Healthy can be seen, touched, and tasted … sometimes.

photo | gourmet metrics
photo | gourmet metrics

 

These are red, fragile, stem ripened local, end of season strawberries. The picture of healthy. Ephemeral, perfect, delicious.

So how do I know they are healthy? The farmer I bought them from told me they were picked the day before I bought them. They looked good, felt good, and tasted good. But I will be honest, there was no label or organic certification or other guideline for confirmation. And even if there had been, these picture perfect strawberries might have carried some pesky microorganism so you better believe that I washed them before eating.

Strawberry season has come and gone here into Northeast, but looking at those berries in all their pristine beauty helped me put the final piece in place on an observation that has been troubling me since last summer about the same time of the year.

I was picking out vegetables from a farmer I like when an attractive, articulate, well educated young woman came up from behind and starting asking all kinds of questions about the vegetables and the strawberries

Now I am the last one to say don’t ask questions. I ask so many questions that some people don’t want to be bothered with me. A royal pain in the ass some would say.

No, her questions didn’t bother me.

What troubled me was her unwillingness to accept answers.

Now I liked this particular farmer for a couple of reasons. Besides strawberries, she always had excellent local peaches, seasonal tomatoes, and a consistently good spread of local greens. It was also a family affair. The lady in charge looked and talked like she had spend her whole life growing vegetables. She came across to me as credible, authentic, and wise. She knew how to store onions and could tell me that the reason some onions rotted from the inside out while other onions were really good keepers. “You have to pull them out and let them really dry out before moving to storage …” The onions I bought from her never rotted out before I used them either.

She sat in the back of her stand and left most of the customer dealings to her niece. So the articulate woman began her questioning with the niece.

The articulate woman wanted to know if the produce was certified organic. Her questions were pointed and intense and anxious. She knew just how to drill down. The niece answered as best she could but since the farm has not bothered to get certified the answers were not what the articulate woman was looking for.

Now I already knew this farm was not certified organic because I had asked the same questions myself. “We just don’t want to bother with the extra paperwork. Too much hassle. You’re going to have to trust us …”

That was good enough for me.

It was not however what the articulate woman wanted to hear. I could tell she might have been tempted by the way she looked at my selections laid out and waiting to be packed into my bags. “I am just really afraid of all that poison … ”

So she left to look elsewhere.

I looked at the niece and the niece looked back at me and that was that.

This exchange has been haunting me ever since. And what it really comes down to is trust. People can lie. Our senses can deceive. Labels can mislead. Certifications can be fictitious. But we still have to eat and we still have to make decisions.

So the exchange has played over and over again in my head for a year. I keep wanting to reassure that articulate young woman that yes it’s a food jungle out here and yes being skeptical is important, but sometimes it’s okay to go with your gut.

But she went away as quickly and she appeared and I never saw her again.

Why don’t more people use fruit ripeners?

photo | gourmet metrics
photo | gourmet metrics

This is my fruit ripener. See that band of plastic there on the right side of the picture? That is the edge of the plastic bowl. After taking out what I need, I put the plastic cover back on.

Plenty of strategically placed ventilation holes for good circulation on both bowl and cover. My fruits are protected from outside contamination like dust. The cover also holds in beneficial gases for enhanced ripening. And I always put a paper towel in the bottom to absorb any excess moisture and to keep fruits from directly touching the plastic.

What you see in the bowl is a random selection for late June. Avocado and hydroponic tomatoes are available all year. But those nectarines are one of the first of the summer fruits. The ones in the bowl are from California.

After nectarines, I start buying local New York State for summer fruit. Apricots, peaches, all kinds of plums, and seasonal tomatoes. Moving into fall, there are numerous varieties of pears and kiwis. Winter is citrus, but those fruits are best kept in the refrigerator. Moving into spring of course the first tree fruits are cherries, but they too are keep better in the frig. Then we start again with nectarines. The fruit ripener gets year round use in my kitchen thought for non seasonal tomatoes and avocados.

The fruit ripener sits in a corner of my crowded workspace because of the important service it provides. I don’t forget about my fruits because I look at them everyday. Fruit ripens at its speed. The avocado is not ripe because I want to make a guacamole. It’s ripe when it is ready. But I can check things out every day. If one of my fruits starts to go bad, I pull it out, salvage what I can, and keep contamination from spreading.

So I say to myself, why don’t more people use fruit ripeners?

Maybe limited counter space?

Most kitchens nowadays are gigantic and full of all kinds of gadgets and tools. No something else must be going on. It’s my cramped New York City kitchen that has no counter space, but I can still find room.

Maybe folks don’t know how to prepare fruit? Or maybe they just don’t know fruit is a no work eating experience. That is a possibility.

But my gut says the real reason is that people don’t eat a lot of fruit.

And people who don’t eat a lot of fruit do not need a fruit ripener.

Fruit can be expensive. Actually very expensive. And if you don’t eat the fruit when it’s ready, one more chemistry experiment goes in the garbage can.

Habit may also be a contributing factor. I’m in the habit of having a piece after dinner every night. Not because I’m a dietitian, but because I like fruit. Most people I know given a choice of ice cream or a fresh ripe nectarine will opt for the ice cream. Not me, but I’m just weird that way.

Now being a dietitian, I wish more people would eat more fruit.

But also being an incorrigible optimist who likes to keep my focus on the positive side of the spectrum, I do see the bright side. The more good fruit out there, the more there is for me.

Peaches

fresh peach

The most memorable peach I ever ate was in Normandy at a restaurant on Mont Saint Michel.  We had gone there to experience the local lamb, but what I remember was the peach.  The waiter served it as an after lunch fruit in place of a sweetened dessert.

I learned many useful things living in France, among them the ability to eat a piece of fresh fruit with a knife and fork.  I peeled my peach and cut up the pieces.  Then I tasted it. 

It was so extraordinarily good that in my best most polished French I politely asked for a second peach.

To this day, I love to have a piece of fruit as the ending for a meal.  Fresh fruit in season is the best and peaches are in season here on Long Island in July and August.

The peaches in the pictures come from my local GreenMarket and they are delicious this year.  Local peaches to not have the aura of my French peach, but they are certainly just as succulent, juicy, and sweet.  I am content with just the peach too.  No yogurt, no ice cream, no peach pie, no peach melba, or any other similar preparation.

Not that there is anything wrong with these alternatives and when peaches are in season the cook needs creativity and imagination to manage the volume that nature provides.  It is just that I am so happy and so satisfied with the piece of fruit.  Or maybe two pieces.

calories

My local peaches are medium sized peaches.  My local supermarkets sells bigger cheaper peaches, but they can’t match the flavor of my smaller local peaches.  One medium peach is about 60 calories.   All fresh fruits are healthy.  Some more so than others, but all are optimal choices especially when they are grown locally.

Camembert Cheese and Apples

We all love cheese.  But it is the French who have mastered the art of serving cheese and setting it within the structure of a meal.  Try serving cheese accompanied with fruit after the meal instead of a dessert.  Most people do not complain and for those who do, just serve a “real” dessert too.  If you have never tried, you may find cheese is more satisfying at the end of a meal than something sweet and syrupy.  Cheese is fun to experiment with.  Most people quickly determine which types they like and which types they can do without.  Each cheese has its own unique character and its own finite shelf life.  A hard cheese like parmiggiano or aged cheddar will keep months as long as it is stored correctly.  A fresh cheese like goat should be eaten relatively quickly.  A camembert will keep a while.  The delicate aromas and textures of cheese are enhanced when served at room temperature, so remove cheese from the refrigerator at least 30 minutes before serving.  Pictured below is the local Hudson Valley Camember cheese (5.6 ounces/156g) I picked up at my Greenmarket. Hudson Valley Camembert & ThinCrisps

one camembert cheese       6-8 ounces (150g-250g)

cost $7.00 – $10.00

calories depends on size

serves 6 to 10

140 calories per serving

 Green Apples Fall

Pictured here on the left are the green Pepin apples I also picked up at the Greenmarket.   Thin crispbreads, water thins, or a good baguette are a must.  Crispbreads or water thins are my preference because they provide a surface for tasting and savoring cheese but are less calorie dense than bread.  A plain wooden board makes the best serving plate.  The best garnish is an attractive cheese knife.

RECIPE

camembert cheese, count 1 ounce (25g-30g) per person

box of crispbreads

crisp fall apples, count 1/2 apple per person

METRICS

Cheese is a good source of calcium and protein, but is also high in butterfat and for sodium for some people.  See nutrition information for fat content.  So here is the question — can we eat our cheese and be healthy too?  Guess the answer to this one has got to be it depends …

A serving of cheese on my plate is about an ounce or 25 to 30 grams.  Small is beautiful!

Comparing my cheese plate to the calories in an equivalent dessert say a piece of cheesecake, the camembert does well.  A classic restaurant style cheesecake will run about 550 calories, considerable more than my camembert plate.  More extravagant cheesecakes go up exponentially up from there to 1000 calories or more.  As for salt, comparing my camembert to an equivalent weight of American process cheese, the camembert has less sodium.

Liz Thorpe has written a wonderful book chronicling how local cheese makers across our country have reinvented European traditions for American consumption.  Check out The Cheese Chronicles:  A Journey through the Making and Selling of Cheese in American, from Field to Farm to Table, 2009.

 

Per Serving of cheese,crispbread, and apple (103 g):  Calories 140, Fat 7g, Saturated Fat 4g, Trans Fat 0g, Cholesterol 20mg, Sodium 290mg, Carbohydrate 14g, Fiber 1g, Protein 6g.

 

 

Strawberries

Being from California, I have had to adjust to New York’s limited growing season.  Strawberry season is short and sweet beginning about mid-June and lasting into July as weather conditions permit.  Fresh local berries are fragile and perishable.  Pictured below are 1 dry quart (liter) of a variety called Honeoye.  Grown upstate New York, transported downstate, and sold at my local GreenMarket, they were held in my refrigerator from late that afternoon to the next day when I took the picture.  Notice how the berries differ in size and color.  It’s normal because that is how nature grew them.  Most local strawberries are sold by the dry quart (liter) and a dry quart of strawberries weighs about  570 grams.

Fresh local strawberries are expensive, perishable, and special.  They are the first fruit of the season and announce good things to come!

Fresh Local Strawberries

yield 4 cups (1 liter)

cost $6.00

calories 170

serves 4

45 calories per serving

RECIPE

Fresh Local Strawberries:   Can something this simple really be called a recipe?

1 dry quart fresh, local strawberries, picked within the last 24 hours

Hold in refrigerator, wash just before serving leaving stems intact.Serve with brown sugar as needed.

Nature is prolific producing lots of berries all at once.  So what is to be done with the berries you can’t eat?  My preferred approach is sugar and brandy.  It is not the only approach, but it is definitely my favorite.  Sugar acts like salt pulling the juices out of the berries which then mixes in with the brandy to form a bright red slightly alcoholic syrup.  Strawberries macerated in sugar and brandy hold well for at least another couple days.

yieldMascerated Strawberries  3 cups (700ml)

cost $8.00

calories 450

serves 6

70 calories per serving

Macerated strawberries:

1 dry quart fresh, local strawberries, washed, stems removed (540 gram)

3 tablespoons brandy

3 tablespoons turbinado sugar

6 tablespoons 0% strained Greek yogurt for garnish

Place washed and stemmed berries in a bowl.  Add sugar and brandy and carefully stir in berries.  Cover and let macerate in the refrigerator for 24 hours.  Serve garnished with a generous dollop of Greek yogurt.

METRICS FOR 1 DRY QUART (1 LITER)

Notice the calories.  Adding sugar, brandy, and yogurt nearly doubles the calories per serving.  Compared to a calorie dense real dessert, however, macerated berries are a much better choice.  Now notice the cost.  Fresh, local berries are expensive.  I know most people choose a “real” dessert, but I have always preferred to end a meal with a fruit.  Less calorie dense, sweetness balanced against a mild acidity, and unfortunately a lot more costly!

All berries scores well on what is called the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity.  Blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries are all grouped near the top of the scale keeping good company with almonds and pomegranate.  ORAC is a method of measuring antioxidant capacities in laboratory test tubes and as Wikipedia points out “there exists no physiological proof in vivo that this theory is valid.”  Besides a good ORAC score, fresh strawberries are an excellent source of vitamin C.

 

Per Serving fresh (135g):  45 Calories, Fat 0g, Saturated Fat  0g, Sodium  0mg, Carbohydrate  10g, Fiber  3g, Protein  1g.
Per Serving macerated (117g):  70 Calories, Fat 0g, Saturated Fat  0g, Sodium  10mg, Carbohydrate  13g, Fiber  2g, Protein  2g.
A 2,000 calorie diet is used as the basis for general nutrition advice; however, individual calorie needs may vary.

Spinach with Currants & Walnuts

makes 2 cups

cost $6.00

serves 4

150 calories per serving

This complex richly flavored dish is best balanced against a simple braised protein like fish or served on its own as an appetizer.  A robust, loose leaf spinach works best, but sometimes this spinach can be hard to find.  I am lucky enough to have a local grocer who carries the real thing all year round.  And since I live in New York City, that means shipping spinach in from California or Texas when local product is not available.  Alternatives are bagged, pre-washed, or hydroponically grown spinach.  For me the taste and texture of the real thing are worth it, but it is a personal decision.  Waiting for local product would have reduced the cost, but what can I say.  I was impatient!

Spinach grows best in sandy soil and each leaf requires washing several times to remove any little pieces of grit that may have lodged in the crevices.  So spinach whether transported or grown locally can be time consuming.  My first encounter with the combination of spinach, nuts, and fruit was in Claudia Rodin’s wonderful book The New Book of Middle Eastern Food.  Her version calls for pine nuts but I use walnuts.  I always have a few walnuts on hand and I prefer the taste.

RECIPE

1 ⅓ pound spinach as purchased fresh and untrimmed (600g)

1 whole shallot (65g) peeled and chopped

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil (15ml)

¼ teaspoon flake salt

4 tablespoons chopped walnuts (30g), about 6 walnuts as purchased in shell

2  tablespoons currants (30g)

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar (15ml)

2 teaspoon first cold pressed olive oil (10ml)

Trim stems and roots from the spinach, wash thoroughly, chop into large pieces, and spin dry in a salad spinner.  Remove walnuts from shell and chop.  Refresh currants by covering with hot water and letting them soften for about 10 minutes.  Assemble other ingredients.

Sauté scallions in olive oil using a sauté pan that comes with a cover and is large enough to hold all the spinach.  When the shallots have softened and turned translucent, add balsamic vinegar and let most of it evaporate.  Then add the chopped walnuts, softened currants, and finally the spinach, pressing the spinach down into the pan.  Do not add any additional water.  Cover and leave over low heat until the spinach softens into a mass.  Incorporate the walnuts and currant evenly into the spinach and finish with remaining cold pressed olive oil.  Tastes as good at room temperature as it does served hot.

METRICS

The experts agree that spinach is a healthy food.  A dark green vegetable as per MyPyramid.   A source of essential micro-nutrients as per Nutrition Facts Label.  The experts however do not agree about fat.  Using olive oil in classic proportions will always exceed the austere requirement of 3 grams per serving* required by the FDA to label a preparation “healthy.”  The role of fat in the diet, especially unsaturated fats and oils, is becoming controversial and consensus has not been reached yet.

My friends and family take a liberalized approach to fats and olive oil and devour my spinach faster as I can wash the leaves with comments like “I can eat this all day!”  If good cooking is the art of creating food people love to eat, than smart cooking is using those skills to encourage people to eat healthy food.  So wouldn’t that mean that olive oil is serving a noble purpose?  But there I go again – me and my simplistic mind!

 

Per Serving  (114g):  Calories 150, Fat 11g, Saturated Fat 1.5g, Sodium 125mg, Carbohydrate 12g, Fiber 3g, Protein 4g.
Excellent source  vitamin A as beta-carotene, folate, magnesium.
Good source fiber, vitamin C, calcium, iron, riboflavin, vitamin B-6, vitamin E, potassium.
A 2,000 calorie diet is used as the basis for general nutrition advice; however, individual calorie needs may vary.