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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Figs

Figs:

The common fig is a species of flowering plant in the genius "Ficus".  It is a member of the Mulberry family.  The fig has been cultivated since ancient times.  Nine sub fossil fig types dating to about 9400 - 9200 BC were found in an early Neolithic village.  Today figs are grown throughout the temperate world both for fruit and as an ornamental plant. 

Most commercial production of figs is in dried or otherwise processed form.   The fruit does not transport well, and once picked does not keep well.   Dried figs are available throughout the year.  California figs are available from mid-May to as late as mid-December.  Figs are deliciously sweet with a texture that combines the chewiness of their flesh, the smoothness of their skin, and the crunchiness of their seeds.

Some of the most popular varieties of figs are:

  • Black Mission - blackish-purple skin and pink colored flesh
  • Kadota - green skin and purplish flesh
  • Calimyrna - greenish-yellow skin and amber flesh
  • Brown Turkey - purple skin and red flesh
  • Adriatic - light green skin and pink-tan flesh (most often used for fig bars)
Figs can be eaten fresh or dried.  Figs are one of the richest plant sources of calcium and fiber.  Per the USDA Mission variety figs are the richest in fiber, copper, manganese, magnesium, potassium, calcium, and vitamin K.   The potassium in figs are helpful in controlling blood pressure and the dietary fiber is helpful in weight management.

I don't remember fresh figs as a kid.   The figs I saw were dried either in Fig Newtons, or packaged  dried in a wheel shape around the holidays.  It wasn't until I was in the supermarket that I encountered fresh figs that came in a clear plastic container.   I remember hearing that one of my wife's uncles planted a fig tree in the backyard of his Florida home.  I thought how "old world" that was.

When purchasing fresh figs  purchase only a day or two before you're planning to eat them.  Select figs with rich deep color that are plump and tender, but not mushy with firm stems and are free of bruises.  Avoid figs with brown or grayish spots on the skin, which indicates they are starting to ferment.   Ripe figs should be kept in refrigeration.  They should be well wrapped  to reduce exposure to air , which can cause them to become hard or dry.

Before eating or cooking wash  under cool water and gently remove stem.  Gently wipe dry.  Fresh figs are great to eat out of hand or wrap with a piece of prosciutto and use as an appetizer (like you would with a piece of melon).  Fresh figs can also be made into jam or preserves. Dried figs can be simply eaten as is, used in a recipe, or simmered for several minutes in water or fruit juice to make them plumper and juicier.

So........Eat up!  Enjoy!  I'll show you how.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Onions


Onions:


The onion (Allium cepa) also known as the bulb onion or common onion is used as a vegetable and enjoyed around the world.  While native to central Asia and the Middle East, it is cultivated  around the world.   The onion has been in cultivation for at least 7,000 years.   In ancient Greece athletes ate large quantities of onions because it was believed to lighten the balance of the blood.   Roman gladiators were rubbed down with onions to firm up their muscles.  Doctors were known to prescribe onions to facilitate bowel movements and erections., and to relieve headaches, coughs, snakebite and hair loss.   Today the consumption of onions has risen over 70% in the last two decades.   In the U.S. the per capita consumption of onions in 2009 was 20 pounds.

Common onions are normally available in three colors: yellow, red, and white.  Yellow onions, also called brown onions, are full-flavored and are the onions of choice for everyday use.  Red onions are a good choice to liven a dish with color.  They are also used for grilling, char-broiling, and roasting.  White onions have a golden color when cooked and a particularly sweet flavor when sautéed. .  White onions are traditionally used in Mexican cooking.  The large mature onion bulb is the most eaten, but also can be eaten in immature stages.  Young plants harvested before bulbing occurs are used as scallions (green onions).  Sulphuric compounds in onions are released when the onion is cut bringing tears to your eyes.  To reduce this effect you can chill the onions beforehand and cut the root end last.  Another strategy is to cut the onions under running water.   Eating parsley helps to reduce onion breath.

One of the first jobs I did in the grocery store was separating the onions from their loose skins.   The onions came loose in fifty pound bags and there were always a lot of loose skins in the bag .  I would dump the bag into a box and then take each onion separately, remove any loose skin,  and put it in another box, so they were ready to go on display.  It always amazed me how dirty my hands would get from dirt and yellow staining.   Many years later one supermarket chain I worked for  insisted that we peel the onion "down to the shine" , so it would look better on display.   They cut that out, though , when they figured out it was making the onions deteriorate faster.

Onions can be baked, boiled, braised, fried, roasted, sautéed, or eaten raw in salads.  They are an integral part of many recipes.   Onions are available fresh, frozen, canned, caramelized, pickled, and chopped.  Onions are high in vitamin C, B6, folic acid, and are a good source of dietary fiber.   Onions contain phenols and flavonoids that have potential anti-inflammatory, anti-cholesterol, anti-cancer, and antioxidant properties.  They vary in antioxidant content by variety with shallots having the highest amount and Vidalia the lowest.   Flavonoids in onions tend to be more concentrated in the outer layers of flesh.  Peel off as little as possible of the edible portion.   Most onion varieties are 89% water.

Choose onions that are clean, well shaped, have no opening at the neck, and feature crisp dry outer skin.  Avoid those that are sprouting or have signs of mold.  Cooking onions and sweet onions are better stored at room temperature.   Cooking onions have a shelf life of 3 - 4 weeks.  For sweet onions it is 1 - 2 weeks.   Sweet onions have a greater water and sugar content that reduces their shelf life.  Sweet onions can be stored in the refrigerator for about a month.  Scallions or green onions should also be refrigerated.        

So...... Don't cry! (Couldn't help it!)     Eat up, Enjoy!  I'll show you how.

 

Simple but good:      

Onion Rings:

Canola oil for frying
1 tsp. garlic powder
1/2 tsp. dried basil
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
1/4 tsp. salt
1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup cornmeal
3 large yellow onions sliced into thin rounds

Heat oil in a deep frying pan (350 degrees).  Mix together garlic powder, basil, oregano, black pepper, and salt in a small bowl.   Whisk together flour and cornmeal in a medium bowl.  Toss onion rings in flour to coat.  Deep fry onions in two batches until crispy and lightly golden.  Drain on paper towel.  Add a large pinch of spice mix and toss.


                                                                               

Friday, August 9, 2013

Cherries

Cherries:

The cherry is the fruit of many plants of the genus "Prunus", and is a fleshy "drupe" also known as a stone fruit.   Cherries originated in the Middle East and have been cultivated in Europe and the Orient for centuries.   The geographical range for the sweet cherry extends through most of Europe, western Asia, and parts of northern Africa. Cherries have been consumed in this area since prehistoric times.  Irrigation, spraying, labor , and propensity to damage from rain and hail make cherries relatively expensive.  Cherries are harvested using a mechanized "shaker" or are hand picked to minimize damage to the fruit and trees.

Cherries have a very short growing season but can grow in most temperate latitudes.  Cherry trees require exposure to cold to germinate.  Because of this requirement , none of the "Prunus" family can grow in tropical climates  The peak season for cherries is summer.   There are two main species of cherries, sweet cherries, which include the most varieties and peak in June, and tart (also called "sour") cherries, which are used for cooking and peak in July.

The U. S. is the world's  biggest producer, consumer, and exporter of cherries.  Most sweet cherries are grown in Washington, California, Oregon, Wisconsin, and  Michigan.  Important varieties of sweet cherries include Bing, Brooks, Tulare, King, Sweetheart, and Rainier.   Most tart cherries are grown in Michigan, followed by Utah, New York, and  Washington.   Varieties of  tart cherries include Montmorecy and Morello. 

When I was in college, I had a part time job in a supermarket in the downtown area.   Next door to the supermarket was a large bakery.  At night when I would leave work the smell of the baking would make me hungry.  One night when I got home from work my father had baked a big batch of cherry turnovers.  Well, with my appetite whetted by the smells from the bakery, I really went to town on the cherry turnovers.  So much so that they made me sick.  I ended up with a belly ache.  Well, after that each night when I came out of work to the smells  of the bakery, they reminded me of that belly ache. 

Sweet cherries are rich in beta carotene, vitamin C, anthocyanin, and quercetin which may work together to fight cancer.  Cherry anthocyanin, a class of phytochemical  was shown in preliminary research to possibly affect pain and inflammation mechanisms.   Sweet cherries are also loaded with potassium, which is a natural blood pressure reducer.    Tart cherries contain melatonin which lowers body temperature and helps make us sleepy.    Subjects in a study who were given one ounce of cherry juice concentrate in the morning and then again at night found that they slept more soundly.   Melatonin may also help protect against post workout pain. 

Choose cherries that are shiny and plump with fresh green stems and dark coloring, which are heavy for their size.  Test taste them if you can.  Keep cherries in the refrigerator unwashed with stems attached in a loosely covered container or a loosely closed plastic bag.  Rinse the cherries right before you eat them.   To pit cherries rinse them with cool water,  pat dry,  and remove stems.  Use  a toothpick or unbent paper clip and insert into the stem end of the cherry.  Feel it hit the pit.  Twist your toothpick or paper clip around the pit and pop it out. 

Sweet cherries are delicious eaten out of hand.  Cinnamon and nutmeg are two prime cherry seasonings.  So are almonds and almond flavorings such as extract and almond liqueur.  Cherries are used in recipes and also for pies, cobblers, and tarts.

So.......Eat up!  Enjoy!  I'll show you how.

 

Simple but good:

Brandied Cherries

1 lb. sweet cherries, pitted
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
2 tsps. lemon juice
1 stick cinnamon
pinch of nutmeg
1 tsp. vanilla
1 cup brandy

Wash and pit cherries.   In a saucepan combine all ingredients except cherries and brandy and bring to a rolling boil.  When liquid begins to boil, reduce the heat to medium.  Add cherries and simmer for 5 - 7 minutes.  Remove from heat, add brandy and let cool. Transfer to clean jars and refrigerate uncovered until cherries are cool to the touch.  Cover tightly and refrigerate for up to two weeks.