Articles in Recipe
I love the spring produce and all the fresh new flavors of the season. In the weekend farmers markets in Dallas there is an abundance of strawberries, asparagus, leaf lettuces, spinach, spring onions, radishes, broccoli rabe and kale. At the Indian markets red, green and yellow bell peppers glow next to mounds of brilliantly green chilies, curry leaves and leaf vegetables. Tucked in between purple, green and white eggplants and fresh green peas are baskets of green knobby rough textured bitter gourds. They all turn into beautiful, flavorful spring dishes.
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Bitter gourd, which is also called bitter melon and balsam pear (Momordica charantia), is a very nutritious and healthy vegetable. This green melon that is shaped more like a cucumber has uneven grooves and a rough texture and is unlike any others in the melon family. It is also the most bitter of edible vegetables. Just as chili peppers vary in size and degree of heat, there are many varieties of bitter gourd that differ substantially in the shape and bitterness. The Indian variety is dark green and spiky while the Chinese variety is lighter in color with a bumpy peel. Some Taiwanese, Japanese and Filipino varieties are ivory to white-colored.
Bitter gourds grow on vines in tropical and subtropical climates. They are cultivated in most parts of Asia, Africa, South America and the Caribbean. They have a hollow center with a thin layer of flesh surrounding a seed cavity filled with large flat seeds and pith. Young bitter gourds tend to be bitterer than the ripe vegetable.
When a bitter gourd begins to ripen its color changes to shades of yellow, the interior has a reddish hue and it has less bitterness. When it is fully ripe it turns orange and splits into segments that curl back to expose seeds covered in bright red pulp. Bitter gourd is mostly cooked when green, or when it just starts turning yellow. The young shoots and leaves of the bitter gourd are also edible.
Selling Americans on bitter veggies
Even if its bitter taste does not appeal to you, its health benefits certainly will. It is low in calories and carbs, has high fiber content, and is high in vitamins and minerals. Bitter gourd is a proven hypoglycemic agent, a natural source of plant insulin that helps lower blood sugar levels. Indian herbal medicine, Ayurveda, prescribes it for controlling blood sugar and digestive disorders. It has a long history of use in Chinese and African herbal medicines too. Its medicinal uses are also popular in South American countries.
Bitter and astringent flavors are generally restrained in American cuisine. Bitter gourd is a delicious vegetable when cooked right and the taste buds are given the chance to become acquainted with the most misunderstood of the primary flavors. The healing properties of bitter gourd are becoming more widely accepted in the United States, especially among natural health practitioners. Advocates created the The National Bitter Melon Council in 2004 to build a community of bitter melon fans and advocate for the vegetable. The group hosts events and festivals in various cities in the United States to celebrate the health, social, culinary and creative possibilities of this underappreciated vegetable.
People who enjoy bitter gourd find its bitterness refreshing and palate cleansing. It is a favorite vegetable in Indian, Chinese, Southeast Asian, South Asian, and South American cuisines. In these cuisines its bitterness is recognized for its place in the flavor spectrum.
In Indian cuisine there are so many ways of cooking bitter gourd. The bitterness is tamed by cooking with of spices, shallots, yogurt, coconut, mango, potatoes, peanuts, tamarind or onions. They are also stuffed with spices and pan-fried. Spiced, sun-dried and deep-fried bitter gourd rings are a common dish. The bitterness can be reduced by salting pieces before cooking or tamed by blanching them for a few minutes.
This recipe makes a good side dish. The bitterness is tamed here by the addition of shallots and spices. Shallots have a pleasant crispness and are sweeter and milder in flavor than onions. They have a really nice way of incorporating themselves more fully into dishes.
Bitter Gourd With Shallots
6 to 8 medium sized bitter gourds
1 tablespoon salt
½ teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon coriander powder
1 teaspoon cumin powder
½ teaspoon ginger powder
½ teaspoon powdered red chili peppers (less for milder taste)
3 tablespoons of oil
3 to 4 shallots, thinly sliced
1. Slice the gourd in half lengthwise, scoop out and discard the pulp and seeds. Rub with salt and set aside for half an hour. Squeeze out the bitter juices and then cut the gourd into ¼- to ½-inch segments. You’ll be left with little C-shaped segments.
2. Combine the salt, turmeric, coriander powder, ginger powder and powdered chili pepper and mix well. Sprinkle the spice mix on the cut pieces to coat them with spices.
3. In a pan heat the oil and add shallots. Keep stirring so that they are evenly cooked.
4. Add the spiced bitter gourd pieces to the pan after three or four minutes. Reduce the heat and cook them covered till tender. Open the cover and stir a few times so that the vegetable is cooked and browned evenly.
Top photo: Bitter gourds. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran
My new favorite fish dish is modeled on a medieval chicken dish remotely descended from an ancient cheese spread. You heard me, cheese spread. You can think of the dish I am calling three-millennia fish as fish in a sort of thin Hollandaise made slightly florid with saffron and sweet spices.
The intermediate dish appears in a 14th-century Catalan manuscript called “Libre de Sent Soví,” where it is called pols soffrits ab alidem, “fried chickens with alidem.” The alidem part is what goes back to a cheese spread, because the Arabic word al-idam referred to a condiment you ate with bread.
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Some other languages have the same sort of word. In ancient Greek, for instance, opson meant a bread relish, which in Athens was usually fish. And that’s where modern Greek gets its word for fish, psari (originally opsarion). In the medieval Middle East, the typical idams were semi-liquid cheese-like things such as kamakh rijal.
Catalonia was one of the first parts of Spain to free itself from the Moors, but they had left a strong imprint on its cooking, which otherwise would have turned out to be just a dialect of Provencal cuisine. For instance, escabeche, the preparation of cooked vegetables or fish dressed in vinegar that has spread throughout the Spanish-speaking world, comes from Arabic via the Catalan form escabeig, which is pronounced, believe it or not, as escabetch.
Somehow, al-idam took a strange turn in Catalonia. In the “Libre de Sent Sovi,” it meant a sort of sauce or dressing for cooked meat. Some of its alidems were made with toasted bread, so maybe there was a link with tradition there, but as they say in Catalan, Que sap?
The more usual alidem in Sent Soví was a mixture of beaten egg yolks, mixed spices (which the Catalans confusing call salsa), a sour ingredient (vinegar or sour grape juice), and water or stock. This would be cooked to a creamy consistency. Maybe the consistency was the link to the ancient cheese spread.
Medieval recipes are finicky in places but maddeningly vague in others. Pols soffrits ab alidem is one of the vague ones. It only says, “One takes the chickens and boils them; and then takes lard of salt pork and fries them. And then they go for slices and alidem for dishes.” (The cooking technique of boiling before frying reflected the toughness medieval chickens.)
When you check back to the book’s instructions on making alidem, the only flavorings you find mentioned are ginger, pepper, saffron “and other good spices,” so you’re on your own. Cinnamon and nutmeg were what occurred to me when I first tried this recipe. I must say, it came out delicate and luscious.
Perhaps because of the saffron I immediately thought it would also be a good preparation for fish. And behold, as they’d say in the Middle Ages, it was. Here is my fish adaptation of the medieval chicken in the former cheese sauce. I used cod in this recipe and I think it would work best with that or other mild fish, such as halibut or even catfish. It wouldn’t work as well with strong-flavored or fatty
fish, such as salmon or swordfish.
12 to 15 threads saffron
¾ teaspoon ginger
½ teaspoon pepper
3 to 4 grindings fresh nutmeg
4 teaspoons vinegar or lemon juice
4 egg yolks
¾ to 1 cup white wine, fish sauce or clam juice
2 to 3 tablespoons light olive oil for frying
2 pounds fish filets
1. Grind the saffron to a powder in a mortar, or in a bowl with the back of a spoon. Add the ginger, pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg and mix them up with the vinegar. Beat in the egg yolks and then add the wine or water and beat smooth.
2. Pour the oil in a large frying pan and heat over high heat until the oil is fragrant, about 2 minutes. Pat the fish pieces dry and add them to the pan without crowding it; cook in more than one batch if needed.
3. Cook over high heat, stirring often, until the fish flakes easily when prodded with a fork, 2-4 minutes depending on thickness. Set the fish aside and discard the cooking oil.
4. Pour the egg and spice mixture in the pan over medium heat and cook until the sauce thickens, stirring constantly to keep it from sticking to the pan. Pour the sauce on the fish and serve.
Three-millennia fish. Credit: Charles Perry
A truly great food and wine pairing can lead the way to nirvana. I can still remember my first time like a first kiss: It was fleeting, but held so much promise.
But matching food with wine can be a tricky business once you get much beyond “red with meat and white with fish.” So I jumped at the opportunity to spend time in the kitchen and at the table with Brian Streeter, culinary director of Cakebread Cellars and their famed American Harvest Workshops.
Cakebread Cellars is one of the most celebrated wineries in California’s Napa Valley. Started by a couple of weekend warriors who planted 22 acres in 1973, the winery has grown into a family dynasty producing elegant vintages from 510 acres. A graduate of the New England Culinary Institute, Streeter joined the tightly knit group 13 years into its odyssey and has been pairing foods and wines almost every day for 27 years.
What are some core principles of food and wine pairing?
It’s all about intensity, acidity, tannins and alcohol. If you can get a handle on these core components, pairing any wine with food is much easier.
Intensity is all about the body or mouth feel of a wine. I might be stating the obvious, but lighter foods really do go best with lighter wines and richer, more complex foods go with richer, more complex wines. Color is the first great visual clue to a wine’s intensity, and knowing if the wine has spent any time barrel aging is a good signal too.
Acidity is the next thing to think about. To be a good food pairing wine, a wine needs to have a certain level of acidity. Wines low in acidity end up being flabby and don’t pair well. If I really want to highlight the bright acidity in a wine, I’ll marry it with a food component that has some natural sweetness to it. That’s why shellfish like shrimp, scallops or lobster goes so well with white wines like Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay. The sweetness of the dish makes the acidity pop even more and seem brighter. But if you want to soften the acidity, adding lemon or white wine to the recipe makes the wine seem a little rounder.
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Lastly, consider the alcohol level. A low level of alcohol is a good indication that the wine’s grapes were picked earlier and acidity levels will be higher, so they will naturally go best with lighter food. If the wine is higher in alcohol, it will exhibit bigger, riper flavors. Often the winemaker will age it in new oak barrels, adding another element. These full-flavored wines cry out to be enjoyed with 2-inch thick prime porterhouse. But you want to be careful not to serve anything too spicy or too sweet with them as both tend to accentuate the alcohol in the wine and throw it out of balance.
Speaking of spicy, are there any tricks to pairing with those foods?
Often, spicy foods clash with wines that have seen time in barrel or have alcohol levels above 12.5%. I love Indian food because of its use of so many spices, but in order to make a successful wine pairing, sometimes recipes need to be dialed back or reinterpreted if you want to find a dish that really complements the wine. Once I’ve tasted the wine, then I decide whether I want to accentuate, or even soften, its style by how I season the dish with which I plan to pair it. Off-dry wines and wines with fruit-forward characteristics do best with really spicy food, unless the seasoning is so intense that it will overshadow any wine.
What other foods are risky to pair with wine?
Any ingredient that throws a wine out of balance or alters its natural finish is trouble. Red flags should go up with asparagus, artichokes, vinegar, eggs, soup and dishes that are designed to satisfy a sweet tooth.
Asparagus and artichokes are notorious for being bad partners with most wines. But asparagus just picked from our winery garden and cooked right away is one of the things I look forward to most at this time of year. I will rarely serve asparagus with red wine because it makes the wine taste like overcooked canned vegetables, but I think it’s fabulous with Cakebread’s Sauvignon Blanc.
Artichokes can easily throw a wine out of balance. Roasting them or grilling helps, but the wine might suffer a little for it. Save that really special bottle you’ve been holding onto for another occasion.
When it comes to salads, vinegar or acid is problematic because it can make a wine taste flat. Use sparingly and balance with other ingredients. Incorporating some protein — whether in the form of meat, cheese or nuts — softens the acidity and gives the wine more texture to interact with.
Eggs, particularly hard-boiled, can make a wine taste sulfurous. But if you like deviled eggs like I do, the acidity in Sauvignon Blanc is a good contrast to the richness of the egg.
Soup usually is a difficult course to pair wine with because it’s matching a liquid with a liquid. That said, soups that have some body to them are better than broths.
Sweetness in food accentuates acidity, alcohol and any tannin in a wine. We only make dry wines at Cakebread Cellars, so I’ll look elsewhere for off-dry wines to pair with these kinds of dishes.
What do you think is the most versatile varietal?
I have two favorites, Rosé and Pinot Noir. When it’s hot outside, nothing tastes better than a refreshing glass of Rosé. It’s more complex than white wine, but not as big as red and can be served chilled. I enjoy lighter food during the summer like salads and a lot of fish, so rosé is what I reach for.
When it comes to reds, you can pretty much divide red wine drinkers into two groups: the Pinot camp and the Cabernet camp. Pinot typically shows brighter red fruit, a little higher acidity and softer tannins, so they can pair well with a greater variety of foods. Salmon is a well-known choice for Pinot; pork and poultry work more often than not. When I’m having a big, juicy steak or roast, then I start thinking about Cabernet or Merlot. Firmer tannins match up much better to dark red meats.
Which should be a beginning oenophile’s instinctive choice: Contrast or complement?
Trying to pick a contrasting wine, like a sweeter wine to offset spice, can be a bit tricky, so I’d suggest taking the safer route. Choose a wine that complements a dish and you’ll probably end up with a successful pairing.
Thai Stone Crab Tostadas
This stone crab appetizer was one of many dishes I helped prepare in a recent cooking class at Cakebread Cellars. The sweetness of the crabmeat and the tang of the dressing heightened the bright acidity of the Cakebread Cellars Sauvignon Blanc we drank with it.
For the fried wontons:
8 wonton wrappers, halved on the diagonal to make 16 triangles
Vegetable oil for frying
For the topping:
1 cup stone crab meat (from about 1 pound cooked crab claws) or Dungeness crab meat
1½ cups very finely sliced green cabbage
2 tablespoons minced red onion
2 tablespoons thinly sliced scallions
For the dressing:
2 tablespoons Thai fish sauce
1 tablespoon unseasoned rice vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger
½ jalapeño chile, seeded and minced
Coarsely chopped cilantro for garnish
1. In a 4-quart saucepan, heat 3 inches of vegetable oil to 375 F. Fry the wonton wrappers a few at a time, turning them once with tongs, until they puff and turn golden, less than a minute. Drain on a rack or paper towels.
2. In a bowl, combine the crabmeat, cabbage, red onion and scallions.
3. In a small bowl, whisk together the fish sauce, rice vinegar, lime juice, sugar, ginger and chile.
4. Add the dressing to the slaw and toss well.
5. Put a spoonful of slaw on each wonton wrapper. Garnish with chopped cilantro and serve immediately.
Top photo: Thai stone crab tostadas. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
There are many opinions about what to drink when eating a dish laced with vinegar, from Lambrusco with Balsamic to Muscadet with a cider vinegar mignonette to accentuate raw oysters. But using vinegar in a drink is all the rage right now, as the fermentation craze extends to mixology.
Chefs and bartenders are increasingly turning to vinegar, even making their own, to add another level of flavor to their drinks. They might barrel-age certain cocktails, essentially fermenting them twice.
“Vinegar is another flavor dimension to play with,” said Liz Grossman, the managing editor of Plate magazine, which devoted its entire winter issue to the subject of fermentation, including cocktails. “It adds a creaminess.”
Drinking vinegar spans styles
Cleveland-based chef Jonathon Sawyer of Greenhouse Tavern makes his own vinegar to go into barrel-aged cocktails; Andy Ricker in Portland, Ore., founder of the popular Pok Pok restaurant, came back from a trip to Thailand a few years ago inspired to mix tartly sweet vinegars with club soda, which he considers an ideal pairing for spicy Asian food.
Ricker sells a line of drinking vinegars in apple, honey, tamarind, pineapple and other flavors called Som Drinking Vinegar (pokpoksom.com). Only organic cane sugar and natural flavoring are added to the natural vinegar; he recommends a 4:1 ratio of soda water to vinegar to help cut the acidity of the honey and apple varieties in particular, which tend to taste less sweet than some of the others.
The notion is not that far off from the idea of shrubs, drinking vinegars made by macerating fruit in vinegar, then cooking it with sugar or honey.
Bartender Carlo Splendorini, who heads the Michael Mina Group of restaurants, prefers to work with balsamic vinegar, finding that the warm flavors of these vinegars from Modena bring depth, nuance and a hint of sweetness to his cocktails. Here is one of his spring-inspired creations.
Created by Carlo Splendorini, Mina Group
1 sugar cube soaked in good quality balsamic vinegar
½ ounce rum
Orange peel for garnish
1. Place the sugar cube at the bottom of a Champagne flute.
2. Add the rum and slowly top with Champagne.
3. Garnish with a twist of orange peel.
Top photo: Spring Sparkle cocktail. Credit: Courtesy of Mina Group
Broccoli rabe is the new spinach, as one twentysomething, let-me-reinvent-the-wheel food blogger called it. Yeah, broccoli rabe is healthy, but if it doesn’t taste great no one will eat it.
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Let’s get rid of some confusion: broccoli rabe, broccoli rape, broccoli raab, rapini, Chinese flowering cabbage are all the same thing. It’s unrelated to spinach. But we can’t get rid of all confusion because broccoli, cabbage, kohlrabi, cauliflower, rapini and turnip tops are all botanically related.
Furthermore cime di rape, friarelli and broccoli rabe are often confused by the very people who are famous for cooking them, the Neapolitans. You’ve got to admire a people who have a website devoted to friarelli, though. Friarelli refers specifically to young broccoli rabe, and the dish is made by boiling the vegetables in water, draining them, and then frying them in olive oil with garlic and salt.
Broccoli rabe is very popular in southern Italy, where this bitter tasting green is cooked in a variety of ways to make it more palatable. It has been popular for a long time. Plutarch, the second-century Greek essayist, wrote about broccoli rabe in a story about the Roman general Manius Curius, who, after a long and successful career, retired to his modest home in the country. One day some Samnite ambassadors came and found him boiling greens like broccoli rabe or turnip tops. They offered him some gold and he responded by asking why a person satisfied with such a supper would need gold.
I was in Naples when I first had friarelli at the restaurant Donna Margherita at Vico Alabardieri. The dish called salsicce e friarelli was made of sausage taken out of its skin and flattened into two patties and fried in olive oil along with the friarelli that was cooked in olive oil, garlic and red chile flakes. This was served with French fries and lemon. It was great.
On another occasion I had pizza con salsiccia e friarelli, and I thought this one of the finest pizzas I’ve ever had. It’s sometimes called pizza pulcinello, named after Pulcinella, the comic character of the 17th-century Neapolitan commedia dell’arte. The pizza is made with mozzarella and small slices of sausages and drizzled olive oil. When I had it the crust was thick with risen sides and it was cooked in a wood-fired oven, which left appetizing black marks on the bottom of the pizza.
A simple broccoli rabe preparation is easy and brings out the richness of the hearty vegetable. You can use it to top a pizza or pair it with sausage like the dishes I enjoyed in Naples, or use it in myriad other ways because it’s versatile in its simplicity.
Boil the broccoli rabe until soft in about 12 minutes then drain and transfer to a sauté pan with some olive oil and chopped garlic. Sizzle for a few minutes then serve with salt and lemon juice if desired.
Broccoli rabe with garlic and olive oil. Credit: LittleNY Photography and Design/iStock
Susan Feniger, one of Los Angeles’ best-known restaurateurs, is always planning her next food trip, as soon as she comes home. Feniger’s restaurant Street, which opened in 2009, is inspired by the global street-food scene, but her explorations are as much about experiencing the lives people lead as they are about finding travel-inspired recipes.
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Talking about a trip to the Turkish countryside, her eyes brightened as she described going with a friend to meet a farmer he knew. A walk into the fields up from the river led them to a house made of sticks with a cow in front. Inside, the kitchen had a fire pit in the middle of the room.
Sitting on the floor for their meal, Feniger watched with pleasure as the farmer’s wife first made tahini by grinding sesame seeds and then baked the tahini into the bread for their midday meal. The bread was delicious as was the experience.
In her kitchen at Street, Feniger demonstrated one of the popular dishes on the menu, an easy-to-make dish with lots of flavor: Brussels sprouts flavored with goat cheese, apples and hazelnuts, topped with an Italian version of a picada without nuts.
When Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, her longtime cookbook collaborator and fellow chef, were doing research for the dishes they would serve at their second restaurant, Border Grill, they traveled extensively in Mexico. She quickly discovered that the food she loved was the food cooked by street vendors and in people’s home.
As she explained, When you go into people’s homes “they’re so happy you’re there eating their food. People took us into their homes because they wanted us to taste their food. You didn’t get that if you go to restaurants. When you are on the street and you are in a culture that doesn’t usually see [outsiders], they really like that [you are willing to try their food].”
Travel-inspired recipes from around the world
To Feniger, eating the food prepared by people for their everyday lives is how you see the heart of a country. Over the years she has traveled around the world, pursuing her love of culture and eating.
“When I travel, if I don’t see a historical site, I’m OK. The much more rewarding experiences are the ones with people in their kitchens. My memories when I travel are ones with people, not with the monuments.”
On a 14-day trip, crisscrossing India from Delhi to Mumbai to Goa to Kerala (her favorite), Feniger ate on the street or in people’s homes every day. … When she was in Shanghai she was taken by a local on a food tour that began at 4 a.m. so she could watch a man make savory fresh soy milk sticky rice doughnuts cooked in a wok. By 8 a.m., he had finished his breakfast service so he cleaned up and left, allowing a shoe repairman to take over the stall.
Let the ingredients lead you
The menu at Street cherry-picks taste treats she ate during her travels over several decades.
Recently, Feniger revamped the Street menu and gently moved in the direction of vegetarianism, not for policy reasons but because the street food she loves tends to feature produce over animal products.
Hence, the Brussels sprouts dish. Her picada is Italian and illustrates Feniger’s belief that keeping it simple is best. Take a run at flavor, she suggests, letting the ingredients lead you and everyone will be happy.
Brussels Sprouts with Goat Cheese, Apples and Hazelnuts
Cooked quickly, the Brussels sprouts should be crunchy so the dish tastes fresh and inviting. The contrast of savory Brussels sprouts, sweet apples and tart-creamy goat cheese, together with accents of the picada make the dish delicious on its own or as a side dish with a protein such as sautéed tofu, fried chicken, grilled steak or baked salmon.
For the sauté:
½ cup raw hazelnuts
1½ tablespoons olive oil
6 cups whole Brussels sprouts, shaved thinly on a mandolin or with a knife
2 medium sized Granny Smith apples, cored and cut into a small dice
Juice of 1 lemon
6 ounces soft goat cheese, broken into small pieces
1 teaspoon kosher salt
For the picada:
⅛ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons minced raw garlic
2 cups bread crumbs
Salt to taste
zest of 3 lemons
1 bunch Italian parsley, finely chopped
For the sauté:
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Spread the hazelnuts out on a cookie sheet and toast them for 5 to 10 minutes until they are roasted and slightly browned.
3. Remove from heat and pour onto a clean dish towel.
4. Fold the dish towel over the toasted hazelnuts and roll lightly to remove the skins. Discard the skins.
5. Place the hazelnuts on a cutting board and chop into small pieces, or alternately pulse in a food processor for a brief period of time. Set aside.
6. In a large sauté pan, heat the oil on medium-high heat.
7. Add the Brussels sprouts, apples and salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the Brussels sprouts are slightly browned on the edges.
8. Add the hazelnuts, lemon juice and goat cheese.
9. Toss together and turn off heat.
For the picada:
10. In a large sauté pan heat the oil, but do not let it smoke.
11. Add the garlic and stir quickly to release its flavors, but do not brown.
12. As the garlic starts to color, add the bread crumbs and salt to taste.
13. Stir well to combine and toast in the oil (about 5 minutes).
14. When the bread crumbs are browned, remove from heat and place in a mixing bowl.
15. Add the lemon zest and the parsley while the bread is still slightly warm.
16. Toss and then spread out on a cookie sheet to cool to room temperature. Store in an airtight container before using.
17. Sprinkle on top of the Brussels sprouts before serving.
Top photo: Susan Feniger in her kitchen at Street, demonstrating making Brussels sprouts with goat cheese, apples and hazelnuts. Credit: David Latt
“One of the most significant medical discoveries of the 21st century is that inflammation is the common thread connecting chronic diseases,” writes Dr. Mark Hyman, author of several books on health and wellness. The conditions he’s talking about include diabetes, heart disease, obesity and even cancer, all driven by inflammatory foods in your diet. But the good news is there are lots of foods to decrease inflammation, too.
Cut your finger, and observe what happens: redness, swelling, thumping pain. That’s the process of inflammation — the immune system rushing in, sending growth signals to the skin and blood vessels to help repair damaged tissues. Now imagine you have a chronic wound that just won’t heal. ”It’s like wild fire out of control,” Dr. William Li told USA Today, describing the inflammatory process that drives the proliferation of cancerous cells.
When the immune system detects cancer, it produces inflammatory molecules to help put out the fire. But tumor cells are sneaky. They mask themselves to keep the immune system from prevailing and feed off the growth signals that inflammation creates. What’s more, cancer cells initiate inflammation on their own, secreting inflammatory chemicals that cause more proliferation and growth, and the cascade continues. The cancer cells increase exponentially, refusing to die like normal cells, producing masses called tumors that generate blood vessels on their own so they can nourish themselves, grow bigger and spread.
Fat cells, too, secrete inflammatory chemicals, underscoring the link between obesity and chronic disease.
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So what causes chronic inflammation?
Hyman blames the usual culprits, including lack of exercise, stress, overeating, refined carbs, processed foods, sugars and artificial sweeteners, imbalances in gut bacteria, insufficient fiber, dairy, gluten and bad fats.
Unlike proteins, which our body breaks down into amino acids, the fats we eat get incorporated directly into our cell membranes, said Jeanne Wallace, a Ph.D. in nutrition who has reviewed the thousands of studies on diet and cancer. In a multi-step process, those fats then signal our cells to secrete chemicals that are either inflammatory or anti-inflammatory. The good fats — the ones that get converted into prostaglandin E3s and signal cells to reduce inflammation — include omega 3 fatty acids, she explained, found in abundance in wild, fatty fish, in animals raised on pastures and in a few plant foods, including flax, chia and walnuts to some degree.
The bad guys are certain omega 6 fatty acids from commercially-raised animals and trans fats from fried and processed foods, including oils that are hardened via the process of hydrogenation and turned into shortening, into some margarines and sometimes into commercial nut butters. These fats get converted into prostaglandin E2s and other chemicals that promote inflammation.
The bad guys, however, can also include plant sources high in omega 6 fatty acids– beans, grains, nuts, seeds and especially their oils, Wallace said.
The problem here is that fat conversion can go either way, she said. The fat may be converted into healthy or unhealthy prostaglandins, depending on your insulin levels and other factors in your body, and we have very little control over the process. Wallace, who counsels cancer patients on diet and supplements, recommends eating these whole plant foods in moderation and avoiding most plant oils, which contain an overabundance of omega 6s. Olive oil is her oil of choice because of the abundance of omega 9 fatty acids, neutral in their effects on inflammation, along with other compounds that impede it.
Through her extensive research, Wallace has identified these foods to fight inflammation.
Top foods to decrease inflammation:
10 Apples and apple cider. Wallace, however, advises her clients with blood sugar issues to avoid fruit juice because of the sugars and to eat apples along with a little protein or fat, which will slow down the sugars’ absorption.
9 Brightly colored berries. These are also on Wallace’s top 10 list of foods that regulate blood sugar.
8 Olive oil. Buy cold-pressed, extra virgin oil in dark bottles, Wallace advised. And when you cook with it, use a low temperature and don’t let it smoke.
7 Hot peppers. They’re high in capsaicin, a potent compound that generates heat and inhibits inflammation.
6 Onions. Have you ever known a vegetable so sweet yet so mighty? According to onion experts, the best ones are the red and yellow-skinned varieties grown in northern soils. Peel them gently, then cut them and then let them sit for a half hour to develop the full complement of healthy compounds.
5 Grass-fed, grass-finished (often called pastured) organic meat, dairy and eggs. Visit the Eat Wild website to find good local sources of these products. And when in doubt, ask farmers what they feed their animals to increase omega 3s. You don’t want “grain-fed,” which increases omega 6s.
4 Leafy green vegetables, especially spinach. Wash these vegetables well even if the package says they’ve been pre-washed because the threat of the E. coli contamination is real. Cook spinach to help you absorb its minerals.
3 Green tea. Look for fresh-smelling, green leaves, especially gyokuros and senchas
2 Wild, fatty, cold-water fish Choose fish that are small and eat low on the food chain, including anchovies, sardines, herring and wild salmon. Here’s a list of some good salmon choices, including canned salmon from BPA-free cans. Also, eat the fat, which contains the healthy omega 3s.
1 Culinary seasonings. Curry, ginger, garlic and parsley top the list of foods that fight inflammation. All herbs and spices are rich in antioxidants, Wallace said, which help protect fragile omega 3 oils from turning rancid when heated. Even more significant, they inhibit inflammation-promoting molecules (called nuclear factor kappa B) that cancer cells secrete. In fact, some scientists suggest that spice consumption might explain why cancer incidence is so much lower in India than in most Western countries, giving “the spice of life” its most significant spin yet.
Simple Spicy Salmon, With Ginger Juice and Garlic
My secret to moist, tasty salmon is a clay baking dish, which is available in most kitchen specialty stores. You have to soak it in cold water for half an hour before using it and then place it, along with the ingredients, in a cold oven. Trust me. I’ve cracked many a clay vessel.
4 cloves garlic, chopped, divided in half
3 heaping tablespoons grated ginger
4 tablespoons lemon juice, freshly squeezed
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 large pieces of wild salmon
Pinch of red pepper flakes
1. Soak the pot in cold water for half an hour.
2. Prepare the sauce. Chop the garlic first. It needs to sit about 15 minutes before cooking to develop its host of cancer-fighting compounds. Grate the ginger, then squeeze the juice out of it into a mixing bowl. Add the lemon juice, salt, pepper and half the garlic and stir.
3. Place the fish in the clay pot and add the sauce. Sprinkle red pepper on top and then cover.
4. Place covered clay pot in a cold oven, then turn the oven to 350 F and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until fish is flaky. Add the remainder of the garlic at the end.
Top photo: Simple spicy salmon, with ginger juice and garlic. Credit: Harriet Sugar Miller
One of the many things that I love about travel is the chance to eat a renowned dish in its country of origin. In India, I went straight for the curries. In Vietnam, I fell for bánh mì. In Switzerland, I gobbled up fondu, raclette and rösti. You can’t get much more authentic than that.
Of these, it is the Swiss potato pancake, rösti, that I make on a regular basis. Derived from the German word rösten, which means to roast or grill, rösti consists of fried, shredded potatoes. That’s it. That’s the main and often sole ingredient of this easy Swiss specialty. Crisp on the outside yet soft and velvety on the inside, the simple rösti possesses a rich, complex flavor and competing textures that make it a sheer delight to eat.
Originally, rösti served as a filling breakfast for 19th-century Bernese farmers. A shared offering, it was placed on a platter in the center of the breakfast table. Using their spoons, people would cut off a piece of the patty and dunk it into a cup of weak, milky coffee. It may seem like an unusual custom, but it was one that soon caught on in other parts of Switzerland.
Rösti a versatile dish for any meal
Rösti quickly usurped the traditional Swiss farm breakfast of soup or mash, which had fed the hungry since medieval times.
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Today’s Swiss cooks continue to deck out their potato pancakes with a diverse range of ingredients. At Geneva’s Auberge de Savièse, rösti is decorated with strips of red bell peppers and onions. Meanwhile, the Eiger Guesthouse in the Alpine village of Mürren adds a touch of Italy to its offering, adorning it with sliced, fresh tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella and a drizzle of pesto sauce.
Some prefer pairing a simple rösti with a savory entrée. This is the case for Geneva resident and United Nations worker Chris Morh. “On a chilly day there is nothing better than to have rösti with Zuericher Geschnetzteltes, veal with cream sauce,” Morh says.
Just as the serving styles vary, so too do the ways that rösti is prepared. The differences start with the potatoes, which can either be cooked and then shredded, or shredded when raw. This is also the case with a relative of rösti, the American hash brown.
Then there is the question of how to cook the potatoes. Although I prefer to boil them in their skins, others opt for steaming. With the latter method, no salt is added to the potatoes and fewer nutrients leach into the cooking water.
In what the shredded potatoes are fried also differs from cook to cook. Some folks swear by vegetable oil while others endorse butter or bacon fat as the best.
Many claim you should fry your potatoes in oil and then add butter in small dabs at the very end of the cooking time. You spread the butter around the rösti’s edges so it melts, drips down into the hot pan and flavors your dish. I’ve found that this step also stops my potatoes from sticking to the skillet.
In spite of the variations, there are some agreements on rösti. You should use firm, cooking potatoes such as yellow or golden. You should also sauté the potatoes first before shaping them into a plump pancake and frying the cake on both sides.
Whether you make it to Switzerland or just to the corner store, pick up a pound of firm, yellow potatoes and treat yourself to an easy, delicious dinner of rösti.
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 tablespoon olive oil
1½ pounds yellow/golden potatoes, boiled in salted water until just tender, peeled and grated
¾ teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon salt
⅛ teaspoon ground white pepper
⅓ cup grated Gruyère cheese
2 spring onions, whites and 1 inch of greens sliced
1. In a large, nonstick frying pan, heat 1 tablespoon butter and the olive oil over medium-high heat. As the butter is melting, toss together the shredded potatoes, thyme, salt and pepper.
2. Spoon the potatoes into the frying pan and sauté for 1 to 2 minutes, making sure that all the potatoes have been coated with the oil.
3. Shape the potatoes into a pancake and fry on one side until golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes.
4. Place a flat plate over the top of the pan and invert the pan onto the plate. Return the pan to the heat, add a dab of butter if needed and then slide the rösti back into the pan, uncooked side down. Allow the potato pancake to cook for another 10 to 15 minutes, until that side has also browned.
5. A few minutes before removing the rösti, break off small pieces from the remaining butter and spread it around the edge of the potatoes.
6. To remove the rösti, place a serving platter over the top of the pan and invert it onto the platter. Spread the Gruyère cheese and spring onions over the top of the rösti. Serve immediately.
Top photo: Rösti. Credit: Kathy Hunt