Thursday, March 31, 2011

Pears in Pomegranate Juice

I could easily live with just two kinds of desserts: chocolate-based and fruit-based. In fact, come to think of it, if you take dairy products out of the equation, there aren't really many other options. Nuts would be one, but without chocolate or fruit of some kind, nuts are more of a snack than a sweet--not to mention a bit heavy for a meal's end. I've never had a fondness for heavy desserts (like pies, even though I've heard people speak of them as a "healthy" option), especially after a heavy meal (like Thanksgiving dinner, to name a preeminent example).

Over the last 30 years or so, I've come to understand that with food, most often the best thing you can do is as little as possible. Not only does minimal treatment help preserve the health benefits of foods, but it also tends to help bring out and showcase the intrinsic specialness of the ingredients themselves (if you get it right). A stellar example of this would be a favorite of mine, pears poached in pomegranate juice.

When I first began making this dessert, pomegranate juice was not a common grocery store item, so I had to first squeeze the juice from at least a dozen fresh pomegranates. This is no small task, but it adds to that intangible "labor of love" factor that somehow imbues food with a unique additional pleasure. The first thing you have to do is press down with the palm of your hand, rolling the fruit around on a hard surface to break up the arils (the soft squishy part of the seeds). You may have done this with citrus fruits, in effect pre-juicing them. Then you have to cut them in half (or quarters, if they're very large) and squeeze the juice through a fine sieve. These days, you can just buy a little jug of pomegranate juice to save a lot of time and trouble, but I have to mention that the result will lack a certain something--the irreplaceable energy of a dedicated person's hand-working (this isn't woo-woo metaphysics, it's a real factor in food preparation). That, and also the fresh-juiced astringent quality of pomegranates that commercial processing tends to mute.

The rest is quite easy: peel the pears and pare out the cores, place them in a saucepan, pour in the juice and simmer them until tender. I also add a bay leaf or two and some freshly crushed cardamom seeds, but you can get brilliant results with just the first two ingredients, believe me. I choose bosc pears for this because they hold their shape well even when thoroughly cooked, and they have a wonderful tender-gritty texture that reminds the palate which fruit we're eating while it also savors the rich flood of pomegranate (and spice) messages. After lifting out the pears (by the stem, to avoid gashing them with a spoon or spatula), the remaining pomegranate juice can be reduced to a syrup and poured over the fruit just prior to serving.

One holiday, my mother-in-law brought a couple of pies, and after the feeding frenzy that ensued, there were several pears left uneaten. No problem; I blasted them in the food processor and made sorbet.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Back From Seattle VegFest

Wow, I can't believe it's been a week since I last posted! Traveling without my laptop was a lot easier than carting it with me everywhere (especially through airport security), and I enjoy un-wiring for a few days from time to time, but it does excommunicate one somewhat. Well, that's over.

Someday I'd like to visit Seattle and actually see a few sights--this is the second time I've been, and both times I saw my hotel room, the inside of PCC Market, their kitchen, and the inside of the Seattle Center. Okay, slight exaggeration; I did see the city briefly, and marveled at how green (and wet) everything is . Vegetarians of Washington generously provide me with a driver/assistant, and this time he took me for a walk in an arboretum, which was pretty spectacular. Everything was drenched and mossy, even the bridges and steps. Seattle is a gorgeous place, with nice people and terrific food. I managed to squeeze a little schmoozing time in, making the rounds of the various booths at VegFest, checking out the latest veg-stuff, meeting people, exchanging business cards. My new friend Robert Cheeke was there, promoting his book, Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness, and Vega Sport Optimizer products--putting to rest that "where do you get your protein?" nonsense.

Then there was the audience at my two presentations--and to be honest, they made the whole trip worthwhile. I love being in front of people who have a keen interest in food, health, and improving the plight of both humans and animals. There's a wonderful openness and sincerity in their faces (and a couple of unabashedly bored husbands who I'm guessing were there to support/placate their eager wives). There are always some good questions (and a few oddball ones),  And of course, I sell and sign a bunch of books, which is always a good thing. All in all, I have to say, I love what I do.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Fresh Fenugreek

A bunch of fresh fenugreek leaves (a.k.a. "methi").
In an earlier post, "Bitter Is Good," I included a recipe for bitter melon that also featured fresh fenugreek. One person in the comments asked if next time I bought some, I could post a picture, so she would recognize it if she saw it in the market. So, Angelique, this one's for you.

Fenugreek seeds as well as fresh leaves are used in Indian and Ethiopian cuisines. In Chinese medicine, the seeds are used as a kidney tonic. Both seeds and leaves have a slightly bitter taste and a unique fragrance, which (be warned) your body will exude for about a day after you eat them. It's not unpleasant, but unusual, potent, and fairly long-lasting.

Because I love pretty much everything green, especially fresh greens with strong, exotic flavors, I look for it whenever I stop at an Indian market. I've used it in dal (Indian lentils of various types), soups, and salads.

After buying a couple of bunches specifically for the photo, I came up with a salad that I think makes this strong herb accessible to the average westerner (that is, if they're okay with sprouts). It's very simple, yet the combination of flavors and textures is pleasantly complex.

First, I made a mixture of grated carrot and beet with sliced red onion and celery, and tossed it with a vinaigrette made with 18-year-old balsamic, Dijon mustard, Udo's DHA Oil Blend, Celtic salt and freshly ground black pepper. I let it sit for a bit to let the flavors develop, while I prepared the rest. To serve, I laid down a thick bed of fenugreek leaves in each bowl (they're easiest to manage if you pluck small sprigs of three or four leaves each). I placed a mound of the carrot-beet mixture in the center, and surrounded it with slices of avocado. It still needed something, so I added a ring of radish sprouts, lightly fluffed to make an airy, spicy thicket over the avocado. The result was pretty cool--the carrot and beets provided a slightly sweet counterpoint to the herb's bitter edge, the avocado brought in a slightly unctuous richness, and the radish sprouts threw in tiny bursts of mild heat. As we took our first bite, my wife and I both uttered the "F" word (in a good way).

Note: When you're asking for "methi" at an Indian store, it'll help if you pronounce the "th" as if you're about to say "thee," but just before it comes out, you turn it into "tea." I don't know if that makes sense, but try it, and maybe they'll get what you're saying.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Fast High Protein Salad

Like most people, sometimes I'm a little spent at the end of the day and although I don't want to compromise on health or pleasure, I also don't feel like investing an hour in the kitchen to produce a decent meal. Enter one of my few "acceptable" compromises: canned beans. Let me add an important caveat, however, which is that they must be organic, in a BPA-free can. Westbrae and Eden are two such options in American stores.

This salad was something I threw together in less than 15 minutes, but it tasted--and satisfied--like one with far more prep and premeditation. All I did was very briefly cook some frozen white corn, rinse and drain a can of red kidney beans, and combine them with diced red onion, radish, and tomato, and coarsely chopped cilantro. For a dressing, I whisked fresh lime juice, Udo's DHA Oil Blend, Chipotle Chile Puree (always on hand--easy recipe below), salt and freshly ground black pepper. Then I tossed it with the bean-corn mixture. I made a bed of hydroponic watercress and sliced Tuscan kale, mounded the vegie-mix in the center, and that was dinner for the lovely wife and self. She suggested that next time I might add some cooked chayote for added Mexi-pleasure, and although that would add to the prep time, I agreed.

Chipotle Chile Puree
Makes about 1 2/3 cups
A little dab of this fiery condiment will spice up any dish.

3 cans (7 ounces) chipotles en adobo

Open the cans and dump the contents into a blender. Process on high to a smooth paste—depending on your blender, this could take anywhere from 1 to 3, or maybe even 4 minutes. Press through a medium-mesh strainer to remove any unblended seeds or skins. Don’t use a very fine mesh, as this will take forever and produce a virtually identical result.
            Scrape the mixture into a glass jar, cover and refrigerate for up to 3 weeks. It’ll actually last a lot longer. To tell the truth, I’ve never had any go bad on me, probably because nothing can live in it, and only humans are interested in eating it. On the other hand, once you start using it and acquire a taste for it, longevity won’t be an issue, believe me.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Faking It

Snake Cake
I have never favored, much less approved of, anything fake. I don't like artificial flavors, food colorings, and I have no use for fake meats. I also have not really liked food made to look like something it isn't. To me, food is glorious the way it is; why would I want to alter it? On the contrary, I prefer to bring out the inherent qualities of a food without hiding it, or disguising it as something else. I promise I will go on to flog the imitation meat issue in a future post, but right now I just want to lay out a few exceptions to my own rule--because they're fun.

Hazelnut meringue roll, filled with chocolate mousse.
Attaching the scales to the mousse using a propane torch
The star exception, which I passionately accept, is the chocolate truffle--because it's one of my absolute favorite creations, and probably also because I knew the food long before I knew what it was copying. Today, the word "truffle" is used to describe tortes, cakes and even ice creams, but these are misappropriations. A truffle is a type of fungus (as in mushroom), and the specific type we're talking about is the Périgord black truffle, which grows under the ground, adjacent to oak trees. When you make a rough ball of chocolate ganache and roll it in cocoa powder, it bears a striking resemblance to a dirt-covered, freshly dug black truffle. Hence the name. It doesn't describe the heavenly filling, but rather the dirty-looking exterior. So much for truffle tortes, and all that 

inaccurate silliness.

I also have indulged children on occasion, making their birthday cake look like a planet, with space ships hovering above (for my son), or  a snake in the grass (for a client's child), among many examples. Children are to be indulged, in my opinion--they will get programmed to be dull, cooperative, largely unimaginative and uncreative soon enough--no need to rush it.

Part of the reason I don't mind being whimsical with desserts, I think, is that I never considered them a bona fide food in the first place; they are a drug, consumed purely for entertainment. Desserts are supposed to be fun--that's pretty much all they're good for, especially if they're made with a ton of sugar, butter, cream, white flour, and other health atrocities.

Dice cake, with gold leaf and raspberries
These days, I try to make even the sweets at the end of a meal healthful, keeping sugar to a minimum, using the least toxic sweeteners, avoiding refined flour, and concentrating on fruits. But I have to admit, as intolerant as I am of fake stuff, I do like to surprise people with an unusual presentation. Messing with people's heads is a childhood pastime I never quite grew out of.

By the way, the "dice cake" wasn't my idea--a guy I worked for in the '80s was trying to impress some Vegas high-roller, and thought the "snake eyes" on top was sooo clever. Oy.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Fast Three-Veg Salad

I've been stuck on one or another form of my miso-tahini-lime dressing for a few weeks now, not for lack of interest in variety or anything  like that--I've just been craving the precise flavor combination. Sometimes I'll add fresh or roasted garlic, or lime zest, or hemp seeds, but the core elements just seem to have become one of my favorite combinations.

Last night I came back from the gym around 8 PM--too late to eat a big meal-- and although I've taken to drinking a protein smoothie right after my workout, I still wanted a fresh, crunchy-rich salad. So I made this in about 10 minutes flat. All I did was, I...

1) pulled out the center rib from half a bunch of Tuscan kale (another staple these days), then stacked and sliced them crosswise fairly thin, 2) cut a red bell pepper into strips, 3) whisked together some miso, tahini, fresh lime juice, tamari, Udo's DHA Oil, and sriracha sauce, 4) tossed the kale, red pepper and some mung bean sprouts with the dressing, 5) put the salad on plates (my wife is always up for a salad), 6) sprinkled on some sesame seeds, 7) closed my eyes and followed the river of breath down to the land of gratitude, and 8) ate that sucker with heathen gusto.

Crunchy, creamy, succulent, spicy--what more could I ask of a late dinner?


Friday, March 18, 2011

Coconut Socks!

An aspect of adopting a vegan diet that I've left largely unaddressed is the inedible animal products, like leather, wool, and silk. I'm still fairly new to all this, and because I'm not one to blindly follow an ideology, I need for things to make sense to me before I implement a change. I have some clothes made from these materials that predate my dietary switch, and as yet I see no reason to disrespect the sacrifice of the animals they're derived from by throwing these clothes away. I will say that I can easily do without some items, and perhaps eventually I'll replace worn out clothes with non-animal versions.

One item of clothing that I've had a hard time imagining a replacement for is the wool trekking sock. It's far superior to cotton, because it cushions well, it doesn't bunch up in the shoe, and it wicks moisture away from the feet--all very important features if you're given to long hikes in rough terrain. I have several very good socks like this, and I've been in no mood to contemplate discarding them or replacing them with any other fiber I know--until now.

I don't recall how I wound up there, but not long ago I was perusing a website called, featuring vegan-friendly athletic gear, when I came upon an intriguing item: athletic socks made from coconut fiber. I was skeptical, but I went ahead and ordered a pair. They came, and on first inspection seemed way too thin to be anywhere near as effective as my wool trekking socks. I put off trying them because the last thing a hiker/trailrunner wants is to be miles from home wearing athletic socks that turn out to be painfully bogus.

But yesterday I was going for a quick run up the mountain behind my house, and I figured it was time I found out if these things were going to make the cut. They were very comfortable, and in spite of being much thinner than my wool sock, there was no lack of cushioning that I could detect. They did everything I want a sock to do, and none of the things I hate for socks to do. And they're 100% organic coconut husk fiber, a byproduct of the food industry that would otherwise be discarded. Plus, buying them supports an organization of vegan athletes who apparently do a lot to promote plant-based living. I love a win-win thing, and in this arrangement, animals, the environment, these cool people, and my feet all benefited (that's win-win-win-win!). Check them out, if you run, hike, or just want to wear some socks with a bright orange logo.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

An Impromptu Trio of Chocolate Desserts

Trio of Chocolate Desserts
One of the remarkable benefits of frittering away one's time on Facebook is the way people you haven't seen or heard from in thirty years (or more) quite unexpectedly reappear in your life. One long lost and very dear friend and I found each other this way. We later reunited at a vegetarian restaurant in Denver, and it was as if not a week had gone by--except for the catching up. Good friendships are like that; joined at the heart, where time has no sway.

A few weeks later, I invited her to dinner at my house. I forget what I made that evening, except for the dessert--and that, only because I had snapped a shot with my iPhone.

I had meant to serve just a Chocolate Pot de Crème, from Speed Vegan, flavored with basil, orange zest, and Javanese comet's tail peppercorns. However, that day I was shopping at my local Vitamin Cottage, and saw some unbelievably luscious, perfectly ripe organic apricots. The produce gods sang in my ear, and I obediently bought a dozen (plus one, for Elijah--you never know). Not wanting to wait another day, I decided to serve some for dessert. As I was pondering on an adequate presentation for these unusual gems, it all came to me at once: a trio of small desserts on a chocolate theme. I had already made the pots de crème, which are small anyway (too rich for a large portion), and I had made some spicy chocolate truffles a few days earlier (also with a hint of orange, plus chile, and a little cardamom), so all I had left to do was tie in the apricots.

I removed the pits and cracked them to extract the kernels, which I chopped coarsely. Then I made a syrup with palm sugar, cacao nibs, and Amaretto (to harmonize with the bitterness of the apricot kernels). Once the cacao nib fragrance began to waft up through the haze of Amaretto fumes, I added the apricots, quartered, and tossed them over a high flame for just about 30 seconds--barely warming them through, not cooking them. Then I served them in little Empire period champagne glasses, drizzled with the syrup, sprinkled with the chopped apricot kernels. The three together were symphonic. Clearly the kitchen gods were in a fine mood that day.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Big Challenge 2011

 Life is full of challenges. So why add any that aren't already there? I'm not sure, but two reasons that come immediately to mind are 1) Duh! Because it's fun, and 2) To keep from slacking, maintain an edge, and all that warrior stuff.

After signing up for the 2010 race; photo by my lovely wife.
A little after noon today , I signed up to run the Pikes Peak Ascent this August--a race I ran last year as part of my "vegan ascent" adventure. In fact, my decision to run the race was closely tied to my decision to stop eating animals (see "How This All Began"). I had visions of blogging about the whole experience (the picture on my blog's header is from a shot of Pikes Peak). As it turned out, I wasn't anywhere near ready to take on the commitment of keeping something like that going (you might have noticed a couple of major gaps).

 I had been told by some people that I would have a very hard time because I don't eat any red meat, so I wouldn't have enough red blood cells, and I'd have trouble breathing once I got above treeline (12,000 feet). They were so wrong. In fact, I had no breathing issues whatsoever--even at the top--the only problem I had was cramping in my feet and calves that started when I was about two-thirds the way up. I hear a lot of beefeaters had the same issues, so there you have it.

Now I'm going for it again, and this year I'm going to train harder and beat my last time (5:20:51). The race begins in Manitou Springs (6,412 feet), and goes (relentlessly!) uphill 13.32 miles to the top of Pikes Peak (14,115 feet). Basically, you're nuts if you even consider it--but it's that departure from normal thinking that makes it possible to go ahead and reach the top--and accomplish most things of note, if you think about it.

With my bro-in-law, just before the race started, around 7:25 AM
Your first time out, the race officials want to make sure you've got at least some of right stuff, because they don't want to be sending choppers out all day to pull people down from the mountain who had no business running anywhere, let alone trying something crazy like this. So they make you qualify by running a 10-Mile over some fairly steep rolling terrain--through the spectacular "Garden of the Gods," and then a 12K trail run that features a 1000-foot vertical loop. Finishing these makes you a little overconfident, in my opinion, because they're child's play compared to the ascent.

It's hard to imagine, let alone get your head around the massive size of a "fourteener," and the determination it takes to actually summit--so you're in denial until...oh, about a quarter of the way up. That's when a little respect kicks in--a little late, if you ask me.

Running up to the finish line.
By then you're set on finishing, so you have to shut everything else out of your mind. Which brings up another subject (mind), and how it's really not your friend. I'll elaborate just briefly, as it pertains to this story. Shortly before the gun goes off and I, along with something like 1500 other people dash off, I'm feeling great. Seconds later, I'm in the mass of runners, not even off the streets and onto the trail yet, and the voice in my head says, "This was a bad idea. My Achilles' tendon is already hurting." I ignore it and keep running. About an hour later, I'm not even halfway to Barr Camp (the first major milestone in the race, about halfway up) and starting to realize how freaking huge this mountain is, and how brutal the climb is going to be. "You know, you could turn back now," the voice says. "You could like, pretend to trip and twist your ankle or something. No shame." I keep going. Part of it is that I know that same voice would berate me mercilessly for being a quitter if I were to follow its advice and turn back (I know all about mind, believe me), but mostly it's because I also know that eventually it will get bored and start talking about other, far less germane topics, and it'll become much easier to ignore the bastard. Sure enough, it did. I don't even remember what it was nattering on about.

Not so bad...
I had heard everyone talk about "the golden staircase," the last couple of miles of the trail, and how awful that was going to be. At that point, you're pretty much scrabbling over giant rocks. Oddly enough, when I got to that part of the climb, the cramping relaxed, I got a second wind, and entered a state of freedom. I was still really tired, but I didn't care anymore. It felt pretty great, to tell the truth. Suddenly the finish line appeared in front of me, and I ran across it with my fists in the air and a guttural war cry.

My brother-in-law Bill, who's been running the ascent every year for the last 19 years, only beat me by 10 minutes (and was impressed by my running over the finish line--he had been too exhausted to muster that last bit of energy). "Damn!" that voice said, "if I'd known, I would've tried harder!" Yeah, right.

On top of the world, with medals to prove it.
The view from atop Pikes Peak is pretty amazing. A couple of weeks before, Bill and I had climbed Mt. Massive, the second-highest peak in Colorado (another story!), and the view from there was truly awesome, but with Colorado Springs sprawled out in the distance, it was like looking out of an airplane. The feeling of having gotten there on running/powerwalking feet is impossible to describe.

Possibly the best moment came that afternoon, when a bunch of us were gathered at a Mexican restaurant in Manitou (where there was pretty much nothing I could eat). We were all a couple of sheets to the wind (at least the margaritas were vegan), when someone asked Bill how it had gone for him. He looked over at me and said something like, "I dunno, I think I should become a grasshopper to Alan and let him teach me the ways of a healthy diet." Maybe it was the margaritas, but I felt a pleasant glow come over me.

Checking out my official finisher's shirt.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Salad of Flageolets with Tarragon Vinaigrette

Flageolets are dried green beans with an elegant, long shape and a pleasant creamy texture similar to cannellini. They take only about 20 minutes to cook (unless you live at 7800 feet, like I do), so by the time they're done, you can have all the other components of this salad prepared, including the dressing. Make sure to cool them thoroughly before proceeding. Save the cooking water for soup!
This recipe appears in Omega 3 Cuisine (although the photo does not).

Salad of Flageolets with Tarragon Vinaigrette

For some reason, flageolets and tarragon just go together, don’t ask me why. Served on slices of heirloom tomatoes, this salad is as close to perfect as beans, or tarragon, will ever get.

3/4 pound flageolet beans, simmered until just tender, drained and cooled
1 large carrot, finely diced and blanched until tender-crisp
4 shallots, finely diced
1 cup finely diced celery
1 cup finely diced fennel
1 yellow pepper, roasted, peeled and finely diced
1 green pepper, roasted, peeled and finely diced
1 avocado, diced
½ cup chopped Italian parsley
Tarragon Vinaigrette, to taste (recipe follows)
heirloom tomato slices, for garnish
½ cup tender celery leaves, for garnish
¼ cup snipped chives, for garnish

Toss cooked and cooled beans with the carrot, celery, fennel, roasted peppers, avocado, parsley, and Tarragon vinaigrette together, gently so as to avoid mashing the avocado. Arrange a few slices of the tomato on salad plates, mound the salad in the center, and garnish with the celery leaves and chives.

Tarragon Vinaigrette
If you can’t find tarragon mustard, simply add a tablespoon or two of chopped fresh tarragon along with first ingredients.

1 clove garlic
3 tablespoons tarragon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/4 cup white balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper to taste
2/3 cup Udo’s DHA Oil Blend (or EVOO)

Puree all the ingredients except for the oil in a blender. With the motor running, slowly pour in the oil.


Sunday, March 13, 2011

Kale Slaw

I had something totally different in mind, but a couple of key ingredients were missing, so I made this instead.

It's like a cole slaw, with Tuscan kale, red cabbage, celery hearts, and carrot. The dressing is fresh lime juice, mellow white miso, raw tahini, Udo's DHA Oil Blend, and hemp seeds. Simple. Delicious.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Bitter Is Good

Quick Bitter Melon Salad
I began to write this a couple of days ago, when I got side-tracked by a competing element (sweet), and ended up writing about agave nectar. Now, starting again, I'm thinking about how that derailment happened. It seems to be human nature to seek out sweetness, not only as in the taste of food, but as in all good feelings. We use the word "sweet" for a number of things unrelated to food--a sweet tune, a sweet person, a sweet deal, the sweet life--yet they all relate to the enjoyable sensation we get when certain foods enter our mouth and trigger the sweet receptors among our taste buds.

Of the four tastes we're supposedly limited to (unassisted by the olfactory sense), sweet is the only one that reliably elicits a smile. I suspect that this is a bit of evolutionary programming, left over from a time in our distant past, when we began to associate sweetness in food with energy. Glucose is metabolic fuel, so it would make sense that over time we would come to strongly favor sugar-laden foods. Mother's milk is sweet, so we may associate sweetness with comfort, safety, and connection for that reason alone. It's hard to say which came first, the biological benefit or the pleasure, but if I'm right about this, then it would also make sense that millennia down the road, we associate deeply enjoyable feelings with a sweet taste.

There are two important variables today that were not part of the equation way back when this predilection was being engraved in the nature of our species: 1) our relative inactivity in relation to the amount of food we currently consume, and 2) our ability to isolate, concentrate, and synthesize sweetness--in great quantities. So, since humans are obviously still eager to be eating sugary foods, and are not having to do much of anything physical to get a ton of them, it's not a stretch to see why a lot of humans are getting fat, sick, and slow. It's the old "burn it or wear it" law.

Of course, there are associations with the other three tastes, sour, salty and bitter, and interestingly enough, they're all are regarded as the opposite of sweet. As a cook, I'm always trying to design food that will bring these elements into balance, while allowing each to sound its particular note. To do this, I've had to go out on on the individual limbs of sour, salty, and (especially) bitter, as far as I can reach, to see what they are and how much of their intensity can be tolerated-- either unmitigated by sweetness, or unenhanced by some fragrance. What I've found is that each taste has a story to tell, and a benefit to offer, but none more fascinating than what we call bitter.

In plants, a bitter taste functions as a line of defense against foraging critters (presumably looking for the same sweet taste humans are after). For example, the skins of most fruits, seeds and vegetables are quite bitter compared with their inner flesh--who would imagine that under an orange's off-putting pith would reside such an addictive succulence? But for human beings, bitterness in plants can signal something else: medicine. Bitter herbs have been used for thousands of years to cure illnesses, especially those brought on by dietary indiscretions. Bitter herbs, drinks and tinctures can stimulate appetite, aid digestion, and mitigate the unpleasant effects of overindulgence. Most bitter foods are potent blood purifiers and tonics. Bitter is good.

Great, you're probably thinking, so foul-tasting stuff is good for you. Not what you want to hear, I know, but bear with me. If you've had a chance to check out my website, you may have seen what I'm currently using as my manifesto, a piece called "Eat What You Love and Health Will Follow." Essentially, what I propose is that in order to get the most out of food, health, and indeed life, it's in our best interest to fall in love with everything that benefits us, not just the stuff that's sweet on the surface. We can overcome the DNA-deep addiction to a single taste and find pleasure in all of them. It can be done. I'm here to help!

On your first foray into the wild world of bitter vegetables, you might want to start with a middle-of-the-road item like Belgian endive or radicchio. Then again, you may have already gone there, considered it no great shakes, and are ready for a serious adventure. If so, then let me introduce my favorite of all the bitter guys--one you'll either come to love, or hate forever: bitter melon. Believe me, it can grow on you, once you get over the initial shock. After this, you'll be a bitter food initiate. Try it! Below is a recipe from my book, Omega 3 Cuisine, which you can simplify your first time out by omitting the fresh fenugreek.

This picture shows Chinese bitter melon and fenugreek.
Bitter Melon Salad

Makes 4 small servings

Bitter melon is one of those things you either love or hate. It has a very bitter taste (hence the name), but it does grow on you if you can deal with the initial shock. It is extremely good for you. In Chinese medicine, it's referred to as "bitter cucumber," used as a medicinal herb for treating all sorts of ailments, including diabetes and anemia. You'll find the best variety at Indian grocery stores, where it’s known as “karela” (shown in the picture at the top). While you’re there, also ask for “methi”, which is fenugreek (make sure you indicate fresh leaves, as opposed to the seeds). It looks a bit like a cross between cilantro and clover. Both bitter melon and fenugreek are powerful blood purifiers and tonics. This particular salad has the added advantage of perking up the appetite. Once you “get” the taste for it, you’ll be hooked for life.

4 medium bitter melons (or 8 small Indian karela)

2 bunches fresh fenugreek

1/4 cup lemon juice

1/3 cup Udo’s Oil

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 red onion, finely diced

1 large ripe tomato, cut in 1/2 inch dice

1 fresh green chili, finely chopped (optional)

Split the bitter melons in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds with the tip of a spoon. Slice them fairly thinly (about 1/8 inch) into little arcs. Bring about one quart of water to a boil and blanch the slices for about 2 minutes, until tender-crisp. Scoop out with a slotted spoon and let cool. Keep the water boiling. Remove the coarse stems from the fenugreek and blanch in the same water for about 30 seconds, drain and immediately quench in cold water. Drain thoroughly in a colander, squeezing out the excess water. Chop the fenugreek coarsely. Don’t throw out the water--drink it!

            Whisk together the lemon juice, oil, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Add the bitter melon, fenugreek, onion, tomato and chili (if using) and toss well. Serve in small bowls as a first course, to your most adventurous friends.

Note: If you prefer, you can steam the bitter melon, which will preserve more of the nutrients. Afterward, use the steaming water to blanch the fenugreek.


Thursday, March 10, 2011

Talk To Your Doctor About Meat

A friend sent me this, and although I don't favor in-your-face exposé-style anti-cruelty videos that are somehow supposed to discourage eating meat, this video combines light humor with helpful information for making wise choices. Nothing like a little jovial avuncular advice on important health issues...