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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Apricots

Apricots:

The apricot with the peach, plum, and nectarine is what is called a stone fruit.  It's single seed is enclosed in a hard stony shell.  The apricot appears similar to a small peach which is from yellow to orange in color, often with a red tinge on the side most exposed to the sun.   Its surface flesh can be smooth or velvety with very short hairs.  The flesh is usually firm and not very juicy.  Its taste is almost musky and can range from sweet to tart with dried fruit tending to have a more pronounced tartness.

Apricots originated in China where they have been cultivated for 4000 years.   They arrived in Europe via Armenia.   The apricot tree came to Virginia in 1720 and then appeared in the Spanish missions of California around 1792.  Apricots in the U.S. are grown primarily in California.  Turkey is the world's leading producer of apricots though.   Other leading producers of apricots are Italy, Russia, Spain, U.S., and France. 

Apricot season in the U.S. is from May through August.  In the winter apricots are imported from South America.  Dried and canned apricots are of course available year round.   Apricots are eaten fresh, dried, cooked into pastry, and eaten as jam.  The fruit is also distilled into brandy and liqueur. 

When I was growing up, my little sister was very young and had never seen an apricot before.  One day she opened the refrigerator to find one sitting there with its peach like appearance and its distinctive ridge that runs from top to bottom of the fruit.  She looked at it and announced, "Look, Mommy.  This peach has a 'hiney' on it."  So, that's what I remember when I think about apricots.

Apricots are  an excellent source of vitamin A, a very good source of vitamin C, and a good source of tryptophan, iron, fiber, and potassium.   Nutrients in apricots can help protect the heart and eyes.  The apricot is high in beta-carotene which helps protect LDL cholesterol from oxidation which may help prevent heart disease.  The vitamin A promotes good vision and is a powerful antioxidant which quenches free radical damage to cells and tissue.   Sulfur containing compounds are often added to dried foods like apricots as a preservative.  They can cause reactions in sulfite sensitive people.

Choose apricots with a rich orange color. Avoid those that are pale and yellow.   The fruit should be slightly soft.   Add sliced apricots to hot or cold cereal.  Add chopped apricots to pancake batter.  For a Middle Eastern flavor add diced dried apricots to chicken or vegetable stews.  Serve sliced fresh apricots in a green salad.

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

Friday, November 1, 2013

Sweet Basil


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Sweet Basil

"Sweet basil" or just "basil" is a culinary herb sometimes known as St. Joseph's wort.  It's Latin name is  "Ocimum basilicum".  Basil is native to India and other tropical regions of Asia where it has been cultivated for more than 5,000 years.  The word "basil" comes from the Greek ("basileus") meaning "king".  In recent times basil has become one of the most recognizable herbs since pesto ( a mixture of basil, pine nuts, and Parmesan cheese) has become popular.
 
Basil has a rich and spicy, mildly peppery flavor with a trace of mint and clove.  You will find basil sold fresh or dried.  Unfortunately the dried basil loses most of its flavor.  One teaspoon of dried basil is equivalent to one tablespoon of the fresh basil.  Some sources state there are more than sixty varieties of basil.  The most common "Genovese" basil has a bright and pungent taste.  Other varieties  have  unique tastes such as lemon basil, anise basil, and cinnamon basil which have flavors that subtly reflect their names. 
 
Growing up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn I remember my maternal grandmother always had some "basilico" growing in the garden.  On seventy-seventh street  many of the houses had front yards back then.  My grandfather used to grow the most beautiful roses and he had trellises on which they grew.  It was beautiful.  It was in that garden that the basil grew.  There was also a subway station on the corner and people coming home in the evening would sometimes stop and pick one of the roses.  I'll bet some of the Italians would also help themselves to some basil.
 
There has been much research into the health benefits from essential oils found in basil.  In vitro studies have established that compounds in basil oil have potent antioxidant, antiviral, and antimicrobial properties and potential for use in treating cancer.  Basil is an excellent source of vitamin K and a very good source of iron, calcium and vitamin A.  It is a good source of dietary fiber, manganese, magnesium, vitamin C and potassium. 
 
Basil is commonly used fresh in cooked recipes , added at the last moment.  Basil is the ultimate complement to tomatoes, but also pairs well with garlic and olives.   Most other herbs tend to overpower basil's flavor and aroma but oregano is most often used with basil.  Other good combinations are rosemary and sage.  Basil stimulates the appetite and helps curb flatulence.   Basil pesto is most often served with pasta.
 
Choose basil that looks vibrant with deep green color.  Avoid dark spots or yellowing as well as wilting.  Basil can be kept in the refrigerator for short periods wrapped in slightly damp paper towel.  It can be frozen whole or chopped in airtight containers or in ice cube trays covered with water or stock.
 
Basil plants are readily available at your local supermarket.  They like the warm weather and will do well if kept on the porch.  Just remember to water frequently and pinch off the ends when they begin to flower. 
 
So, eat up, enjoy, I'll show you how.
 

Simple but good:

 
Basil Pesto:
 
4 cups packed basil leaves
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
2 cloves of garlic
1/4 teaspoon  salt
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
 
Place all ingredients except olive oil and Parmesan cheese in a blender.  Blend while adding the olive oil until completely blended.  Stir in the Parmesan cheese.