Category Archives: Nutrition

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.
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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.
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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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Maria’s Ancient Grains

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Back in March, I mentioned that I was again working with Maria Baez Kijac, author of the award-winning and impressively comprehensive cookbook, The South American Table. This time, the topic was “ancient grains”–those super grains of Latin America that are so newsworthy these days. It was great to be working with Maria again–and the best part of working with Maria, since she tests all the recipes multiple times, is getting to try all the foods. So I can say with certainty that these recipes work and are mighty good. Of course, they also have the benefits of being gluten free and packed with nutrients from the super grains. Maria also includes tips everywhere as to how to alter recipes to personalize them.

But eventually the fun, and the taste testing, came to an end, the book went to press–and now it’s out. Cooking with Ancient Grains is now available for those interested in how to utilize these “nutrition powerhouses,” as Maria calls them.

One thing I did note of interest (though possibly only to me) is that one my favorite recipes, the mushroom and watercress soup, doesn’t look in the photo like it does in Maria’s kitchen. If you get the book and decide to try this recipe, follow Maria’s instructions, not the photo–because in the photo, the mushrooms are sliced (which probably helps confirm for viewers that it’s mushroom soup), but in Maria’s soup, they are chopped. It always seemed to me as though the mushroom taste was magnified by the greater surface area presented by the chopped mushrooms. That said, it’s probably great no matter what you do with the mushrooms. I also loved the salads, especially the quinoa, black rice, and smoked salmon salad, and all the salad dressings. And the raw tomatillo and avocado dip. In fact, though one always has favorites, I can’t say that I ever tried anything I didn’t like.

Because Maria includes detailed info about how to work with the grains, preparing them and how to use them in your own recipes, this is a useful resource if you’re new to quinoa, kañiwa, amaranth, and chia. And because the recipes are collected from Maria’s extensive travel, they’ll probably be of interest even if you’re already familiar with these grains.

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Beet It

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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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Rosemary

“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance,” says mad Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This was not a new thought, as the ancient Romans placed rosemary in the hands of their dead, as a remembrance. Nor is it a thought that is confined to antiquity, as Australians remember their war dead with sprigs of rosemary in their buttonholes on ANZAC Day. Interestingly, science is now finding that this is not merely a romantic fancy. A key compound in rosemary is rosmarinic acid, which is so effective in aiding memory that it is now being tested as a possible treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. So it is “for remembrance” indeed!

But that’s not all it does. Rosmarinic acid possesses antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties, and has been used to treat peptic ulcers, arthritis, cataracts, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and bronchial asthma. And here you just thought it was a fragrant little herb. (And if you have ever grown it, you know that it is wildly fragrant when fresh. I have a friend in Australia who has it as a hedge around her garden, and just brushing past it is an intoxicating experience.) 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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Cabrito Asado

Goats, which offer high quality protein and are low in saturated fats, are now growing in importance in beef-happy North America, Australia, and Europe, as growing interest in ethnic foods, along with concern about cholesterol, gain fans for this slightly tougher but well-flavored alternative.

If you’re interested in preparing a goat, here’s my version of a lovely dish I found in many places in Central Mexico. This recipe is an easy introduction to preparing kid, as it does not require specialized equipment. The taste of baby goat is somewhere between lamb and veal, and is perfectly suited to the big, flavorful sauce in this dish.

Cabrito Asado
(Oven-Roasted Young Goat)

1/2 baby goat, cut into parts (4 large parts—legs, side, breast)
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbs. oregano
1/3 cup light olive oil
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
2 medium green peppers, seeded and coarsely chopped
2 jalapeño chilies, seeded, deveined, and chopped (optional)
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 cups of canned, peeled Italian tomatoes with juice (approximately 2-1/2 cans, 14.5 oz. each)
salt and pepper to taste Continue reading

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Pumpkin

Pumpkin Harvest

Autumn and winter are a time for hearty vegetables, mostly roots and tubers. It is also a great time for winter squash and pumpkins. Squash and pumpkin are among the myriad delightful foods indigenous to the Americas that became part of the Columbian Exchange.

The word “squash” comes from the Natick and Narraganset Indian word askútasquash,, which meant “the green things that may be eaten raw.” I’m just betting they were speaking of summer squash. The word pumpkin comes from pumpion, a corruption of the French pompon, or melon. Well, the pumpkin is a fruit and a distant relative of the melon, but it isn’t a melon, it’s a squash. While the difference between most pumpkins and most winter squashes seems pretty obvious to most of us, the debate still goes on in some quarters as to what is a gourd, and is a gourd a squash, and which squashes are actually pumpkins—because they’re all related, and in some differences, the lines blur. Pumpkins are even sometimes described as gourd-like squashes. But for most common usage, and for what is most generally available in stores and farmers’ markets, we know what the difference is. (That said, for many applications, winter squash and pumpkin are fairly interchangeable.) Continue reading

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Olives

There are two food items that pretty well define the Mediterranean: the grape and the olive. Roman naturalist and historian Pliny the Elder wrote that “Except the vine, there is no plant which bears a fruit of as great importance as the olive.” The olive was the favorite food of the Greek philosopher Plato, and the Roman poet Horace, who identified the olive as a key part of his diet, wrote about Olives in his Odes.

In fact, a great deal of ancient literature contains references to the olive, from the olive branch carried to Noah by the dove in the Bible to Aeneas carrying an olive branch in Virgil’s Aeneid. (Today, the literature that most often carries references to the olive is medical literature, as more and more people come to appreciate the health benefits of olives and olive oil. So it appears that we are finally catching up with the ancients in our appreciation of this venerable fruit.)

In ancient times, olives were often the most important dish at a meal, or at least an important ingredient of several dishes. This importance spread throughout the Mediterranean, and while olives are often present primarily as olive oil in some Mediterranean cuisines, dishes of olives are still as common as salt on tables throughout much of the region.

There are a variety of possible starting points for the olive. It has been cultivated in the eastern end of the Mediterranean since Neolithic times. Egyptian art depicts olive picking, but it is not clear whether the olives were wild or domesticated. Syria and Palestine may have been the first to cultivate the olive, but it appears to have been cultivated in Crete, too, around the same time—about 3500 B.C. By 2500 B.C., olives and olive oil were a major component of international commerce, with olive oil being shipped from Crete to Egypt and Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Continue reading

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Carrots

Carrots are front and center at this Mysore, India market.

In the summer, few wild flowers appear to be more common than Queen Anne’s lace. Small explosions of tiny white blossoms top slender green stalks of these delicate plants named for England’s Anne, who reigned from 1702 to 1714. The name suits the delicate appearance—and certainly sounds better than what the plant really is, which is simply a wild carrot. And not just a wild carrot, but a domestic carrot gone feral, because the Americas had no carrots before English gardeners brought along their cultivated varieties. So these are escapees and aliens. But that means that, while a few seeds snuck out of the garden and reverted to an original wild type, even our domestic carrots are introduced plants.

The carrot as we know it is a native of Afghanistan, where evidence shows it was growing as early as 5,000 years ago. I say, “as we know it,” because these were domesticated carrots—where the first wild carrot arose is not so clear. Wild carrots, with short, skinny, acrid-tasting roots, were fairly widespread long before people were keeping track of what they were trading with their neighbors, appearing in much of West Asia and Europe. Traces of wild carrot seed have been found at prehistoric sites in Switzerland, and wild carrots were listed among the plants grown in the royal gardens of Babylon. But it appears that the wild carrot was grown for its seeds or leaves, which were used as medicines and seasonings. Though domesticating the carrot is relatively easy, with the root getting larger within a few generations, it seems it just didn’t occur to anyone west of Afghanistan to make the attempt. Continue reading

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