Sunday, April 29, 2012

Perfect Pressed and Pickled Vegetables

There was a brief moment of silence in the kitchen this morning as I plunged my fingers into ice cold brine to prise out the last prized bits of 2010 pickled chard and kale stem from the jar.  With a sigh of nostalgia I ate up the last bit of crunchy pickled vegetables from our 2010 summer bounty - the year Carrisa and I pickled garden surplus and everything else we could get our hands on.  All that remains of that memorable summer is a bottle, yet unopened, of elderflower champagne.  Big sigh.

I do like a bit of pickled vegetables to perk up my meals.

This morning I got busy playing catch-up after using up that last jar.  When I am really on my game I like to make a fresh jar of pickled vegetable every weekend.  That keeps me in a steady supply.  This morning I made a pint of slender succulent iceberg radish pickle, a pint of ruby-red pickled beet (flavored with dried cardamom seeds), a quart of pickled turnip, beet, and onion (this one is a new combo for me and I am anxious to see how I like it) and a quart of my favorite sauerkraut.  The jars will sit on my kitchen counter for three days.  On Wednesday (three days)  they will be ready to eat and can be stored in the refrigerator.

When I finished filling and packing the last jar of sauerkraut this morning I found I still had a serving size dish of cabbage left.  What to do with the left-over cabbage?  I certainly did not want to waste all of the raw, live enzymes.  Pressed Salad to the rescue.  Pressed Salad is essentially a quick pickle - an iconic dish from my Macrobiotic days - that is ready to eat in a couple of hours.


Chop up vegetables such as cabbage, kale, or collard greens.  I have been known to press wild greens as well.  Lamb's Quarters and Mallow are my favorite wild greens to press.  Each salad will be different depending on what you have on hand.  You can minced up a bit of carrot top, turnip greens, radish greens, or green onions to add to the salad.  Or you can slice in some radishes and/or carrot.  The thinner the better on the root vegetables.  Flavor with fresh herbs such as cilantro, parsley, basil or chives if desired.

Toss your chopped vegetables into a very large glass or stainless steel bowl.  Add a good amount of sea salt.  For 4 - 8 cups of vegetables add about 1 t. of sea salt.

Now either pound the vegetables with a wooden mallet or massage the vegetables with your hands.  Massage or pound the vegetables for about 10 minutes.  This is the meditative part of the process.  As you pound or massage the vegetables they will release a lot of liquid.  Keep the liquid.  Do not pour the liquid off.

Place the vegetables with their liquid into a clean glass bowl.  Nest a smaller bowl on top of the vegetables so that the vegetables come in contact with the nested bowl.  Place a heavy object, such as a Mason jar filled with water or grain, on top of the vegetables.  Let the vegetables sit on the counter for 1/2 hour to several hours.  Do not refrigerate. 

Once the vegetables are softened to your liking squeeze out the liquid and serve the salad artfully arranged on a plate.  The beauty of this salad is it's Japanese minimalist simplicity.  Pressed salad does not require a fancy dressing and is delicious eaten just as it is.  If you would like to add a dash of flavor I find that a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, or a splash of rice vinegar is a nice addition.

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Monday, April 16, 2012

Fermentation: In Favor of Flavor

Jar Of Homemade Sauerkraut

Since ancient times traditional people around the world have made a practice of consuming lacto-fermented foods and beverages, with relish (pun intended).  Why have fermented foods all but disappeared from the American diet?

Fermented foods are a slow food, (with quite a lot of character I might add), that do not easily lend themselves to factory farm food production, mass homogenization and pasteurization, or an industrial food system that favors uniformity over flavor and uniqueness.

Fermentation is truly an artisanal process that belies hasty expediency.  It is a near miraculous alchemical process by which a food is changed and transformed, by the introduction of a yeast or bacteria or combination thereof, into something quite different than the original product.  It is that something quite different that will be the subject of this post.


If you have been following this blog you will know that I am a big fan of fermented foods.  Fermented foods offer some amazing health benefits.  What are some of the benefits of fermented foods?

1 - Fermented foods aid with the digestion of difficult to digest foods.  Foods that are hard for some people to digest such as milk, or raw cabbage, once fermented, become easier to digest.

2 - Fermentation makes the food that is fermented more nutritious.  During the fermentation process B- vitamins are created that we benefit from.

3 - Fermented foods introduce probiotic factors - or friendly beneficial bacteria - which help keep our gut flora happy and healthy and discourage the proliferation of pathogenic bacteria.

4 - Fermented foods are alive and rich in enzymes.

5 - Fermented foods strengthen digestion and assimilation so that we get more nourishment from the food we eat.

6 - Finally. fermented foods are all about flavor.   Long valued for their complex flavor and ability to arouse and revive the palate - fermented foods are a splendid and pleasing fillip on the tongue.

When I realized how much I enjoy fermented foods I began exploring the idea of making my own.  It was not until I read Sally Fallon's cookbook "Nourishing Traditions" that I began to have real, consistent success.  I recommend the recipes in her cookbook as an excellent starting point because they are reliable and offer enough variety to keep you interested.

Imagine how pleased I was when I discovered that Sally's version of sauerkraut on page 92 tasted better than the expensive kraut I had been buying at the market.  That is when I realized that I was on to something.   Soon I was pickling everything I could get my hands on.  A bumper crop of cucumbers became the most delectable dill pickle spears imaginable.  See the "Lacto-Fermented" post from August 2010.  I pickled cabbage, green beans, swiss chard stems, kale stems, iceberg radish, watermelon radish, turnips, carrots, red beets, yellow beets and salmon.

I used the same principle to render grains more digestible and to neutralize enzyme inhibitors that are present in all seeds and grains.   I soured gluten-free oats and ate them like the traditional Scots.  I began making amazing gluten-free sourdough buckwheat pancakes for breakfast.

I also made kefir, coconut kefir, and sour cream or creme fraiche.  Each were amazing.

Finally I experimented with fermented beverages.  I made beet kvass, apple cider, and a variety of sodas such as ginger ale, orange-aid, elderberry punch and a delicious blackberry-rose soda.  Perhaps the most exciting beverage that Carrisa and I made together was elderflower champagne which we made from elderflowers we gathered together on a hiking trail.  That was a true local artisanal beverage.

There are more than several methods to ferment, pickle, or sour food.  Some folks rely on the ambient or wild bacteria that is in their own environment.  Others, like Sally Fallon, recommend the introduction of a culture such as liquid whey to get the fermentation process going.  Because I don't always have liquid whey on hand I have begun to rely on the convenience of probiotic powder.  I add 1/2 t. of probiotic powder to each jar of pickle that I make.

Though my ferments vary from batch to batch, which I consider to be part of the adventure, I still favor a more controlled process of innoculating the food or vegetable to be pickled with a culture.  The introduction of beneficial bacterial strains, in my mind, guides the fermentation process toward a more consistent result.

Oh!  The anguish of finding your culture has failed, developed mold, or smells bad.  Unfortunately my own attempts (yes- plural - big sigh) at cider making, one of my favorite beverages by-the-way, have been fraught with frustration.  Only twice have I succeeded in making apple cider.  But those two successes (along with the memory of the unique buttery yet sprightly flavor of the cider) have been enough for me to keep trying.

I have a sad kombucha story which I will save it for another time.

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Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Evolution Of Sushi

Crab, Cucumber, Avocado, and Tobiko or Flying Fish Roe

Because I am a BIG AND ENTHUSIASTIC FAN of sushi (don't EVEN get me started on the subject of bento boxes) I decided to take a class on sushi making.  Though I have been making sushi rolls off and on for years, I still have a vision of my two kids hovering like a pair of sharks at the end of the cutting board gobbling up all of the pieces I deemed unfit for the dinner table, I thought it was time to refine my skills.  It was SO much fun.  The class was taught by a sushi chef from our local Four Seasons Hotel.  Each student had their own sushi station to work at.  Each station was very well equipped - complete with a bamboo mat, nori, delicately sliced vegetables, and all of the ingredients necessary to make a variety of sushi rolls.  We learned to make futo-make or the big roll filled with all sorts of delicious ingredients, haso-make or thin roll, tekka-make or the ever popular tuna roll, te-make or the hand roll that is made without a bamboo mat and ura-make or the inside out American-style sushi roll.

At the end of class my fellow students each took home little boxes of sushi they had made - all except me - by the end of class I had eaten all of mine - right down to the last kernel of rice!

I am fascinated by food histories and traditional food preparations and so I found it particularly interesting to learn that the original sushi was a fermented food.  The original sushi, known as nare-zushi, is actually a form of food preservation which first developed in Southeast Asia and spread to southern China before its introduction to Japan.  Nare-zushi is fish that is salted and wrapped in rice.  The gutted fish can be stored in the rice and allowed to ferment for upwards of several months and perhaps years.  The rice is discarded and only the fish is consumed.

In the hands of the Japanese sushi began to evolve and change.  Because the Japanese prefer to eat their fish with rice namanare was developed.  Namanare is raw fish wrapped in rice and consumed within about a month while it is still somewhat fresh and not fully fermented.

In the 17th century Osaka-zushi developed.  For the first time rice vinegar was used to flavor the rice instead of fermentation. Vinegared rice and salted fish were packed into wooden boxes, weighted with a stone, and allowed to ferment overnight.  The following day Osaka-zushi was sliced into rectangles and eaten.

Finally during the Edo period, the ultimate fast food, the maki or rolled style sushi, began to appear.  Futo-maki, ura-maki, hosos-make, kappa-maki are the popular and elegantly presented hand formed sushi rolls that we are familiar with today.

Incidentally, the original nare-zushi is still prepared today near Lake Biwa, Shiga Prefecture.  Eighteen generations of the Kitamura family have been preparing the dish since 1619.  Fresh fish is scaled and gutted - though the gills and often the roe are preserved in the fish intact.  The fish is then packed with salt and aged for one year and then repacked annually in rice for about four years.  The fermented fish is served thinly sliced or as an ingredient in other dishes.

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Monday, April 9, 2012

Would A Papaya By Any Other Name Still Taste As Delicious?

Fresh Papaya

Though papaya and paw paw come from the same species - Carica papaya - they look different and taste different.  My understanding is that paw paw is a larger fruit with mild tasting yellow flesh while the papaya is smaller with more intensely flavored orange to red flesh.  American pawpaw, on the other hand, (note difference in spelling), and known as "poor man's banana," is an entirely different fruit and is not related to the tropical Carica papaya.  To add to the confusion there is also a green papaya which is sought after in Asian cuisine and eaten as a vegetable.

Only those living in the San Diego area, Hawaii, or the tropics are lucky enough to consider papaya a local food. That being said - unless you are a strict practicing locavore - nothing adds more luscious color and pizazz to a meal than the occasional foray into the world of tropical fruits.  When I deviate from what I call my "locavore tendency" - which is essentially eating foods that are grown within a 100 mile radius of where I live - I make certain I do so with something that is as delectable as the fresh papaya Carrisa and I enjoyed together over spring break.

The papaya originated on geological limestone shelves in an area of eastern Central America where they still grow wild today.  When Christopher Columbus first encountered the papaya he is reputed to have called it the "fruit of the angels."  It was Spanish and Portuguese sailors who began to carry papaya to other tropical regions and settlements around the world.

The papaya tree can grow as large as 30 feet tall and is an amazingly productive hearty plant.  In an ideal tropical location a healthy papaya can grow from a seed to a fruiting, seed-bearing plant in 9 months.

Papayas are a splendid fruit.  Spherical or pear-shaped - the fruit can grow as large as 20 inches long.  The flesh has an appealing orangey-pink hue with a cluster of black seeds in the center, which are, incidentally, edible.

The flavor of papaya is sweet with an intriguing musky undertone.  Because papaya lacks acid - a squirt of lemon or lime juice perks up the flavor.


Unripe to three-quarters ripe papayas are rich in a unique protein digesting enzyme called papain. Papain is present in the milky juice of the unripe fruit.  Very little of this enzyme is found in the fully ripened fruit.

The Seeds

The black peppery flavored seeds can be eaten and are reputed to have an anti-parasitic effect.  They have a sulfur-rich taste reminiscent of arugula or watercress and can be used as a substitute for capers or blended into a salad dressing to add a spike of flavor.

How To Eat Papayas

I tasted my first papaya while on the island of Kauai.  I ordered papaya for breakfast one morning and it was served with a scoop of cottage cheese, a sprinkling of granola and a squirt of fresh lime juice. It was love at first bite.

Papaya can be prepared in a variety of exotic ways, but when it comes to something this delicious, I like to keep it simple.  Papaya tastes wonderful eaten just as it is.  Papaya can be cut up and blended into fruit smoothies.  Sliced papaya makes a striking edible garnish for fish and meat dishes or salads.

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Monday, April 2, 2012

Health In The Spring - TCM

Local Seasonal and Yummy

Studying, reading, and trying to familiarize myself with Traditional Chinese Medicine has been a hobby of mine for quite some time.  I have been known to pick up and relish an exhaustive tome on the subject as if it were recreational reading.  I particularly value the poetic elements of TCM and how the descriptions of human health and its myriad conditions are often taken, as they should be, from the natural world around us.  The naturalistic terminology of TCM evokes images that carry value and meaning and help me see myself as an inseparable part of nature.

TCM - especially considering that it could easily become a lifelong subject of study and observation (and did I mention obsession?) - is a daunting and broad subject to take on in one blog post.  So perhaps as the saying goes - I might consider eating the elephant one bite at a time - and plan to re-visit the subject in the coming months. 

Today's bite will be about harmonizing with spring.  TCM is all about harmony - or what we might call dynamic harmony - or the ability to maintain health while attuning to climatic and seasonal change.  In other words we must not always do the same things, eat the same things, or think the same things all year long and expect to maintain health.  We must adapt and change.  The human species has demonstrated what I consider a remarkable and almost opportunistic adaptive capacity in its ability to survive very challenging environmental stresses over the millennia.  However, as we know surviving is quite different from thriving.  Today I would like to take a look at some of the simple things we can do to help ourselves - not just survive - - but thrive in the coming months.

Seasonal Attunement and the Ability to Adapt

In TCM there are 5 seasons of the year which coincide with the 5 elements - earth, metal, water, wood and fire.  The ancient Chinese believed that the seasons have a profound cyclical effect on human health and well-being.  They believed that we are influenced by climatic change and that an important expression of human health is the ability to harmonize with the season.

Winter - Water
Spring - Wood
Summer - Fire
Late Summer - Earth
Autumn - Metal

This makes logical sense if we think of the season of spring (March 21 - May 31), for example, and how as we leave the long dark months of winter behind and the warm spring days approach our body and our mind must make day to day adjustments to the change of season.  In winter our blood becomes thicker in order to keep us warm.  In the spring we must begin to lighten up our mind, our bodies and our diet.  Seasonal change can become a stressful experience, fraught with illness and imbalance, or it can be an invigorating challenge.  It is helpful to know that the process of adjustment and the human adaptive capacity is enhanced when we know how to choose and prepare foods that harmonize with the season that we are in.  Eating local and seasonal foods is one of the most powerful ways to stave off illness and imbalance at all times of the year - but especially in the spring.  For, in my mind at least, spring is an especially dangerous and treacherous season - often fraught with health challenges and illness.

For me spring has always been an uncomfortable time of year.   It is a challenge for me.  I often feel over-stimulated or stirred up to the point of discomfort.  I want to do everything at once.   I want to take on too many new projects, clean the house and every cupboard in it etc. etc.

 I like the opening of T. S. Elliott's "The Waste Land"

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding   
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing   
Memory and desire, stirring   
Dull roots with spring rain.   
Winter kept us warm, covering            
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding   
A little life with dried tubers.

So here we are in the midst of spring when everything around us is stirring and awakening.  How do we stay well?  How do we stay in balance?  We may begin by observing the plant life around us as it pushes upward from the dormancy and restfulness of winter.  We can begin by noticing the color green which is both cleansing and renewing - not to mention pleasing to the eye.  Spring foods are foods that bring balance and health to the liver and the gallbladder.  The diet during the spring should be the lightest of the entire year because the body must cleanse itself from the heaviness of winter in order to prepare for the coming summer.  The emphasis in spring should be on young plants, fresh greens, mildly pungent vegetables, herbs and seasonings, and salty or sodium rich foods.

It is nice to give the liver an occasional seasonal rest from all the work that it does.  Gradual dietary modifications are usually sufficient to keep things running smoothly through the spring.  Gradual changes are infinitely more gentle and restorative than the more extreme liver/gallbladder cleanses we have all read about.  We are often tempted to think that if a regime is sufficiently uncomfortable then it must be good for us.  I tend to favor a moderate middle path and have noticed that those who do extreme cleansing diets quickly rebound right back to their former dietary excesses.  In my mind it is far more comfortable and convenient to make gentle cyclical lifestyle modifications that naturally accommodate our condition and the season we are currently in.

Though I am certainly not an advocate of low-fat diets (adequate fat is essential for proper gallbladder function) during the cleansing months of spring it is often wise to gradually reduce fatty foods which can, in some cases, contribute to liver stagnation.  The foods that are high in saturated fats are lard, mammal meats, cream, cheese, and eggs.  Even excessive amounts of nuts and seeds can throw the liver out of balance in sensitive individuals.  Intoxicants, chemicals, highly processed and refined foods are stressful to the liver.  Emotional stress or unexpressed emotions are also stressful to the liver.

Foods that help harmonize the liver and that should be emphasized are sparing portions and leaner cuts of meat, fish, and poultry, with plenty of organic vegetables, legumes, and moderate amounts of grains (my preference being non-glutenous grains such as rice, quinoa, millet, or buckwheat) that have been properly prepared.  A little bit of the bitter flavor and the sour flavor will also help to reduce the excesses of winter.  Lemon, lime, and grapefruit have both the bitter and sour flavor and can be used to enhance vegetable preparations and light salad dressings.  Other bitter foods are romaine lettuce, asparagus, and dandelion.  Foods that help build the blood and nourish the liver are organic chicken liver, organic beef liver, and green chlorophyll-rich foods such as dark green leafy vegetables, parsley, and kale, sea vegetables, watercress, dark grapes, blackberries, huckleberries and raspberries.  Mildly pungent foods are a real treat for the liver.  In the spring we can eat mildly pungent foods such as baby beets and their greens, baby carrots, cabbage, turnip root and greens, kohlrabi, cauliflower, broccoli, brussels sprouts, strawberries, peaches, and cherries.  We can season our meals with mildly pungent herbs such as basil, sage, fennel, fresh ginger, and anise.  However, fiery hot pungent foods such as hot peppers and garlic are strong and will often over stimulate the liver.

Cooking in the spring can be done at a higher temperature and for shorter periods of time - so that the vegetables are somewhat crispy - as opposed to the longer slower cooking methods that we favor in the winter months.

Taking a brisk walk in a green park or woods, while breathing deeply, is a great way to love your liver.  Let the color green nourish and soothe your eyes.  Cleaning out a closet is a good and therapeutic spring activity as long as you are not tempted to become impatient (spring fever?) and take on too much at once.

Below is a check list of some emotional and physical signs of liver imbalance.  I find the list of emotional symptoms interesting.  (To keep things simple you might think anger and all her step sisters?)

Emotional repression
Poor judgment
Difficulty making decisions
Mental rigidity
Explosive personality

Physical Signs of liver imbalance:

Chronic indigestion
Menstrual problems
Rigid inflexible body
Stiff neck and back tension
Eye problems
Muscular pain
Tendon problems
Dry eyes and weak vision
Ringing in the ears
Pain the comes and goes
Pulsating headaches

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