Category Archives: Health

Waste Not, Want Not

A lot of attention is being focused these days on waste–especially food waste. Most of the stories I see published are looking at the food system–crops that don’t get bought because they don’t match a store’s ideal, imperfect food that gets thrown out, and so on. But as much of the attention shows, people are working hard to avoid these kind of situations where food gets wasted. It’s not fixed yet, but it’s not being ignored.

However, there’s a huge area of waste that isn’t getting talked about as much, and that’s the food that consumers waste. I know people who actually brag about how much stuff they buy that just spoils in the fridge because they’re too busy to get to it. So buy frozen. It will wait for you–and because it’s frozen in the field, it probably has more nutrients than the stuff in the produce section. Or if heads of lettuce are dying in the fridge because you don’t have time to prepare them, buy pre-washed, chopped lettuce. Do what it takes to not be throwing out the food you buy. Plan meals around things you have, so it gets used up in time.

And in restaurants, think about what you’re ordering. I regularly see people over-order by an astonishing amount, and then walk away from the table, not even bothering to ask for their food to be boxed to take home. To avoid the spread of disease (a good thing), all that food has to be thrown away. Granted, there are times that you can’t take a carry-out container with you — but then order less. And at buffets — take less with each trip. I see stunning amounts of food left on tables by people who pile more than they can eat on their plates and then just leave it. (Some buffet restaurants now post signs that you will be charged for wasted food, but this is still not common.)

So instead of simply looking to the food industry to “save the day,” consider making it a priority to not waste the food that comes through your house or when you go out to dinner. Teach your kids or challenge your friends to be less wasteful. When I was a youngster, we were always told to “finish what’s on your plate, because children are starving in [fill in the blank with place currently in the news]” That’s still a legitimate consideration. You might think that a restaurant would have to throw out the food anyway, if you hadn’t taken it, but they can send the food to shelters if it hasn’t left the kitchen. They can’t do that once you get it at your table. Health laws. (Again, a good thing.) So buy what you can use and use what you buy, and then smile and feel good about yourself, because you’re part of the solution to a very real problem.

As for the phrase, “waste not, want not,” it may just be that you’ll have more money to spend because you’re not over-ordering or throwing out food you don’t get to in time. But it may be someone else who doesn’t “want” — that is, go hungry — because you didn’t waste.

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Sensitivities vs. Poisons

I have spent much of the summer looking after my mom, who had a devastating reaction to a powerful antibiotic. Nurses keep telling me that there are no side effects to this drug, and I have explained, again and again, that side effects may not be widespread, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Most people don’t die from eating peanuts or wheat, but if you’re allergic, you do. And, seriously, all you have to do is read the insert that comes with most medications to know that everything does something to someone. (Fortunately, the doctors acknowledge that there are side effects, so I have gotten support there.)

It’s frustrating, when I point to mom’s sensitivity, to see reactions that range from disbelief to contempt. As a result, I understand the frustration of people who are sensitive to various substances, from medications to ingredients. And yet I find myself frustrated as well by campaigns to get rid of things that are, in fact, perfectly safe for the majority of people. I want my mom to recover from the horrible reaction she had to the antibiotic, which has stolen both her mind and her strength, but I don’t want the drug outlawed, as it has saved thousands of lives.

While it might seem odd to compare MSG to an antibiotic, I don’t think it’s a bad comparison. People have argued often and loudly that we use too much of both. The biggest difference is that MSG occurs naturally. Perhaps it is because it is natural that even when there are side effects with MSG, they aren’t as shattering as the side effects of many drugs. Which is why I wonder about the continuing crusade to get rid of MSG (or reduce its use — can’t really get rid of it as it is a natural substance that occurs in many common foods). MSG is a potential allergen, but it’s not a poison. I’m all for the free-market practice of creating and labeling foods “no MSG,” to reach the market of those who are sensitive, but I think the rhetoric is making people afraid of something that need not be feared — unless you’re sensitive. I’ve got my own range of sensitivities, but I don’t want others to have to do without things they enjoy just because I can’t handle them. Because for most of us, MSG is just fine. And here is no less an authority than Harold McGee telling us so.

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Tips From the World of Spice

A few posts ago, I mentioned an event in Philadelphia called The Life of Spice. There was a lot of interesting information shared by the other two speakers, but the most useful was from the representative from McCormick Spice. Here are the highlights from her presentation.
• Mexican oregano is a completely different plant than Mediterranean oregano. Mexican oregano is mustier than Mediterranean. It’s great in chili and Mexican dishes, but don’t use it in spaghetti sauce.
• Oregano is the most commonly adulterated herb. That means if you see an off brand that seems to be too cheap, it’s probably not all oregano.
• “Cinnamon” coming out of China can be as much as 50% adulterated with the bark of trees other than cinnamon.
• Red pepper makes you feel more satisfied with your meal.
• Smoked paprika can help people who are trying to reduce their salt intake–adds big flavor so salt isn’t missed.
• California bay leaves are not the same as Mediterranean bay leaves — and are not necessarily completely safe, at least in large quantities.
• McCormick has developed tests to show what emotions spices trigger. For cinnamon, it’s love.

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Garlic and Almond Soup with Grapes

When I visited Spain, I found that garlic is a mainstay of Spanish cooking, and is often used with great abandon. I was surprised and delighted to find a variety of garlic soups and garlic sauces. Ajo Blanco is a cold soup–particularly welcome in warm weather–that combines garlic and almonds. The recipe comes from Málaga, in southern Spain. Málaga was founded by the Phoenicians in the 12th century BC, was controlled at various times by the Romans and Visigoths, and was among the first cities to fall to the Moors in 711 AD, when they began their invasion of Spain. Almonds remain one of the main exports from the port of Málaga, and remain an important part of the local cuisine.

A couple of notes about this recipe. I love garlic, and usually look for the fattest cloves I can find, or add more than a recipe requires. However, in this recipe, since the garlic is not cooked, it’s pretty potent, even with three average cloves, so don’t get carried away. Traditionally, this would be made using a mortar and pestle, but a food processor or blender makes the process significantly easier.

And finally, some really good news. Almonds have been shown to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and may cut the risk of lung cancer, even if you smoke. Throw in the garlic and olive oil that this recipe contains, and this delightful and unusual recipe is almost frighteningly good for you. Enjoy.

Ajo Blanco con Uvas
(Garlic and Almond Soup with Grapes)

5 oz. blanched almonds
3 cloves garlic, peeled
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1 tsp. salt
4 Tbs. olive oil
3 Tbs. red wine vinegar
3 cups ice water
3 dozen seedless green grapes

Place the almonds and garlic in a food processor and process until they are finely chopped. (Do not over-process, or the oil will separate out of the almonds. Stop while almonds look like crumbs, and not peanut butter.) Add the bread crumbs, salt, and 1 cup of water, and process until mixture is a fine paste. With the food processor running, add the oil in a thin stream. Next, gradually add the vinegar and as much of the remaining ice water as your food processor can comfortably accommodate. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and stir in any remaining ice water.

Adjust salt to taste. Cover and refrigerate for several hours or (even better) overnight. Peel grapes (not absolutely required, but they float more easily if peeled). Float the grapes in the soup just before serving, or serve soup and float grapes in the individual bowls. Alternatively to using grapes, you could substitute 1 cup of chopped apple. Serves 4–6.

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Fun Fact: Sugar

Even though the spice trade between the Middle East and India dates back more than 4,000 years, sugar didn’t make it into the mix of traded goods until much later. People knew about sugarcane; the prophet Jeremiah wrote of “sweet cane from a distant land.” But it just didn’t make it to Europe from Asia until the 1100s. When it hit, it came in slowly and was hugely expensive, but it was instantly popular with people who could afford it, and became a way people could show off their wealth (other than the usual palaces and fancy clothes).

People figured out pretty quickly that a lot of sugar rotted your teeth. However, because only the rich could afford sugar, it became a status symbol. In the 1500s, as sugar began to trickle into England from the newly discovered and planted islands in the Caribbean, the teeth of more and more wealthy people were endangered.

However, because people knew you had to be rich to have rotting teeth, people who couldn’t afford sugar actually started cosmetically blackening their teeth, so they would look wealthy.

Kind of a contrast to today, where wealth means having perfect teeth, even if they’re not the ones you were born with.

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Sorghum

If you asked people to name the most important grains in the world, most would readily identify corn, wheat, and rice. However, at least in the U.S., people might not think to mention sorghum, and yet sorghum is the fifth most important cereal crop in the world–and the third most important in the U.S.

Sorghum has the great advantage of growing in hot, arid places that are not friendly to other grain crops. For millions of people in Asia and Africa who live in such climates, grain sorghum is a staple food. In these regions, sorghum, along with equally resilient millet, are often the only grains available. It is most commonly ground and made into porridge or breads.

However, not all sorghum is the same. While some sorghum is grown for its grain, sweet sorghum is, like sugarcane, grown primarily for the sweet syrup that can be obtained by crushing its juicy stalks. Sweet sorghum also has grain, but the grains are smaller.

It appears that sorghum was first domesticated in western Africa, in the savannah just south of the Sahara, about 7,000 years ago. Trade and migration took it eastward, and by about 2000 B.C., it spanned the continent. Africa is still a leading grower and consumer of sorghum. There is some debate as to whether the sorghum that appeared later in India and China was introduced or was independently domesticated. However, there is much evidence that India and Africa were trading early on, so introduction is a distinct possibility.

Grain sorghum is also known as milo, and it is grown extensively in areas that are hot and dry, including large swaths of the Great Plains in the U.S. Most grain sorghum in the U.S. is used to feed livestock, though some is used to produce ethanol—and because it’s gluten free, it is also gaining some market share as a cooking grain and flour, as well as for brewing gluten-free beer.
gfd_shiloh_sorghum
Sorghum is not quite as nutritious as corn, but it can be grown where water is limited. The U.S. is now actually the top grower of sorghum in the world, slightly ahead of Nigeria and India, which are tied for second place. (If you’re interested in how widespread sorghum cultivation is, here’s a map that shows where it’s grown: Sorghum Map and Stats) http://archive.gramene.org/species/sorghum/sorghum_maps_and_stats.html

Sweet sorghum is still grown across the American South, where sorghum syrup was once a nearly ubiquitous sweetener. By the mid-1800s, most towns in the south-central region had mills for processing sweet sorghum. Sorghum boils were once as common in the South as “maple syrup boils” were in New England.
oberholtzers-sorghum-molasses
While sorghum syrup was displaced in the early 1900s, when granulated sugar became widely available, it is still being produced. If one lives in the North, sorghum syrup is most likely to be found at specialty shops or places that carry natural sweeteners, such as Whole Foods. It can also be found online. Like molasses, sorghum offers better nutrition than white sugar. Also like molasses, it is less sweet and has a distinctive flavor. Sorghum syrup is slightly less thick than molasses, however. Because of its greater nutritional density, it can spoil. While an unopened tin or jar can last for a considerable time on a shelf, once the container is opened, the sorghum syrup (and molasses, as well) should be refrigerated, and should probably be consumed within a couple of months of being opened.

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Beet It

Beets-cropped-B
If you say that you like beets, you were likely raised in the U.S. This is not because beets are exceptionally popular in the U.S., but rather because Americans are the only people who call them beets. Everyone else calls them beetroots. So if you’re traveling overseas and see beetroot on the menu, you now know what to expect.

Beta vulgaris is a widespread vegetable with a variety of forms and functions. The familiar roundish, red-rooted variety is known as a table beet. It is raised primarily for its root, though the leaves are edible, especially when the plant is young. The delightful variety of beet grown for its leaves is commonly known as chard or Swiss chard. The sugar beet can be eaten, but is cultivated primarily for obtaining sugar. Finally, the mangel-wurzel, also called the forage beet or field beet, is grown as food for cattle.

Beets most probably originated in Italy, but spread to other parts of the Mediterranean region in prehistoric times, so it’s difficult to place their point of origin precisely. In the earliest days of the Roman Empire, only the leaves were consumed, though beetroots had been added to the Roman menu by the beginning of the Christian era. Beets spread unevenly, primarily moving north, where they throve in the cooler temperatures. Though Charlemagne knew of beets and wanted to see them grown in his domains, there was no real beet presence in France until their introduction (or reintroduction) during the Renaissance. Because beets tolerate fairly high degrees of salinity, they also became popular in countries near salt seas or, more especially, that were reclaiming land from the sea.

The rise of the sugar beet is easier to trace, because it occurred after sugar started to increase in importance. The process for extracting sugar from beets was developed by a German chemist in the mid-1700s. It was easier to extract sugar from cane, but cane only grew in tropical climates, and beets liked it cool. Even so, the beet sugar industry didn’t explode until Britain blockaded Napoleon’s France, cutting off access to imported sugar. Napoleon ordered that 70,000 acres be planted with sugar beets, and French financier Benjamin Delessert opened a processing plant, and soon France was independent of outside sugar sources.

Even now, about one third of the sugar in Europe is beet sugar. However, it is still the table beet that is the more familiar and widely grown beet variety, especially in colder or saltier regions.

Still, the most commonly encountered beet for most people is the table beet. They are beautiful when roasted, but also delighted when pickled, and even simply simmered they’re not bad. I frequently add canned matchstick-cut beets to coleslaw, as they brighten and add nutrition. Because beets are true nutrition powerhouses. They offer antioxidants and are anti-inflammatory, and current research is looking into possible anti-cancer advantages. However, as with all vegetables, don’t overdose. Virtually everything with benefits also has some side effects of taken to the extreme (as has been occurring in recent months with kale). And be advised — the red color in beets is “persistent” — that is, it doesn’t vanish when you digest it, so if you eat a lot of beets, you might think you’re bleeding to death when you go to the bathroom the next morning. You’re not. It’s just the beets.

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Ancient Grains

It has been several years since I worked with Maria Kijac on her highly acclaimed cookbook, The South American Table, but for the last eight months, we have been working together again, this time on a cookbook that focuses on the ancient grains of Latin America: quinoa, kañiwa, amaranth, and chia seeds. These “super grains” (which are really seeds, rather than true grains) offer many benefits, including a full complement of essential amino acids, which no cereal grain offers. Because quinoa is the most easily obtained of these grains, there are more recipes using quinoa, but because chia is the greatest powerhouse of the group, Maria has found plenty of recipes to feature this astonishing grain (which has more antioxidants than blueberries and more Omega 3 fatty acids than salmon). Because of their remarkable health and energy benefits, these grains were considered sacred among the ancient people of Latin America, from the Inca of the Andes Mountains region to the Aztecs of central Mexico.

I can’t share with you any of Maria’s recipes (or the joy of testing them while we worked together), but I can share a quinoa recipe I developed for an outing with friends a couple of years ago. It has a lot of big flavors, plus the high fiber and other nutritional benefits of quinoa.

The dried mushrooms I used were the Gourmet Mushroom Blend from Manitou Trading Co. The blend included morels, porcini, Brazilian caps, ivory portabellas, shiitakes, and oyster mushrooms.

I think you’ll like it.

Mushroom Quiona
5 to 6 ounces dried mushrooms
1/2 lb. slab bacon
2 medium onions, roughly chopped
2 cups quinoa
enough chicken broth to make up four cups liquid with the mushroom soaking liquid
salt and pepper to taste

Soak the mushrooms overnight in water to cover. (I poured hot water over the mushrooms, let it cool, and then put it in the fridge till the next day.)

Drain the mushrooms, reserving the liquid. Chop the mushrooms roughly and set aside.

Cut the bacon into lardons (blocks about 1/2 inch x 1/2 inch x thickness of slab of bacon). Fry in large pot until they begin getting crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Sauté the onions in the fat from the bacon. When onions are translucent, stir in the quinoa. (NOTE: Check the package of quinoa. Some is prewashed. If it isn’t prewashed, the instructions will instruct you to rinse the grain. You definitely want to rinse any unwashed quinoa. If you bought bulk and there are no instructions, taste a bit of the uncooked quinoa. If it tastes soapy, then rinse it thoroughly before cooking. Or, to be really safe, just go ahead and put it in a strainer and rinse it. Quinoa seeds produce a protective coating of saponins, which are bitter and will ruin the taste of the dish if the quinoa is not rinsed well.)

Stir the quinoa into the onion and fat, to coat the grains. Add the reserved mushroom soaking liquid and chicken broth, combined to make four cups liquid. Cook for twenty minutes, or until liquid is absorbed and quinoa is tender. Stir in the bacon and chopped mushrooms. Season to taste. Enjoy.

(Note: if slab bacon is not readily available, get the thickest cut bacon you can find, and cut it into 1/2 inch pieces).

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Watercress

The Greek general Xenophon and the Persian King Xerxes ordered their soldiers to eat it to keep them healthy. Louis IX of France (St. Louis) found it so delightful that he placed it on a coat of arms. During the 14th-century, it had an important place on the menus at the courts of England’s Richard II and France’s Charles VI. And I just picked some up at my local grocery store.

Watercress, or Nasturtium officianale, is a member of the mustard family. It is native to Eurasia—the region of Asia Minor and the Mediterranean, more specifically. Despite the name, it is totally unrelated to the flower known as nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus), which is native to South and Central America and Mexico. (Though unrelated, which even a casual glance confirms, the two do share in common peppery-tasting leaves. It is my guess that the New World native was named nasturtium for the Old World herb that was equally peppery. In fact, nasturtiums, which are also used in salads, were sometimes called Indian cress.) Continue reading

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Avocado

Avocados among other New World natives, chilies and tomatoes

I am always delighted when I find things in nature that deviate from the expected, such as the braided rings around Saturn, monotremes (the platypus and echidna: both mammals that lay eggs), or the fact that bees are not “properly designed” for flight (though that doesn’t slow them down). The plant kingdom, in particular, seems to be replete with “rule-breakers”—plants that are hard to define, difficult to predict, or that exhibit characteristics that differ from everything else in the category to which they belong.

One of these exceptional plants is the avocado. Fruit pretty universally produces sugars to some degree as part of the ripening process, but avocados produce oil instead. (They do produce some sugar while still on the tree, but sugar rapidly decreases once ripening begins.) Avocados also have the highest protein content of any fruit.

While other fruit ripens best, and often ripens only, while still on the plant, avocados do not begin to ripen until they are cut off the tree. The tree produces a hormone that keeps the fruit from ripening, and it is only when this hormone ceases to reach the fruit that ripening begins. Avocados can, in fact, be “stored” for months simply by leaving them on the tree. Continue reading

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