Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Eating Bitter Melon: Momordica Charantia




Bitter, sweet, salty, pungent and sour are the five primary flavors according to Traditional Chinese Medicine. When eaten regularly in moderate quantities, the five flavors are thought to balance each of the five major organ systems and promote good health.

The bitter flavor is the least represented in the Standard American Diet, which is predominantly sweet and salty; sour and pungent (spicy) foods are also eaten with some frequency. Coffee is one of the few bitter foods in the American diet today; bitter greens like dandelion were once eaten regularly in certain regions of the U.S. as a springtime "tonic".

"Eating Bitter" is a Chinese expression which refers to enduring hardship; it is sometimes said that one must "eat bitter to taste sweet". The organ system which is strengthened by the bitter flavor is the heart, which "rules the blood" and "houses the spirit".

Bitter melon (Momordica Charantia) was first cultivated in South Asia in the 14th century; today it is used extensively in Asian, Indian, Caribbean and Filipino cuisine. When bitter melons appear in early summer at my local farmer's market, Asian American customers eagerly crowd around to select the best specimens.  Highly regarded for its health giving properties, ku gua  has been used in Chinese herbal medical formulas for centuries.

On the exterior, the bitter melon has a strange primitive beauty. Its color ranges from pale celadon to deep green; the darker the pigment the more bitter the flesh.  



The inside of the bitter melon contains seeds and pale flesh which most recipes instruct the cook to remove. For those who enjoy or even crave the bitter taste, bitter melon is delicious in stir fry recipes, or hollowed out and stuffed with flavorful ingredients. Onion, garlic and chile peppers seasoned with sesame oil are commonly used in bitter melon preparations.  Many techniques are employed to reduce its bitterness, but it is not possible to change the true nature of the bitter melon! 






Haiku:


"Oh bitter melon
 my heart rebels
 against your jade green beauty."


~ O-risa-san,  20th century ~


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

When is a potato not a potato?




When is a potato not a potato? When it's hyperprocessed into a package of Idahoan Buttery Homestyle Mashed Potatoes.




Idahoan holds a dominant position in the world of processed potato products and they occupy prime placement on supermarket shelves. One of its popular creations is a line of flavored instant mashed potatoes such as "Four Cheese" "Roasted Garlic" "Loaded Baked" "Smoked Bacon"  and "Buttery Homestyle".

Serious attention has been devoted to Idahoan's packaging which is designed to appeal to the consumer on multiple levels at first glance. "Buttery Homestyle" sports a rich gold foil and red label, retro engraving of a farmer in his field and appetizing image of creamy mashed potatoes. The words "homemade", "homestyle" and "buttery" are prominently displayed.  The word "Idahoan" and the blue ribbon inscribed with "America's Favorite Mashed Potato" drive home the message of wholesomeness and stimulate nostalgia for a classic American comfort food which many associate with childhood and family.

Perhaps the nice folks at Idahoan, who have been in the dehydrated potato business since 1960,  are betting that most shoppers will not turn over the package to examine its ingredients panel. Those who do will discover that the product is not a sweet vision of homestyle goodness, rather it is an unpleasant dream brought to you by industrial food science.
   



The first four ingredients-  potatoes, vegetable oil, corn syrup and salt - are a formula the food industry has carefully developed, knowing that fat, salt and sugar are irresistible to most humans. Following these is a long list of multi-syllabic ingredients,  most of which do not spring from the green fields of the Idaho farmer but have been developed in laboratories by food industry chemists to enhance flavor, appearance and shelf life.

The really bad news comes into focus in the Nutrition Facts box, required by law to show the nutrition breakdown per single serving, which Idahoan defines as 1/2 cup. Unrealistically small serving sizes are a ubiquitous device used in food industry nutrition labels to confuse consumers and obscure the facts about what they are really eating.  It is unlikely that the average person will limit their intake to just 1/2 cup.




What cannot be hidden is the fact that one small serving contains 440 milligrams of sodium; some of the other Idahoan mashed potato flavors contain close to 600 mg per serving.  The American Heart Association recommends sodium intake of 1500 mg or less daily,  but has found that the average American, including children over the age of two, now consumes 3400 mg of sodium daily. Excess sodium intake is linked to high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease, major causes of illness and mortality in the U.S.

Fortunately, no one must rely on a fancy foil package of processed potatoes in order to enjoy a delicious potato dish. Flavorful, organic potatoes are in season now and available in farmer's markets at much lower prices per pound than the hyperprocessed instant. 

Select small potatoes like Yukon Gold or Fingerling; they can be steamed in minutes in simmering water.  Once tender, drain potatoes and serve whole. Sprinkle with a few drops of olive oil and sea salt and enjoy a simple, nutritious meal straight from the earth.  That old time farmer in his potato field will thank you.








Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Springtime Detox? Cleanse? Savory Leafy Green Drink



Enter the word "detox" into the Google search engine and 17, 900, 000 hits will appear; "cleanse" generates 15, 900, 000. Ours is a culture of excess which is simultaneously obsessed with detoxing and cleansing. This modern paradox has led to a huge interest in green foods, green drinks and a myriad of costly green supplements.  

When I first began writing about food and health almost three decades ago, the word "kale" was met with puzzlement or revulsion. When asked if they ate greens many people would mention lettuce and spinach. Now at my urban farmer's market, people happily wait in line to buy their weekly organic kale ration. 

The human body is a marvelously efficient regenerating and self cleansing organism. When nourished with appropriate amounts of high quality whole food, the body transforms it into usable nutrients which create energy for daily activity and maintenance of the organ systems.  All this occurs without resulting in "toxicity". 

Detoxing, cleansing and fasting are not emphasized in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM); the primary focus is on cultivating a proper lifestyle to keep the body in balance and avoiding any kind of excess-  culinary, emotional or physical.  In each season the diet is adjusted to suit the changing environment; in Spring lighter fare is appropriate in most climates.

TCM discourages over consumption of chilled and raw foods, especially during cooler weather and by individuals who are recovering from illness, who are fatigued or have difficulty staying warm. This green drink has all the healthy attributes of a (mostly) raw green drink but is designed to be lightly heated in order to provide warming energy in addition to its dense nutrients.  Fresh ginger root also increases its warming "qi supportive" qualities.
 
The recipe components are intentionally minimal to counter our tendency to believe that more is better;  a few kale leaves may be added if desired! The quantity of miso and tahini may be adjusted to your taste.  Use only the lightest of miso pastes; their flavor is mild and less salty.  Yield: One serving.  Preparation time: Less than five minutes.



Savory Leafy Green Drink

1 cup fresh water
2 cups baby arugula and spinach leaves
2 slices fresh ginger root, minced
2 teaspoons white or light miso paste
1 teaspoon raw tahini
1 cup unsweetened almond milk or soy milk 


Place water, greens and ginger root in blender and process until smooth.  Blend in miso and tahini. Add nut milk and blend again. Heat soup very gently in a saucepan until just warmed through; do not simmer. Serve immediately.



Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Watermelon Radish: A Purple (Fuschia?) Pickle



Watermelon radishes entered my culinary life on a dismal, wet Sunday morning at the local farmer's market this winter.  From the outside these fist sized roots bear only a hint of their bright interiors; I almost passed them by in my haste to seek shelter from the rain.




Then I noticed that Asian American shoppers were quickly snapping them up in quantity. I took the hint that I had come upon a vegetable kingdom delicacy and brought some home for further exploration. As soon as I cut one open, I was inspired by its gorgeous color to turn the whole batch into watermelon radish pickles. The process was quick and easy and the finished product so delicious that I have been making them regularly ever since. You might want to double the recipe!
 

Ingredients:

3 - 4  medium watermelon radishes
2 cups fresh water
1 teaspoon sea salt

Method:

Scrub radishes and trim off the tops and bottoms. Slice into rounds, then cut rounds into strips. In a bowl, dissolve sea salt in water. Pack radish pieces into a very clean glass jar and pour in the brine. If all the slices are not completely covered in liquid, make a little extra and add to the jar. As long as the vegetables are immersed in brine, only healthy microorganisms will multiply as fermentation begins.





Cover jar with a lid but do not tighten; a little breathing room is necessary for the gases produced by fermentation. Place jar on kitchen counter; your work is done!  The radishes will begin to ferment after a day or two, depending on the temperature of your kitchen and other atmospheric variables. In a few days the brine and the radishes will turn a uniformly deep purple - fuschia tint.








After four or five days, the radishes will have a pleasingly tart- sour flavor and will still be somewhat crunchy. I usually ferment the pickles for about five days; then I place the jar in the fridge where they will continue to ferment at a slower pace. They are edible at any stage. 


Pickled watermelon radish will compliment almost any vegetable dish. Lately I've been eating them with steamed vegetables like Brussels sprouts tossed with toasted sesame seeds and tofu cubes. Or add radishes to a steaming bowl of lentils or black beans as a garnish, or simply serve as a side dish.  Fermented radishes are packed with beneficial microorganisms and will add striking flavor and beauty to your meal.










Thursday, January 30, 2014

Nori Goma Furikake? Sea Vegetable & Sesame Seed Condiment


Pan toasted sesame seeds are a mainstay in my diet. Although the seeds can be toasted in the oven, I prefer the ease of the stove top method which is faster and more energy efficient.  As soon as the seeds heat up and begin to expand, they make a popping sound which is the signal that it's time to shake the pan and watch the seeds carefully as they turn golden brown and fill the house with a delightful fragrance.

Nori Goma Furikake is one of many varieties of traditional Japanese sesame condiments which lend toasty, crunchy and satisfying flavor to savory foods.  Sesame seeds are packed with protein, minerals and healthy oils which stave off hunger and stabilize blood sugar.  Nori adds yet more nutrients and flavor. Almost any vegetable or plant based dish can be magically transformed by a sprinkling of freshly made Nori Goma Furikake.



Nori Goma Furikake: Ingredients

1/2 cup raw sesame seeds
1/4 teaspoon sea salt (or to taste)
1 sheet nori sea vegetable

Method:

Place sesame seeds in a heavy skillet over medium heat. I use a black iron skillet which distributes heat evenly. As soon as seeds begin to pop, shake pan continuously until the seeds are fragrant and golden brown. Remove the pan from heat and quickly pour seeds into a dry bowl to cool.





Cut nori into strips with a scissors along perforations.






Stack the strips and cut into thin confetti.



When seeds are cool, combine with nori and sea salt. Store furikake in a clean glass jar with a tight lid. It is at its very best best when used within a few days but will keep well for several weeks. 


                                                       

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Brussels Sprouts in Thai Basil Miso Broth



What to do with a handful of Brussels sprouts and little else on a dark winter evening when hunger is urgent?  Having traveled 3,000 miles across country I felt fortunate to find a few staples on hand and set to work with my chef's knife. In eight minutes I had improvised a light but warming, spicy and healthy meal which quickly eased the fatigue and hunger of long distance travel.

Brussels Sprouts in Thai Basil Miso Broth

Ingredients:

12 medium Brussels sprouts, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup water
1 tablespoon light miso paste
1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon dried Thai basil leaves, crushed
a few drops chile infused toasted sesame oil



Method:

Slice the sprouts thinly so that they will cook quickly.  In a saucepan with a lid, heat olive oil  and lightly saute shredded sprouts on a medium flame for a minute or two until fragrant and a few are just turning golden brown. Add one cup of water, cover immediately to retain steam and simmer gently on a low flame for two or three minutes.

Dissolve miso paste in about 1/4 cup water and add to pan. Sprinkle in basil leaves and a few drops of sesame oil, cover and remove from heat. Allow to rest a minute or two.  Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve in a heated bowl. Yield: One serving.




Note:
If you don't have basil leaves, herbs such as fresh or dried marjoram, mint, parsley or cilantro will work well.  Garnish with your choice of sliced fresh ginger root, lime or lemon juice, toasted sesame seeds, red pepper flakes or sliced scallion.