There are times when it enriches the soul to set order and tidiness aside and make a mess, and summer is one of them. Watch a kid eating ice cream or watermelon or a Popsicle and you’ll see enormous intensity and range of emotion. There’s an uninhibited presence-of-moment that arises from the complete indifference to being soaked or stained or sticky.
There was a point for each of us during childhood when food was made up of “wow’s” that had little to do with taste, and those memories lie within us now waiting to be tapped from time to time.
This week, slice up a wedge of melon and take a chomp out of the very center; eat some cherries and have a spitting contest with the seeds; pick some plums–from the farmers’ market or tree–and eat them without a paper towel in sight. If you’re around kids (and you know you will be at some point over this Fourth of July weekend), take a break from keeping them clean and make a mess right alongside them. Then notice the new–or renewed, really–perspective it brings to how you experience food.
I have such vivid memories of visiting my grandparents when I was little. The smooth whir of pavement turning to the rumble of cobblestones a block away from their house. The sweet scent of sycamore as we turned up the drive. And, of course, the pot of Nan’s barbecue–my grandma’s version of a sloppy Joe–which in some unspoken agreement between she and I had become the de facto welcome dish for our visits.
Yesterday, as we made the cross-country trek for a visit with my daughter’s grandma (yes, that would be my Mom), I wondered what sensations about going to see Grandma and Grandpa would stick for Noemi. And, more to the point, what dish would establish itself between my mother and my daughter as the one that says, “I am so glad you’re here” in the universal love-language of food.
We Americans, so independent and progressive in our ways, can give the impression that we’re just not interested in the traditions born in the kitchen and passed down from generation to generation. But we are. Memories of food, unique in the way they engage all our senses, nestle themselves deep within us and shape us in significant ways. Just think of what your grandma used to have simmering on the stove or baking in the oven when you walked through the door and you’ll see how powerful they are. But the torch (or the pot, or the corn cob, or the ice cream maker) has been passed to us. Now we have the opportunity to carry on–or create entirely new–food traditions with the little ones in our lives so that they have their own to cherish.
This week, as we roll into summer and a season full of family gatherings, ponder what traditions you’d like to pass on.
Dark chocolate. An ounce or so a few times a week (to borrow Michael Pollan’s formula). For many of us, this little prescription flies in the face of a decades-deep divide between what we want to eat (chocolate) and what we feel we should eat (carrot sticks and celery). But nature didn’t intend it to be that way.
The cocoa in chocolate, like most plant-based foods, boasts a cocktail of compounds that fall under the collective category of phytonutrients (which simply means “plant nutrients”). There are thousands and thousands of phytonutrients that impact our health in all sorts of ways, from lowering blood pressure to preventing cancer to boosting the immune system. The irony is, these little powerhouses are also what make plant-based foods look and smell and taste the way they do. Think about that a second; the very stuff that makes food pleasurable is also making us healthy. Now there’s a paradigm shift.
So back to that chocolate.
I could go into the details of which phytonutrients play a role in making chocolate so healthy and cite statistics of how much they lower the risk of this or that. Or I could just tell you that if you finished off a few evenings this week savoring a square or two of dark chocolate* it would be a very good thing.
* This is one time you’ll want to look at the label. It’s the cocoa in chocolate that packs the nutritional punch, so a good rule of thumb is to choose dark chocolate bars with a cocoa content higher than 50%. Sugar may sweeten the deal, but it also adds empty calories. If you’re not yet used to dark chocolate’s strong taste you’re in for a treat; it can be enticingly complex and nuanced. Keep it interesting by experimenting with several brands and flavors.
I’m of the notion that a simple square of good dark chocolate is a treat in and of itself. But if you feel like dressing it up a bit, this is an easy, elegant way to do it.
3 ounces dark chocolate
1/4 teaspoon finely grated orange zest, plus additional for garnish
1/4 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
12 thin baguette slices, toasted
medium-coarse sea salt
Melt the chocolate with the orange zest and olive oil in a small, heavy-bottom pot over ultra-low heat (if you’re a double boiler-lover, feel free to use one here), swirling it around occasionally. Give it all a good stir once it’s super soft but not completely melted, and take it off the heat.
Spread chocolate mixture on baguette slices and sprinkle with a generous pinch of sea salt. Garnish with long, thin strips of orange zest if you like.
Makes 12 crostini
Instead of reaching for the Ritz, try baking a batch of these breadsticks to nibble on throughout the week. How do they stack up? Three breadsticks are just 66 calories and pack nearly a gram of fiber.
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 cup grated fresh Parmesan cheese
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon finely minced fresh rosemary
5 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
Combine flours, cheese, baking powder and rosemary in a medium bowl. Add 5 tablespoons water and oil, and stir until mixture comes together. Turn dough onto a floured surface and knead lightly for 2-3 minutes. Divide dough into 18 equal portions and shape each into an 8-inch rope. Place ropes on a baking sheet sprayed with cooking spray.
Bake for 10 minutes or until bottoms are golden brown. Remove from oven and cool on a rack.
Makes 18 breadsticks
It’s World Oceans Day today. And while there are so very many things I could mention on the subject of the oceans–the overfishing of numerous species, the questionable impact of open water fish-farming, and the emerging international standards and certifications to name a few–I’ve decided to stay simple and give you one (really tasty) thing you can do this week to make the oceans a healthier place: Cook up some Alaskan wild salmon.
The fact that sustainable seafood is a subject fraught with complexities was driven home recently by an e-mail I received from an organization I admire about a new sustainable seafood guide they were publishing. Fantastic, I thought, I’ll reference it in today’s nibble. But then I saw that one of the tips was “buy wild.” And while wild-caught fish is sometimes a smart choice, there are enough times when it’s not to make me wary about giving the statement an unqualified thumbs-up. (Yes, I did contact them and yes, they were glad I did.)
But there is one case in which “buy wild” is always a sustainable choice, and a green-rated one at that. Alaskan wild salmon. Thanks to an ingenious web of science and tradition, policy and community, regulation and enforcement that ultimately protects both indigenous fish populations and the communities who depend upon them for a living, no species of Alaskan salmon (which, as with all seafood from Alaska, is always wild) is overfished. That’s a big deal when you consider that nearly three-fourths of the wild fish stocks in the world are “fully exploited or overexploited,” according to the United Nations. Alaska is, quite simply, the gold standard when it comes to sustainably managing wild-caught fish.
I could go into the technical details on why, but then I’d be using terms like Total Allowable Catch, escapement and rationalization and would have to include a glossary that would scroll down to your knees. In the end, it comes down to people recognizing that we humans, the environment and what eventually becomes our food are all intertwined and taking action–to the point of including sustainable fisheries language into their constitution back in 1959–to protect the system as a whole.
So cook up some Alaskan wild salmon this week and celebrate fishing done right.