting became contagious. Both “Wild Fermentation” and his next book, “The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved,” became manifestos for food activists.

His third book, the recently released “The Art of Fermentation,” cemented his reputation as an authority on the topic. In the foreword to this dense tome, Michael Pollan calls the book an inspiration. “I mean that literally. The book has inspired me to do things I’ve never done before, and probably never would have if I hadn’t read it.

“Sandor Katz writes about the transformative power of fermentation with such infectious enthusiasm that he makes you want to try things just to see what happens,” Pollan writes. But the book is more than a “how-to” guide. “It tells you why an act as quotidian and practical as making your own sauerkraut represents nothing less than a way to engage with the world.”

Katz’s instructions for brewing kombucha are straightforward:

  • Brew black or green tea (loose leaf or bagged).
  • Add sugar (about ¼ cup to every liter, more or less to personal taste).
  • Add a SCOBY mother (obtainable from a fellow brewer or a health food store).
  • Let it sit for 10 days and watch the new SCOBY grow on the surface of the liquid.
  • Flavor the final product with whatever you like. Fruit or vegetable juice, herbal infusions and mint are a few of his suggestions.

Hayley likes the experimentation. “Katz embraces the uncertainties of dealing with something that is alive, and invites you to explore the world of fermentation for yourself,” she says. He gently guides folks toward ever more daring adventures in fermentation.

Her most recent experiment was cutting up a discarded SCOBY and turning it into gummy candies. Not bad tasting, but well beyond her mother’s comfort zone.

Top photo: Homemade kombucha in process. The SCOBY is floating in the jar. Credit: Hayley Fager

Editor’s Note: Corie Brown joined the Chefs Collaborative Board of Overseers last month and is looking forward to the Sustainable Food Summit in September.

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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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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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Peppercorn array. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

If your kitchen houses an old jar of ground black pepper, do me a favor and throw it out. I’m on a campaign to start the New Year fresh, and my resolution includes discarding all outdated spices and sundries lurking in the back of the pantry. This applies to all spices, from aniseed to za’atar, but ground pepper is at the top of my list.

Pepper is the most commonly used spice in the world, but anyone who’s using the pre-ground stuff is missing out on its true intensity of flavor. The world’s best chefs have always known that pepper loses flavor when added early in the cooking process. And because the peppercorns’ essential oils aren’t released until they are ground, a fresh grind of peppercorns can elevate many dishes with the perfect finishing touch.

When salt showed up on culinary “hot” lists and salt tastings appeared on menus as starter courses, I wondered why its best-paired partner didn’t get the same respect. After all, pepper has been called the master spice or king of spices for centuries. But while you can easily find several varieties of salt in the grocery aisle, even many culinary cognoscenti don’t know much about peppercorn varieties beyond Tellicherry or Malabar. But the range of flavor that exists is just stunning.

Armed with a collection of 14 peppercorn types from around the world, I gathered a few fearless friends for a tasting party. Countries of peppercorn origin were Brazil, Cameroon, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Madagascar and Vietnam, plus the French island of Réunion. Colors included creamy white, soft grey-green, rose, rust red and a dark black-brown. My guests doubted that they’d really notice a difference, but the exercise proved surprisingly revealing.

A technique for a pepper tasting party

Following a classic technique for wine tasting, we used sight to judge size, finish and color; next, a heady sniff revealed a wide array of complex aromas and bouquets from smoky and spicy to dried fruit to sherry. Finally, we completed the exercise by crunching away to determine taste, length of finish and heat index. As I had learned in olive oil tastings, it’s important to be prepared with coffee beans (a whiff of coffee beans will clear your sinuses of residual aromas), green apple slices (to clear your palate between tastings) and plenty of water.

The peppercorns showed off enormous variations in taste profiles. My two favorites were a green peppercorn from Brazil that smelled like licorice and cardamom and tasted of fresh, slightly spicy herbs; and a Sarawak black from Malaysia that was smoky, spicy and tasted a bit like mushrooms and cedar. Two other varieties that were universally liked were not truly peppercorns, but similar enough to join the roster: the sweet, floral, fruity flavor of rose mastic berries from the island of Réunion and the perfumed, sweet clove and apricot flavor of Sichuan pepper from China.

At the beginning of the year, it just feels right to clean the cupboards and start fresh. This year, I’ll be indulging in ingredients I’ve never used before and kitchen experiments I’ve never tried. “Out with the old, and in with the new” may be an overused cliché, but in my pantry it’s going to start with spices — and playing with peppercorns will be a great way to begin.

Know what’s in your seasoning

If you haven’t heard, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently released a study focusing on ground spices as carriers of the microbial pathogen salmonella. While pepper was not one of the major offenders, it does have a long history of being adulterated with cheaper spices, dirt, hulls and harvesting scraps.

A bowl of black peppercorns

Malabar peppercorns. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

There are two simple solutions to ensuring that the pepper you use is pure and safe. Begin by only buying whole peppercorns because there is little chance that an unscrupulous purveyor can dilute them with dirt, debris and other cheap ground spices. The website Pepper-Passion is an excellent online resource for a wide variety of peppercorns.

When you buy whole peppercorns, you can see exactly what’s in the jar and even sort through them to remove any dirt, twigs and rocks that might remain. Next, take a few minutes to roast your peppercorns either in a 325 F oven for 10 to 15 minutes or in a pan over medium heat for 5 minutes to kill any unwanted microbial pathogens hitching a ride on the spice. It takes only 165 F of heat to kill the bacteria.

Top photo: A variety of peppercorns from around the world. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

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Roasted ginkgo nuts. Credit: Katherine Leiner

Why let gingkos jar this glorious New York City scene? It’s late November. Central Park is at its peak in fall color. The Conservatory Garden up on Fifth Avenue and 105th Street is all decked out with its fall array of chrysanthemums.

Yet it happened on my afternoon doggie walk, as I passed under a ginkgo tree, and the pungent smell about bowled me over. I am familiar with what is often called “nature’s stink bomb” and have developed a kind of acceptance and regard for the ginkgo, knowing its benefits, but simply, it smells like vomit. The stench is supposed to keep animals from eating the fallen fruit from this ancient Asian tree.

Ginkgo’s famous healthful qualities

But as a baby boomer who is keen to stave off memory loss, I know ginkgo biloba made from this tree species is one of the best-selling herbal medications. It is used in traditional medicine to treat blood disorders and improve memory. It also is an antioxidant, so I welcome the stench.

This time of year in Central Park, one will find many older Asian people on their knees, some wearing rubber gloves, picking through the fruit that has fallen on the ground. And each year, I ask myself, why don’t I collect a bag and try them out? So this year I did just that.

Ginkgo leaves are fan-shaped and green until the fall, when they turn a bright yellow. The leaves contain two types of chemicals, flavonoids and terpenoids, which are antioxidants. Studies show that ginkgo is good for promoting blood flow and treating anxiety, glaucoma, premenstrual syndrome and Reynaud’s disease.

It is important not to use ginkgo for at least 36 hours before surgery or dental procedures because of the risk of bleeding. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should also not take ginkgo. Ginkgo may also interact with some medications and antidepressants. As with any supplement, it’s good for users to read up on ginkgo before ingesting it. Also keep in mind, the nut can be toxic to eat raw, and even picking it up can cause a rash like poison ivy.

Recipes from around the world

Asian women to whom I’ve spoken say it is no mistake that the nuts fall at this time of year because when they are cooked, they helps fight flu and colds.

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Ginkgo leaf. Credit: Katherine Leiner

The best way to use them is to remove the fleshy insides and skin from the nut. The flesh is discarded, and then the nut is boiled in salt water, fried, roasted or broiled. The nuts are used in Asian rice porridge and other desserts. Another chef used the nuts to make dried scallop and ginkgo nut congee, but instead of hassling with  fresh ginkgo he uses tinned nuts because they are easier.

In a piece called “Gathering Ginkgo Nuts in New York,” a couple wrote about collecting the ginkgo nuts and trying various ways of cooking them. They finally hit on something when they separated the smelly pulp from the nut, washed the nuts, coated them in egg, salt, pepper and flour and dropped them in hot oil. Delicious was their assessment of this cooking method for a local, sustainable nut.

I have now collected about two pints of ginkgos, and today is the day I intend to try them. A friend gave me this recipe, which seems easy enough.

Roasted Ginkgo Nuts

Serves 2

Ingredients

2 pints of ginkgo nuts

Oil for frying, such as coconut or olive oil

Salt to taste

Directions

1. Using rubber gloves, collect the yellow squishy nuts from the ground. You know they’re ripe because they have fallen from the tree and they stink to high heaven. Still using rubber gloves, separate the pulp from the nut. (I did this outside on Park Avenue.)

2. Wash the nuts thoroughly and let them dry.

3. Pour a half-inch of your favorite oil into a pan. Salt the nuts. When the oil is hot enough to sputter, place the nuts in the pan. The nuts should pop like popcorn, except much louder. When they have split open and you can see the green of the nut.

4. Drain, and let cool. Eat like popcorn.

Top photo: Roasted ginkgo nuts. Credit: Katherine Leiner

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Scientists are studying whether a ketogenic diet of fats such as avocadoes, nuts and seeds can help people who have cancer fight the disease. Credit: Harriet Sugar-Miller

Carbs will be out, fats will be in, if a ketogenic diet proves to be a tool in the battle to fight cancer.

A ketogenic diet starves cancer cells of glucose, thereby stunting the disease’s growth  and compelling the body to burn fats, which trigger the production of compounds called ketones that, scientists hypothesize, cancer cells can’t use for fuel. The effectiveness of the diet, which should only be used in consultation with a doctor, is in the pilot-study phase of human research.

The diet may work for other reasons: Like a campfire burning wood, cells burning glucose for energy undergo incomplete combustion, thus creating free radicals of oxygen that can damage DNA. In addition, scientists are  increasingly studying the insulin the pancreas produces in response to glucose. It appears to trigger a cascade of actions that may stimulate cancer’s growth. Close to a century ago, German scientist Otto Warburg first suggested that glucose may play a role and in 1931 won a Nobel Prize for identifying cancer as a sugar feeder.

Dr. Eugene Fine. Credit: Courtesy of Dr. Fine

Dr. Eugene Fine. Credit: Courtesy of Dr. Fine

Recently, two American scientists collected a smaller prize for their pilot study. Dr. Eugene Fine, a physician and professor at Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein School of Medicine in the Bronx, N.Y., and his colleague, Richard Feinman, professor of cell biology at State University of New York’s Downstate Medical Center took 10 patients with advanced cancers who had failed or refused standard chemotherapy and put them on ketogenic diets for 28 days, then looked at tumors on PET scans. Patients with the least ketosis (which they defined as least insulin inhibition) showed progressive disease whereas higher levels of ketosis were accompanied by stable disease or partial remission, they reported.

“We think what’s important is that we may have opened a door, long overdue, to studying dietary change as a component of cancer therapy,” Fine said, cautioning against reading too much into a small study.

Ultimately these scientists hope to identify which cancers might best respond to carbohydrate restriction. “For sure, they all won’t,” Fine said. The common slow-growing form of prostate cancer, he said, feeds on fats as well as glucose and glutamate, a protein that’s been implicated in a few cancers. “Even within a single individual with a primary cancer and metastases, the cancer’s behavior … can vary from one cell to the next.”

Ketogenic diet research takes off

Ketogenic diets are actually ancient. That’s how cave dwellers ate, Fine explained, and today’s paleo movement and the similar Atkins approach are bringing them back.

Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore has been using forms of a ketogenic diet since the 1920s to control epileptic seizures.

But in the cancer field, clinical trials of ketogenic diets are just sprouting up. Among the scientists touting the “fat as fuel” approach is Dr. Craig Thompson, the president and CEO of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Thompson founded a private company that’s helping develop drugs to lower glucose and glutamine.

In his recent book, Boston College biology professor Thomas Seyfried takes the ketogenic diet one big step further. He advocates that patients fast periodically. There’s nothing more powerful than calorie restriction in reducing a tumor’s ability to grow blood vessels and spread, he said.

The diet he proposes includes 70% of calories from fat, 12% to 15% from protein, and the rest from carbs. How low carb is that? According to Fine, you need to eat 50 grams of carbs or less a day to get your body into a state of ketosis, where it produces ketones as a result of utilizing fat as its main energy source. The typical U.S. diet provides 250 to 400 grams daily.

Do the types of fat matter? Like the answers to most questions, it depends on whom you ask. Many versions of the ketogenic diet may include bacon and butter, albeit not on toast, but why consume saturated animal fats that are known to promote inflammation and disease? Unsaturated fats, such as those found in avocado and nuts, are good for your heart and may help control insulin. Omega 3 fats, abundant in fatty fish and flaxseed, fight inflammation.

And coconut fats contain medium-chain triglycerides, a type of fat that promotes the production of ketones. How about low-calorie vegetables immersed in high-fat coconut milk? One day that might be just what the doctor orders.

Top photo: A ketogenic diet of fats such as avocados, nuts and seeds is the focus of cancer research. Credit: Harriet Sugar Miller

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