The Oldways Table Blog

Celebrating health,
happiness, heritage,
and delicious,
nutritious food.

July 29, 2014 | Oldways Table

The Oldways family needs no convincing that brassicas are delicious, but with recipes like cauliflower hummus, curried collards, and tantalizing turnip and apple salsa, Laura B. Russell’s book, Brassicas, took our admiration to a whole new level!

Divided into seven chapters as well as “Brassica Basics” that offer helpful tips on selection, prep, and nutrition, this book gives everyone the confidence they need to get cooking. In fact there are 80 amazing recipes that showcase the versatility of this very special group of vegetables.  Some are more common, others harder to find, but all offer home cooks a wonderful way to feed themselves and their families this nourishing and delicious group of vegetables.  Lucky for us, Laura took the time to talk with us about her latest book and today we can share that conversation with all of you.

OLDWAYS:  Can you tell us how your love affair with brassicas began?
LBR: I love most vegetables, but I’ve always been specifically drawn to those with bold flavors—broccoli rabe, watercress, and turnips, for example. Many people avoid foods with stronger flavors, but I think they have the ability to add excitement to your plate when handled properly.

OLDWAYS:  Brassicas had, and in many cases still have, a bad rap.  Why do you think this began and how is your book addressing these beliefs and working to dispel them?
LBR: Some of the big-name brassicas—cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage—have a reputation for being strong flavored and stinky. I think this stems from a lifetime of overcooking. If you grew up eating mushy, watery vegetables, then of course you’ll have a negative impression of them. There are considerably better ways to prepare these vegetables than boiling. In Brassicas, I introduce cooking methods and flavor pairings that enhance the vegetables’ inherent sweetness rather than highlighting their less favorable traits.

OLDWAYS:  Talk with us about the brassica flavor spectrum and the four categories.  What are they and can you share some examples?
LBR: There’s this notion that all brassicas are “strong” or “bitter." In fact, the brassica vegetables represent a wide range of flavor profiles, many quite nuanced. I’ve divided them among four general categories.

  • Mild: sweet, nutty, or grassy vegetables like bok choy, kohlrabi, napa cabbage, and even cauliflower.
  • Stronger: those vegetables with earthy, minerally, or pleasantly bitter characteristics like broccoli, kale, collard greens, or Brussels sprouts. These are the vegetables you don’t want to overcook or their sulfurous traits will emerge.
  • Peppery: arugula, cress, radishes, and turnips reveal a distinctive peppery, often spicy burst of flavor.
  • Pungent: Mustard, horseradish, and wasabi can often be considered “sinus clearing”…in the most pleasant way possible.

OLDWAYS:  Over the past few years kale has become a food phenomenon – what brassica do you hope is the next food hero?
LBR: I adore kohlrabi. I hadn’t used much of it before experimenting for Brassicas, but it’s my new favorite vegetable. It tastes mild and sweet, somewhat reminiscent of broccoli stalks with a faint peppery finish. It’s very juicy and crisp when raw, but also tastes great in a vegetable curry.  The leaves are edible as well and taste very similar to collard greens.

OLDWAYS:  Folks can feel intimidated when meeting new groups of vegetables.  Can you talk with our readers about your general selection and storage advice to help get them feeling more comfortable?
LBR: Sure! You should choose vegetables that look fresh and vibrant, avoiding any that are wilting or yellowing. Time and excess water are the enemies of good storage. When you unload your groceries, remove any rubber bands or twist ties from bunched greens to avoid quick rotting. For similar reasons, remove tight plastic packaging from cauliflower or broccoli, as it traps moisture. Most vegetables keep well in a loosely sealed plastic bag with a paper towel tucked inside to wick away extra moisture. I do go into specifics for the individual vegetables in each of Brassicas chapter introductions.

OLDWAYS:  You talk in the book about ‘friend of brassicas’ and some pantry staples that pair well with this group of veggies. Can you share your short list with our readers?
LBR: You need only three things to make nearly any brassica taste delicious: olive oil, garlic, and salt. With these in hand you can turn out a quick sauté, a pan full of roasted vegetables, or—if you add lemon juice—a salad. Because brassicas are all members of the same botanical family, it makes sense that they share an affinity for certain pairings. Some of my other favorites are red pepper flakes and cured pork (bacon, pancetta, prosciutto).

OLDWAYS:  It is always difficult to pick a favorite but would you mind choosing one of your recipes to share with our readers?
LBR: It is difficult! These recipes have become my go-to weeknight staples. I really love the Mizuna Salad with Cumin-Roasted Cauliflower. It combines two brassicas—mizuna and cauliflower—with dates and a North African-inspired cumin vinaigrette. Mizuna is another of my favorite vegetables, but the salad also works well with baby arugula.

Mizuna Salad with Cumin-Roasted Cauliflower
You get a double dose of brassicas in this North African–inspired salad that calls for both mizuna and cauliflower. My husband loves mizuna, a mildly peppery salad green, so we tend to eat a ton of it when it shows up at the farmers’ market in early spring. If you cannot find it, baby arugula (another brassica) makes an ideal substitute. Don’t forget to add the dates; their honeyed sweetness creates a perfect balance of flavors with the cumin-laced cauliflower and greens. Find fresh dates in the produce section or dried chopped dates near the raisins. I like the taste of honey in the dressing, but for a vegan-friendly version, substitute agave nectar.
Serves 4

1 small head cauliflower, cored and cut into bite-size florets (about 4 cups)
5 tablespoons olive oil (divided)
3⁄4 teaspoon kosher salt (divided)
1-3⁄4 teaspoons ground cumin (divided)
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon honey
1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 large bunch mizuna, large stems removed, or 1 (5-ounce) package baby arugula (about 12 cups loosely packed)
4 fresh or dried dates, pitted and finely chopped (about 1⁄2 cup)

Preheat the oven to 450°F. Put the cauliflower on a rimmed baking sheet, drizzle with 2 tablespoons of the oil, sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon of the salt and 1-1/2 teaspoons of the cumin, and toss to coat evenly, then spread in a single layer. Roast the cauliflower, stirring once or twice, for about 15 minutes, until golden brown and tender but not mushy. Taste a floret for doneness; larger florets may take slightly longer to cook.

While the cauliflower is roasting, make the dressing: In a small bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, honey, the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon cumin, and the pepper. Whisk in the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil.

In a serving bowl, combine the roasted cauliflower, mizuna, and dates, drizzle with the dressing, and toss to coat evenly. Taste and add additional salt and pepper if needed. Serve immediately.

Reprinted with permission from Brassicas by Laura B. Russell (Ten Speed Press, © 2014).

July 24, 2014 | Oldways Table

Are we eating better? Worse? What are the trends? According to data presented last week at a meeting of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), Americans’ eating habits didn’t improve much between 2001 and 2010, except in one area: whole grains.

The scientists on the committee looked closely at four food groups where Americans continue to fall far short of recommendations, to see if any progress was being made. The data showed that fruit and dairy intake had stayed pretty much level over this period as these two graphs illustrate. (You can see the trends by gender and by age group, then you can see the overall trend in the last set of bars on the right -- notice how the blue and green bars are identical for fruit and for dairy?):

Vegetable intake actually went down slightly (even though popular choices like iceberg lettuce and French Fries are included in the vegetable total):

Only whole grains were up – and they increased 33% during this period. Yay. Sound the trumpets.

We’re feeling pretty good about this, especially since the increase is spread over almost every age group, for both males and females, and no group decreased its whole grain intake. The efforts Oldways and its Whole Grains Council have made to educate people about the benefits of whole grains – and to help them find whole grain products, with the Whole Grain Stamp – are making a dent. Makes us feel good about getting up in the morning and going to work.

We can’t stop here, though, as these next two graphs make clear. Even though whole grain consumption rose 33%, people are only eating, on average, less than one serving of whole grains – instead of the three or more servings (called “ounce equivalents” by USDA – don’t ask!) recommended by the Dietary Guidelines. Very few people are following official advice to “Make at least half your grains whole, as the next two graphs show.”

In the upper of these two graphs, you can see that virtually no one in the U.S. is eating three servings or more of whole grains daily. Older men do best – they scramble way up to maybe 4% of people getting their three-a-day of whole grains. (And if you can see that tiny sliver of green in the women 51-70, that’s me.)

We’re pretty much all getting plenty of refined grains, though, as the lower of the two graphs shows. This time the not-so-good red bars are on the right, since close to 75% of us make more – often much more – than half our grains refined.

Oldways / Whole Grains Council Conference Tackles Controversial Grain Issues

Despite the documented health benefits of whole grains, misinformation abounds and gluten-free and grain-free diets are in the news.

If you’d like to separate the facts from the fiction, register now for our upcoming conference called Whole Grains: Breaking Barriers, taking place in Boston on  November 9-11, 2014.

Leading national experts including Alessio Fasano, David Katz and many more will help journalists, health professionals, policymakers, and manufacturers get the answers to all their questions about the best role for grains in America’s meals and snacks. (12 CPE credits for registered dietitians.)

So what happens with these data? U.S. law requires our government to update the Dietary Guidelines for Americans every five years, and the process starts with the appointment of a Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, a dozen or so qualified nutrition professionals who meet endlessly for as much as two years to review studies that have been published since the last update. They comb through the evidence, and summarize it in a report which will be used as the key reference while USDA and HHS create the 2015 Dietary Guidelines.

What will that report say? No one knows yet, but a few draft conclusions were shared at the DGAC meeting, including these:

  • Cardiovascular Disease (CVD): “…strong and consistent evidence shows that dietary patterns associated with reduced risk of CVD are characterized by … regular consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and fish, and are low in red and processed meat, refined grains, and sugar-sweetened foods and drinks.”
  • Obesity: “…moderate evidence suggests favorable outcomes related to body weight or risk of obesity by dietary patterns that are… high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains.”
  • Diabetes: “…moderate evidence suggests that dietary patterns rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains; and low in red and processed meats, high-fat dairy, refined grains, and sweets/sugar-sweetened beverages reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.”
  • Certain Cancers: “…moderate evidence suggests that dietary patterns rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains; and low In some animal products and refined carbohydrate are associated with reduced risk of post-menopausal breast cancer.” “Patterns emphasizing fruits, vegetables, fish/seafood, legumes, low-fat dairy, and whole grains were generally associated with reduced risk of colorectal cancer.”

The messages are clear: Whole grains contribute significantly to health. We’re eating more of them – but still not enough to reap all the health benefits. If you haven’t already, make the switch: go whole grain next time you serve yourself some cereal, a sandwich, or a pasta meal.



July 22, 2014 | Oldways Table

Has your flour ever turned into a breeding ground for little bugs?  Maybe baking took a backburner for a few months and when you revisited your flour bag out popped a little bug? Have you seen them and wondered what to do? Do you sift through the powdery mess, discarding the bugs and save the flour or immediately throw everything away? 

We heard some rumors, mostly from around the time of the Great Depression, when folks still used infested flour.  Could this be why the flour sifter was invented? 

This pesky pest issue was one we were curious about so we posed the question to the experts: would any of them cook or bake with buggy flour?  It was added to our culinary conundrum series, and today we share what the experts would do. The answers may surprise you…or maybe not! (Likely not!)

Nope -- when flour gets buggy, we're always sure to throw it away. – Editors at Food52

My mother always did, so I don't.Melissa Clark, food columnist for The New York Times and cookbook author

Never ever!  Throw it out!Joan Weir, chef, restaurateur and cookbook author

No, I would not.  Even though I hate to waste food, this is one condition that would bother me, although in many countries insects are a food source.Sharon Palmer, The Plant-Powered Dietitian

No. Buggy flour gets tossed. That gives me the heeby jeebies. If you live in a buggy area, store your flour in a sealed airtight container. - Michelle Dudash, Registered Dietitian, Nutritionist and Chef Consultant

Need advice on storing grains and flours?  We recommend this helpful storage chart from our Whole Grains Council.

July 17, 2014 | Oldways Table

When I was in college I spent a year studying in Europe. In other words, I spent nine months trying the regional cuisines of as many places as I could visit. Of all of those tastes, one that still (years later) stands out vividly in my mind is that of the amazing paella valenciana I ate in in its namesake hometown in Spain. And while there were so many memorable flavors in that meal, the one that surprised and delighted me most was the very base of the dish: the saffron rice.

I’m not sure I’d been aware of – let alone tasted – saffron before that rice, but you can be sure that I’ve sought out that delicious flavor and aroma many times since. In the years that have elapsed, I’ve tried saffron paired with pistachios in Indian kulfi, flavoring the sauce of Moroccan tagines, and stirred into Italian risottos colored yellow-orange by the spice. It turns out that saffron is used in a wide variety of cuisines around the globe, though it’s thought to have originated in Southwest Asia.  Saffron’s global popularity isn’t surprising when you consider that while the saffron crocus was first cultivated in Greece, it spread to Eurasia, North Africa, North America, and Oceania, all before the Declaration of Independence was written (and in some cases, much earlier).  Today, 90% of the world’s saffron is produced in Iran, though cultivation can also be found in far-flung areas such as southern Italy, Spain, and France, Afghanistan, and Pennsylvania.

Saffron, like many herbs and spices, has a long and storied history. Owing to its vibrant color – like turmeric, saffron is sometimes known as much for its color as for its flavor or aroma – saffron was used consistently over the course three millennia for pigments and is still used as a natural dye today. It was also historically used as a medicinal treatment for a wide range of ailments from general melancholy to wound healing. Today, it is among the most expensive globally traded spices, due to the labor intensive nature of saffron cultivation and harvest. Planting one acre of saffron crocuses – the spice we use in cooking is the stigma of the crocus plant (also called “threads” in the kitchen) – only produces between five and seven pounds of the precious spice.

Due to the high cost of production, ground saffron found in grocery stores may be adulterated with other, similarly colored spices (such as turmeric or safflower). When buying saffron to make your favorite dishes, look for full threads or strands. While they may be pricey, a little goes a very long way. To get the most saffron color and flavor from the threads, they can be soaked in hot water before being added to a recipe. How will you use this ancient spice in your cooking?



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