Articles in Healthy Eating

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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Pakistani Mixed Bean Salad. Credit: Sasha Martin

No American picnic is really complete without a bean salad. Black beans, green beans or kidney beans, often blended with garbanzos and onions in a light vinaigrette, make for the dreams of many a midsummer picnic. These salads complement roast meats like nothing else and are light, quick and healthy additions to any meal.

Roast meats in the form of kebabs and chops rule menus across western, central and southern Asia. With these kebabs come rice, bread or naan, and usually a light vegetable or bean salad. My favorite of these salads comes from Pakistan and uses garbanzo and northern white beans in a sweet-and-sour vinaigrette of grape-seed oil and white vinegar seasoned with a bit of sugar, black pepper and chilies. Other ingredients include onions, tomatoes, red bell peppers and cilantro. Variations on this theme can be found on stops along the Silk Road with a different combination of beans or lemon juice in place of white vinegar.

Pakistan had an important place on the Silk Road connecting the overland routes with the maritime sea routes. An often-used north-south route running the length of the country connected the Southern Silk Road at Kashgar, China, with Pakistan’s port in Karachi. From Karachi goods could be shipped southeast to Goa, west to ports in Persia or Arabia, up the Red Sea to Egypt, or down the coast of eastern Africa. The road between Kashgar and Karachi is still there today, at least as far as Islamabad, in the form of the Karakoram Highway.

Karakoram Highway. Credit: Laura Kelley

Karakoram Highway. Credit: Laura Kelley

The earliest parts of the Silk Road also ran through northernmost Pakistan and connected the jade mines in western China to the lapis mines in northeastern Afghanistan. Trade in those minerals across the Badakhshan corridor began more than 4,000 years ago. So, from the second millennium B.C., the time of the Indus Valley Civilization, goods from across the region were flowing through Pakistan along with people, cultures and ideas. To this end, the city of Taxila, just west of Rawalpindi and Islamabad, was the site of one of the world’s earliest “universities” where, since the sixth century B.C., learned men traveling the Silk Road came to study.

The Silk Road and Pakistani food

In addition to their ideas, the people traveling the Silk Road also brought their food cultures. Modern Pakistani cuisine is a unique blend of influences from India, western and central Asia, Arabia and the Levant states of the Middle East. The foods from Pakistan’s Sindh and Punjab provinces are most closely related to Indian food, and the curries and other dishes can be quite spicy. Dishes from Pakistan’s two western provinces have commonalities with cuisines of Afghanistan and central Asia. Given the historical importance of the port at Karachi, there are also a few Southeast Asian and Pacific influences, evident in a big way in the use of coconut products, and lime instead of lemon, especially in the south.

The Pakistani Mixed Bean Salad is probably of Arab or Levantine origin given the number of similar salads from those regions. Those salads, however, usually use lemon juice as a souring agent and often contain kidney beans or broad beans, either alone or in combination with other beans. The use of vinegar instead of citrus for souring is probably a Central Asian influence, although it is difficult to be certain.

Chickpeas have been part of the human diet since Ancient Mesopotamian times and believed to have originated in Syria or southeastern Turkey based on the number of wild related species known from these areas. They are rich in protein, carbohydrates and soluble fiber as well as potassium, phosphorus and calcium.

A great deal of the salad’s special flavor comes from grape-seed oil in the dressing. This oil, often extracted after processing for winemaking, is light and sweet and brings the flavor of the grape arbor. A very high flashpoint makes it great for braising and cooking because it’s so difficult to scorch. It also is high in polyunsaturated fats, with 1 tablespoon accounting for 19% of the U.S. recommended daily requirement of vitamin E. It is available in most Persian and Mediterranean markets as well as many large grocery chains. Don’t substitute it, unless there are no options. The added flavor is worth going out of your way to make the purchase.

This salad is moderately spicy when made, but it mellows a lot after marinating. I like to prepare it in the morning, or by noon, and let it rest in the refrigerator for two to three hours. It’s best chilled, but not too cold, so consider taking it out of the fridge and letting it sit at room temperature before serving.  I have never met anyone who doesn’t like this salad, especially when it complements steak, chops or other grilled meats.

Pakistani Mixed Bean Salad

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

Total time includes at least 2 hours to allow flavors to blend.

Ingredients

  • 1 (15-ounce) can northern white beans or butter beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1 (15-ounce) can of chickpeas, rinsed and drained
  • 1 large onion, peeled and diced
  • 1 medium red pepper, cored and minced
  • 2 medium tomatoes, chopped
  • 2 green chili peppers, minced
  • ⅓ cup white vinegar
  • ⅓ cup of grape-seed oil
  • 1 to 1½ tablespoons sugar
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 medium bunch fresh coriander leaves, minced

Directions

  1. Combine beans, chickpeas, onion, red pepper, tomato and chili peppers into a large bowl. Then whisk together vinegar, oil, sugar, salt and pepper and when well blended, pour over the bean mixture. Mix well.
  2. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. Just before serving, fold in fresh chopped cilantro leaves and stir gently.

Main photo: Pakistani Mixed Bean Salad. Credit: Sasha Martin

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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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Sweet cherry-pineapple salsa. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Having been raised under the shade of a sweet cherry tree, I always took great pride in asserting Michigan’s cherry dominance. It was not until researching this piece that I made a shocking discovery: Most sweet cherries are grown in the West. To be specific, Utah, California and Oregon.

Next, I discovered that Utah also supported its sweet cherry stronghold by designating the cherry as its state fruit back in 1997. Meanwhile, Michigan is still trying to make up its mind about that subject. Proposed legislation designating a state fruit has been stalled in committee for more than a year, with heavy opposition from the blueberry contingent. Not only was my state not among the Top 3, it couldn’t even muster sufficient political muscle behind its homegrown sweet cherries. I never would have guessed that a simple story about a spicy cherry salsa would cause me such emotional upheaval.

Despite my disappointment in this news, I still am crazy about sweet cherries in June and July. I like to throw them on waffles in the morning, salads in the afternoon and start any party with a simple, kicked-up cherry salsa, especially if it’s an impromptu gathering and I’ve only got 15 minutes before running out the door. This light, fruity salsa is sure to disappear as fast as guacamole on Cinco de Mayo or cherry pie on the fourth of July. But that’s another story with a happier ending, because cherry pie uses tart cherries, and Michigan wins that contest hands down.

Sweet Cherry-Pineapple Salsa

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 15 minutes

Yield: 4 cups

Ingredients

  • 1 pound sweet cherries, pitted
  • ½ pound fresh or canned pineapple
  • 1 jalapeño pepper
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon Aleppo chili pepper, or to taste
  • ¼ cup parsley, minced

Directions

  1. Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor and pulse until the mixture reaches a chunky sauce consistency.
  2. This can be served immediately, but it is best if allowed to marinate for up to three hours while the sweet and spicy flavors get to know each other. Serve with tortilla chips.

Main photo: Sweet cherry-pineapple salsa. Credit: Caroline J. Beck 

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The carmine-orange color and alluring aroma of wild strawberries (fraises des bois) are clues that this is a Mara des Bois. Credit: Terra Brockman

Superfood status aside, there is nothing more seductive than the sweet and spicy scent of the first gold-spangled ruby-red strawberries of the season. The uninitiated may wonder what on earth I’m talking about, since the fruit section of most grocery stores is as aroma-free as the canned goods section. But every Saturday in June, I watch a stream of savvy shoppers make a beeline to certain local farm stands where perfume still pervades the air.

The strawberries at a farmers market are generally not the largest, nor the longest-lasting, nor the most perfectly shaped. But there is a reason customers are standing six-deep, waiting their turn: When you bite into the soft flesh, juices and flavors ricochet around your mouth and your brain until you are in a delirium of pleasure. “This,” I hear people say again and again, “is what strawberries used to taste like!”

Indeed, this is how they tasted, before they were bred for color, size and shelf-life, before synthetic chemical fertilizers, fumigants, insecticides and herbicides. Contrary to industrial belief, there are simple ways to control pests in the strawberry patch, the most time-tested being organic straw mulch (hence the straw in strawberries), which obviates the need for a host of chemicals. Straw keeps the berries off the moist ground (no need for fungicides), prevents weed seeds from germinating (no need for herbicides), and adds nutrients to the soil as the straw decomposes (no need for chemical fertilizers) — all the while enhancing the diversity of soil microorganisms that keep the farm ecosystem on an even keel.

Mara des Bois strawberries are the result of cross-breeding four old European varieties, Korona, Red Gauntlet, Gento, and Ostara. Credit: Terra Brockman

Mara des Bois strawberries are the result of cross-breeding four old European varieties, Korona, Red Gauntlet, Gento and Ostara. Credit: Terra Brockman

Even in our hot and humid Illinois summers, delicious strawberry varieties such as Jewel, Honey-oye, and Earliglo do very well. But my new favorite is Mara des Bois. It is a small, somewhat elongated berry, with an intoxicating fragrance, unusual red-orange color, and deep, complex and varied flavors. In fact, different berries, even from the same plant, can have remarkably different flavors. This may be because it is a combination of four heirloom varieties that the French strawberry breeder Jacques Marionnet crossed to get the Mara des Bois. Each variety contributes a layer of flavor and in some berries, one or another flavor predominates, with some sweeter, some more citrusy, some more perfumey.

I confirmed my suspicion of the berry-to-berry variations when I brought over a big bowl of them as a treat for friends, and each one brought a different accolade, from “tangerine!” to “Kool-Aid!” to “strawberry ice cream!” And so another and another disappeared until the bowl was empty.

And these bright bursts of flavor contain potent packages of nutrition. An average strawberry has only 4 calories, but packed in those few calories are 11% of your recommended daily allowance of vitamin C. This means that eight to 10 strawberries give you more vitamin C than an orange. In addition, strawberries are high in fiber and antioxidants, and a good source of potassium and manganese.

While nothing says “welcome to summer” like strawberry shortcake, there are many other ways to use strawberries — if you can manage to get them home without eating them all on the way.  This easy salad combines the best of the rich flavors of early summer — spicy arugula with sweet/tart strawberries.

Arugula Salad with Aged Balsamic and Fresh Strawberries

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

  • ½ cup chopped walnuts
  • 4 cups torn arugula leaves
  • 2 cups sliced strawberries
  • 2 ounces Parmesan cheese, shaved and crumbled into small pieces (½ cup)
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • ⅛ teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

Directions

  1. Toast walnuts in a small dry skillet over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until lightly browned and aromatic, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a large salad bowl; let cool for 5 minutes.
  2. Add arugula, strawberries, Parmesan, pepper and salt. Sprinkle vinegar and oil over the salad; toss gently and serve at once.

 Smaller and softer than commercial strawberries, the Mara des Bois pack a flavor punch. Credit: Terra Brockman

Smaller and softer than commercial strawberries, the Mara des Bois pack a flavor punch. Credit: Terra Brockman

Main photo: The carmine-orange color and alluring aroma of wild strawberries (fraises des bois) are clues that this is a Mara des Bois. Credit: Terra Brockman

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Saffron Almond Milk. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran

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

Saffron in cooking

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

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

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

Where does it come from?

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

Why the high price?

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

Saffron’s history

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

Many uses of saffron

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

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

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

Saffron Almond Milk

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

Ingredients

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

Directions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Prebiotic stars among spring vegetables. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman

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

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

The secret to probiotics

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

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

Prebiotic foods to consider

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

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

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

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

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

Big Bowl With Barley, Spring Vegetable Stew and Yogurt

Serves 4

Ingredients

For the stew:

Juice of 1 lemon

6 baby artichokes or small artichokes

2 tablespoons olive oil

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

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

1 bulb green garlic, papery shells removed, chopped

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

½ cup water

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

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

1½ pounds fava beans, shelled

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

3 cups cooked barley

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

Directions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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