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I hardly think it needs saying, but I will say it anyway: Olive oil is the foundation of the Mediterranean diet, without which this vaunted eating style is simply a “sort of” — sort of vegetarian, sort of seafood-happy, sort of low in consumption of red meat, sort of devoted to whole grains and legumes.
But olive oil — extra virgin olive oil — is what truly sets it apart, and extra virgin olive oil, with its combination of monounsaturated fats and a big component of antioxidants and other phytochemicals (plant-based, naturally occurring chemicals), is a vital part of the good health message we hear over and over about why we should eat the Mediterranean way.
So it was shocking to see the prominent headline displayed on a full page, suggestively tinted olive green, in the New York Times Sunday Week in Review section on Jan. 26, 2014:
And in slightly smaller type just below:
“The Adulteration of Italian Olive Oil”
“Why are you shocked?” asked my friend Beatrice Ughi, who imports, through her company gustiamo.com, excellent oils from Italy. “You know it’s true.”
Yes, I know that some (a lot!) of Italian olive oil is not what it says it is on the bottle. And so is a lot of Spanish oil and a lot of oils from North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean. But I know, too, that some of the best extra virgin oils in the world come from Italy, and it is painful to see all Italian oils tarred, as it were, with the same brush. How could a superior oil such as Badia a Coltibuono or Cappezzana from Tuscany, or Titone from Sicily, or Francesco Travaglini’s Il Tratturello from Molise, survive in a market in which they are universally condemned as fraudulent, probably not even Italian, possibly not even oil produced by the olive fruit? To my eyes (and to my palate), such a statement is seriously misleading, enough so as to question the wisdom of The Times’ editors in allowing it to be published.
Beyond that, the “article” (or however you describe a series of graphic images, like a comic strip, in the opinion pages) was rife with error and misinterpretation, so much so that I was not surprised to hear later that Tom Mueller, author of “Extra Virginity” (2011), to whom the designer of the graphic attributed all the information he purveyed, had divorced himself in no uncertain terms from the article. Later, The Times, too, published an elongated correction at the end of the graphic acknowledging that an earlier version “contained several errors” and that “several of [Mueller's] findings were misinterpreted.”
One of the most startling misinterpretations is that “69% of imported olive oil labeled extra virgin” for sale in the U.S. fails to “meet the standard” for that designation. This refers to an oft-cited report compiled at the University of California at Davis in 2010. (A second, somewhat more detailed report, was published in 2011.) The report was funded by Corto Olive and California Olive Ranch, two prominent California producers, and by the California Olive Oil Council, which exists to promote California oil.
Not surprisingly, the report raised eyebrows, given the uncomfortable sponsorship. But its statistical significance was also questioned, given the fact that only 14 “popular import brands” were sampled in three separate California locations. That makes a total of 42 oils sampled — hardly a significant number given the vast number of imported oils sold in this U.S.
I would be the last person to deny there is a lot of scam in imported olive oil, just as there is a lot in many other imported products, especially those that purport to be from Italy, which equates in many folks’ minds to quality. The food industry is, and always has been, a prime area for fraud, at least in part because most food is ephemeral in nature and the fraud will have disappeared by the time the good-food cops are on the case.
Do your research when buying olive oil
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That said, with extra virgin olive oil, as with fine wine, as with Spanish jamón de bellota, as with English Stilton, the bottom line will tell you a good part of the story. You wouldn’t expect a $10 bottle of bubbly to contain Champagne, would you? If you’re spending $7.50 on a liter of oil, don’t expect it to be a fine, estate-bottled, Tuscan oil. The bottle alone, not including shipping costs, will not be covered by that price. Fine, hand-harvested, estate-bottled oils are not cheap, any more than fine Champagne, and that, it seems to me, goes to the heart of the problem. We too often treat olive oil as if it were mere kitchen grease — and in that sense, we get what we deserve and what we’re willing to pay for.
Beyond that, to assure you are buying high-quality olive oil, read the labels. I cannot say this often enough: Read the fine print. If an olive oil comes in a can or a dark glass bottle, if it has both harvest date and information about where it was processed and it is clearly written on the label, you can pretty much be certain it’s what it says it is. Not all oil will have that information and often, alas, the information will be in Italian or Spanish or Greek. But don’t let that throw you off: Learn what the important terms are in those languages (honestly, it’s easy), and read the labels.
In addition, find a merchant you can trust, either in a specialty shop or online. My most-trusted sources for great olive oil are the following (I am always eager to learn of others; please let me know of any you think are particularly reliable):
Manicaretti in Oakland, Calif., imports oil but distributes only to retail outlets and restaurants. If you see a particular oil on its website that interests you, however, you can find out from them where you might be able to acquire it.
As I write, I’m looking at a bottle of Marfuga extra virgin from Perugia in Umbria, available at olio2go.com. It’s in a dark green bottle, and it has a “use by” date of February 2015, from which I can judge that it was probably produced in fall 2013 (and I also can get that from other information on the bottle). It’s a monocultivar, or monovarietal, oil made from moraiolo olives, one of the most characteristic Umbrian varieties. It’s also excellent olive oil, rich with complex flavors yet smooth on the palate. I used it to make the following simplest and best salad dressing:
½ a small clove of garlic, minced
½ teaspoon of sea salt or Maldon salt
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice or good wine vinegar (not balsamic)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1. In the bottom of a salad bowl, combine the garlic and salt and, using the back of a spoon, crush the two together to make a paste. Stir in the lemon juice or vinegar. When it is fully incorporated, whisk in the olive oil. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding a little more salt, a drop or two more of acid, or another spoonful of oil.
2. When ready to serve, pile washed and dried salad greens on top and mix at table.
Top photo: A drizzle of fresh Tuscan olive oil. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
I once held a tasting of my jams and marmalades at a gourmet food store in Los Angeles, and a skinny kid wearing a softball uniform walked in with his father. I asked the kid if he’d like to taste some apricot jam, and his father steered him away from me with a firm hand on his shoulder, saying, “Oh, no, he doesn’t eat that stuff. He only eats healthy.” The dad presumably meant that my jam — made with local, organic, heirloom Blenheim apricots — is unhealthy because it contains sugar, which is a bit like saying that a plate of prosciutto and melon is unhealthy because prosciutto contains salt.
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» In celebration of sugar
As a preserver, cookbook author and teacher, I try to accommodate most points of view when it comes to food. Dietary choices are shaped by upbringing, by cultural bias, by the requirements of health and by the quirks of personal taste. But I have to admit that I get my hackles up when a sugar scold starts shaking his finger at my jars. That sort of prim judgment suggests to me a lack of basic perspective on eating and health, as well as an ignorance of the history and science of commonplace foods.
Sweetness and sugar are related, but they are not the same thing. Sweetness is a subjective measure; the correct amount is debatable. It is a sensation, a taste and often a pleasure, but sometimes it’s too much of a good thing. Sweetness is a powerful inducement from our evolutionary past, and our biological selves respond to sweetness because it has been associated across the eons of human existence with sustenance and satisfaction.
Our first experience of sweetness comes with the natural sugars in mother’s milk, and sweetness cues us to crave fruit and certain vegetables in which sugars and essential nutrition coexist. (Blueberries and beets, both sweet in their way, are among the healthiest foods we can eat.) Sweetness is also an emotional treat, a reward, a satisfaction. It is a trigger for well-being, an on-switch for good memories and calming thoughts.
It is not too much to say that sweetness lies near to happiness in the realm of the senses and the imagination. Nature gives us sweetness in many forms, the most concentrated being in honey and fruit, but sweetness derives from natural plant sugars that occur in the complex ecosystems of the world’s great ecologies.
Sugar, as in granulated sugar, is an ingredient that is today often politicized, sometimes demonized, and not coincidentally everywhere consumed in vast quantities. Sugar also comes from a plant — a large grass, sugarcane — that concentrates sweetness in its sap, and the ancient Arabs discovered the technology for refining granules from sugarcane juice. Ever since, sugar has been a part of our omnivore’s diet, although until about 150 years ago, sugar was scarce, and sugary foods such as candied fruit, marmalade and preserves were delicacies for the rich.
Now sugar is an inexpensive kitchen staple and a cornerstone of the prepared food and fast-food industries. Supersized sugary drinks represent an unwise allotment of one’s daily caloric intake of sugar, but the ingredient itself — granules refined from the sap of a large grass — hasn’t essentially changed since the ancient Arabs. Along with alcohol, meat, salt and grains, sugar is a timeless food that has today been linked to modern health issues because it is commonly consumed in gross excess.
Preserving with sugar
One remarkable characteristic of sugar that has been appreciated since ancient times is its preservative effect. Sugar is to fruit what salt is to meat. If you take a fresh pork leg and set it on the counter, it rots. But if you take that pork leg, rub it with salt, press it, and hang it to dry, what you get is prosciutto.
In a like manner, sugar preserves fruit. Cooking fruit and sugar together evaporates excess water; the result is a sweet preserve, and its many variations include jam, marmalade, chutney, jelly, candied fruit and syrups. In both prosciutto and sweet preserves, the salt and sugar play the same role. They lower so-called water activity by “locking up” water molecules and thereby preventing the growth of mold, bacteria and other spoilers that require “free” water for metabolic function.
Many or even most preserved foods are essentially condiments, used in small quantities for their deliciously intense flavors. Prosciutto, olives, pickles, relishes, fish sauce and cheese all have high salt levels, but then who ever ate an entire prosciutto at one sitting? The sweet preserves are no different. Half a cup of my jam, eight servings, has about the same amount of sugar as a can of soda, except that you’d probably eat the jam over the course of a week’s worth of breakfasts as a condiment for toast or yogurt. Incidentally, that same serving of jam has less sugar than many ostensibly healthy foods such as cereal, granola bars and bran muffins.
I’ll acknowledge that I do share one goal with the sugar scolds. I make an effort to reduce unwanted or unintentional sugar from my diet by avoiding all processed and pre-made foods and by skipping bottled soft drinks of every stripe. But it’s not because I think sugar is inherently bad. It’s because I want to eat it purposefully, in the form of local, organic fruit preserved from spoilage with the proper quantity of sugar. A serving of homemade sweet preserves is a joy to eat, and what the sugar scolds might well remember is that pleasure is also an essential part of any healthy diet.
Yields 2 pints
Sweetened with apple cider — no added sugar! — and very lightly spiced, this apple butter is mahogany brown and intensely flavored. I use a mixed bag of apples, a third of which are acidic varieties such as Granny Smith, to get the proper sweet-tart balance. Unlike the other fruit butters in this book ["Saving the Season"], this one does not have the apples puréed at any point in the cooking. The texture is better if you begin with sliced, unpeeled apples, and then allow the long cooking and frequent stirring to break them down naturally. Also unlike many apple butter recipes, this one has the spices added in tiny quantities toward the end of cooking. As I say elsewhere, you can always add more spice if you like, but you can’t take any out.
During cooking, the ingredients will reduce to about one-third of their initial volume. Stick a bamboo skewer straight down into the pot at the start of cooking to gauge the depth of the ingredients. Mark the level with a pencil, and keep the skewer handy as a guide. Given the hours-long cooking time, a slow cooker, its cover lifted by two chopsticks laid across the pot, would be convenient for this recipe.
5 pounds mixed apple varieties, including ⅓ tart
½ gallon unfiltered apple cider
2 allspice berries
20 fresh gratings of cinnamon
10 fresh gratings of nutmeg
1. Quarter and core the apples, then cut them into ⅝-inch slices. (Leave the peels on.) Put the slices in a deep ovenproof pot, and cover them with the apple cider. Bring the pot to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, uncovered, for about 4 hours, stirring every 15 minutes.
2. At the end of that time, most of the liquid will have evaporated, and the apples will look like chunky applesauce. Grind the allspice in a mortar and add it to the pot. Use a Microplane grater to rasp off the suggested amounts of cinnamon and nutmeg. Transfer the pot to a 300 F oven to finish reducing. Stir every 10 minutes. The butter is done when it’s stiff, mahogany brown, and reduced to about one-third of its initial volume, after about 90 minutes in the oven. In the cold-saucer test, a teaspoon chilled in the freezer for 1 minute shouldn’t leak liquid at the edges. Taste and adjust the flavor with more spice if you like.
3. Pack the hot apple butter into four prepared wide-mouth ½-pint jars, leaving ¼-inch headspace. Run a skewer or other thin implement around the inside edge to release any air pockets. Seal the jars and process in a boiling-water bath for 10 minutes.
Note: Sealed jars will keep for a year, but because there is no added sugar, apple butter will mold fairly quickly once opened. Refrigerate open jars and plan to use them within 10 days.
Excerpted from “Saving the Season” by Kevin West. © 2013 by Kevin West. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Top photo: Author Kevin West. Credit: Josh Norris
I pause, unsure how my question will be received. “Have you had kale chips?”
That was the first time I posed the question to a patient in a medical exam room. With more than a decade of practicing internal medicine under my belt, I had never felt particularly inspired or successful in counseling my patients about their weight. Then I attended Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives (HKHL), an annual medical conference at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, Calif., a gathering aimed at training doctors in nutrition and cooking. Within weeks upon my return, I was “prescribing” my first recipe.
Like many of my patients in the San Francisco Bay Area, John, who is in his late 40s, is overweight. He has never been successfully motivated to slim down because no “diet” has ever worked for him. When I bring up his chart and show him his body mass index (BMI), he says, ”I’m fat, but nothing I try ever works.”
Chipping away at the weight issue
“What do you eat on an average day?” I ask. “Do you eat fruits and vegetables?” John says he loves vegetables and loves to cook. He even volunteers at a local farmers market. But he has a weakness: “Chips,” he says. “I can’t stop eating chips.” John’s idea of chips is the potato variety, soaked in fat, fried and overly salted. I suggest he try kale chips and give him a simple recipe (see below). I tell him he can eat as many as he likes.
A month later, John has lost 5 pounds and is perceptibly happier and more confident. “Doc,” he says, “No doctor has ever given me a recipe before. Those kale chips are so good! Thank you.”
Granted, obese patients need more than a recipe for kale chips to find their way to a healthy weight, but a simple nutritious and non-fattening recipe is a first step and a great incentivizer. By giving John a fantastic-tasting substitute for his beloved chips rather than forbidding him to eat one of his favorite treats, I was able to convey that a different way of eating would allow him to enjoy snacks while feeling healthier and losing weight along the way.
Healthy recipe Rx
When doctors discuss food, it’s usually in the context of nutrition rather than flavor, as in: “You’ve really got to cut back on the junk food.” Well, patients know that, they just may not know what to replace their junk food with. What if doctors began giving out simple recipes for healthful, whole-food alternatives before they handed out prescriptions for cholesterol-lowering medication? Or gave a prescription for exercise and a decadent tasting fruit-based dessert to help control blood pressure?
Traditionally, medical schools do not include coursework in nutrition or, certainly, in cooking, and insurance companies are unlikely to reimburse for nutritional counseling. It’s much faster and easier to write a prescription for a drug, and because it may require no change in lifestyle or self-discipline on the part of patients, they may prefer a pill as well. And if the doctors themselves aren’t the best role models, due to long work hours and the same poor dietary and exercise habits she is asking her patients to rectify, they may not have credibility behind their message.
How do we change this? First, doctors must learn about nutrition and healthy cooking. Showing patients how to shop and cook, and giving them actual recipes should be the next step doctors take. This would instigate a cultural shift and require advocating for insurance coverage, but the change would improve the nation’s health and save health-care dollars in the long run.
Cooking for the cure
Dr. David Eisenberg, a professor at Harvard Medical School, is devoted to this idea. He founded Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives with the goal of turning physicians into foot soldiers in the war against obesity and other nutrition-related diseases. Over a four-day course each March, doctors swap scalpels for chef’s knives, and white coats for aprons, as they attend cooking demonstrations and get hands-on in the kitchen. They leave the conference with a changed perspective and a renewed zeal to talk prevention.
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An HKHL alumnus, Dr. John Principe, completely restructured his Chicago-area practice and now has a teaching kitchen. Principe, who says that he had been “burnt to a crisp by the methods of conventional medicine,” credits Eisenberg and HKHL for saving his career. “The ability to empower people to take control of their health through the simple tools of a knife, fire and water is amazing,” he says. “It’s primitive but essential!”
A sprinkling of other programs around the country are also taking the initiative in teaching doctors how to cook. Dr. Robert Graham, associate program director for the Internal Medicine Residency at New York City’s Lenox Hill Hospital, runs a six-week program to instruct medical residents in nutrition, weight management and exercise. Students take cooking classes at the Institute of Culinary Education. The University of Massachusetts Medical School offers cooking classes tailored to physicians’ medical specialties, and Tulane University’s Medical School and Johnson and Wales University recently established the first Culinary Medicine collaboration, with the goal of pairing physicians and chefs.
So picture this: At your next checkup, you’ll be weighed in, get your blood pressure checked, and your latest cholesterol and blood sugar numbers. Then your doctor will hand you her favorite kale chip recipe or one that turns frozen bananas into ice cream. It seems far-fetched now, but it would make medical and fiscal sense to make such a scenario a reality in the immediate future.
Dr. Shiue’s Kale Chips
1 head kale, washed and completely dried
a few pinches of salt, to taste
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
1. Wash whole kale leaves, shake out or dry in a salad spinner, then place on a rack to dry thoroughly. Depending on your temperature and humidity conditions, this can take an hour or several hours. Alternatively, dry thoroughly with towels.
2. Preheat oven to 275 F.
3. Once kale leaves are completely dried, tear leaves off the fibrous central stem into bite-size (potato chip sized) pieces and place onto two baking sheets in a single layer with some space around each leaf.
4. Sprinkle on salt and drizzle with a small amount of olive oil, about 1 tablespoon per baking sheet. Toss with tongs to evenly distribute salt and oil.
5. Place prepared kale leaves into the preheated oven, and bake for 20 minutes, turning over leaves halfway through baking.
Variations: Experiment with tasty seasonings, including cayenne pepper with a squeeze of lime juice, Bragg Nutritional Yeast and nori furikake.
Top photo: Baked kale chips. Credit: iStockphoto
Whatever happened to white sauce? Has that wonderfully comforting creamy sauce thickened with butter and flour disappeared for good from our plates? Forty years ago white sauce was as much a staple as gravy, the foundation of fritters and soups, soufflés and fricassées, and indeed the starting point for a whole family of Southern cream sauces. There was a time when we revelled in chicken à la king and creamed oysters and onions au gratin.
The rot began with nouvelle cuisine, that short-lived French aberration which one chef called “a little bit of nothing on a big white plate.” Flour was banned from the kitchen in favor of “light” butter-mounted sauces that relied on meat reductions and glazes for flavor. Flour, it was claimed, led to heavy, sticky, lumpy sauces with a depressing resemblance to library paste. Well of course it did — if the sauce was badly made.
But the new butter emulsions proved far trickier, needing a careful hand to create them, and a constant watch to maintain just the right temperature so they did not break. In a home kitchen, few cooks had the sharp eye and quick turn of the whisk needed for such fragile constructions. Professional chefs heaved a sigh, tried a few gimmicks like vacuum flasks for keeping such sauces warm (not hot), and moved on. Cooking the finicky embellishments to order was the only realistic approach, too labor-intensive for all but the most expensive restaurants.
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Sauces began to disappear, revealing the naked ingredients that had been artfully hidden underneath. Poached fish fillets and boneless chicken breasts were stripped, shivering on the plate. Colorful sides of vegetables were not enough. To hide the misery, the food would be coated in a colorful rub, or topped with a fresh chutney or relish. Flavors took on a new kick with global outreach. Once-exotic fresh ginger and chili, soy, sesame oil and cilantro became commonplace. Sriracha took pride of place in front of the Worcestershire sauce in the pantry. The underlying ingredients were masked, enabling parsimonious cooks to economize on quality — who would notice a stringy bit of chicken or a bland, mushy fish beneath a blizzard of conflicting flavors? But let’s not be cynical.
I’m on a campaign to revive white sauce and its cousin velouté, made with the cooking broth from the main ingredient. When young cooks come into the kitchen, one of the first things I show them is white sauce, and invariably they look mystified. I make them whisk a butter and flour roux in a figure eight, then stir in the milk and bring to a boil over medium heat. Quick, simple, with constant whisking the key until the sauce thickens. “But it’s easy!” they exclaim.
So I’m urging a return to homemade macaroni cheese and those vegetable gratins of chard or spinach topped with white sauce and a luscious crust of grated Gruyère. How about lobster mornay and veal blanquette and chicken divan? I yearn for a delicate fillet of sole, poached in fish stock and white wine that is used for the glistening coating of sauce suprême. Escoffier knew what he was doing!
Use white sauce to thicken soups and stews, or to bind gratins of cooked vegetables. Thin white sauce gives the creamy texture to macaroni and cheese or layered pastas such as lasagne. Thick white sauce binds fritters and forms a base for soufflés.
Makes 2 cups
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
2 cups cold whole milk
Salt and white pepper to taste
Note: For thick white sauce, use 4-5 tablespoons each of butter and flour for 2 cups of milk. For thin white sauce, use 2 tablespoons each of butter and flour for 2 cups of milk.
1. Melt the butter in a heavy-based saucepan, whisk in the flour and cook until bubbling. Take from the heat and whisk in the milk (it should be cold), pouring it in all at once. Season with salt and white pepper if you have it (so the white sauce is not spotted with black pepper).
2. Return the pan to medium heat and bring the sauce to a simmer, whisking constantly until it thickens, just below boiling point. Lower the heat and simmer 1-2 minutes to thoroughly cook the flour. If by any chance some lumps have formed, simply work the sauce through a strainer into a bowl. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
3. To store white sauce, pour it into a bowl and while still warm cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap so a skin does not form. The sauce will do fine in the refrigerator up to 2 days. It will have thickened slightly when reheated, so stir in a little more milk.
After the sauce thickens, whisk in 2-3 tablespoons crème fraîche and simmer 1-2 minutes longer. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Cheese (Mornay) Sauce
After white sauce has simmered, take it from the heat and whisk in 3-4 tablespoons grated Gruyère cheese or 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan. Taste and adjust seasoning. Do not recook the sauce as it will form strings.
After simmering, whisk 3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley into the sauce, taste and adjust seasoning. Good with fish, especially salmon.
Top photo: White sauce over broccoli. Credit: Nicole Quessenberry