Articles in Healthy Eating

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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Eggs in a basket. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Sun, Sea & Olives: It’s the simplest, most basic of foods, the one cooks turn to when there’s nothing to eat in the house — because there’s almost always an egg or two or three available, ready to be scrambled into a quick supper, or tossed with hot pasta to make a rich carbonara or poached in chicken stock to turn that unassuming broth into chicken soup.

AolivesAnd it has to be the easiest thing in a cook’s repertoire: You know what they say about a hapless cook — she can’t even boil an egg!

Spring and eggs go together. That’s because as the light begins to strengthen and the grass starts to green, the hens begin to lay once more, which is why eggs are so closely tied to the two great Mediterranean spring festivals, Passover and Easter. The egg on the Seder plate and the colored eggs in the Easter basket are there to announce that winter is over and new life has begun. (Yes, I know the Seder egg is supposedly a stand-in for the sacrifice in the Jerusalem Temple, but it’s hard to resist spring symbolism all the same.)

Fortunately, eggs are starting to creep out from under the dishonor in which they were held for decades, vilified for high cholesterol content and banned from the tables of anyone who feared heart disease. No longer! Modern researchers agree that dietary cholesterol is not a problem for most people. Dietary cholesterol does not make elevated serum or blood cholesterol, which is more likely to be attributed to a diet high in saturated fat, or to unhappy luck of the genes.

Eggs pack a protein punch — and are chock full of vitamins and minerals

Eggs, as traditional kitchen folklore has always held, are good for you, an excellent source of protein, of course, low in total fat and with zero carbs and just 71 calories in a large egg. They are good sources of iron, selenium, phosphorus and riboflavin, as well as vitamin B12. They’re also well supplied with the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, which protect against macular degeneration, among other benefits. Did your mother tell you eggs are good for your eyes? Mine did, and she was right!

Sun, Sea & Olives

One in an occasional series on the Mediterranean diet.


More from Zester Daily

» The ABCs of the Mediterranean diet save lives in a new way

» Mediterranean diet news isn’t new, but good to remember

» Which was first? The egg

» In search of good eggs

So get out the eggs and get to work.

But what kind of eggs will you buy? Cage free, free range, pastured, pasteurized, organic? The choice is confusing, but for the most and best flavor, my vote goes to eggs bought from the farmer who tends the chickens. Straight to the source, you’ll find out how those chickens are raised, what they’ve been fed and how long ago the eggs were laid.

Although brown eggs are favored in New England and white eggs preferred elsewhere, the flavor and goodness are exactly the same. But here’s an interesting fact to put in your egg file: Eggs in North America must be washed before they can be sold. Not a bad idea, you’re thinking? Think again. Eggs come with a natural protective coating that gets dissolved in the wash water. In Italy, where I live part of the year, eggs don’t have to be refrigerated, while in the U.S., I’m told, it’s best to keep them, if not refrigerated, in a very cool place to make up for their lack of protection. (You may find that eggs bought from the farmer have not been washed.)

And what about salmonella? If you think eggs are risky, cook them thoroughly, either hard-boiling or baking in cakes or cookies. Hard cooked eggs can quickly become deviled eggs, a seriously delicious if old-fashioned treat. Do them up Mediterranean style, mixing the yolks with a little mustard, some capers and a few green olives chopped together with fresh green herbs, the whole bound with a dab of olive oil and another dab of mayonnaise. Or serve them plain, garnished with a black- or green-olive tapenade.

Take a tip from the Italian kitchen and drop eggs, one after the other, into a bean-and-pasta soup, then serve up a poached egg with each soup portion, perhaps with a little Parmigiano-Reggiano sprinkled on top. Another dazzling Mediterranean egg trick I learned from Maria Jose San Roman, a great chef from Alicante in southeast Spain: Use gently fried eggs as a sauce to top sautéed potatoes. Cook sliced potatoes (in olive oil, of course), then arrange on a platter, season generously, and top with eggs similarly fried, the yolks basted with hot oil so that when they break they make a rich, golden sauce for the potatoes. Nothing could be simpler — or better.

One of my favorite Mediterranean treats consists of eggs served atop the sumptuously tasty concoction called shakshouka in North Africa and sciakisciuki on the island of Pantelleria in Italy. There’s a place in the delightfully shabby old city of Jaffa, Israel, called Dr. Shakshouka, a huge favorite with tourists. If you overlook the visitors, you can get a delicious shakshouka, often served with eggs, for lunch.

I played around with the recipe for a while and here’s what came out — salt-cured lemons are my own personal touch, but they give such a North African flavor that I couldn’t resist stirring them in at the end. You can make this hotter or sweeter as you wish by increasing or decreasing the ratio of paprika to chili. Another virtue of the sauce: You can make it ahead of time, even several days, and refrigerate until you’re ready to reheat and serve.

Shakshouka with eggs. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Shakshouka with eggs. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Shakshouka

Makes enough for 2 to 3 main-course servings, 4 to 6 if part of a larger meal

Ingredients

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 teaspoon coriander seeds

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil plus a little more for garnish

3 or 4 sweet red (bell) peppers, cored and chopped, not too fine, to make 4 cups

4 to 6 garlic cloves, minced

1 large or 2 medium tomatoes, peeled and chopped not too fine

1 teaspoon sugar, if desired

2 tablespoons tomato concentrate dissolved in ¼ cup of hot water

1 tablespoon sweet paprika

1 or 2 teaspoons medium-hot ground or flaked chili pepper (Aleppo pepper if available), plus a little more for the garnish if you wish

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 tablespoon capers, rinsed of excess salt

½ small salt-preserved lemon, slivered, if available

¼ cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

¼ cup finely chopped cilantro

4 or 6 large eggs

Directions

1. Roast the cumin and coriander seeds, stirring in a dry skillet on high heat, just until the fragrance starts to rise.

2. Remove the skillet from the heat and let it cool slightly before adding the oil, chopped peppers and garlic. Gently sauté the peppers and garlic in oil until the vegetables are very soft, 15 to 20 minutes.

3. Stir in the tomatoes, which will give off quite a lot of liquid. If the tomatoes are not fully mature, add a little sugar to bring out the flavor. Cook until most of the liquid has evaporated, then stir in the diluted tomato concentrate, along with the paprika and chili pepper.

4. Add the salt and black pepper. If the sauce is a little dry, add ¼ cup or more of water and cook down for another 15 minutes or so to bring all the flavors together and thicken the sauce slightly. The consistency should be that of a tomato sauce for pasta.

5. Taste and adjust the seasoning. When the sauce is ready, stir in the capers and the slivered salted lemon, if you have it (and if not, a good spritz of lemon juice will be fine). At this point, you can refrigerate the sauce if you’re not ready to make the eggs right away.

6. When you’re ready to continue, turn the oven on to 350 F.

7. Reheat the sauce over medium-low heat, then stir in the parsley and cilantro. Transfer the sauce to a lightly oiled baking dish.

8. Use a big serving spoon to make four to six large indentations in the sauce. Crack an egg and drop it into each indentation. Transfer the baking dish, uncovered, to the oven and cook the eggs just until the whites are set and the yolks are still a little runny, about 15 to 20 minutes. Do not overcook. If the eggs are not sufficiently set at this point, run the baking dish under the broiler for a minute or two just to firm up the eggs.

9. Remove from the oven and sprinkle each egg with a little more salt, black pepper and if you wish, ground chili pepper. Add a dribble of olive oil over all and serve immediately.

Note: It’s a good idea to serve crusty bread, toasted if you wish, for scooping up the sauce.

Top photo: Eggs in a basket. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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Lamb and rhubarb stew. Credit: Kristin Nicholas

The first rumblings of spring have reached the Central Atlantic. The green tips of daffodils and jonquils are pushing through the still firm soil, and in some sunny spots, snowdrops and crocus are already starting to bloom. This means that the early crops of rhubarb should be out by month’s end. Fluorescent pink stems topped with deep green, chard-like leaves will soon fill the market shelves, so it seems a good time to tell some of the Silk Road history of this amazing plant.

Genetic analysis of plant diversity tells us that rhubarb’s origins are probably on the Tibetan Plateau, but that it spread early into northwestern China and to some of the bordering areas of Central Asia and Mongolia.

The Chinese were the first to document the use rhubarb — as a medicine. The first mention of rhubarb use is in “The Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica,” which is part of a Chinese oral tradition that probably reaches back to the second century B.C. In this work, rhubarb is used to treat malaria, people who have delirious speech with fever, and constipation, among many other maladies.

Trade to the West for medicinal purposes started early. In Greco-Roman culture, rhubarb was used as a general purgative, and was considered useful in combating many diseases. The Greek physician, Pedanius Dioscorides wrote in his first-century work, “De Materia Medica,” that rhubarb came from, “beyond the Bosporus,” in Turkey while the later Roman writer, Ammianus Marcellinus believed it to come from the “lands of the northern Caucasus near the Volga River inhabited by the Amazons” (Scythians).

Rhubarb’s long road

The reason for this confusion about the origin of rhubarb is because of the patchwork nature of trade on the Silk Road. Only rarely were shipments carried long distances by a single merchant or carrier. Most of the time, goods traded hands many times as they traversed the Old World.

As rhubarb’s reputation as a cure-all spread across continents, so the price of the root rose precipitously, until the finest quality rhubarb was more expensive than cinnamon or saffron.

It is difficult to find European references for rhubarb beyond Byzantium, but medicinal use of the stems and roots is noted by 10th-century “Arab” physicians Yahya ibn Sarafyun (Serapion the Elder) of Syria and Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) of Uzbekistan.

These writers use rhubarb as a purgative, but also use it for many urinary tract diseases, and to increase the flow of semen. Interestingly, Marco Polo identified it growing in the 13th century in the mountains of Qinghai and Gansu provinces in northwestern China. So, like many other sources of knowledge that disappeared or were held close in monasteries in Europe’s Dark Ages, Levantine and Muslim scholars may have kept the study and use of medicinal rhubarb current for their times.

By the early 15th century, the vibrant trade of rhubarb from China to Uzbekistan and on to Persia on the Silk Road is documented by the Castilian ambassador to Timur’s court in Samarkand, Ruy Gonzáles de Clavijo. The 16th-century Flemish botanist Rembert Dodoens gives one of the first scientific descriptions of the modern age for rhubarb in his “Cruydeboeck” (“Herbal”) in 1554.

 Sweet and savory dishes with rhubarb

In the West, it is generally regarded that the first completely culinary uses of rhubarb (not as a medicinal tonic or potion) began in the late 18th and early 19th century. The earliest recipe I could find was in the 1807 edition of Maria Eliza Rundell’s “A New System of Domestic Cookery.” In the 1824 volume, Rundell has two seemingly delicious recipes for rhubarb tarts, both of which call for copious amounts of cane sugar.

That history aside, I would like to share a Silk Road recipe for rhubarb that probably predates Rundell’s by several centuries if not more. It is a traditional dish in northern Iran, near Mashad, but is also enjoyed in Turkmenistan and other parts of Central Asia where merchants helped naturalize rhubarb during the course of its transport on the Silk Road.

The recipe is for a lamb and rhubarb stew that uses rhubarb as a souring agent to complement the earthy lamb, much as sour plums or sour cherries are used in other recipes. I think that the recipe might be Central Asian in origin, because like many other Central Asian dishes, it also relies on herbs rather than spices for much of its flavor. It’s a great example of the foods that came flooding west from the various Persian conquests of the territories to its north and east, possibly during the Seljuk Dynasty.

Since rhubarb is being rediscovered as a vegetable, it is often available beyond its traditional short season, which allows this recipe to be made almost any time of the year. But with spring on the way, now is the time to make this dish to celebrate the seasonal rebirth that this time brings.

Lamb and Rhubarb Stew

Serves 2

Ingredients

2 tablespoons light sesame or peanut oil

¾ pound lamb cut into cubes

1 large onion, peeled, sliced and separated into crescents

3 teaspoons garlic, peeled and diced

4 hot, dried, red chili peppers

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 cup water

1 cup beef or chicken stock (or a mixture of both)

1 to 2 teaspoons nutmeg, grated

¼ cup fresh mint, chopped (more to taste)

1 medium bunch fresh cilantro, chopped

1½ tablespoons sugar (more to taste)

3 cups fresh rhubarb, cleaned and cut into 1-inch slices (peeled if desired)

Directions

1. Heat oil in a medium saucepan and when hot, sear lamb cubes over high heat until golden brown around the edges, stirring constantly. When meat is done, remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside.

2. Lower heat to medium and add the onions, sautéing until they start to soften and color. Then add garlic, chili peppers, salt and pepper and stir until the garlic starts to swell and color. When garlic is done, add water and beef or chicken stock and cook to heat. When hot, add lamb back into the pot, add 1 teaspoon of the grated nutmeg to the stew. Cover and cook over medium-low or low for 1 hour, stirring occasionally, until lamb becomes tender.

3. When lamb is nearly done, add the chopped mint and stir well. Then add the cilantro and sugar and stir in as well. Cook for another 3 to 5 minutes and then add the rhubarb and cook another 3 to 5 minutes or until the rhubarb softens, but is still firm (not soggy). Remove from heat, grate the remainder of the nutmeg in and serve. This dish works best served with barley, but one can use millet or rice as well.

In addition to delicious desserts and savory stews, rhubarb is once again being used as medicine. It has joined the growing list of, “superfoods” because it is packed with vitamins C and K, is high in fiber, and contains calcium. Rhubarb extract is also being investigated as a chemotherapy agent to stop the spread of some cancers and to trigger cell death (apoptosis) in some tumors; as a cholinesterase inhibitor to help treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia disorders; as an antimicrobial drug; and as an antioxidant. The ancients knew that rhubarb was good for you, they just didn’t know why.

Top photo: Lamb and rhubarb stew. Credit: Kristin Nicholas

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The person who taught me to cook, my beloved stepmother Mary, died in January at the age of 95. She came into my life when I was 14 and motherless, lost in a sea of boys. Our family was in a state of disarray, and with amazing grace, she put it back together again.

Mary, aka Mumsie (my stepsister, who was also part of this wonderful bargain, called her Mumsie, as in “Mumsie and Daughtsie,” so I did too), was a woman of tremendous style and fun. She was also a great cook. I will never grasp how she managed to go seamlessly from being a single mother of one for 15 years to being a wife and mother of five; from turning out meals for two to preparing festive family dinners for seven or more every night when we were all home during school vacations. The French would say of those evenings, “c’était la fête tous les soirs“: It was a party every night.

She made dishes you just didn’t see in mid-1960s suburban Connecticut: ratatouille, pan-cooked Italian peppers, arugula salads. She roasted lamb rare. Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding were not for Christmas dinner; they were for dinner … maybe once a week! So much meat. I always said, when I became a vegetarian in the ’70s, that the reason had nothing to do with principles; I simply had had my quota of meat by then.

Mary tricked my father, who was vegetable-phobic, into eating vegetables. One August night during the summer after they were married, he told her that he didn’t eat corn on the cob because it gave him stomach trouble (he was convinced that all vegetables gave him stomach trouble). She took a paring knife and deftly scored each row down the middle of the kernels. “If you score the kernels,” she told my father, “the corn will be much more digestible.” This was totally bogus, but he fell for it, and from then on we would have amazing corn fests every night throughout the summer. “It’s a short season,” we would say, as we passed the platter around the table for the fourth time, butter dripping down our chins.

My education in the kitchen began with salads. “Go in the kitchen and help Mary with the salad,” my father would say to me and my sister, while he and my brothers carried on in the den. She gave me the ingredients for a vinaigrette, some measuring spoons and a whisk, and told me what to do with them (3 parts oil to 1 part lemon juice or vinegar, dry mustard, salt, pinch of sugar, marjoram, pepper). This was much more fun than washing and drying lettuce (three different kinds — romaine, red leaf and Boston — unlike the iceberg salads with Russian dressing of my childhood), a task I learned early on to relegate to my sister and friends. There were no salad spinners then; we had a folding mesh lettuce basket that you swung around outside, weather permitting, hoping you would not dislocate your shoulder. I learned to slice the mushrooms and the radishes thin, to score the sides of the cucumber before slicing it; I discovered the avocado.

I didn’t grow up cooking by my mother’s side, as some girls did. I was a teenager before I became interested. Then Mary taught me by giving me the tools and telling me what to do or pointing me to a recipe, sometimes from afar. The summer I started cooking (beyond vinaigrette and salads) was the summer between my junior and senior years in high school. I was 17, I had a job at the local newspaper, and my parents were not around much because my father, a writer, was working on a play in New York City. I told Mary I wanted to learn to cook.

“What do you want to cook?”

“The things we eat,” I responded.

I do remember Mary walking me through a very simple spaghetti sauce — showing me how to cook the onion and add the garlic, then brown the meat, etc. But mainly, I would tell Mary what I wanted to cook, and she would tell me what book the recipe was in, the most frequently used being Julia Child’s “The French Chef,” Irma Mazza’s “Accent on Seasoning” and Mildred Knopf’s “Cook, My Darling Daughter.” If I wanted to make something really simple, like broiled lamb chops, she’d just tell me what to buy at the butcher’s and how long to broil the chops on each side.

Every day after work, I would go to the market (and charge the food to my parents), then go home and make dinner for myself and my sister, and whoever else was around (our boyfriends, who knew a good deal when they saw it). Cooking was fun for me, and easy; my food tasted good because I’d had such good food at home, I knew what I wanted it to taste like. By summer’s end I was giving dinner parties, and continued to do this when I returned to boarding school, where I would borrow a teacher’s house from time to time. But it never occurred to me then that I’d make a career of this passion.

My sister and I have always been amused by Mumsie’s adoring, proud line about my work, something she said when I was promoting my second cookbook in the early 1980s. I was preparing a press luncheon that my parents hosted in their beautiful Los Angeles apartment (they had moved to L.A. in the mid-’70s), and she exclaimed  — “she took a frying pan and a piece of paper and forged a career!” But it was Mary who gave me the frying pan … and the wok … and the casserole … and the Sabatier knife, and the food memories and first recipes … and always, the support and encouragement.

Spinach Salad With Mary’s Basic Salad Dressing

The dressing is a slight variation on the recipe for Mary’s Basic Salad Dressing that I published in my first cookbook, “The Vegetarian Feast.” The spinach salad recipe is one I found scrawled on the endpapers of “Accent on Seasoning,” a cookbook Mary used so often that the cover fell off when I removed it from the shelf as I was cleaning out her apartment.

Serves 6

Ingredients

For Mary’s Basic Salad Dressing:

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon white or red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ to ½ teaspoon dry mustard or 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

Freshly ground pepper to taste

1 small garlic clove, put through a press or puréed in a mortar and pestle

½ teaspoon dried marjoram

1 teaspoon chopped fresh herbs (such as tarragon, parsley, dill; optional)

9 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, or a mixture of grapeseed or sunflower oil and olive oil

For the salad:

10 ounces (1 bag) fresh spinach (this was before baby spinach; 1 bag baby spinach could be substituted today)

6 strips crisp bacon

1 bunch scallions, sliced

¼ pound fresh mushrooms, sliced

Directions

1. Whisk together the lemon juice, vinegar, salt, mustard, pepper, garlic and herbs. Whisk in the oil or oils.

2. Stem, wash and dry spinach (Mary underlined “dry” in her handwritten recipe). Put in bowl, crumble bacon over top, add sliced scallions and mushrooms. Chill until ready to serve.

3. Toss with dressing and serve.

Variation: In the recipe scrawled inside Mary’s book, she includes an egg yolk in the vinaigrette.

Top photo: Mumsie, in the kitchen. Credit: Courtesy of Martha Rose Shulman

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Escarole, cabbage and spinach. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Everyone claims to want to cook simple food. As soon as we’re in the kitchen, things aren’t so simple. It’s actually hard to cook simple dishes because we cooks always want to fiddle or add things or just not stand around looking at “simple,” because simple doesn’t require much, that’s why it’s called simple.

The irony is that once we start our fiddling and the simple dish becomes more complicated, it often ends up not the best thing in the world. Here’s the deal, I think. You’ve got to trust your food. You’ve got to trust that raw food is actually delicious without you manipulating it beyond recognition. You’re not Ferran Adrià, and furthermore, that’s a style of cooking that should not necessarily be replicated.

So in this recipe I’m going to ask you to force yourself not to work too hard, which will mean you’ll have to resist the temptation to add herbs, spices or other stuff, such as truffle oil or kale or whatever. In this simple dish you’ve got to do nothing. There are only six ingredients (if you count the salt), but how they interact is the magic of cooking.

In this preparation, you’ll sauté the escarole, a slightly bitter green when eaten raw. It’s also called chicory since it’s a kind of chicory, along with Savoy cabbage, which is crinkly leafed cabbage with leaves that are more tender than the common green cabbage. Finally you’ll stir in the spinach for the briefest of moments, just until the leaves wilt. Now eat it — don’t do anything else. Don’t garnish it.

Simple Escarole, Cabbage and Spinach

Serves 4 as a side dish

Ingredients

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 large garlic clove, finely chopped

¾ pound escarole (chicory), washed well and thinly sliced

¾ pound Savoy cabbage, thinly sliced

½ pound spinach leaves

Salt

Directions

1. In a sauté pan, heat the olive oil with the garlic over medium-high heat until the garlic starts sizzling.

2. Add the escarole and cabbage and cook, stirring frequently, until a minute past wilted, 4 to 5 minutes.

3. Add the spinach and cook, stirring, only until it is wilted, about 1 minute.

4. Salt to your taste and serve hot.

Top photo: Escarole, cabbage and spinach. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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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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White balsamic vinegar. Credit: Kathy Hunt

A new year invariably means new food-trend predictions. In the past, the culinary prognosticators have called for the year of the pie, doughnut, diminutive portions and fennel pollen.

Some hunches, such as a rising interest in fermented goods and ancient grains, have come true. Others, including a wave of food trucks for dogs, seem to have fallen through.

One 2014 food forecast that I hope hits the mark is the craze for tart flavors. Specifically, I’m rooting for the piquant condiment white balsamic vinegar. Neither a misnomer nor a gimmick, white balsamic vinegar is what its name implies: balsamic vinegar that’s light in flavor and color.

White balsamic vinegar begins in the same manner as dark or black balsamic, with fruity, white Trebbiano grapes from the Emilia-Romagna region of Northern Italy. These grapes are pressed, and the resulting juice or must is then cooked.

To make dark balsamic, the must is boiled until it is reduced by half or two-thirds its volume and caramelized. It is then aged in a series of increasingly smaller barrels, each of which is made of a different wood and imparts its own distinct taste and aroma to the liquid. The traditional aging process takes a minimum of 12 years and results in dark, syrupy and pungent vinegar.

For white balsamic, the juice is pressure cooked; this prohibits caramelization. Aging takes place either in uncharred oak or stainless steel barrels. Unlike dark balsamic, this vinegar ages for no longer than a year. These steps guarantee a fresh, mildly sour fruitiness and amber hue unique to white balsamic vinegar.

To me, white balsamic has all the benefits and none of the drawbacks of its darker relation. Although similar in taste to dark balsamic, it doesn’t overwhelm the flavors of other, more understated ingredients, as dark tends to do. It also doesn’t possess a heavy aftertaste. Instead, it leaves the palate feeling clean and refreshed.

Its light color means it partners well with pale, delicate foods. Chicken, cheese, seafood and fruit are all enhanced but not discolored by white balsamic. As someone who has served countless balsamic vinegar chicken dinners and cringed each time over the drab, dusky meat resting on guests’ plates, white balsamic is an aesthetic dream.

Not only food but also dinnerware benefits from this vinegar’s subtlety. If you want to keep your white platters and bowls looking tidy and elegant even after plating the night’s meal, dress your meats, vegetables and salads with white balsamic.

White balsamic vinegar won’t overpower other ingredients

In Napa, Calif., chef Sam Badolato uses white balsamic for deglazing and in dressings, including a radish one for spinach salad. “Red balsamic would have been too strong for this dressing. I wanted the radish flavor to come through but needed a soft vinegar taste,” says Badolato, who is chef de cuisine at soon-to-open Velo in downtown Napa.

He also features it in desserts. “Over the summer I used it on a strawberry bread pudding. It was a big seller. I’ve added it to the Velo menu as a drizzle with olive oil over ice cream,” he says.

As Badolato indicates, white balsamic vinegar marries well with many of the same foods that dark balsamic does. Apricots, strawberries, tomatoes, green beans, leafy greens, white-fleshed fish, brown butter, honey, mustard, onions and truffle oil make outstanding partners for white balsamic vinegar. Along with salads and desserts, dishes such as grilled halloumi, pan-seared scallops and tomato soup are likewise enhanced by a splash of the sweetly tart condiment.

If 2014 is to be the year of sour, I’m cheering for white balsamic vinegar to reign over this tart taste trend. Delicate yet versatile and packed with flavor, it is a delectable addition to innumerable savory or sweet foods.

Yountville Radish Vinaigrette

Recipe courtesy of Sam Badolato

Makes about 15 ounces

Ingredients

8 ounces radishes

1 ounce fresh garlic

2 ounces white balsamic vinegar

4 ounces extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

Place the ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and purée until smooth. Drizzle over a bed of spinach and serve immediately.

Top photo: White balsamic vinegar. Credit: Kathy Hunt

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