Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Fresh Lively Flavors in Rick Bayless' Recipes

At IACP (the International Association of Culinary Professionals) in New Orleans recently I attended a class taught by Rick Bayless, considered the country’s foremost authority on Mexican cooking. Chef Bayless has a warm friendly manner and prepared two seafood dishes, one with Alaskan salmon and another with Alaskan black cod. Since Alaska Seafood sponsored the session the salmon and black cod was obviously of the highest quality.

Bayless shares his enthusiasm for supporting local farmers and buying directly from them, along with his knowledge of Oaxaca, Mexico. Fresh locally produced food is one of the most important trends appearing across the country today and translates easily to Mexican cooking. I am always concerned about how spicy Mexican food will be but what I tasted that day was bursting with the briny flavor of recently caught fish and lively herbs, but very little heat.

After making a fresh tomatillo sauce he added fresh herbs- epazote and hoya santa- before serving. I am familiar with epazote, a punguent herb that has a flavor similar to fresh coriander, but had not heard about hoya santa. Fortunately he gives substitutes. Although it seems like all we do at this conference is eat, I finished every bit of both samples because of the blended flavors dancing on my tongue.

Based on this introduction to Rick Bayless’ Mexican cooking I took advantage of the opportunity to eat lunch recently at his Chicago restaurant, Topobolobampo. It was a rainy Friday lunchtime and I was amazed by the packed and noisy restaurant. The walls displayed museum quality modern oil paintings in vibrant primary colors. The tables were set with amber colored plates on hammered copper chargers and votive candles and the room glowed. The main wall in the entry highlighted photos from the staff’s annual trip to Oaxaca. It was obvious that they were having fun experiencing Mexican culture and translated to a pleasant and knowledgeable waitstaff.

It was a very expensive lunch because we wanted to try everything and the food was extraordinary. Lunch started with a freshly made guacamole, bursting with chunks of ripe avocado and ending with chiles burning in the back of my throat. For an entrĂ©e I had a moist and tender pork chop gently simmered in mole sauce and surrounded by tiny chicken enchiladas and baked balls of rice. Everything tasted unique with zesty Mexican notes. Did I mention that I started with a signature margarita that was smooth and fruity? Maybe that ‘s why everything tasted wonderful, but I doubt it. It was just great food.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Looking Ahead to Summer Salads

It is a beautiful spring day here finally. As late as it is in the year I have seen more snow that tulips (none) recently. But summer is coming and it is a great time to take advantage of locally grown fruits and vegetables. The Mill City Farmers Market opened for the season on Saturday and we are anxiously awaiting fresh rhubarb and strawberries. I've added my column for the Best of Times below and a summery salad that's full of antioxidants.

I've also added the link to my appearance on Showcase MN. I don't know how long my clip will be shown. http://www.showcaseminnesota.com/show/client_article.aspx?storyid=500822

Color Your Diet Healthy

Increasing the amount of colorful fruits and vegetables in your diet has many health benefits. Chemical compounds called antioxidants are high in this brightly colored group of foods and more and more studies are finding a positive relationship between antioxidants and reduction in diseases such as cancer and heart disease. Antioxidants also help us age gracefully. Fruits and vegetables are also high in fiber and low in calories and are such an important part of our diets that the USDA and the National Cancer Institute recommend 5 to 9 servings a day. In the summer when fruits and vegetables are at their peak, go to the farmer’s market and load up with the best and brightest local produce.

How Antioxidants Work

All cells need oxygen to function properly and this process, called oxidation, produces harmful by-products called free radicals. Environmental pollution and exposure to certain chemicals such as pesticides also creates free radicals. An excess of free radicals can lead to cell structure damage. Damaged cells and damaged DNA contribute to degenerative diseases such as heart disease, cancer and cataracts. Some studies have shown antioxidants to slow the effects of aging. The positive effects from antioxidants may result from their interaction with free radicals.

Some of the most powerful antioxidants are vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, selenium and the hundreds of phytochemicals that are found in plant foods. Several studies have proven people who eat fruits and vegetables high in antioxidants have a lower incidence of some diseases but no one has been able to pin down specific factors. It is possible that these nutrients have the most positive effect in combination, but that hasn’t been proven. That’s all the more reason to plan your meals using a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.

At one point medical professionals were promoting dietary supplements as sources of beneficial antioxidants but this is no longer true. High doses of fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamin E and beta-carotene can be harmful and there is a risk of overdoses when supplements are taken. In addition, it is unclear to what degree the phytochemicals also present in fruits and vegetables contribute to good health. Researchers don’t feel that all the plant phytochemicals have even been identified and haven’t been able to determine specific amounts needed for benefits.

Add Color to Your Plate

Take advantage of the deepest colored fruits and vegetables in the produce aisle and brighten your dinner plate. Research shows that eating several brightly colored foods together boosts their impact. Fruits and vegetables with the most saturated colors are also the highest in phytochemicals. Refer to the following list and brighten your diet.

Green- Spinach and broccoli contain high amounts of antioxidants such as lutein and carotenoids that protect eyes from cataracts and macular degeneration. These vegetables and other green vegetables may also reduce cancer risk.

Blue/ purple –The color of blueberries, red cabbage and plums is created by anthocyanins, chemical compounds that protect against carcinogens and heart disease.

Red fruits and vegetables include tomatoes, strawberries, cherries, watermelon, pomegranates and pink grapefruit. Lycopene and anthocyanins in these foods help fight heart disease and some types of cancer, including prostate cancer. Pomegranates are often in the news because they have the highest levels of antioxidants. Cooked tomatoes actually contain more lycopene so even canned tomatoes provide protection.

Orange / yellow include sweet potatoes, peaches, carrots, oranges and mangos and are rich in beta-carotene and vitamin C. Beta- carotene is converted in the body to Vitamin A and is thought to boost the immune system. Vitamin C helps reduce the risk of heart disease.

Research shows that there is a definite relationship between diet and health- a more nutritious diet leads to better health. Eating a wide variety of foods provides essential nutrients that are the key to fighting off infection and boosting immunity and the most colorful fruits and vegetables can make the greatest difference.

Chicken and Strawberries Salad

Sweet berries at their peak of freshness and tender baby spinach leaves contribute lots of healthy antioxidants to this salad. Although I’ve used strawberries, blueberries and raspberries work equally well. Nutritious almonds have more fiber than any other nut and are rich in magnesium and vitamin E. I’ve added orange juice (and a little vitamin C) to the dressing because I like the sweetness it adds (and it reduces calories) but you can omit it and increase the olive oil by 1 tablespoon if you prefer.

Serves 2

2 tablespoons cider vinegar
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons orange juice
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

4 cups baby spinach leaves
2 cups cubed cooked chicken
2 cups sliced strawberries
½ cup sliced celery
2 tablespoons toasted slivered almonds
2 green onions, chopped

Combine the vinegar, honey, orange juice, salt and pepper in a jar with a tight-fitting lid and shake until the salt is dissolved. Add the olive oil and shake again. Chill the dressing until serving.

Combine the spinach leaves, chicken, strawberries, celery, almonds and green onions in a medium bowl. Add about half of the dressing and toss until well mixed. Serve any remaining dressing with the salad or save for another time.

Sidebar: On a busy night, the easiest dinner I know starts with a roasted chicken direct from the supermarket. I even serve it with refrigerated mashed potatoes! But a whole chicken is too much for the two of us. Use the remaining meat for this salad and you have another easy meal.