Category: vegetables

So-called superfoods won’t save you from death

Blueberries

Photo by Flickr user Jennifer C, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

Amy Fleming recently penned a great piece for The Guardian that provides a healthy dose of skepticism and science to counteract those over-hyped claims you’ve heard about blueberries, açaí, yuzu, or whatever the latest life-saving fruit is. She begins:

In the early 1990s, a cookbook called Superfoods appeared in the bookshops. It was co-written by the alternative medicine practitioner, Michael Van Straten, who is one of a handful of people said to have coined what has become one of the most spuriously bandied-about marketing terms of our times.

The book revealed Straten’s “four-star superfoods”, which “supply the vital bricks that build your body’s resistance to stress, disease and infection”. The list held few surprises, consisting of, you know, stuff that’s good for you: common fruit and veg, whole grains, nuts. Foods we’re especially keen on eating in January, as an antidote to Christmas excesses. Wouldn’t these foods be more accurately described as simply “food” (as opposed to junk food)? Nevertheless, the notion of superfoods was, and still is appealing. Except this century, the term is now used to assign near-magical powers to overpriced, exotic foodstuffs. It’s promotional potency went into turbo boost when the theories about antioxidants – probably the most successful “the science bit” spiel of all time – hit the public consciousness. Ever since, food sellers have clambered to keep “discovering” novel, unparalleled sources of “extraordinary nutrients”.

Fleming goes on to debunk the superiority of these foods that, while healthful, won’t keep you out of the grave. As she concludes, “the key advice remains the same: eat a varied diet including plenty of colourful vegetables and whole grains.” Amen to that. Check out her full post here.

Food trends to expect in the year ahead

Photo by The Conscientious Omnivore (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Photo by The Conscientious Omnivore (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

The end of one year and the start of another is a popular time for prognosticating about what trends will catch fire in the coming months. As reported at HuffPost Canada in a piece from AFP/Relaxnews, “consultants at the New York-based Baum + Whiteman have curated a list of buzzwords and foods they predict will shape the culinary landscape in 2014.” These include more nose-to-tail dining in the form of boneless lamb neck (?) and sweetbreads (!) along with eco-friendly trends like “crackdown on food waste.” Head here for the full piece.

As Lois Abraham reports in another piece posted at HuffPost Canada,

Cauliflower is the new kale, salt is the new pepper and doughnuts and burgers are going gangbusters.

Food trend watchers are bidding adieu to sliders, those small sandwiches made of beef, chicken, pulled pork or fish, cupcakes are waning while quinoa, now that everyone has learned to pronounce it, has gone mainstream.

There are oodles of noodles, from ramen to pho, while salted caramels, flavoured waters and roast chicken are taking off.

Coconut, too, is exploding this year, prepared sweet and savoury. Look for it in sugar, flour and vinegar.

Vegetables continue to be centre of the plate, edging out meat.

Find her article here.

Finally, the National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot” trend forecast, which is based on a survey of nearly 1,300 professional chefs, includes in its list of Top 20 Trends of 2014 [PDF] many of the issues we regularly touch on here at the blog. For example, locally sourced meats and seafood tops the list, followed by locally grown produce at #2, environmental sustainability at #3, healthful kids’ meals at #4, hyper-local sourcing (like restaurant gardens) at #6, sustainable seafood at #9, and nose-to-tail and root-to-stalk cooking at #11. Ancient grains even make the list, coming in at #15.

Any food-trend predictions of your own for 2014? Any trends you hope take off? Maybe some trends you hope fade away (like puff pieces in the media about trends)?

Broccoli: yum or yuck?

Broccoli at the Farmers Market

Photo by Clara S via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

Laura Shocker had an interesting post recently at HuffPost about potential reasons for why some folks are fans of broccoli while others can’t stand it. She writes,

The answer might partly come down to genetics, explains John E. Hayes, Ph.D., assistant professor of food science and director of the Sensory Evaluation Center at the Pennsylvania State University. While past explanations have focused on the idea of “supertasters,” he says that’s less applicable to broccoli.

Instead, variations on a gene called TAS2R38 could explain why some people turn their noses up at the green stuff. This gene can affect how people perceive bitterness; a compound called allylglucosinolate is what causes the bitter taste in broccoli. What’s more, the variant you have of this gene could explain overall vegetable consumption patterns, not just broccoli, according to Hayes.

For more, check out the full article here.

Those scallions aren’t deformed, they’re garlic scapes

garlic scapes

Photo by urbanfoodie33 via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

One of the great perks of being a CSA member is encountering produce that you might not otherwise seek out. A month ago we were making rhubarb and strawberry compote for the first time (along with a fantastic beet, rhubarb, and orange salad). This week we’ve been enjoying a slaw made with fennel, kohlrabi, celery and apples, and I’d never before purchased either of the first two ingredients! Except for a few leaves of lettuce, the only things remaining from our latest CSA shares are the garlic scapes. The folks at Vermont Valley Community Farm highly recommended making pesto from them, and after reading T. Susan Chang’s post at NPR yesterday, I’m convinced.

Chang describes scapes for the initiated:

… just when you’re hunting for the first ripe strawberries — something odd happens. The garlic sends up a central stalk, chartreuse and pointy at the end, and it starts growing fast. It’s called a scape. The scape shoots up and then goes serpentine — it begins to curl, forming one loop or maybe even two. There’s a bump toward the end of the scape, and if you leave it alone it will develop into a “bulbil” (which is not a hobbit, but a miniature garlic you could plant if you wanted).

Don’t let things get that far; instead, snap off the scape when it’s done curlicuing. It’s the gardener’s dividend, and it is a rich one. The taste of that green garlic is haunting — biting, fresh, vegetal and verdant. It is to mature garlic what a string quartet is to an orchestra; what a sonnet is to a novel.

Find her full post and three recipes—including one for scape pesto—here.

Vegetables’ nutrition may be affected by their circadian rhythms

winter vegetables

Photo by liz west [muffet] via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

Thanks to J, I came across an article yesterday from fellow Madisonian Kate Prengaman that details some cool new science. Writing for Ars Technica, Prengaman describes the work of a Texas scientist and trainees in her lab:

Researchers at Rice University have shown that some plants have circadian rhythms, adjusting their production of certain chemicals based on their exposure to light and dark cycles. Understanding and exploiting these rhythms could help us maximize the nutritional value of the vegetables we eat.

According to Janet Braam, a professor of biochemistry at Rice, her team’s initial research looked at how Arabidopsis, a common plant model for scientists, responded to light cycles. “It adjusts its defense hormones before the time of day when insects attack,” Braam said. Arabidopsis is in the same plant family as the cruciforous vegetables—broccoli, cabbage, and kale—so Braam and her colleagues decided to look for a similar light response in our foods.

As Jade Boyd of Rice’s press office describes in a feature about the findings,

Braam said the idea for the new research came from a conversation with her teenage son.

“I was telling him about the earlier work on Arabidopsis and insect resistance, and he said, ‘Well, I know what time of day I’ll eat my vegetables!’ Braam said. “That was my ‘aha!’ moment. He was thinking to avoid eating the vegetables when they would be accumulating the anti-insect chemicals, but I knew that some of those chemicals were known to be valuable metabolites for human health, so I decided to try and find out whether vegetables cycle those compounds based on circadian rhythms.”

It’s pretty nifty stuff, so check out Prengaman’s article here and Boyd’s writeup (as well as photos and videos) here.

The business of community supported agriculture

Photo by The Conscientious Omnivore (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Photo by The Conscientious Omnivore (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Last Thursday we picked up our first box of produce from Vermont Valley Community Farm, the CSA that J and I joined this year. The cold spring briefly delayed the start of our subscription, but as you can see in the photo, we’re off and running now. The box included spring greens, spinach, a beautiful and enormous head of butter lettuce, scallions, radishes, turnips, a whole lot of rhubarb, potatoes that had been stored at 38 degrees all winter, and even a small potted basil plant.

With the start of our CSA subscription, I thought I’d share a recent report from Luke Runyon of Harvest Public Media that considers the ways that running a CSA can be a tough business. As he describes,

Within the local food movement, the community supported agriculture model is praised. CSAs, as they’re commonly known, are often considered one of the best ways to restore a connection to the foods we eat.

The model is simple: Consumers buy a share of a farmer’s produce up front as a shareholder and then reap the rewards at harvest time. But running a CSA can bring with it some tricky business decisions.

Farmers, some of whom have limited business experience, must quickly learn how to market products, build customer loyalty, advertise, manage risk and diversify their revenue sources. CSAs, depending on their member involvement, often force farmers to turn a portion of their operation into a customer service business.

It’s an informative piece, so check out the full story in audio or text format here. And for more on CSAs, head to my earlier post on the subject.

Peas, please

Petits pois - 2013-090

Photo by fred_v [Frédérique Voisin-Demery] via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

J and I went on a bit of a pea binge recently, with the little green gems prominently featured in two of three dishes that we consumed over the course of several meals last week. (We didn’t set out to celebrate peas quite so fervently, but sometimes our meal planning can be a bit haphazard.)

I learned from an episode of Fresh Air awhile back that the chefs at America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Illustrated generally do as we do at our house, i.e., use frozen peas:

[Bridget] Lancaster says if you’re making pea soup, don’t bother with the fresh stuff — they’re a pain to peel, and they might not be in season.

“[Frozen peas] are actually picked at the most fresh point,” she says. “And somebody else has done all the work [of peeling] for you. And they’re great, especially if you’re using them as an ingredient in a stew. The key is to add them almost as an herb right at the end, and to let them sit in the soup or a risotto for just five minutes to warm them up.”

Other people—specifically, some French folk—are apparently not only willing to peel the pod from the pea, but actually peel the tiny little peas themselves! Elaine Sciolino’s recent “Letter from Paris” in The New York Times details her exploration of Provençal peas:

In France, January signals the arrival of endives, cardoons (artichoke thistles) and root vegetables like rutabaga, beets and topinambours (Jerusalem artichokes). March and April bring spring: petits pois [peas], asparagus and Gariguettes, the small, shiny, old-fashioned first strawberry of the year. The best tomatoes come in June, July and August.

In the L’Oustau garden, long rows of pea vines heavy with pods awaited picking. In the kitchen, the chef Sylvestre Wahid set a shallow, oblong, pea-filled wicker basket on a table and offered a tutorial.

I learned that the smaller the pea, the sweeter and more tender they are; that fat, stuffed pods can mean that the peas have become tough and mealy and past their prime; that one way to test the freshness of peas is to press down on a pod and gently move around the peas inside. (Fresh peas will squeak when they are rubbed together.)

For the enjoyable full piece, head here. And check out Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s conversation with the Scolino at The Splendid Table website for tidbits like this one, which I alluded to above:

[The chefs at L’Oustau de Baumanière] showed me how you can skin a pea. Never in my life did I think about skinning a pea, but it is a very sensual experience. You take a pea that has been plunged into boiling water then plunged into ice water, it comes out, and you take the pea between your thumb and your index finger, and you roll it around slowly and the skin pops out and the pea splits in half. You have this beautiful, skinless, naked pea. It’s not something that you want to do if you have guests coming in a half-hour, but if you are watching “Mad Men” or something, it’s the perfect time to sit there with a bowl and skin peas.