Raita is an Indian condiment made with yogurt, vegetables, herbs and spices. It’s often made with cucumber, but in spring, we like to use fresh fennel and mint. Try it with our Red Lentil Dal with Caramelized Onions, Carrots and Peas. It’s also delicious with lamb, poultry or fish. Save the pretty fennel fronds to garnish the bowl.
I’m a sucker for research, especially about food and why we eat what we do. So you can imagine my delight at seeing a news story about University of Buffalo researchers who found that just thinking about a favorite comfort food helps quell feelings of loneliness by reminding us of our connection with others. I couldn’t resist sharing this story with NOURISH Evolution’s Facebook community and asking members to share their go-to comfort foods. Turns out, people are passionate about their favorite comforting dishes. I started the discussion off by sharing my personal faves: chocolate and carbonara (though not in the same dish). Some admitted they also turn to chocolate and creamy food after a tough day. Homey fare like buttermilk fried chicken and chili made an appearance, too.
Then things took a surprising turn. Of course comfort food doesn’t have to = junk food, and indeed, there was a strong contingent who chimed in with favorites that nourish body and soul. One had a fondness for veggie-laden chicken soup. Lia favors udon soup when she’s down (she also likes any kind of pizza). She and another commenter also enjoy sauteed Swiss chard.
Can such healthy fare be comforting when you’re lonely? That depends on your outlook. One commenter believed true comfort food is by definition sweet and/or fattening. I, too, like an element of richness in my comfort cuisine. For me, this Indian dal offers the best of both worlds of health and comfort. The lentils have a creamy texture while the onion and carrot sauteed in ghee lend a rich element, and it’s all flavored with earthy, warm spices. That’s my idea of a big culinary hug.
Dal is an Indian cuisine comfort-food standby made with lentils, dried beans or peas. Tarka is a technique in which spices are sauteed in fat to magnify their flavor. And as we learned from spice guru Monica Bhide, you’ll enjoy even more vivid flavor if you grind whole spices. Depending on your choice of cooking fat and stock, you can make this a vegan, dairy-free or gluten-free. Prepare the tarka and raita while the lentils simmer. Serve this dal with brown basmati rice, roasted cauliflower and our Fennel and Mint Raita.
Ghee, the preferred cooking fat in Indian cuisine, is nothing more than an intense form of clarified butter that has been cooked until the water has evaporated and the milk solids have browned. The result is pure butterfat with rich, nutty flavor. According to the Indian philosophy of medicine called ayurveda, ghee is a healing food that enhances immunity, fights inflammation and calms the nerves. From a culinary perspective, it has a high smoke point, which means you can cook it at higher temperatures than regular butter without burning. You can buy ghee in Indian markets and health-food stores, but it can be expensive and it’s very easy to make. Although ghee is associated with Indian cuisine, you can use it to rev up the flavor of any dish, including baked goods like our Crispy Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies. Seriously, try this stuff in baked goods. Wow.
This chard recipe is my new go-to green dish. I can literally go from picking chard from the garden to getting this on the table in under 10 minutes. And don’t let the humble ingredients list fool you … these greens are loaded with flavor. I recommend zipping and chopping the greens, then giving them a good rinse in a big bowl of cold water and spinning or straining them dry. A Microplane zester works best for this dish because it grates the garlic so finely as to make almost a paste. If you don’t have a Microplane zester, use the finest grater you have and cook a tad longer.
My mother never told me to eat my greens, because she never made them. I’m not sure if she didn’t like greens or just wasn’t sure what to do with them (most likely), but spinach, collards, kale and other hearty cooking greens didn’t join my plate until I grew up and discovered I love them.
That’s why I’m always look for ways to add greens to the menu. Of course, they’re good for you–rich in a host of vitamins (especially A and C), minerals (like iron and manganese) and phytonutrients. Even better, hearty greens are at their peak right now, and their earthy flavor is a perfect fit for winter meals … right up to the cusp of spring.
Select greens that have fresh, crisp, unblemished leaves; they’ll keep in the fridge for up to five days. Their leaves tend to trap dirt and grit, so you’ll want to wash them thoroughly. I like to zip the leaves from the stems (check out Lia’s speedy technique to “Zip Some Greens“), toss them in a big salad spinner, which I fill with water and dunk the leaves several times (this allows any grit to settle at the bottom) before spinning them dry. Then I tear or chop the leaves as needed.
Though you can use most greens interchangeably, their flavor ranges from mild to spicy. For substitution guidelines, visit The Cook’s Thesaurus. Here’s a rundown of a few of our faves:
Beet greens: If you buy a bunch of beets with the leaves still attached, don’t throw those delicious, earthy-tasting leaves away. Instead, simply saute them, much as you would spinach. Or try them boiled in Mama Kourtesi’s Beet and Green Salad.
Broccoli rabe has a pungent, bitter quality that Italian cooks adore. A bit of olive oil and salt helps tame the bitterness. Try it steamed, broiled or braised. In Lia’s Orecchiette with Broccoli Rabe and Sausage, a pot of boiling water does double-duty to cook the pasta and rabe at the same time.
The Italians also love bitter chicory, which they boil and serve with a white sauce or puree with a touch of cream.
I’ve come to love the mild flavor of collard greens, which generally benefit from long braising. But if you slice them super-thin, as we do with our Quick Collards below, you can cook them quickly with a combo of sauteing and braising.
Kale is a part of the cabbage family, so it (not surprisingly) has a cabbage-y quality. Discard the center stem and treat the curly leaves much the way you would spinach. Frilly-leaf kale is the most common variety, but you’ll find other types (lacinato, for example) at farmers’ markets and gourmet stores. Try it in our Crispy Kale Chips or White Bean and Kale Ragout with Turnips and Sausage.
For a spicy, peppery bite, try mustard greens, which do well braised with bacon. For an even more assertive selection, try turnip greens (yep, you can use turnip greens in place of the sausage in the ragout).
Spinach may well be the most popular variety. Large, mature leaves should be cooked (steamed, boiled, braised), while baby spinach does fine with a quick saute or even raw in a salad. Make a batch of Cheryl’s Stir-Fried Greens with Cremini Mushrooms and Soba.
With bright green leaves and colorful stems in a variety of hues, from magenta to orange-gold, Swiss chard is another favorite in the NOURISH Evolution kitchens. It’s hearty enough to braise, yet tender enough to saute. Try it in our Spicy Sauteed Rainbow Chard with Golden Raisins, which incorporates those pretty stems.
This is by no means a complete list. If you visit an ethnic market or farmers’ market, you’ll find many other varieties. Just ask the merchant for tips to cook them. The broader your repertoire of greens, the more often you’re likely to eat them!
For years, we’ve all been warned away from high-mercury fish because it might cause heart disease. Not so, according to two new large-scale studies just published in the New England Journal of Medicine. However, the Harvard researchers who did the study say pregnant women should still skip high-mercury fish like shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish, as the mercury in fish can affect the neurological development of a fetus.
Sleep Well, Eat Well
Trying to maintain a healthy weight? Make sure you get enough Zs. That’s because if you sleep less at night, you’re likely to eat more during the day. USA Today reports on Columbia University research that finds sleep-deprived people eat an average of 300 calories a day more than when they’re well rested. In the study, the sleep-deprived volunteers snoozed just four hours a night, compared to a control group that slept nine hours. Sleep-deprived women were particularly vulnerable to overeating, and tended to consume even more calories and fat than did sleepy men.
“Ice cream stood out as the preferred food during the sleep-deprived state,” lead author Marie-Pierre St-Onge, an assistant professor of clinical nutrition medicine at Columbia, told USA Today.
If you explored the 3,500 exhibitors lining the crowded aisles at the recent Natural Products Expo West, you might have been impressed by the incredible diversity in the organic and natural foods market. Indeed, there were many independent companies and new players looking for retailers to pick up their products. The country’s biggest industrial food processors were well represented, too, even if it wasn’t always obvious. General Mills was there (Cascadian Farm and Muir Glen). So were Kellogg (Kashi and Morningstar Farms), Kraft (Boca Foods), Coca-Cola (Honest Tea), Pepsi (Naked Juice) and M&M/Mars (Seeds of Change), to name a few others.
Of course, it’s no surprise that big food processors have gotten into the organic food business. It’s a fast-growing market. According to the latest figures from the Organic Trade Association (OTA), sales of organic food and beverages reached $24.8 billion in 2009. The heyday for big corporate acquisition of small organic producers was 1997-2007. At the same time, many processors rolled out organic versions of popular brands, while many of the country’s top food retailers commissioned the same manufacturers to produce private-label organic lines.
Does big corporate interest help or hinder organics?
“It depends on your values,” says Philip H. Howard, an assistant professor at Michigan State University, whose articles in academic journals have examined the consequences of consolidation in the organic food industry. “That’s the debate in the organic movement. Some people say that it’s so important to reduce the use of synthetic pesticides that we shouldn’t worry about who owns what. Others say it’s not just about pesticides, but our overall food system.”
Large players have made organic food more available and affordable. “It’s easier to find organic foods these days,” says Howard. “It’s literally everywhere now. And part of this is because big business has gotten involved.”
Mass market retailers (including supermarket chains, warehouse clubs and mass merchandisers like Wal-Mart and Target) now account for more than half of organic food sales. Natural retailers–a segment dominated by Whole Foods–make up another 38%.
“There are purists who believe organic is just for small entities,” says Christine Bushway, executive director of the OTA, which represents organic companies ranging from smaller independents like Alvarado St. Bakery to Kraft. “But the fact of the matter is that it’s a very, very fast-growing area because of consumer demand, and it takes some of the bigger players to meet that demand.”
Big corporations open up mainstream distribution channels for the smaller organic brands they own. Earlier this month, Coca-Cola completed its acquisition of Honest Tea, which produces a line of USDA-certified organic beverages. As Honest Tea’s “TeaEO” Seth Goldman explains in a video on the company’s website, Coke’s resources enable Honest Tea to reach a far bigger market and fulfill its mission to “democratize” organics.
But corporate consolidation of organics has some disadvantages, too.
Honest Tea’s honesty about its affiliation with Coca-Cola is unique among organic companies with multinational corporate parents. Most opt for what Howard calls “stealth” ownership that makes it difficult for consumers to know if an organic brand is owned by a bigger corporation. For example, Muir Glen and Cascadian Farm are owned by Small Planet Foods, which in turn is owned by General Mills. But, you wouldn’t learn that from the products’ packaging or websites (though Small Planet does list the same P.O. box mailing address as General Mills, which you’d discover when you went to General Mills’ site).
Many organic companies hide their big corporate ties because they know their customers don’t trust the integrity of Big Food. Howard notes that Whole Foods refused to carry Tyson’s organic chicken line because the retailer thought customers wouldn’t buy a product made by a conventional meat processing giant. When I posted Goldman’s video on our Facebook page, commenters were skeptical about Coke’s ownership of Honest Tea. Other shoppers, especially those committed to the social responsibility roots of the organics movement, may be reluctant to buy organic products that support multinational food giants that have no qualms about pursuing less planet-friendly practices (like using GMOs) in other brands.
“Stealth” ownership also creates what Howard calls “pseudo-diversity” in organics. That means consumers to think there are more alternatives to Big Food than really exist.
Corporate consolidation also makes it more challenging for independent organic companies to reach customers. “Distribution has become so consolidated. If you’re a new, smaller independent company, it’s much harder to get national distribution,” says Howard. Aligning with a major corporation can make a huge difference. When Honest Tea partnered with Coke, they quadrupled their distribution outlets.
“Whether it’s Coca-Cola or a little farmer with seven cows, they have to follow the [USDA] National Organic Program,” says Bushway. “[Size] doesn’t really matter.”
Or does it? Howard’s research indicates that as large food processors have entered organics, they’ve also successfully lobbied to lower those standards. Some examples he cites are increasing numbers of feedlot-scale organic dairies operated by Horizon (owned by Dean Foods); in 2007, the USDA began allowing nonorganic “minor” ingredients (up to 5%) in organic processed foods.
Under corporate ownership, some subsidiaries maintain their commitment to organics (such as Cascadian Farm or Muir Glen), others quietly abandon organics in favor of the virtually meaningless “natural” claim. Howard points to another Coca-Cola brand, Odwalla, as one example. Another is Silk, which under WhiteWave (Dean Foods), now offers just four organic products in its extensive line.
What You Can Do
“Those cases show you have to be pretty vigilant,” says Howard. Even if ownership isn’t an issue for you, it still pays to double-check the labels of your favorite products when you grab them off the grocery shelf to be sure that organic seal is still there.
If you prefer to support independent companies, there are still some large independent organic brands, including Eden Foods, Bob’s Red Mill, Lundberg Family Farms, Organic Valley and others.
If you want to keep an eye on the ownership of your favorite brands, bookmark GoodGuide, a site that rates companies and products based on health, the environment and social responsibility. They also include corporate ownership information, and have a free iPhone app so you can check products when you’re shopping.
I fell in love with these giant — gigantes — beans in Athens, where they’re often served as part of a mezhedes appetizer spread. They’re meaty, soaked through with flavor and thoroughly satisfying. To this day, my favorite way to enjoy them is still with toothpicks and a glass of ouzo.
Last week, I reported on the overall vibe at the Natural Products Expo West, which included plenty of buzz about GMOs. This week, I want to share some of the cool stuff I spotted on the expo floor that (hopefully) will come to a store near you soon. These are just the highlights! Ancient Grains for Modern Diets
Whole-grain goodness is a linchpin of healthy eating. But as I strolled the expo floor, it was clear that ancient grains where it’s at. The South American grain quinoa has come of age, and protein- and nutrient-packed ancient forms of wheat are the next big thing.
Jovial offers pastas and cookies made with einkorn, an ancient form of wheat that’s high in protein and B vitamins. We’re big fans of Jovial’s einkorn pasta, which is full-flavored and hearty. Their new Italian-made einkorn cookies are surprisingly delicate and will change the way you think about whole wheat baked goods.
I also had a chance to sit down with Bob Quinn, founder of Kamut Khorosan, an ancient form of wheat originally from Egypt. Quinn grows the wheat in Montana, and most of it is exported to Italy, where it’s used to make pasta. But Kamut, which Quinn touts as “King Tut’s wheat,” is catching on in the States in everything from flour to pasta to whole wheat berries.
Vegan for All
I’m not vegan myself, but I can get behind the idea of a plant-centered diet, so I was eager to check out some of the vegan fare at the expo. This year, I found vegan food that appeals to all palates.
My big gripe with vegan “cheese” has been with the flavor (often not even close to the real thing) and texture (many vegan cheeses have a disconcerting tendency to coat the mouth). A vegan friend has been encouraging me to try out Daiya vegan cheese. Last week, I did, and found it a big improvement over vegan cheese I’ve had in the past. Daiya’s cheddar- and mozzarella-style shreds are made from tapioca and have a nice mouthfeel and good melting quality. No, they won’t replace a Neal’s Yard Cheddar or buffalo mozzarella, but you could use them to bust out a decent mac ‘n’ cheese.
I also swung by the Earth Balance booth to check out their forthcoming (this summer) line of vegan MindfulMayo line. Now, I love a homemade mayo, but I’d also happily use their Olive Oil Mayonnaise in a tuna salad or on a sandwich.
Walking the expo aisles, one would be forgiven for thinking the world has gone coconuts. There were booths with coconut water, coconut oil, coconut spreads, coconut butter, coconut ice cream, coconut milk, coconut syrup and coconut sugar.
Why? Although coconut’s fat is saturated, it’s a beneficial kind that has an anti-inflammatory, antibacterial effect. And because it’s a plant-based fat, its saturated fat is supposed to be better absorbed by the body than animal fat.
Coconut can be a pricey ingredient, so I was curious to sample Earth Balance’s Organic Coconut Spread (also due out this summer), which will have a lower price point but also can be used for baking and other dishes.
But the coconut item that most intrigued me was Coconut World’s Coconut Sugar. Imagine brown sugar with the lighter texture of granulated sugar, but with a lower glycemic index (so it’s absorbed more slowly into the blood) and much higher in potassium.
Reducing our packaging footprint was a big theme, and manufacturers were looking for ways to go beyond recyclable. Just one example: Boulder Canyon Natural Foods kettle chips in a compostable bag (yes, the chips are good, too).
There also were lots of reusable water bottles, containers and napkins. Eco Lunchbox showed off sleek and chic stainless-steel containers paired with gorgeous handmade, fair-trade fabric lunch bags and napkins. Still trying to break the plastic baggie habit? Try LunchSkins‘ reusable BPA- and phthalate-free baggies with Velcro closures, which you can toss into the dishwasher.