Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Must be the Season of the Root!

Long before the era of Pop Tarts, Cocoa Puffs, Twinkies and Big Macs, our ancestors lived exclusively on wild food which they gathered and hunted. Anthropologists state that the average gatherer/ hunter walked five to seven miles daily in search of food. Depending on climate, season and geography, roots, leaves, berries, nuts and seeds were among the main sources of nutrients. Wild animals, fish and insects supplemented forager's diets.

For the majority of human existence we grew no grain, raised no meat, milked no cows. Our food had no labels, packaging or advertising campaigns. At times food was scarce, at times it was abundant. Our daily occupation was to find enough to eat. Somehow our species succeeded in feeding itself well enough through the millenia to reproduce and survive without benefit of a single manufactured food product.

The first rains have begun to fall on Northern California and the produce landscape at farmer's markets has undergone a dramatic shift. Roots and tubers are everywhere; hairy, bumpy, lumpy and decorated with dirt from the fields.  

Often overlooked and under appreciated, roots are nutritious, affordable and simple to prepare. Most roots can be baked, steamed, roasted or stewed; just scrub and apply some sort of heat until tender. Roast a selection of cut up roots in a baking dish, or mash steamed roots with a little sea salt, olive oil and herbs for a delicious meal.  Create flavorful, healthy soup by simmering beets with carrots, celery and onion.

When shopping for roots and tubers, look for those which are organically grown. Specimens without breaks in the skin are preferable but superficial blemishes will not affect quality. Not all roots are beautiful, but they have sustained human life for generations. Winter is the ideal season to return to our roots!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Ode to The Tomato: "Star of Earth"

Locally grown tomatoes will soon disappear from Northern California farmer's markets, as autumn apples, pears, persimmons and winter squash take the place of summer produce. Each season has its delights, but saying goodbye to summer favorites is never easy.

There is still time to celebrate "the tomato, star of earth" as the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda refers to it. Now is the time to stock up on the last of the crop.  Dry- farmed tomatoes are a good choice; they are hardy and flavorful and their low water content makes them ideal for storage. Select those which are deeply pigmented and still firm.

Make sure that the tomatoes are not damp or bruised. Place them in a paper or plastic bag, leaving it partially open to allow some air circulation. Properly handled, tomatoes will keep in the fridge for two or three weeks. Check them daily and select the ripest ones for immediate use.

Freshly blended tomato juice is a nutritious, simple and delicious way to make use of ultra ripe tomatoes. A handful of dry- farmed tomatoes will make one generous serving of juice.

Autumn Fresh Tomato Juice

4- 5 ripe tomatoes, washed and quartered
optional garnishes: lime juice, sea salt, freshly ground black pepper

Place tomatoes in blender and process until smooth. Serve in a glass, with or without garnish.  If the day is chilly,  briefly heat juice in a saucepan over a low flame until just warm.

Ode To Tomatoes  by Pablo Neruda (excerpt)

"...and, on
the table, at the midpoint 
of summer,
the tomato,
star of earth, recurrent
and fertile star,
displays its convolutions,
its canals,
its remarkable amplitude 
and abundance,
no pit,
no husk,
no leaves or thorns,
the tomato offers
its gift
of fiery color
and cool completeness."

Monday, September 15, 2014

Almonds ~ An Ancient Super Food

Ours is an era in which "super food" trends come (and go) with startling rapidity. In recent years we have learned the nutritional value of acai berries from the tropics of the Amazon, quinoa from the mountains of the Andes, chia seeds from the Aztecs and coconut water from the tropical Caribbean.  If you haven't noticed camel's milk yet in the freezer of your local health food store, it will be there soon.

An ancient though less exotic food which has been a prized source of sustenance for much of human history is the almond, Prunus Amygdalus. First domesticated in the Middle East during the Bronze age (3,000- 2,000 BCE), the almond tree's agricultural roots have since spread far across the globe, from North Africa and South Asia to Southern Europe, Australia and the United States, where California now produces eighty percent of the wold's supply of almonds.

Rich in vitamins, minerals, protein, healthy oils and fiber, almonds are densely nutritious, versatile and delicious. Few foods surpass the almond's health giving properties or convenience. The ultimate in snack foods, almonds travel well; a handful on the hiking trail, while aloft at 30,000 feet or at your desk will stave off hunger for hours.

Store raw almonds  in clean glass jars in a cool place or in the fridge; they will keep well for months, available for immediate eating with no waiting.

If you're not quite ready for camel's milk, home made almond milk is refreshing, energizing and nutrient rich.   For a simple almond milk recipe see blog post titled "Raw Almond Milk, Creamy and Delicious".

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Patty Pan Squash: A Five Minute Summer Supper

Patty Pan is that uniquely sculpted summer squash which resembles a miniature, pale green flying saucer. Not seen much in commercial supermarkets, Patty Pan is familiar to home gardeners and farmer's market habitues. It is prolific, affordable and nutritious, and its season is upon us!

Warm weather is an opportune time to practice minimalist food preparation. Patty Pan's pleasingly sweet, mild flavor makes it an ideal choice for a light, healthy summer dish which moves from stove to table in minutes. Any variety of summer squash is suitable for this recipe. When shopping, select squash which is unblemished, smooth skinned and not too large. 

** Five Minute Summer Squash Supper **


3 - 4 medium summer squash
2 + tablespoons olive oil
3 -  4 medium sized ripe tomatoes
sea salt to taste
fresh ground pepper to taste
basil leaves as garnish


Wash squash and slice into strips; the thinner the slices the faster they will cook. Heat a heavy skillet over a medium flame and add just enough olive oil to cover the surface of the pan. Add squash and saute until slices are wilted and just tender.

While squash is cooking, slice the tomatoes and place in a layer in a serving bowl or platter.  Dry farmed Early Girls, which are somewhat acidic and intensely flavorful, provide a bright contrast to the squash. They are currently available in Northern California produce and farmer's markets.

When the squash is tender, spoon it over the tomato slices. Let the vegetables rest for a couple of minutes before serving to allow their flavors to mingle. Garnish with a little sea salt, cracked black pepper and fresh basil leaves. 

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! 


"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.