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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Scams and deceptions

Last summer, while produce shopping at the Union Square Green Market, I found yellow, green and purple string beans. I thought my kids would be ecstatic to eat rainbow beans (it's all about the marketing, people). I bought the three kinds and steamed them for a couple of minutes (separately, I didn't want to take any chances with the colors bleeding) to serve them for dinner. Oh!! How disappointing it was to discover the purple ones had magically morphed into their green siblings. No traces of purple left*...I felt robbed. My whole strategy was destroyed.
I've been holding grudges about the incident since then, so I'm dedicating this post to mention some of what I consider to be the saddest food deceptions I've encountered lately.

*NOTE to self and those of you who find those "Royal Burgundy" beans. As I learned after the fact, you should eat them raw. Direct heat decomposes the purple pigments called anthocyanins, which are responsible for the purple color in many fruits, vegetables and flowers. The beans turn green because the chlorophyll--which was always there, but hidden by the darker hue of the anthocyanins--becomes prominent once the anthocyanins levels decrease.
Extra tip: anthocyanins love acidity, so vinegar and lemon juice will preserve the beans purpler (made up word?).


OK, so I've complained about the doings of mother nature and the purple-not-really-purple beans. Now, the following I find to be pathetic. I know I just said it's all about the marketing, and the folks at Nabisco certainly agree, as they have the chutzpah to decorate their trucks with this add for Oreos:


Three words only, but I'm sorry, it's just very offensive. Fresh is definitely not the right adjective. Oreos might be tasty, sweet, eternal, liked-by-most, black and white, creamy-centered, etc, etc... but NOT fresh! They are supposed to defy freshness. They don't spoil, they are ever-lasting. Not fresh.

Moving on, I was recently browsing through the shelves at the gorgeous new kosher butcher and bakery they opened in the Upper East Side. The place is full of beautiful, unique and delicious-looking foods. I almost broke into tears when I saw White Truffle Oil. Its box looked so fancy, and the Italian landscape in the label convinced me to pay the $25.00 for the little bottle. "Quality," I justified myself... Maybe once I used it, it would be like in the pasta commercials, where Andrea Bocelli sings harmoniously in the background as the Tuscan sun illuminates the golden wheat fields.
Well, it happens to be that if you read the aforementioned colorful label closely, and by closely I mean with a magnifying glass, and bypass all the "white truffle oil" titles in it, you'd discover that the ingredients of D'Allasandro Gourmet Ingredient's white truffle oil are: "100% pure olive oil infused with artificial truffle aroma." Thank you very much for shattering my Italian dreams!

Finally, I'm closing with Starbucks' colorful touch on their Strawberries & Crème Frappuccinos, strawberry-banana smoothies, raspberry swirl cake, and red velvet whoopie pies. Well, the pink and red in those goodies doesn't come from anthocyanins like they do in purple beans, real strawberries and raspberries. The company, after pledging that: "From coffee, tea, smoothies and skinny lattes to fresh fruit, salads, whole grains and reduced fat pastries, Starbucks offers a variety of delicious options to meet our customer’s needs. And you can feel good knowing that all of our foods are no more than 500 calories and free from unnecessary ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors, dyes, and artificial trans fats," can't be accused of failing to comply with their promise. In deed, they don't use artificial dyes. They use the very natural extract of cochineal beetles, yes bugs. It doesn't count as a lie, but it just shows how little we really know the foods and drinks we are consuming. You thought you were getting a fruit smoothie, well you got it with the secret ingredient, and it wasn't love...
Don't worry, the company said that by June, they'll finish replacing the bugs with lycopene (from tomatoes). I wonder why they don't just use strawberries or raspberries...

If you made it here reading me kvetch, I thank you, and as a token, I'll share with you this recipe. Just like the rest of the post, it's a bit deceptive in many ways, and I hope you enjoy it.

FARROTTO WITH JERUSALEM ARTICHOKES AND OYSTERS


  • Farro, a type of ancient whole wheat, without an exact and universally accepted definition, can be the berry--according to different Italian regions and opinions-- of emmer, spelt or einkorn wheat varieties. Farro is similar in taste and consistency to barley, it has a nutty taste and delicious chewy texture. It's rich in fiber, vitamin E and magnesium. It's cooked in liquid like most grains and it can be prepared like risotto (called farrotto). But instead of standing at the stove mixing and mixing for a long time, it's possible to CHEAT using a crock pot.

  • Jerusalem artichokes, also called sun chokes, although delicious, are neither from Jerusalem nor artichokes. Yes, the name is poetic, but completely MISLEADING. According to Claudia Roden's The Book of Jewish Food , these North America native tuber is linked to the Holy City due to a "seventeenth-century English distortion of the old Italian name girasole (sunflower) articiocco, acquired because it tastes like an artichoke and produces a flower that turns to the sun." Although sun chokes look similar to ginger root, their flavor is mild, nutty and sweet. Their carbohydrates are mainly in the form of inulin, a type of fiber that has been suggested to aid control blood sugar levels, and feed the healthy bacteria in our gut (prebiotic). They are high in iron, potassium and vitamin B-1. But please note that these delicious knobs should be eaten in moderation for the first time, as they tend to cause gas in some people. I personally love them roasted whole, peel and all. Just scrubbed really well, some extra virgin olive oil and into a very hot oven.

  • When I say oysters, don't get too excited about shelled mollusks, as I'm referring to oyster mushrooms. These delicious fungi are a good source of zinc, iron, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, vitamin C, folic acid, niacin, and vitamins B-1 and B-2. Their name does come from their similar appearance to real oysters. And although this vegan version doesn't make any pearls, it's great for strengthening the immune system and is rich in ergothioneine, a very protective antioxidant found in mushrooms.


INGREDIENTS

  • Lacto-vegetarian (contains dairy)
  • Free of: nuts, eggs, soy
   1 cup farro (I used semi-pearled)
   21/2 cups low sodium, organic vegetable broth
   1/4 cup white wine, optional, but recommended
   3 fresh garlic stems (use 3 garlic cloves, if you can't find fresh) 
   4 small (or 2 large) shallots
   1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
   1 pound small Jerusalem artichokes, rinsed and scrubbed
   3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
   3 (3.5 ounces) packages oyster mushrooms, tough stems discarded and caps cleaned with a damp paper towel
   Parmesan cheese, to taste
   sea salt and fresh black pepper, to taste

METHOD
In a slow cooker (crock pot), place farro, broth and wine and turn on on high (i like using crock pot liners for easy clean-up).

Cover and let cook. 

Peel and chop finely garlic and shallots. Quarter Jerusalem artichokes.
In a saute pan, heat oil and cook garlic and shallots until soft.

Add Jerusalem artichokes and let them caramelize for a couple of minutes, mixing often to avoid burning. Season with salt and pepper.

Add mushrooms and cook for another 2-3 minutes. Season again with salt and pepper.

Remove from heat and add vegetable mixture into crock pot.

Cover and let cook in high for about 2 1/2 hours or low for 5 hours. Go have fun and when you come back, your gourmet dinner will be waiting...


To serve, check for seasoning and adjust accordingly. Ladle into bowls and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and freshly ground pepper.
Deceive: don't tell anyone it was SO easy!



Monday, April 16, 2012

Sweet Sunshine

I shared some of our Florida days with a woman who I hope has impacted me for life, and not just for the Passover week. This 78-year-old widow has happiness imbibed into her bones. Life has tried to remove it out of her with many sad events and hardships, but it's been unsuccessful. She smiles, she laughs, she deals with everything and everyone with patience, and thankfulness, with sweetness, fun, laughter and courage. As if everything were an award or a privilege. In short, she's like a ray of sunshine.
She's chatty, warm, helpful and considerate. She goes to the gym and lifts weights. She's independent and travels visiting her children overseas. She talks to everyone with joy. From the bus driver to the policeman, the chashier, my children and me.
I'm glad I'm writing down all this, because every time I think that things are hard or not fair, I can come back to this post and remember how life doesn't justify grumpiness.
She told us this story. It gave me goosebumps, made my heart clap, and I need to share it.
Many years ago, while her beloved husband was in the hospital being treated for the disease that eventualy took his life, she got home one night to have a couple of hours of sleep before going back to see him. Suddenly, she saw a gigantic black moth in her living room. She was terrified by the winged insect. Her first instinct was to ask her husband to get rid of it. He couldn't help her. He couldn't be there. And that's when it happened: she realized that she had to be in charge of her life. She missed him terribly already, and he wasn't even gone then, but she realized exactly at that moment, that she had to learn to rely on herself. She had to be there for herself, as no one else would be able to do it.
She made two holes on a pillowcase and put it on her head as a protective mask (alternatively, the moth could think she was a ghost and run away). She wrapped her hands and with her heart pounding hard, she chased the invador with a broom. After swinging her weapon for a bit, she eventually got the moth and discarded it. She was sad but triumphant, and that feeling pushed her forward. She had conquered her own fear of being by herself. The moth was like the loneliness that she was fearing was aproaching her life at a fast pace, but she found out that being alone and lonely was not the same thing and she trusted herself with the responsibility of moving forward despite whatever the future had in store for her.
Between giggles and pain, we all listened, and I think it left us all thinking and hopefully, remembering a story that changed our attitude forever.
I went grocery shopping with her the other day and I found Mexican mangoes in the fruit section. When I saw them, I thought to myself: if this lady were a fruit, she would be one of those species: sweet, bright, soft, full of flavor, interesting, and you'd enjoy them any time of the day, again, like a ray of sunshine.
I try to buy local produce as often as I can, but I'm partial to my imported Mexican mangoes. I've adored  them since I was a little girl. When I go home to visit my grandmother, she always makes sure there are dozens of them waiting for me, and that's basically what I eat for the whole trip.
In the US the Ataulfo variety is the most common, but I don't really select them for their specific variety. I just make sure they come from Mexico and that they are the yellow, smaller kind. Some mangoes from places like Haiti look the same but are completely different in both, flavor and texture. So I insist: make sure they are Mexican!

Two years ago I turned my friend T into a Mex-mango convert, and since then, when spring starts and the taxi-yellow hued fruit begins showing up in street stands, we play mango treasure hunt via text messages letting each other know where we found the perfectly ripe ones. We keep it going until it's evident the season is over, but let's not think about that yet. We have to enjoy them while they are here!
Mangoes are not only delicious. They are also full of nutrients: They are high in fiber, vitamins A, C and E, and other antioxidant phytochemicals, that can have protective qualities against different types of cancer. They a good source of vitamin B6, potassium and copper. And it's also been suggested that including mangoes in our diet might help reduce body fat and control blood sugar. Did I mention they are considered an aphrodisiac??? More on that coming up in a future post!

MANGO SALAD

This is a refreshing and healthy dish. Perfect for the warm months. You can serve it on top of grilled fish or chicken, or add some cooked black beans to it to make it more fulfilling and increase its protein and iron content. If you mix it with some cubed sushi-quality tuna, it makes an awesome ceviche. Also, it takes heat really well, so some chopped serranos or any other chiles could be a great addition.
I used some local purple radish shoots that I found in Florida. They were gorgeous, super tasty, and are incredibly healthy. Use them if you find them, but don't worry if you don't. Other shoots or micro greens would be great too.

INGREDIENTS

  • Vegetarian (contains honey)
  • Free of: gluten, dairy, eggs, soy and nuts
  • Super ingredients: all of them! This salad is full of vitamins, fiber, phytochemicals, antioxidants and good fats

3 Mexican mangoes, peeled, pitted and cubed
1 ripe avocado, peeled, pitted and cubed
1/2 cup fresh mint leaves, torn into small pieces
1/2 cup purple radish shoots (or any other kind of shoots or micro greens)
1/2 onion, finelly chopped
1 tomato, cubed
2 lemons, juiced
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, or to taste
1 tablespoon raw honey, or to taste
Course sea salt, to taste

METHOD

In a medium bowl, mix all the fruits and vegetables with the lemon juice, using a spatula. Be very gentle, as you don't want the avocado to turn into guacamole!
Add oil, honey and a bit of salt. Mix again and taste. Readjust seasoning and serve (or change according to the variations suggested above).

It can be refrigerated for a couple of hours. The acidity of the lemon, the mango and the tomato, keep the avocado bright and green.

Serves 4

Enjoy!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Passover frenezy in full swing

Preparing for Passover is an intense, difficult and detailed process. That's why we pack our sunblock, flee to Florida and knock at my sister and brother-in-law's door asking to take us in for 10 days. There, we help tape the last cupboards that will stay closed for the next seven days and clean the few shelves remaining to be freed from the forbidden foods.
There's definitely some stress right before the holiday. Having everything ready makes you suffer a bit.  
But I guess it's all on purpose, as once the festive dinner --the Seder--starts, we can taste the relief and freedom that we are supposed to savor this time of the year. We are not slaves anymore, and we are hoping we can continue to be free for all the generations to come.
The story is told among symbols of tears, bitterness, miracles, and sweetness. There's despair, fear, faith and hope. It's just like life itself. But this time, we make sure we take a break from every day life and appreciate the difference of what it was, what it is and what it could be.

There are also the 4 required cups of wine, that I obediently drink and then I feel so free!!!! My kids play with their cousins and show off all their school acquired Passover knowledge (that cost us a fortune, but as Master Card says: "it's priceless") and celebrate the moment as the best time of their lives. And why shouldn't they? Thankfully, this Passover, we are free, together, healthy and eating catered matzah ball soup. How better can life get?
Despite ordering in the whole Seder meal at the local kosher store, every year I try to make my own charoset, the mortar-like food that has different recipe depending on each household. Mine was given to me by my maternal grandmother, who in turn, got it from her Turkish grandmother, and in a holiday that celebrates Jewish generations, my great grandmother's charoset makes me celebrate a delicious preparation and the generations that made up, make up and-- hopefully-- will make up my family. From Turkey, to Mexico and now in sunny Florida shared with my Brazilian and Belgian relatives...
But, besides being an important link to my family and my origins, this is a delicious recipe. The following in an email from my friend (and former boss), the Vice president of the James Beard Foundation, Mitchell Davis. I had shared the recipe with him and he used it about 5 years ago at a presentation. He later included it in his cookbook Kitchen Sense.
"[We] gave our talk this weekend on Jewish Food and Identity at Kolel: The Center for Jewish learning in Toronto. We included a demo of rugelach and different charoseths, and of course, yours was by far the favorite. Everyone loved it. My sister wanted to use it as a breakfast spread. So now there will be people  in Toronto making the Zohn family chroseth (or whatever family it's from). Hope all is well. Many thanks. Mitchell"
I do hope that you make it too! And it's incredible smeared on matzah for breakfast in Passover (Mitchell's sister was right on!)

GREAT GRANDMOTHER ROSA COHEN'S CHAROSET

I'm sure this recipe was originally made by hand with a mortar and pestle in my great grandmother's kitchen in Smyrna, Turkey. My grandmother makes it in the blender. At home, I use my immersion blender, but a food processor works just fine.
Once, I found myself without fresh apples, and since I did have some unsweetened apple sauce, I took that route. These days, I don't even bother with a machine for pureeing. I buy ground nuts and throw everything on a Ziploc bag. For some reason, and despite lots of changes in the ingredients and techniques, it's a very forgiving recipe and always ends up being delicious.
INGREDIENTS
  • Vegan
  • Free of: eggs, soy, dairy

1 organic Gala apple, peeled, seeded and cubed OR 3/4 cup unsweetened apple sauce
6 pitted dates
1/2 cup raisins
Juice of 1 orange
2 to 3 tablespoons orange preserves (or apricot if you can't find orange)
3 tablespoons matzah meal
1 1/2 ground nuts (I like pecans, but walnuts, hazelnuts or a mix work well too. I think hemp seeds might be a good substitution if you can't use nuts)

METHOD


Process all the ingredients in a food processor or blender, until pureed or the desired consistency is achieved. Or, simply throw it all in a large (1 gallon) Ziploc freezer bag, making sure there's no air trapped in the bag. Zip it closed and mush it with your hands, a rolling pin, your feet or anything you want, until it turns into a paste. Kids love helping out with this task!


Enjoy and have a meaningful, redeeming and wonderful Passover (or Easter, where it can also be served).