Category Archives: Nutrition

Cashews

Cashew Tree

Do you remember reading history or anthropology books that described how indigenous groups had learned how to make poisonous foods edible? Those reports always made me wonder what the learning curve was like and how hungry you’d have to be to try something a second time, after the first try injured, sickened, or killed someone else.

Among the myriad foods that fall into the “who tried it second” category are cashews. Cashews, native to South America (probably northeast Brazil), are related to poison ivy and poison sumac. The nut is encased in an extremely hard shell that contains a toxic, caustic liquid that is sufficiently corrosive that in some cultures it is used for burning off warts. Even today, it is commonly used in industry, to create plastics, or as a pesticide. Continue reading

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Ruling Rhizome

Hands of Ginger in a Thai Market

Helen of Troy may have been a great beauty, but spices have launched more ships. The world has pursued big, exotic flavors for almost as long as the world has eaten—and among big, exotic flavors, almost nothing surpasses Zingiber officinale, better known in English-speaking countries as ginger. Ginger was one of the “big three” spices (along with black pepper and cinnamon) for which everyone, for most of recorded history, wanted to get to the Far East.

Ginger has been enjoyed in its native tropical Asia (probably India and Malaysia) since the misty ages of prehistory. In fact, it has been cultivated there for so long that its wild forebear no longer exists. Continue reading

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Business is Mushrooming

I recently had the great good fortune to interview Eric Rose of River Valley Ranch for Farmers’ Markets Today magazine. I had, in fact, been a fan of Rose’s products for some time (though only for a relatively small portion of his 34-year career), and I had suggested a story to the magazine, as it seemed like a great match. So late in February, I drove to Burlington, WI, to check out the farm, the store, and the tale behind Rose’s presence at so many of the area’s farmers’ markets.

When the article came out in print, there were loads of great photos, some of them ones I took. But, alas, the magazine has been shut down and the website to which I originally linked this post is also defunct, so I’ll post the original story below.

And just in case you want to visit the store, or would like to order some of their goodies online (everything is excellent, but I definitely recommend the 5-cheese garlic spread), here’s a link to River Valley Ranch—just in case you don’t live close to one of the many farmers’ markets here in the Midwest where Rose shows his wares each summer.

Business is Mushrooming

by Cynthia Clampitt

Eric Rose loves farmers’ markets-and with good reason. “Farmers’ markets turned my business around.” That business is growing mushrooms, something Rose began doing with his dad 34 years ago. Rose’s dad, Bill, a restaurant owner, had always been frustrated with how unreliable local sources of mushrooms were. When he sold the restaurant, he decided he could become the area’s one reliable supplier, and so was born River Valley Ranch in the Fox River Valley in Burlington, WI. “But dad didn’t want to just grow and supply mushrooms,” Rose notes. “He wanted to grow higher quality mushrooms than were generally available.”

Rose, who had also spent time in the restaurant business, “first got his hands in compost” in 1977. He was immediately hooked on the work, so he joined his dad in the venture. Rose says it was the beginning of a real education-and not just in farming. They originally sold to retailers. Their white mushrooms were better than anything else available, so they could charge a premium price. However, big commercial growers were discovering that preservatives and whiteners (because white mushrooms were pretty much the only mushrooms sold at the time) would let them get impressively handsome mushrooms to market, and at much lower prices than local growers.

Rose explains, “Back then, ‘local’ or ‘home-grown’ were red flags for wholesale buyers. The product must be inferior to things brought from far away, and so it should cost less. We couldn’t compete with the big commercial firms.”

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Onions

Onion

Onion

The Allium genus includes some of my favorite purveyors of flavor, including garlic, shallots, leeks, scallions, and onions. It is hard to imagine cooking without these fragrant, vibrant plants. And in fact, no one has ever really had to, because wild members of the allium genus grow worldwide. That’s why, even though onions as we know them arrived in the Americas with European explorers, we still ended up with Native American words that refer to a place where wild onions were causing a stink: the Potawatomi word checagou, which means “place that stinks of wild onions,” and the Menominee word shika’ko, which means “skunk place,” which actually referred to the smell of the wild onions. We’re not sure which of these words was the derivation of Chicago, but the point is, there were a lot of wild onions growing here long before domesticated onions made it over with European settlers. Continue reading

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The Original Potato

Sweet potatoes, popular street food in China, roast on a make-shift roaster.

Sweet potatoes, popular street food in China, roast on a make-shift roaster.

“What’s in a name?” Well, sometimes a good bit of confusion—take yams and sweet potatoes, for example. If you’re in the United States and you’re calling something a yam, odds are you’re talking about a sweet potato, in which case, you’re wrong. Sweet potatoes are members of the morning glory family. Yams, on the other hand, are the tuberous roots of climbing plants of the genus Dioscorea. The two are entirely unrelated. Yet in parts of the U.S., the habit persists of calling sweet potatoes yams. Continue reading

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Okra

Okra

Okra

I find that most people are surprised to learn that there is a plant called the marshmallow. It grows in marshy areas and, like most mallows, has pretty flowers—though the flowers are not as showy or large as those of the related hibiscus and hollyhock. The marshmallow has a root that was at one time used to make a creamy confection, which has more recently found itself vaguely imitated by the sugar and gelatin puffs we now buy in bags.

The reason marshmallow roots made good candy is because of the mucilage, which works as a thickening agent. This is a trait it shares with another family member, okra. However, in okra, it is the pods that contain this thickening agent. Continue reading

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Feeling Your Oats

Young Oats

Young Oats

Sowing your wild rice. Feeling your millet. Hmmm. Things are just not the same without oats, are they? Actually, in recent generations, oats have enjoyed a better reputation than they have occasionally had in the past. Now that it has been discovered that oats are good for you, with abundant soluble and insoluble fiber, they are practically revered. It was not always so.

For many centuries, oats were deemed fit only for animals and barbarians. While Rome was still an empire, Pliny wrote contemptuously of oats, which were favored by the Germanic tribes. It was believed that such rough food must produce a rough character (oats are rough, barbarians are rough, there must be a connection). Paracelsus wrote that oatcakes, as well as cheese and milk, would contribute to having a disposition that lacked subtlety—i.e., you’re not quite civilized if you consume these things. In his great Dictionary of the English Language (1755), Samuel Johnson took a swipe at England’s northern neighbors, describing oats as “a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” So the bias against the grain seems to have continued to be based in contempt for people that were somewhat less refined. Continue reading

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Which Came First?

Eggs for sale in Morocco

A farmer in Morocco sells free-range eggs by the side of the road.

On this blog, it was the chicken, but elsewhere, the question still remains, which came first—the chicken or the egg?

That eggs are worthy of admiration has been recounted by many of the great chefs and gastronomes of the last few centuries. The sixteenth-century historian Benedetto Varchi wrote a treatise on boiled eggs, while the renowned seventeenth-century French cook Pierre François de la Varenne produced a cookbook that contained sixty different recipes for eggs. In his masterwork, Le Guide Culinaire (1903), the legendary Auguste Escoffier wrote that “Of all the products put to use by the art of cookery, not one is so fruitful of variety, so universally liked, and so complete in itself as the egg.” He then went on to detail nearly 150 recipes for eggs. So the humble hen’s egg is no culinary slouch. In fact, it is said by some that the number of pleats in the traditional chef’s toque corresponds to the repertoire of egg dishes he or she has mastered. Continue reading

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