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Sunday, December 15, 2013

Cranberries


 

Cranberries:

Cranberries are a group of evergreen dwarf shrubs or trailing vines.  They can be found in acidic bogs throughout the cooler regions of the northern hemisphere.  The cranberry is a glossy, scarlet red, very tart berry.  It is related to bilberries, blueberries and huckleberries.   The name cranberry derives from "craneberry" first named by early European settlers in America  who felt the expanding flower, stem, calyx, and petal resemble the neck, head and bill of a crane.  They were also called "bounceberries" because the ripe ones bounce.  Native North Americans were the first to use cranberries as a food.  Algonquian Indians called the red berries "Sassamanash" and may have introduced cranberries to starving English settlers who incorporated them into their Thanksgiving feasts. 
 
About 95% of harvested cranberries are processed into products such as juice drinks, sauce, and sweetened dried cranberries.   The remainder are sold fresh.  Usually cranberries as fruit are cooked into a compote or jelly known as cranberry sauce.  The berry is also used in baking muffins, scones, cakes, and bread.  Cranberries are normally considered too sharp to be eaten plain and raw. 
 
Cranberries are harvested in the fall when the fruit takes on its distinctive deep red color.  This is usually from September through the first part of November or from Labor Day to Halloween.   During harvesting the cranberry beds are flooded with 6 - 8 inches of water above the vines.  A harvester is driven through the beds to remove the fruit from the vines.  Harvested berries float in the water and can be corralled into the corner of the bed and conveyed or pumped from the bed.   Cranberries are important crops in Massachusetts and New Jersey and are also cultivated in Wisconsin, Oregon, Washington State, British Columbia, and Quebec.                        
 
One of the tools in my paternal grandmother's kitchen was a sieve she used to strain cranberries for cranberry sauce and also tomatoes for tomato sauce. It was a cone shaped strainer that had four legs attached to it so it could be placed over a bowl. It had a heavy wooden pestle to  crush and force through whatever was being strained.  I can see that thing in my mind like it was just a few weeks ago, but it has been many, many years ago.   One Thanksgiving as dinner was being served someone noticed there was no cranberry sauce.  We asked, "Is there any cranberry sauce?"  Grandma said, " Oh, I must have forgotten it."   No one could believe it. No cranberry sauce?  Grandma disappeared into the kitchen  and soon returned with a big smile and a big bowl of her homemade cranberry sauce.  That memory has stayed with me all these years.
 
Cranberries are an excellent source of vitamin C, a very good source of dietary fiber and manganese, and a good source of vitamins E and K.   Raw cranberries are a source of polyphenol anti-oxidants, phytochemicals under research for possible benefits to the cardiovascular system and immune system and as anti-cancer agents.  Cranberry juice contains material that might inhibit the formation of plaque that causes tooth decay.  Cranberry tannins may prevent recurring urinary tract infections in women, but there is little evidence of the efficacy of treating urinary tract infections with cranberry juice.   For the cardiovascular system and for many parts of the digestive tract (including the mouth, gums, stomach, and colon) cranberries have been shown to provide important anti-inflammatory benefits.   The phytonutrients in cranberry  are especially effective against our risk of unwanted inflammation.  In the case of our gums the anti-inflammatory properties of cranberry can help lower excessive levels of inflammation around our gums that can lead to damage of the tissues that support our teeth. 
 
Choose  fresh plump cranberries  that are deep red in color and firm to the touch.  Firmness is a primary indicator of quality.  You will find fresh cranberries usually in 12 ounce packages rather than loose.  Cranberries can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 20 days.  Before storing discard any soft, discolored, pitted, or shriveled fruit.   Spread cranberries on a cookie sheet and place in the freezer for a couple of hours.  Once frozen they can be kept for several years, but once defrosted, use immediately. 
 
So........Eat up!  Enjoy!  I'll show you how.
 

Simple but good:

Cranberry Bread:
 
2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1  1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoon vegetable oil
3/4 cup orange juice
1 egg well beaten
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
1 1/2 cups cranberries (fresh or frozen) coarsely chopped
1/2 cup chopped nuts
 
Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F.  Grease a 9 by 5 inch loaf pan.
In a bowl mix together the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, baking soda, and oil.  Stir in orange juice, egg, and orange zest.  Mix until well combined.  Fold in cranberries and nuts.  Spoon into the greased pan and bake for 1 hour or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  Cool and remove from pan.
 
 
 

 

 

 



 



Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Okra

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Okra:

Okra is known in many English speaking countries as "lady's fingers".  It is a flowering plant in the mallow family related to such species as cotton, cocoa, and hibiscus.  Okra are valued for their edible green seed pods.
 
Okra is thought to be of Asian or African origins.  It was brought to the U.S. three centuries ago by African slaves.   In various Bantu languages it is called "kingombo" which eventually became "gumbo" for either the vegetable itself, or a stew based on it.   Cultivated throughout the tropical and warm temperature regions of the world, okra is among the most heat - and drought - tolerant vegetable species in the world. 
 
Okra is usually available year round in the South and from May to October in many other areas.  Okra can be found fresh, frozen, pickled , and canned.  Okra is considered a health food for its high fiber, Vitamin C, and folate content. The products of the okra  plant are mucilaginous resulting in the characteristic "goo" or slime when the seed pods are cooked; this mucilage contains a usable form of soluble fiber which is widely used to thicken stews and soups in many cultures.
 
My first experience with okra was while working in the supermarket.  At that time we packaged all the produce, mostly in the store.  Okra was one of the items we would package.  Well, we had this gal that was working with us in the produce department who was allergic to okra.  Every time we would package  okra she would take out a pair of rubber gloves, so she would not have to touch the okra.  Of all the things  we packaged that is the only thing she used the gloves for.  When we began displaying the okra loose, we just had to remember not to wet the okra.  That will turn it black.  Okra makes me think of that.  Today people where protective gloves for almost anything, especially having to do with food.
 
Okra is a rich source of dietary fiber, minerals, and vitamins; often recommended by nutritionists in cholesterol controlling and weight reduction programs.  Okra is a good source of vitamin A and  flavonoid anti-oxidants such as beta carotene, xanthin, and lutein.  It is a good source of vitamins C and K and rich in B-complex vitamins like niacin, vitamin B-6, thiamin, and pantothenic acid.   Okra contains the minerals iron, calcium, manganese, and magnesium.
 
Select young pods free of bruises, tender but not soft, and no more than four inches long.  Okra can be stored in the refrigerator unwashed in a paper bag, or wrapped in a paper towel in a perforated plastic bag for 2 - 3 days.  Okra may be frozen for up to 12 months after being blanched whole for 2 minutes.  Cooked okra can be stored (tightly covered) in the refrigerator for 3 - 4 days.
 
So..... Eat up!  Enjoy!   I'll show you how. 
 

Simple but good:

Roasted Okra:
 
18 okra pods (smaller ones are more tender)
1 tablespoon of olive oil
2 teaspoons of Kosher salt
2 teaspoons of pepper
1 wedge of lemon.
 
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Cover a roasting pan with tin foil.  Trim okra and slice into 1/3 inch pieces.  Arrange the okra in a single layer on the tin foil.  Drizzle on the olive oil, then sprinkle on the salt and pepper.  Stir the okra to coat with the oil, salt, and pepper.  Shake the pan to get the okra back to a single layer.  Roast in the oven for 15 - 20 minutes until the okra is just starting to turn brown on the edges.  Serve with a squeeze of fresh lemon.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Leeks

Leeks:

Leeks belong to the same family (Allium) as onion and garlic.  The leek, rather that forming a bulb like an onion, produces a long cylinder of bundled sheaths.  The edible portions of the leeks are the white base of the leaf (above the roots and stem base).  It's about 2/3 of the stalk.  The dark green portion, about 1/3 , is usually discarded due to its tough texture.   Leeks  are generally twelve inches long and one to two inches in diameter.  Its flavor is more delicate and sweeter than the onion. 

 Thought to be native to Central Asia leeks have been cultivated in this region and in Europe for thousands of years.  Leeks are easy to grow and tolerate standing in the field for a an extended harvest. Leek were prized by the ancient Greeks and Romans for their beneficial effect on the throat.  Roman Emperor Nero ate leeks every day to strengthen his throat.   The leek is one of the national emblems of Wales worn along with the daffodil. 

Leeks are boiled, which turns them soft with a mild taste, fried, which leaves them crunchier and preserves their taste, and eaten raw, which can be in salads, although they can sometimes be tough.   Leeks are typically chopped into slices 5 - 10 mm thick.  The slices have a tendency to fall apart though due to their layered structure.

My first exposure to leeks was in my grandpa's store.   They were usually sold as part of a package called "soup greens".   Soup greens would typically include a leek, an onion, a turnip,  a carrot, a parsnip, and a couple of sprigs of parsley.   When a customer would ask for soup greens I would need to get some help to get them together.   I always loved soup even to this very day.

Leeks along with onions and garlic have a unique combination of flavonoids and sulfur containing nutrients.  These members of the "allium" family should sit for at least five minutes after cutting and before cooking to enhance their health promoting qualities.   Leeks also contain concentrations of antioxidant polyphenols which play a direct role in protecting our blood vessels and blood cells from oxidative damage,   Leeks are an excellent source of vitamins K and A, a very good source of vitamin C, manganese, folates, vitamin B6 and iron. 

Select firm and straight leeks with dark green leaves and white necks.  Avoid leeks that are yellowed, wilted or have bulbs that have cracks and bruises.   Generally, large leeks are more fibrous.  Select those with a diameter of one to one and a half inches or less.   Leeks are available throughout the year with a greater supply from fall to early spring.   Store leeks for one to two weeks in the refrigerator unwashed and untrimmed in a plastic bag.   Leeks can be sandy.  To wash, remove the outer layer, trim the base, and make a cut in the middle of the white stalk towards the green tip leaving the bottom intact.   Rinse well under cold running water and then drain.     

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

 

Simple but good:   

Sautéed Greens

1 cup sliced leeks (about one leek)
4 cups chopped kale
1/4 cup vegetable or chicken stock
3 medium cloves of garlic, pressed
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
Salt and black pepper to taste

Heat one tablespoon of olive oil in  skillet and sauté leeks over medium heat for about 5 minutes, add 1/4 cup of broth and kale.
Cover and simmer on low heat for about 7 - 8 minutes stirring occasionally.
Toss with pressed garlic, lemon juice, remaining olive oil and salt and pepper to taste