Aphrodisiacs, Asparagus, and Wine

22 06 2009
Grilled New Potatoes and Asparagus

Grilled New Potatoes and Asparagus

Aphrodisiacal AsparagusI’m back from the St Paul Farmers Market, with yet another harvest of local, just cut asparagus. It is time for yet another tasty dish, and to prove again that asparagus goes just fine with wine.

I teach an aphrodisiac foods class, and asparagus is always one of the vegetables that gets mentioned as having sexy qualities. When you consider that the suggestive little spears can grow ten inches in 24 hours, you can see how that rumor got started. In spring, the earth wakens from its slumber and starts sprouting asparagus, making it seem more like father earth than our usual maternal imagery.

My other theory about the aphrodisiacal qualities of asparagus is more nutrient-based. I imagine that in years past, folks went all winter with diminishing access to vegetables of all kinds. As spring approached, people were gradually becoming mineral deficient, as well as just tired. Suddenly, spring brought forth greens and sprouts, as well as energizing sunlight. A feast of spring vegetables would nourish all the reproductive systems that are so dependent on good nutrition to work properly. Add the natural cycle of all the animals around them, giving birth in spring so that summer bounty would allow the young to thrive, and you have a perfect setting for the upward bound asparagus to take credit for randiness of all sorts.

A spring in your step and asparagus in the pot, why not serve the spears with a wink and a nod?

In the perfect synergy that is nature, asparagus is one of the best things for a pregnant woman to eat, with a mere five spears providing 60% of the folic acid needed to to prevent neural tube defects in developing fetuses. Folic acid is also essential to healthy blood and liver, so it is a good cleanse after the winter. It’s also a good source of potassium, fiber, thiamine, B6, vitamin C, and glutathione and rutin.

Just think how good you would feel after a long stretch of dried up parsnips, getting a concentrated dose of all that. For today’s diners, who have access to vegetables and bottled vitamins all year round, those last two items, glutathione and rutin, actually take on some importance.

Now that we live in a state of over-nutrition, we are finding that alot of our health problems are related to inflammation. Cholesterol plaques form in response to inflammation. Arthritis is inflammation. All sorts of nagging aches and pains are fueled by inflammation. Allergies of all sorts feed inflammation.

So the potent and helpful anti-inflammatory effects of glutathione and rutin come in quite handy.

It’s almost like we need our spring dose of asparagus as badly as we need our first walks of the season and the sun on our faces.

So, as long as this super sexy vegetable is here, I am going to revel in it like the bacchanalian treat that it is. For this recipe, I seek out two kinds of wine. One is the super dry, simple Italian white from Orvieto, and the second is Vinho Verde.

I’m really liking Vinho Verde these days, it is perfect for warm weather. It also can have that little bit of effervescence that makes it seem just a little mischievious, tickling as you drink. A big selling point for us, though, is the lower alcohol. I admit it, I’m a lightweight, and with all the work I have to do, I don’t have time to lie about recovering from hangovers. So, the light, fresh wine from unripe grapes has my vote for perfect pair with my asparagus orgies. Asparagus has a reputation as the enemy of wine, because its minerally character and a stinky sulfur compound called asparagusic acid. The combination of elements in asparagus can make wine taste weirdly sweet, so you want very dry, simple wine. Grilling the asparagus makes it more wine-friendly, as well.

Grilled Asparagus and New Potato Salad

This is a big batch- I took it to a party where it was very well received.

3  pounds medium sized new potatoes (don’t use the marble sized ones- they will fall thru the grill!)

1  pound asparagus, tough bottoms trimmed

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus canola for the grill

2  cups fresh basil, chopped

1/4  cup champagne vinegar

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon each coarse salt and freshly cracked black pepper

1. Boil the potatoes, putting them in a large pot of cold water and bringing them to a boil, then checking every five minutes by piercing one with a paring knife. don’t overcook, just get them tender enough to eat. Drain, and chill, then halve them. Put in a large bowl, add the asparagus, and drizzle with olive oil.

2. Preheat the grill- I always soak some wood chips to add a smoky flavor on the gas grill. When hot, put canola oil in a cup, and use tongs to rub it on the grate. Place the asparagus on one side, and then put the potatoes, cut side down, on the other side. With this batch, you will probably only have room for half. Close the grill for three minutes, then roll the asparagus to see if it is browning. When it is browned in spots and wrinkling just a little, transfer to the bowl. Turn over a few potatoes, and when they are marked and crisped around the edges, transfer to the bowl. Let all cool.

3. Chop the basil, whisk the vinegar, oil, salt and pepper and add to the potatoes. Toss it all and serve at room temp.


The Greens That Don’t Need Any Lemon

14 06 2009

You can tell that I live in Minnesota, since I am writing about cooking with sorrel in June. In most of the country, spring sorrel has bolted or been eclipsed by the seductions of basil. My sorrel plant, probably a french variety, has been chugging along in the back garden for several years now, and I find that if I keep it trimmed back, it will keep putting out tender leaves into the summer.

Sorrel is an ancient food, and the cultivation of it in France and Italy in the Middle Ages was the beginning of the effort to breed milder, softer sorrel. Tangy as it is today, it must have been a mouth-puckering experience eating the original versions. The name sorrel is in fact derived from the word sour, and it is sometimes called sour grass, and pickled sorrel, called “sour dabs” was fed to English school children well into the 20th century.

I wonder if they liked it. Probably limp, khaki colored and salty-sour, I’m betting it was about as popular as cod-liver oil and canings. Too bad, because sorrel can be a vibrant, delicious herb, in the right hands.

The distinctive taste of sorrel is due to oxalic acid, which is present in much lower concentrations in spinach. Oxalic acid does inhibit the absorption of iron, so veg be aware, and don’t get carried away. Eat your iron foods at another time of day, and make sure to include vitamin C foods to encourage absorption.

So why deal with this puckery, iron-deflective plant? Well, it has some great nutrition, and that flavor is great fun to play with. It’s high in calcium, iron, magnesium, vitamin A, vitamin C and B9, of all things. Like all greens, it has no fat, and cooks in an instant.

Traditionally, sorrel is paired with fish, because like lemon, the sourness brings out the sweetness. The French puree it to serve as a sauce, or into creamy soups. Creamy sorrel and potato soup is a classic. The tenderness of the leaves also lends itself to raw preparations, so throwing a few leaves into a salad or pesto wakes up the palate with citrusy zing.

For today’s blog, I made up a recipe for Tabouli, using the sorrel instead of the parsley and the lemon-replacing two ingredients with one. I also used Freekeh instead of bulghar. Freekeh (pronounced Freak-uh, not super freakay) is a delicious Mediterranean whole grain. It is immature, green wheat that has been pre-roasted, parcooked and then dried. It is available partially cracked or in whole form, and I used the partially cracked version. It is like a smoky, chunky version of bulghar, and it is worth seeking out. You can use bulghar in the recipe, if you can’t get freekeh.

Sorrel-Freekeh Tabouli

Serves 2 as a side, can become a main course with the addition of a cup of cooked garbanzos or a handful of toasted shelled pistachios. Make sure you wash the sorrel really carefully-grit can hide in the leaves.

1/2 cup cracked freekeh

1 cup water

1 cup (gently packed) sorrel leaves, ribs removed

1 cup fresh mint leaves, also gently packed

1 lage clove garlic

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon salt, lots of cracked black pepper

1/2 cup diced seedless cucumber

1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, chopped

1/4 cup chopped chives or scallions (my chive plant is right next to the sorrel, parsley and mint)

In a small saucepan with a lid, bring the freekeh and water to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer for 20 minutes. Check in 10, if your burner doesn’t go low enough, it may have boiled off the water too quickly. Just add more, cook for the 20, and then let stand for 10 to absorb. If there is extra water in the pan, drain the grain. Cool to room temp.

In a food processor, put the sorrel, mint and garlic. Process to mince finely, scraping down and processing again. Add the oil and process until smooth. Add salt and pepper and pulse to mix. Pour over the cooled grain. Add the cuke, tomatoes and chives or scallions, and toss to mix.

My Sorrel Plant

My Sorrel Plant

Green, Cracked and Toasted Wheat

Green, Cracked and Toasted Wheat

Sorrel-Freekeh Tabouli

Sorrel-Freekeh Tabouli

Teach a Girl to Eat Soy, Keep Her Healthy for a Lifetime

9 06 2009
Three simple ingredients make a chocolate delight

Three simple ingredients make a chocolate delight

Quick and Easy, and What Teen Girl Could Resist?

Quick and Easy, and What Teen Girl Could Resist?

Soy has been up, and soy has been down. From animal feed to miracle food, and in recent years, back into a strange purgatory, clouded by suspicions.

The latest bit of info is very positive, building the case again for soy foods as a valuable source of health-promoting phyto-estrogens.

In a study published in the June issue of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers at the Vanderbilt School of Medicine found that high intakes of soy in adolescence reduced the risk of breast cancer by 40%. In another study, published in May in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention, researchers from the National Cancer Institute followed Asian women who had moved to the US. They wanted to know why, when American white women have a 4-7 times higher risk of breast cancer than Asian women, Asian women who move to the US will, with each generation, rise to the same levels of risk. Looking at food and lifestyle, the researchers found that girls who consumed the most soy between the ages of five and eleven had a 58% lower risk of breast cancer. So, as these women and their families assimilated and gave up soy, their breast cancer rates assimilated to match ours.

The theory behind the lifelong effect of soy in the critical years of adolescence is that the estrogen-like isoflavones in soy affect the developing tissues. Soy, along with other plant foods as diverse and flax seeds and coffee, contain plant compounds that mimic the estrogen in the human body. They are much weaker, and have been thought to protect in part by blocking estrogen receptors from too much exposure to stronger forms of estrogen made by the body, as well as the dangerous xeno-estrogens in plastics. These researchers suspect that soy estrogens cause changes in the breast tissue as it develops in the crucial adolescent period, making it resistant to carcinogens for a lifetime.

All these studies and evidence have been in the works for years. If you remember the 90’s, we were all heralding the breast-protecting, bone-building, cancer-avoiding properties of soy. Like an overexposed pop star, soy suffered a backlash. I myself used to pack the house with classes on cooking with soy, and was able to write about soy in all sorts of mainstream publications. Isoflavone pills went on the market for perimenopausal women, and men were advised to eat soy for their prostate health, as well as to lower cholesterol. Then came the suspicions.

Some experts began to theorize that the isoflavones in soy might actually promote the growth of breast cancer, once it has started. Because some breast cancers are estrogen-driven, this seemed plausible, but it has been tough to prove. A few rat studies lent credibility to the idea.

Other rumors surfaced-accusing soy of feminizing male babies, making their penises smaller, causing infertility in adult men. Whenever you ask an expert about the idea that soy causes male infertility, they laugh, and point to the population of China. Seriously.

So, articles on “the dark side” of this food started appearing, and soy got an image problem. Folks who had not wanted to adopt this foreign food into their lives had an excuse not to. And of course, women didn’t know whether they were saving or dooming their breasts when they had a tofu stir fry.

So what is the course of action, anyway?

These studies back up what the book The China Study so comprehensively stated. The consumption of soy on a daily basis, along with the other elements of a healthy, whole foods diet, is good for you. Like the Okinawa Program (which studied Japanese centenarians) The China Study laid out the old-school, real food way of eating that a culture had followed for centuries. Whole, natural soy foods are a part of that diet, and the proof is in the pudding. They just don’t get the same diseases that people eating a processed, modern, no-tofu diet do.

So, introduce kids to some soy as part of a healthy diet. Don’t go overboard, find something they like and have some every day. I know kids like hot dogs and such, but don’t get into the super-processed fake meat stuff. The China Study was not based on that kind of food. Do try soymilk and soy cereals, which make it easy to get your soy at breakfast. Smoothies, dips, and puddings also camouflage the soy in ways that kids will eat.

Like that apple a day thing, a little soy every day may very well keep the doctor away.


This is great as a frosting, or a thick pudding. It is a good dipper for cut up fruit, and delicious with strawberries or mango spears.

1 package Mori Nu organic silken tofu

1 cup chocolate chips

1 cup brown rice syrup

In a blender or food processor, puree the tofu, scraping down and repeating until smooth. Add the melted chips and syrup, and immediately puree, before the chocolate starts to harden. Scrape, puree to make sure it is well-mixed, then transfer to a bowl and cover. Chill until cold and thick.

Safer Grilling- Vegetarian Pizza on the Grill!

2 06 2009
Two pounds of onions after slow caramelizing

Two pounds of onions after slow caramelizing

Even a crummy grill like mine is great for pizza!

Even a crummy grill like mine is great for pizza!

It’s gotta be grilling season again.

All the foodie mags will have luscious, well lit photos of grilled food on the cover, all adorned with perfect charred grill marks. Steaks turned a quarter turn to make the little diamond cross hatches are the sign of a true grill pro. I know, I have learned to make them happen.

But here and there, away from all those classic photos, there will be the other articles. The ones about the health risks of grilled meat. I know, I have written those articles.

Here is the straight scoop.

When meats, especially red meats, are cooked at high heat, certain compounds in the meat turn into mutagens, specifically heterocyclic amines (HCA’S) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH’S). These mutagens do just that-they cause your DNA to mutate a little bit, which increases the risk of cancer. Unfortunately, when your body reconizes these foreign mutagens, it gets to work trying to flush them out, which in some cases, actually makes them more virulent and active as they leave.

Now here is where I should say that it’s still ok to grill, just marinate the meat and reduce the chemicals that turn into mutagens. Then flip the meat alot, and don’t let it get any char spots. And cut off any charred pieces. Those are all true things to say.

But maybe, just maybe, I can talk you into grilling something else tonight. Like say, vegetables? Or pizza?

Grilling is great. You can heat up the outdoors instead of your house, so you don’t have to run the air conditioning. You can stand around with your family and friends and have a beer or an iced tea. You can basically use the grill like a free-standing oven, if you learn how to use it.

So here is my recipe for a great grilled pizza. I started the caramelized onions and whole garlic cloves in the morning, and slow sauteed them for a couple of hours. I like really caramelized onions. Not fakers, like the ones restaurants tell you are caramelized but are really just soft and wet. I want real sugars. I like to throw in some whole garlic, it will get nice and buttery-soft.

I also started the dough early. I attended a Master Class on pizza making at the Denver convention of the International Association of Culinary Professionals in April. There I watched Peter Reinhart and his selected pizza experts make their doughs-and they all prefer to make a simple dough and refrigerate it. The process of chilling a yeasted dough really develops both texture and flavor, giving the yeasts a little hibernation in between the start and finish. You can leave it in the refrigerator for a few days, as I learned from my friend and master baker Zoe Francois (her book, Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, is a great book) or you can just let it puff up a bit and then chill it for a few hours.

Once I had my onions and dough, I was free to enjoy my sunny summer day, right up to the half hour before dinner that I needed to start the grill and get it heated up.

This is such a fun way to make pizza. You can even make the crusts and eat them hot off the grill as flatbreads, with a tasty dip!

Caramelized Onion and Olive Pizza on the Grill

2  lbs yellow onions, sliced in vertical strips

6 cloves garlic, peeled

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

3  cups white whole wheat flour (or regular whole wheat)

1 cup unbleached flour (approximately, divided)

1 1/2 cups cool water

2 teaspoons bread machine yeast ( I used SAF brand)

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup kalamata olives, chopped

1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley or basil (I had parsley in the garden, use what’s good)

6  ounces assertive tasting cheese-I used an aged Italian style, asiago or dry jack or even chevre would be good.

canola oil for the grill

TO Start:

Put a large pot over medium high heat, add the olive oil and then the onions and garlic. Stir constantly to coat with oil, and start softening the onions. As they start to soften, they will start to stick, so lower the heat as low as it will go once that happens. Stir every 20 minutes, at least. Keep cooking for a couple of hours. You can turn it off and cover the pot if you need to leave for a few hours. When they are done, salt a little to taste.

Make the dough in a 2 quart storage tub or bowl. Mix the white wheat flour, half the unbleached, the water, yeast and salt in the tub. It will be sticky, don’t worry about kneading it, just get it mixed. Cover loosely and let stand at room temp until it puffs up-about 45 minutes to an hour. Collapse the dough with a poke in the middle, and seal the tub. Chill until needed.

An hour before grilling, get out the dough to warm up. Cut it into four portions. Flour a large cutting board, or two baking sheets. Use the remaining unbleached flour to for the dough into rounds, put on the flour to rest. Fire up the grill.

Put a dash of canola oil in a cup and tear half a paper towel- wad the towel in the oil and then you can use tongs to rub the oiled paper on the grill grate.

Just before grilling, stretch the rounds out to 10 inches across. Put back on the flour and carry out to the grill, bring your oil, onions, olives, parsley and cheese.

TO Grill: The grill should be super hot. Open up, quickly oil the grate, and carefully place two of the dough rounds on the grill. Turn the heat down to low, it should start browning very quickly. Close grill for about four-five minutes. Open up, use tongs to flip the doughs, and quickly top with onions, then parsley and olives, then cheese. Close the grill. Check in four minutes, depending on your grill heat. It’s ok to check sooner at all stages when you are just starting out.

The bottom will be crisp and marked and the cheese melted when they are done. Use a metal spatula or your tongs to slide onto the cutting board or pans and take to the table. Cut and serve immediately.