Thursday, April 23, 2015

A is for Asparagus

The fern stalks known as asparagus are pushing through the thawing ground with energy that can ignite you too. Asparagus is a beloved spring tonic that gives the body three precious but hard to find nutrients: Vitamin K, folic acid and potassium. It's a mild diuretic that can help cleanse the body, although gout sufferers should avoid it. And to boot, it provides the "prebiotic" inulin that helps those valuable intestinal bacteria flourish.

A lb of asparagus is about 14 medium spears, or 3 generous portions. It is very perishable. Cook within 48 hours. There is no reason--yet--to believe that urine odor associated with digested asparagus suggest harm in any way. So dig in.

Here's Thomas Jefferson's asparagus springing up in April at Monticello

What follows are a few ways to enjoy what springs from the Earth right now as people around the globe do.

As previously posted a month ago under Breadcrumbs and in my book: Veggiyana, the Dharma of Cooking:
Asparagus Bread Pudding

Serves 8-10

1 ½ lbs fresh asparagus

1 tsp olive oil

1 medium leek, cleaned

1 tsp dried thyme leaves

4 tbsp unsalted butter

2 oz Gruyere cheese

1 ½ cups half and half

3 extra large or jumbo eggs, separated

¼ tsp salt

1/8 tsp freshly ground black pepper (more to your taste)

2 cups freshly made breadcrumbs (from 3-4 slices firm white bread ground in a food processor)

1 tbsp freshly grated lemon zest

Preheat oven to 450º.

 Cut the bottom inch off the asparagus stalks and cut the remaining stalks in four equal pieces. Line a shallow roasting dish, or large toaster pan tray with foil and put the asparagus pieces on it.  Coat with olive oil and a pinch of salt. Roast for 10 minutes at 450. Remove from oven.

Reduce oven heat to 350ª.  Butter an 8” square baking pan or round cake pan, whatever you have.

Dice the leek.  Melt 2 tbsp butter in a small sauté pan over medium heat and add the leek and thyme.  Sauté on medium low heat until leeks are soft, 3-5 minutes.

Pour half and half into a small saucepan and bring to a simmer (bubbles at the pot edge).  While waiting, put the cheese into a food processor bowl and chop it.

Add the roasted asparagus to the bowl. With the machine running, pour in the warm half and half. Do not overprocess. Add the remaining butter and one egg yolk at a time, processing with the pulse button to incorporate the three.

Add the leeks from sauté pan with salt and pepper. Add breadcrumbs and quickly process just to blend. 

Beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form.  Fold them and the lemon zest into the asparagus mixture.  Optionally: sprinkle on top 1/8 tsp smoked paprika and 1/8 tsp ground nutmeg.

Pour into the baking pan.  Place the pan in a larger roasting pan and pour into that pan enough water to reach halfway up the sides of the pudding pan.

Bake in the center of the oven at 350º for 40-50 minutes, depending on whether you use convection or not, or until a cake tester comes out clean.

Remove from heat and cool on a rack for 10 minutes.  Invert onto a serving platter and serve warm.

My most favorite treatment is to preserve the spears pickled because they are awesome party food that really dazzles people. This recipe is in the book How to Fix a Leek and Other Food from Your Farmers' Market.
Pickled Asparagus

2 lbs. asparagus spears

6 lg garlic cloves, halved and smashed

1 tsp red pepper flakes

1 dill head or 2 tbsp dill seed

2½ cups white vinegar

2½ cups water

¼ cup kosher salt (not regular salt)

3  1 qt canning jars with lids
Sterilize jars in boiling water.

Cut woody bottoms from spears and cut spears into 4” lengths (slightly shorter than the jar height). Put 4 garlic halves in each jar. Evenly divide pepper flakes and dill between each jar. Fill jars tightly with upright spears, mixing bottom and top halves as you go.

In a large saucepan, combine water, vinegar and salt. Stir to dissolve salt and bring to a full boil. Ladle into jars while boiling, filling to ¼” of the top. Shake jars to remove air bubbles. Seal jars. Put back in boiling water 20 minutes. Remove from heat. Listen for the lids to “pop” so you know the jars are securely sealed. Cool. Store in the pantry.  Store opened jars in the refrigerator.

Easiest way, Italian style:
Roasted Asparagus Spears

Preheat oven to 425º.
Trim the thick stalk ends off the spears, rinse and dry thoroughly.
Place spears in a single layer on a baking sheet or toaster oven baking pan. 
Very lightly drizzle olive oil over the spears, very lightly. Season with salt.
Roast at 450º for 12 minutes or until spears are soft and starting to show brown.
Place on a dish, season with freshly ground black pepper 
and serve hot.  
Also good cold the next day, plain, cut into salads or thrown over pasta with garlic.

Here's the Spanish way with asparagus, a scrambled egg brunch/lunch dish:


Olive oil 
2 peeled garlic cloves, plus 1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
 2 c bread cubes, made with day-old bread, cut in 1/2-inch cubes 
Salt and pepper
 2 ounces diced Spanish chorizo 
1 bunch thin asparagus, about 1 1/2 pounds, cut in 1- to 2-inch lengths
 1 bunch green onions, chopped
 8 large eggs, beaten 
1/2 teaspoon pimentón 
2 tbsp roughly chopped Italian parsley 

Put 3 tablespoons olive oil in a cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add peeled garlic cloves and let them sizzle until lightly browned, then remove. Add bread cubes, season with salt and pepper, lower heat to medium and gently fry until lightly browned and crisp, about 2 minutes. Remove bread and set aside to cool.  

Add chorizo and fry lightly. Add asparagus, season with salt and pepper, and stir-fry until cooked through but firm, 3 to 4 minutes. Add green onions and minced garlic and cook 1 minute more.  

Season eggs with salt, pepper and pimentón. Pour into pan and cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, just until soft and creamy, 2 to 3 minutes. Add parsley and serve immediately, topped with the fried bread cubes.

Here's an inland Chinese dish:
Stir Fried Asparagus with Sesame 
serves 3-4
1 ½ lbs. asparagus, trimmed and cut crosswise on the diagonal into 2" pieces
 1 tbsp. tamari sauce
1 tsp. Asian sesame oil
2 drops red chile oil
½ tsp. toasted sesame seeds

Over high heat, bring a medium pot of water to a boil.  Add asparagus and cook until slightly tender but still crisp and bright green, 1½–2 minutes.  Drain, then immediately plunge into a large bowl of ice water; set aside to cool. Drain again, then transfer to paper towels, pat dry.

2. Whisk together tamari sauce, sesame oil, and chile oil in a medium bowl. Add asparagus and toss. Transfer to a serving bowl and garnish with sesame seeds. 

Here's the Himalayan way, and yes they do have this fern as well as the fiddlehead fern!

Bhutanese Asparagus with Cheese and Chilies

1 sm. red onion, peeled, finely chopped

4 tbsp. unsalted butter

½ lb. fiddleheads, cleaned

3 new potatoes, cleaned and sliced into thin disks

1 cup water

1 med. fresh green chili (about ½ oz.), seeded and sliced in thin strips

¼ tsp ground coriander

8 oz fresh soft sheep cheese, farmers’ or feta cheese or soft ricotta, crumbled

1/8 tsp. salt

freshly ground black pepper to taste

Melt butter in a large saucepan. Add onion and sauté until translucent and soft. Add fiddleheads, potatoes and water. Simmer over low heat about 10 minutes until vegetables are tender.  Add the chili, coriander, cheese and salt, stirring to blend. Continue to simmer until cheese melts into a smooth sauce, about 5 minutes. Add freshly ground black pepper to your taste and serve hot. 

And here's one I haven't tried yet:
Asparagus Lasagna

Serves 8

4 pounds asparagus, trimmed
3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
six 7- by 6 1/4-inch sheets of instant (no-boil) lasagne
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter
1/4 c all-purpose flour
1 1/2 c chicken broth
1/2 c water
7 oz mild goat cheese such as Montrachet
1 tsp freshly grated lemon zest, or to taste
1 2/3 c freshly grated Parmesan
1 c heavy cream

Cut tips off each asparagus spear and reserve them. In each of 2 large shallow baking pans toss half the asparagus stalks with half the oil, coating them well, and roast them in a preheated 500º oven, shaking the pans every few minutes, for 5 to 10 minutes, or until they are crisp-tender. Sprinkle the asparagus with salt to taste and let it cool. Cut the roasted asparagus into 1/2-inch lengths and reserve it.

In a large bowl of cold water let the sheets of lasagne soak 15 minutes, or until softened. 
In a saucepan melt the butter, add the flour, and cook the roux over moderately low heat, stirring, for 3 minutes. Add broth and water in a stream, whisking. Simmer the mixture for 5 minutes, then whisk in the goat cheese, zest, and salt to taste, whisking until the sauce is smooth.

Drain the pasta well, arrange 1 sheet of it in each of 2 buttered 8-inch-square baking dishes, and spread each sheet with one fourth of the sauce. Top the sauce in each dish with one fourth of the reserved roasted asparagus and sprinkle the asparagus with 1/3 cup of the Parmesan. Continue to layer the pasta, the sauce, the asparagus and the Parmesan in the same manner, ending with a sheet of pasta. In a bowl beat the cream with a pinch of salt until it holds soft peaks. Arrange the reserved asparagus tips decoratively on the pasta, spoon the cream over the pasta and the asparagus tips, spreading it with the back of the spoon, and sprinkle the remaining 1/3 cup Parmesan on top. 

Bake the lasagne in the middle of a preheated 400º oven 20 to 30 minutes, or until golden and bubbling. Let it stand10 minutes before serving. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Farmers' Market is a Pharmacy: food to use as medicine

(I wrote this for the website: eatlocalgrown, which has not yet posted it.)

Seemingly ordinary food is magical: salt extinguishes fire without causing smoke, vinegar cleans burned pots and cinnamon repels ants. More crucially, you probably have a drugstore right in your own kitchen because everyday food—what you can find at a farmers’ market-- can do what all those expensive tablets, capsules, sprays and liquids sold as medicine do. That x in the bold braggadocio of your local pharmacy’s Rx is hiding the word recipe. See the kitchen mortar and pestle?

Medicine has always been a mix of edible ingredients trusted to remedy or restore. The word hospital is the core of the seemingly unrelated word hospitality because for centuries they were actually the same. After all, hospitality is about feeding someone else-- carefully so they don’t fall ill or die under your roof or starve to death, making you a murderer. Crusaders whose war wounds were healed by the traditional “eat and be well” hospitality of strangers returned to Europe and enthusiastically established hospitals to provide a designated spot where other people could be cured by proper diet too.

Asians still rely on food to adjust human health. If you think that’s primitive, think again: you do or don’t drink coffee or tea because of the caffeine. Check out the shelves at your modern pharmacy. Boldly emblazoned across all the jar labels lined up touting promises of harmony and vigor, you’ll find cayenne, cinnamon, ginger, garlic, turmeric, fenugreek, cranberry, pomegranate, papaya, elderberry, bilberry, acaiberry, “superfruits plus”, soy, fish oil, artichoke extract, black cherry extract, green tea and seaweed. Most of today’s expensive prescription drugs are derived by reductive chemistry from food plants and animal products.

So why not go straight to the source? Here are “hospital” foods you probably have in the kitchen or can buy at a farmers’ market:

Honey: antibiotic ointment
Rub real honey on a cut, burn or wound you cannot immediately cover or repair to stave off infection. A British field surgeon on a WWI Greek battlefield with no supplies to save the wounded surmised that the busy bees all around him were up to something more important than anybody realized and, in desperation, smeared their honey on torn limbs, burns, gaping holes and all the other horrific injuries in front of him. To his amazement, the soldiers treated with honey survived until help came. 

Honey can also tackle the bacteria of a sore throat.

Yogurt: 5,000-year-old answer to Montezuma’s Revenge, Kaopectate and Immodium
If it is plain and contains live cultures, several doses of yogurt will stop microbial diarrhea—with no side effects. Francis I ruler of France at the start of the 16th Century suffered from severe diarrhea no French doctor could cure, so his Ottoman Turkish ally Suleiman the Magnificent sent a doctor who cured it by feeding the king yogurt.  It will also keep your gut working properly if you are taking antibiotics by putting crucial probiotics back. And it can acclimate your body to a new location by safely introducing it to the local microbes, giving you revenge on Montezuma.

The live culture plain yogurt can also work as “cold cream”, smoothing, polishing and removing redness from your face.

Garlic: anti-bacterial, anti microbial and anti fungal sulfa drug
Garlic leaves that telltale smell on your breath because it goes straight to the lungs where it becomes a miracle cleaner of breath, blood and bronchia. Its chemicals so powerfully attack parasites and microbes, the ancients called it a demon killer. Now a very recent, highly scientific report says the traditional remedy of garlic with the equally powerful onion—a 1,000-year-old English treatment for eye infection—seems to kill the dreaded, antibiotic-resistant MRSA virus.

Soybeans: hormone replacement
A brilliant Chinese gynecologist, trained in both Eastern and Western medicine, was horrified by the hormone therapy horrors Americans asked her to remedy. Chinese women don’t need post menopausal medication, she told her patients, because they get enough estrogen from eating soy three to four times a week and broccoli at times. She counseled eating tofu at least three times weekly and broccoli every two weeks and it worked as well as dangerously side-effected medications in what’s known as ERT, estrogen replacement therapy. Japanese edamame can substitute for a tofu or two.

Ginger: anti-nausea

Historically the fastest cure for seasickness has been chewing fresh ginger. This root works so well against nausea, hospitals used to wake every post-op patient with a glass of ginger ale.

Ginger also raises body temp, which can speed metabolism and incinerate microbes.

Seaweed: iodine for the thyroid
Nori that wraps around your sushi or can be dissolved into a soup broth or seaweed salad or kombu anything can revive a sagging thyroid that needs iodine. Eating seaweed can disqualify you from suffering through the commonly prescribed nuclear isotope thyroid test and get you an old-fashioned hands-on diagnostic exam instead. Because I made myself a bowl of seaweed soup a day before my medical appointment, that happily happened for me.

Cranberries: prevent and relieve urinary tract infections
Dried, fresh or as 100% cranberry juice, these soft red marbles make the urinary tract acidic for bacteria to cling to. They do the same for the stomach lining, making it inhospitable to the bacteria suspected of causing ulcers. They also protect the prostrate gland from renegade cancer cells.

Walnuts: restore vitality (chi)
Unique chemical compounds in walnuts are nourishment for hardworking kidneys, containers of the body’s energy or chi. Chinese medicine prescribes a few walnuts a day for exhaustion because their oil revitalizes waning chi. My experience validates the remedy.

Bananas, chocolate and orange peel:  yummy Immodium, Lomotil
When you need to stop the intestinal spasms caused by diarrhea, which is essentially what Immodium and Lomotil do, eat bananas, chocolate and orange peel. They are all good and very tasty sources of pectin and other crucial binders.
Tapioca flour: same as above
Also works to remedy ulcerous colitis. Mix with a liquid and drink.

Parsley: antacid like Maalox; breath freshener like mints and gums
Parsley is the most under rated, under appreciated food in the kitchen. It’s a nutritional powerhouse that costs pennies and a working drug that can calm a queasy stomach by neutralizing its acid and clean bad breath by neutralizing the stench of that stomach acid. For the same price, its surprisingly large collection of volatile chemicals help restore energy, protect the heart and prevent many sadly common cancers like colon and cervical.

Cabbage: anti-inflammatory, cholesterol lowering
Red cabbage, especially when combined with equally anti-inflammatory turmeric root—fresh or powdered, will reduce the sort of internal inflammation that can build up and spill over into incipient cancer.  Green cabbage, steamed, will reduce cholesterol levels.

Other powerful medicinal foods: sunchokes (stimulate the stomach, protect the bowel), dandelion greens (called in French pissenlit, wet the bed, because they are a diuretic), fenugreek (stimulates mucous, enzyme and breast milk flow), basil (the famous smell comes from antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant chemicals), sweet potatoes (blood sugar regulation, anti-inflammatory) and finally, blueberries (new evidence they help memory retention).

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Rhubarb: What's in it for you?

Rhubarb is the Rodney Dangerfield of food: it doesn't get respect. So here's a salute to those almost calorie free, nutrient rich pink stalks whose tang is a picker upper for your taste buds, metabolism and meal plans. If we think of rhubarb at all, most of us think it's dessert: sweetened to the max in crisps, crumbles and pies because that's about the only way we find it presented. But rhubarb is not a fruit. It's  a vegetable--the stalks of a perennial plant that sprouts from a thick rhizome, so it can perk up the main part of a meal: as sauce for chicken, slaw, putting pink back in pork chops or with dates as chutney perfect for the holiday cheese tray. Now is the time because rhubarb is a traditional spring tonic, a food that helps the metabolism's re-set switch as we move from the lethargy of winter to the sunniness of spring.

We will not be alone in this. For at least 5,000 years, the Chinese have relied on rhubarb as medicine. Its rhizome and roots are in fact the most used herbs in all Chinese medicine, valued as much today as 5,000 years ago for curing stomach ailments, constipation and soothing burns. The almost calorie free stalks are full of crucial potassium, hard to find folic acid, vitamins C and A, water (to keep you hydrated) and fiber. Lots of medical claims are now being made but I don't know which are for real so I'm not mentioning them. I will just repeat that it's almost calorie free. And it's one of those spring vegetables that put spring in your step, literally. (see previous post about seasonal eating)

More good news: rhubarb is simple to prepare and enjoy. Plus three stalks (3-5 stalks = 1 lb) go far, so it doesn't break the bank.  Here's what I mean:

Rhubarb Currant Sauce for Spicy Chicken
this will cover 10-12 chicken thighs

8 thin stalks rhubarb, trimmed, washed and diced
1/2 cup dried currants
1/4 cup honey
2 tbsp maple syrup (genuine)
1 tbsp brown sugar
1/2 cup orange juice
2 tbsp grated orange rind
1 tsp orange flower or rose water
2 star anise,
1/8 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla extract
5 green cardamom pods crushed or 1/2 tsp ground cardamom
pinch of salt
1 1/2" piece fresh ginger root, peeled and grated
Put everything into a medium sized heavy-gauge saucepan, cover and cook over medium heat 30 minutes until mixture is as thick as jam. Stir and remove from heat.

for the chicken: I suggest seasoning chicken with your favorite chili spice blend, Mine is Ethiopian Berbere mix which I have posted in the past. I use it on chicken thighs. I put them in hot corn oil skin side down for 10 minutes until that skin is really crisp, then flip them and put the skillet in a 425º oven 10 minutes to finish them off. Then I drain them and put them in a baking dish covered with the rhubarb sauce, and put that back in the oven at 350º just to get really warm.  Top with chopped cilantro or flat leaf parsley.  Yum!!

Spring Slaw (rhubarb, radish and fennel)

Serves 2

Juice of 1 lemon

1 tsp orange juice  
1 tsp granulated sugar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper  
1 fennel bulb, trimmed so the tough outer stalks are removed
2 stalks of rhubarb  
2 large radishes, washed

In a medium bowl, mix the lemon juice with the orange juice, sugar, salt and pepper to your taste. Trim the fennel down to its small innards minus the core. Reserve its fronds.

Using a mandolin, cheese slicer or julienne gadget, slice the rhubarb, radishes and fennel into the thinnest strips you can manage and cut these in pieces. Toss them in the seasoned lemon juice to pickle them slightly.

When ready to serve, add the fennel fronds as garnish.

This was meant to be put on a fish sandwich, but it would brighten up a roasted turkey sandwich too.  And fish cakes and maybe even pulled pork on a bun.

British pork chops with rhubarb: dinner for 2

A glorious and surprisingly quick spring supper.

Serves 2 2 x 6 oz 1” thick pork chops

1 tsp fennel seed 1 tsp coriander seed ½ tsp black peppercorns ½ tsp sea salt 2 tbsp butter 1 tbsp sunflower or corn oil finely grated zest and juice 1 orange,

¼ c marsala wine ½ lb rhubarb, trimmed and cut horizontally into 1 1/4” thick slices 1 tbsp honey or pure maple syrup

Score the rind of each pork chop at even intervals. Crush the fennel, coriander seeds, peppercorns and salt until smashed, but not ground to a powder. Rub most into the pork slits, saving a bit.

 In a medium/large heavy gauge skillet or frying pan, melt 1 tbsp butter with oil over a medium heat. Put pork chops scored fat side down and brown 2-3 minutes.

Flip chops to one side and cook 2 minutes, then flip to the other side and do the same. Sprinkle the remaining spice mix on top now.

Add the remaining butter and orange zest to the pan, baste the chops, and turn them over.

Pour the marsala into the pan and let bubble for a few seconds. Add the orange juice and bring to a simmer. Arrange the rhubarb around the pork and drizzle it  with honey/maple syrup. On low heat, cook 5 minutes or until pork is no longer pink inside and rhubarb is soft but still holding its shape. Turn the pork once without stirring.

Using a slotted spatula, remove pork and rhubarb from the pan and arrange on two warmed dinner plates. Increase the heat under the pan and simmer the sauce until thickened and slightly syrupy. Pour over the pork and serve, perhaps with a side of garlicky greens.

Rhubarb Chutneys with ginger or dates
On May 23rd 2014 I posted two quick recipes for truly tasty rhubarb ginger chutney (one with chili) that's perfect beside or atop grilled swordfish, a spinach fritatta or roast chicken. So here's a new chutney, with dates that should be on every cheese tray.

2” fresh root ginger, grated

1 1/4 c red wine vinegar

1 ¼ lbs Granny Smith apples, peeled and finely chopped

½ lb pitted dates, chopped

1 c raisins

1 tbsp mustard seed

1 tbsp curry powder

1 1 /2 c light muscovado sugar
2 tsp salt

scant 2 lbs rhubarb, sliced into small chunks

1 lg or 2 med red onions, diced

Put the onions in a large pan with the ginger and vinegar. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 10 mins. Add remaining ingredients, except rhubarb, and while stirring bring back to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered about 10 mins until apples are tender.

Stir in rhubarb and simmer uncovered until the chutney is thick and jammy, about 15-20 mins. Remove from heat and let sit 10 mins to set up. Now you can either put it in a large serving bowl to use in a day or two, or better yet, spoon it into warm, sterilized jam jars, seal and put in a water bath for 10-15 min depending on size of jar. Label when cool. Keep for at least a month before eating.

Rhubarb Punch
a not so sugary soda for children

3 cups cut rhubarb
1/3 c sugar
1/4 c honey
1 c fresh orange juice
juice of two limes
1 c Ginger Ale
1 c Club Soda

Cook the rhubarb with the sugar and honey in 2 1/2 c water for 10 minutes on med/low heat. Puree and cool. Add remaining ingredients and chill.  Serve with crushed ice, and fresh mint leaves. Use a slit strawberry atop the glass for garnish.

Chicken Breasts with bacon/cornbread stuffing in rhubarb sauce
Dinner party for 8 (chicken pretty in pink)

8 1/2 lb boneless chicken breasts, skin on if possible
1 tsp thyme leaves
1 tsp mild chili powder (your choice)
1/4 c minced fresh parsley
1 c chicken stock
1 stick/ 4 oz unsalted butter
1 lb cornbread crumbs (you'll have to make or buy some cornbread to do this)
1 lb bacon, cooked very dry and crumbled into bits
2 tbsp Herbs de Provence

2 cups rhubarb, diced (probably 5 stalks)
1 orange, sliced and seeded
1 c granulated white sugar
2 c white wine
2 c water

Make the sauce first:
Combine the rhubarb, orange, sugar, white wine and water in a saucepan and simmer until the orange slices are very soft. Purée until smooth. Set aside until ready to serve the chicken.

Make the stuffing:
Bring chicken stock and butter to a boil in a large saucepan. Remove from heat and stir in cornbread crumbs, bacon and herbs. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper to your taste and set aside.

Make the dish itself:
Preheat oven to 400º. Lightly butter a baking pan big enough to hold all the chicken.
Slit the breasts lengthwise leaving a hinge on the thicker side. Lightly pound the almost halves to slightly flatten them. Divide the stuffing among the 8 split breasts, putting it on one half of each, then folding the other half over the top. Put chicken in the baking pan in one layer. Season each with salt, pepper, thyme, parsley and pinch of chili.  Roast at 400º for 35 minutes or until tender and cooked through. Remove from oven and brush the rhubarb sauce over each breast to glaze it.

Of course you can also make crisps, crumbles and pies. You can put rhubarb atop panna cotta or vanilla pudding. It can be an ice cream flavor, a topping for lemon or orange sherbert and great companion for angel food or sponge cakes. It can become jam or the flavor of a simple bread pudding. In other words, there's one way or another for everyone to enjoy it.


Friday, April 3, 2015

Much More About Yogurt Including How to Make Your Own if a local farmer doesn't have it


Yogurt was probably the planets first processed food.  Somewhere between 7,500 and 5,000 years ago, Central Asian nomads discovered milk left in warm air quickly thickened into a richer health food, one more easily transported to boot. Our word yogurt actually comes from their word yogurmak, which means to thicken. The coagulation happened to milk naturally from bacterial ferment that cookedsugary lactose into lactic acid-- not from the pectin, sugar, guar gum and stabilizerscorporations throw in today.

You have to wonder why, for even in our age of complicated machinery and quantum mechanics, yogurt is still the most ridiculously simple thing to create. Like those nomads 5,000 years ago, all you need is milk and a spoonful of already formed yogurt with live or active cultures. Put them together in a warm spot and presto chango!, in hours you get spoon thick pudding.

From Siberia to Bulgaria, this magically morphed milk has always been revered as a medicinal marvel. In Buddhism it is honored as an auspicious substance that works to create a positive environment, an example to emulate. The adoration continues because those live cultures that transform milk also go vigilante gangbusters in the human gut where they solve digestive problems, cure even the worst diarrhea, and neatly balance internal flora, or whats now called our microbiome. To top it off, Bulgarian peasants who subsisted on fresh yogurt with live cultures have always had lifespans longer than any other European.

Despite this dazzling power, Western Europeans did not recognize the enormous value of yogurt until the early 20th Century when Nobel medicine prize winner Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov, curious enough to investigate what fueled those long-lived Bulgarian peasants, began promoting its specific bacteria, lactobacillus bulgaricus and streptococcus thermophiles, as the human immune systems best friends. This discovery convinced an Ottoman Empire émigré to Spain, Isaac Carasso, to launch yogurts first commercial manufacture. He gave the product his young son Daniels nickname: Danone.

Another 60 years elapsed before Armenian, Turkish and Greek immigrants dared share their secret with Americans. Immediately health foodies, hippies, vegetarians and organics seized yogurt as a pure, nourishing product with no additives or preservatives. Slowly it moved from the special markets to supermarkets where 1990s Americans newly worried about contaminants, pollutants and freshness noticed it. Then in no time at all, profit-seeking corporations turned this historic health food into sugar-laden junk.

Like bread, miso, blue cheese, beer, kraut, and pickles, yogurt is the product of ferment, inherently sour, and its traditionally been valued for bringing that specific taste to the table. As raita, tsatsiki or cacikall yogurt cucumber concoctions, its used to cool or foil an especially rich dish. In India its combined with fruits for a tangy drink. Greeks pour their fragrant honey on it while atop their sour bread for breakfast to wake taste buds with contrast.

But when big food corporations pounced on the product, they pandered to an American people whose cockeyed optimism forbids anything to be sour. It was the age of Lite and Lean, so they took out the milk fat and put in sugar, encouraging Americans to expect yogurt to be sweet. Now on those endlessly and endlessly growing long refrigerated shelves that testify to yogurts popularity, every carton that is not Plain” –and that is nearly all of them, lists its second ingredient after milk as sugar. For a while, because I didnt stop to read the label, even I who have sugar sensitivity was fooled by vanilla.

All of todays commercial yogurt including those pricey cartons that appeal in bold print to vanity by bragging: organic, 100% grass fed, naturally flavored, supernatural, Aussie culture Colorado fresh, the brave yogurt of Iceland, no sugar added(because they use xylitol) are laced with all sorts of sugars, fruits, jams, honey, syrups and gums.  Some even include both jam and sugar, honey and sugar. The labels are scary. Who thinks agave makes adulteration forgivable?  Would you like some xylitol with that?

Even people who want plain yogurt can be fooled. Sometimes, even if its emblazoned with the word natural or organic, its full of pectin. The label doesnt admit whether thats natural boiled down apple pomace or orange peel, or the chemical concoction sold to homemakers of jam.

What to do? Read the labels and pay a pile for pure plain yogurt. Or, grab a quart of milk, go home and make your own. It's fun, especially for kids because fermenting milk is a quick and foolproof magic trickone with delicious and nutritious results. Plus you save money. I paid $7.99 for a quart of high quality Greek yogurt but only $1.99 for the quart of quality local milk I turned into yogurt overnight.

Heres how easy it is to do:
Turn your oven on to 150º just to make it a warm place unless its summer where you live and the air is about 80º during the day.

Put 1 quart of milk (the less fat in it the less creamy your yogurt will be) in a heavy gauge lidded pot and heat it to BEFORE boiling, about 200º when its just beginning to bubble.

Immediately remove it from the heat and let it cool down to about 110º, which is slightly hotter than a hot tub. While this is happening, put ¼ c (4 tbsp) plain yogurt with live cultures in a small bowl or pitcher. When the milk is about 120º (you can speed the cooling by putting it in a bowl of ice, if you want), whisk a ladles worth into the yogurt, then pour that mixture back into the milk, whisking as it streams.

Immediately cover the pot. Wrap it in towels or cozies (I put a thick potholder on the bottom). Turn off the oven and open the door to cool it slightly. If you are not using the oven because its warm where you live, put the covered pot in a warm, quiet spot where it will not be shoved or moved for at least 6 hours.  If you are using the oven, put the covered pot inside and close the door.

The longer yogurt takes to set the more sour it will get. Depending on conditions, which include the strength of those live cultures and amount of steady warmth, coagulation can take 4 to 12 hours. So you can put it in before you go to bed and wake up to fresh yogurt for breakfast. Voila!

Plain yogurt is the heart of endless nutritious delights from a simple garlic mint sauce that mingles with shredded beets or mashed carrots or poached chicken to create salads, to a simple, amazing yogurt cake that's a much lighter and healthier but no less tasty version of New York cheese cake.  Here are a dozen super easy, super tasty, nutritious yet elegant recipes that just begin a long list of all you can accomplish with honest yogurt. I didnt even get to icing a pudding or cake with thick honey flavored Greek yogurt instead of whipped cream or mixing ¼ c with chickpea flour to make the fabulous filled grilled flatbread called gozlemi or salting plain yogurt to use it instead of mayonnaiseoror

You can cut this warm, gluten free "casserole" in wedges to serve with a cucumber tomato salad and toasted pita as breakfast, brunch, light lunch or super healthy snack. It makes a great potluck dish too.

Serves 4- 6
1 15oz can chickpeas, drained well
1/2 c olive oil
juice of 2 lemons
4 garlic cloves
2 tsp cumin seeds crushed or 1 1/2 tsp ground cumin
3 tbsp tahini (sesame paste)
1/3 c thick plain yogurt
3 tbsp pine nuts
3 tbsp unsalted butter or ghee
2 tsp ground Aleppo or chipotle pepper or Hungarian paprika or 1 tsp smoked Spanish paprika
salt and freshly ground black pepper to your taste

Heat oven to 400º.

In a food processor or large mortar and pestle combine the chickpeas, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and cumin into a paste. Beat in the tahini, then the yogurt and make the mixture into a light, smooth purée. Add salt and pepper to your taste.

Spoon the purée into an ovenproof earthenware dish about 7" in diameter, level and smooth the top with the back of the spoon.

In a small frying pan, dry toast the pine nuts on medium heat until they are golden. Lower heat and add the butter/ghee. When it melts add the ground pepper or paprika and quickly stir everything together. Pour this over the hummus.

Bake about 20-25 minutes, until it has risen slightly and the butter has been absorbed.  Serve immediately with a dollop of garlic mint yogurt for every wedge.


serves 4
14 oz fresh spinach leave, washed and drained
1 c thick plain yogurt
2 garlic cloves, crushed
3 tbsp olive oil
1 med red onion, cut in half both ways, then sliced into thin strips
2 tbsp currants plumped in rosewater or plain water for 5-10 minutes, then drained
2 tbsp pine nuts
2 tsp Aleppo or chili pepper powder or 1 small med hot red chili minced
juice of 1 lemon
salt and black pepper to taste
paprika for garnish

Steam spinach just until it wilts. Drain as much as possible and coarsely chop.
In a small bowl beat the yogurt with the garlic until the garlic is totally blended.

In a heavy sauté pan heat olive oil and sauté onion, stirring until it begins to color. Add currants, pine nuts and chili. Cook just until the nuts begin to color.
Add spinach, tossing it to blend. Pour in lemon juice and season to your taste with salt and pepper. Remove from heat.

Transfer the spinach to a serving dish, make a well in the center and spoon in the yogurt, drizzling some over the spinach. Sprinkle with paprika and serve warm.

This is a qorma lawand, a fragrant Afghan curry thickened by nuts and made creamy by yogurt that's naturally sweetened by carrots (native to Afghanistan) and raisins.

serves 4-6

1/2 cup almonds
4 garlic cloves
2" fresh ginger root, peeled and sliced
1/2 c water or chicken broth if you prefer
2 lbs boneless skinless chicken thighs (breast meat won't be as tasty or tender)
1/4 ghee or unsalted butter
2 tsp ground turmeric
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground cardamom
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground nutmeg
2 yellow onions thinly sliced
1 Serrano pepper, seeded and minced (2 if you like hot food)
2 med carrots, peeled and sliced in thin disks
1/3 cup dark raisins
1 heaping cup plain thick yogurt
salt and black pepper to your taste
1/2 c chopped fresh cilantro leaves
In a food processor purée the nuts, garlic, ginger and water.
Put this into a large bowl.
Cut the chicken into bite-sized pieces, stir into the marinade.
Marinate at least 1 hour in the refrigerator.

Melt the ghee in a large heavy gauge lidded casserole over medium heat. Add the spices and sauté about 30 seconds until they are fragrant but not brown. Stir in the onions and chili pepper. Sauté until the onions are soft and starting to brown, maybe 7 minutes.

Stir the chicken into the pot with all its marinade. Simmer 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to your taste.

Stir in the carrots and raisins and yogurt, blending everything. Add 1/2 c water or chicken broth to make gravy. Bring to a boil,then reduce heat to low simmer, cover the pot and simmer 40 minutes, adding water or broth if the dish seems to be drying out. Most important: keep heat low to avoid curdling the yogurt.

Serve with the chopped cilantro on top as garnish. Serve with rice, roasted potatoes or naan and perhaps a simple spinach salad.

You can put this on top of cooked carrots puréed with caraway seeds, cooked shredded beets sprinkled with lemon juice, baked hummus, scrambled eggs or a baked potato. Or you can put it under a poached egg like Turks do.
To make the sauce:
2 ½ c thick plain yogurt
2-3 garlic cloves, crushed
pinch salt
1/2 tsp dried mint leaves

Beat yogurt with garlic until the garlic is totally blended and absorbed into the yogurt. Stir in the salt and dried mint leaves. 

Optionally, you can also stir in ½ tsp ground Aleppo, Chipotle or mildly hot paprika pepper.

Now for the poached egg atop a bed of this garlic mint yogurt:
1 egg per person (this recipe is good for 2)
1 tsp Aleppo, Chipotle, mildly hot paprika or some ground chili pepper to your taste.
2 tbsp butter or ghee
1 tsp dried sage leaves crumbled

Make sure the yogurt sauce is very thick so it will support the egg. Drain if not.
Fill a small/medium plate with a 4 circle of yogurt about ¼” thick for every serving.
For everyone being served poach one egg. (Do this in boiling water laced with vinegar to keep the egg white together.) Lift the eggs from the water with a slotted spatula so they drain well and carefully place one atop every yogurt mattress.
Quickly melt butter or ghee in a small skillet and chili pepper and sage leaves. Just warm, the remove from heat and pour over the eggs.  

serves 6

2  15 oz. cans of cooked black-eyed peas
5 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
21/2 -3” piece of fresh ginger, peeled and minced
4 tbsp olive or canola oil
1 tbsp butter or ghee
1 lg red onion, peeled and finely diced
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp chili powder
2 cups chopped tomatoes with juice (boxed is fine)
1/2 cup plain yogurt, thicker is better, at room temperature
1/8 tsp salt
¼ tsp smoked paprika, optional but a nice touch
½ bunch fresh cilantro, leaves only, washed and chopped

Heat the oil and butter or ghee in a large heavy gauge saucepan or medium casserole over medium heat.  Add the onion, garlic and ginger and stir-fry for 3-5 minutes to soften.

Mix in the cumin, coriander, chili and tomato. Lower to medium-low heat and continue to sauté another 2-3 minutes until the sauce is very warm. Slowly stir in the yogurt (yogurt that is too cold in a sauce that is too hot can come apart) and blend the pot contents into a smooth sauce. Continue to heat for another 2 minutes.

Add the black-eyed peas and salt. If there is not enough sauce to cover the beans, add ½ cup water or vegetable broth and blend in.  Continue to simmer about 10-12 minutes, whatever it takes to get everything nice and hot without drying out the sauce. Test and adjust salt to your taste. Stir in the paprika.

Pour into a large serving bowl and garnish with the chopped cilantro.


From Turks and Arabs comes this luscious not cheese but much lighter and healthier cheese-like cake that’s been called “amazing.” Eat it for breakfast, present with tea, serve as dessert or dress it up for a party. It’s easy as…well …pie.
Makes 6-8 wedges or 12 slivers

4 extra large eggs
½ cup sugar
½ cup flour (pastry flour if you have it) mixed with 1/8 tsp baking powder
14-15 oz thick creamy plain yogurt (strain if it isn’t thick like Greek yogurt)
grated rind of 1 lemon
juice of I lemon
1/8 tsp of nutmeg or cardamom (which flavor you prefer)
pinch of ground cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350º. Butter a 9” round baking dish or pie plate.
In a mixer or mixing bowl, beat the eggs with the sugar until light and fluffy.
Beat in the flour with baking powder, then the yogurt, rind and lemon juice.

Transfer the mixture to the baking dish and level it. Bake about 45 minutes until firm. The cake will brown around the edges and should begin to turn golden on top. That’s okay.

When cool enough to handle, you can flip it onto a serving plate or, if you prefer, serve it right from the pie plate.

TOPPING ALERT: Turks and Arabs often top this with orange syrup. I use a large dollop of my own homemade strawberry or apricot jam or sometimes squiggles of honey. I also serve a dollop of cinnamon inflected plain yogurt with it in place of whipped cream.

Serves 5-6

1 banana, peeled
1 apple, cored, peeled and quartered
1 peach, peeled and quartered
½ cantaloupe, peeled and chunked
2-3 tbsp. honey or real maple syrup
1cup plain yogurt
½ tsp. ground nutmeg
handful fresh mint leaves
1 tbsp fresh squeezed lime juice
1 ¼ cup unsweetened apple juice or, if you prefer, orange juice
Optional garnish: fresh blueberries

Combine everything but the apple juice in a blender or food processor. Start to puree and after a few seconds pour the apple juice in as a steady stream to make a soup. It should be thick enough to eat with a spoon but not too thick to pour.  Chill.  Serve garnished with fresh blueberries.

8. LABNI: YOGURT CHEESE WITH OLIVES (an appetizer or party snack)
You can strain yogurt to drier and drier forms from sour cream to farmers’ cheese to cream cheese. This is a Persian/Lebanese favorite “mezze.” You can also use it to stuff cherry tomatoes or small bell peppers.

16 oz plain yogurt
1/8 tsp salt
1/3c pitted black olives, chopped
1/3 c scallions, chopped
¼ tsp Aleppo or Cayenne ground pepper (this is the call for hot stuff)
1 tsp dried crushed mint

Mix yogurt and salt. Line a colander with cheesecloth, muslin or a handiwipe and fill with yogurt. Put colander over a larger bowl to get the drips.  Refrigerate uncovered 10 hours draining and stirring at least once.

Put your new labni into a serving bowl with all the other ingredients. Blend everything. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. It will keep 3-4 days.

serves 6

Make the Greek tsatziki dressing:
1 pint very thick plain yogurt
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 Persian or pickling cucumber, halve, seeded and sliced paper thin or grated and drained—they need to be as dry as possible
2 tbsp chopped fresh dill
½ tsp salt
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp red wine vinegar or fresh lemon juice

Mix everything in a non-metal bowl and chill so flavors mingle.

For the salad:
2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken breasts, poached and chopped into bite size pieces
1½ c brown or French green lentils cooked until tender and drained
2 c chopped broccoli or broccolini, blanched until tender but still crunchy and drained
1 bunch scallions, cleaned and sliced in thin disks
1 cup grated carrots
1½ c roasted cashews or walnuts, chopped
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
salt to your taste

Combine all ingredients. Stir in enough tsatziki to moisten the salad to your taste and blend. Garnish with either chopped fresh flat leaf parsley or for a more peppery taste fresh chopped cilantro leaves. 

Serve over a bed or baby spinach.
a condiment for 6-8
¾ c shelled walnuts, lightly toasted
2 garlic cloves, peeled
2 serrano chilies, seeded and minced
½ tsp salt
2 c fresh mint leaves, clean and dry
juice of 1 lemon
4 oz very thick plain yogurt

In a food processor, combine walnuts, garlic, chilies, salt, mint, lemon juice with 1 tbsp water and make a smooth paste, remembering to scrap down the sides. (If the mix is too dry to congeal into paste, add an extra tbsp. water.)

Put the yogurt in your serving bowl and with a fork, stir in the walnut paste.
Garnish with chopped mint and a whole shelled walnut to serve.

A traditional much beloved tangy cooling drink that’s good for you.
Serves 4
9 oz plain yogurt
4 1/2 oz milk
3 fresh mangoes, stoned and sliced
2-3 tsp honey
Optional: pinch of cardamom or cinnamon

Put all ingredients into a blender and blend for 2 minutes, then pour into individual glasses to serve. Feel free to add salt and cardamom seeds. Lassi can be kept refrigerated for up to 24 hours

A grandmother gave me this recipe after it delighted her grandson.

1/4 c Greek yogurt
1/4 c condensed milk
1/4 tsp. ground cardamom
2 tbsp. chopped pistachios.

Preheat the oven to 150º.
Mix all ingredients together and pour into ramekins.
Place these in a deep baking pan and fill that halfway up the ramekin sides with water. Bake 35-45 minutes until firm.
Cool and chill in the refrigerator until serving. Serve in the ramekins.