Thursday, January 31, 2013

Earthly Roots, Fresh from the Farm

by Maria Noël Groves, Clinical Herbalist & Co-op Wellness Educator

In the depths of winter, it seems like fresh, local produce is a distant memory. Not so! With the help of hoop houses and root cellars, we can munch on the fruits of our neighboring farmers' labor right through February. We're still getting regular deliveries of carrots, parsnips, cabbage, potatoes, rutabagas, celeriac, onions, garlic, beets, and - when we're really lucky - fresh greens from some of our favorite farms including the Vegetable Ranch, Brookford Farm, and Snow Dragon Mountain Farm. For this blog, I hope to inspire you to bring home some of the lesser-known root veggies.

We all know and love potatoes. They are, indeed, the most abundantly consumed vegetable in the country. We eat about one potato per person per day, and fried potatoes make up nearly 50 percent of the total vegetable intake for children alone (yikes!). My blog on The Humble and Amazing Potato remains the most-read post on the Co-op Buzz Blog thus far. Certainly there are more healthy and less healthy ways of eating your 'taters, so I'll give our Co-op community the benefit of the doubt here.

Sweet Potatoes: Sweet potatoes are the easy-pick "gateway" vegetable for finicky eaters. You can use them almost like a regular potato, but they're sweeter and more colorful. Dr. Sam Sanzone - a big fan of sweet potatoes - recently ran some comparisons during our Kitchen on a Mission cooking series. Both types of potatoes have similar calorie and macronutrient content, but sweet potatoes are lower on the glycemic index, deliver a whopping 380% of your daily value of vitamin A, and offer more than double the vitamin C content of a white potato. Dr. Sam roasts up a few pounds of sweet potatoes each week and then uses the leftovers as a quick breakfast or lunch side dish. Mmmm. They're also great in soups, casseroles, and you can even add the puree to muffins and hummus. Store them for a week or more in a cool, dark, dry spot - not in the refrigerator. While it is possible to grow sweet potatoes in New Hampshire, it's not easy. So, sweet potatoes are rarely a local option in produce, but they're still a good starting point to enter into the diverse world of root vegetables.

Rutabagas & Turnips: This broccoli-family roots should be next on a potato-lovers list to try. They both offer mild, potato-y flavor and texture with a hint of cabbage undertones (but try not to think about that). The two roots are relatively interchangeable, with rutabagas being a bit larger, more orange when cooked, and having that cabbage quality (it's a cross between a turnip and cabbage). Turnips tend to be smaller, with purple tops and white flesh (but this can vary) and sometimes a mild radish flavor undertone. Start off by mashing them with potatoes. They're a classic choice for boiled dinner, perfect for soups and stews, casseroles, tarts, and roasting. People with more sensitive tastebuds might still find them too bitter, so if that's the case, move along to...

Celeriac (Celery Root): This thing looks a bit like a goblin baby and certainly not like something you'd want to eat. But you'll be surprised! It has a mild, smooth flavor with a hint of celery and creams up nicely with a texture that surpasses potatoes. You won't even recognize it in a soup, but you can really show it off as a mash or puree with a fancy cut of meat on top and some gourmet greens to the side. Also try it roasted and in other standard root vegetable-type recipes. You'll want to peel it first, possibly with a knife. Whole roots store well in the fridge for at least a week.

Parsnips: These white, carrot-y veggies really don't jump out at you from the shelf. But, I strongly recommend giving them a try. They're a tad sweeter than carrots with a more pronounced flavor that begs to be combined  with fresh-grated nutmeg. One of my most memorable recipes is of fresh, spring-harvested parsnips braised in a bit of water with brown sugar and butter til they're just starting to get tender, then remove the lid and let the sauce cook down into a glaze and finish with the aforementioned nutmeg. Heaven! Opt for smaller parsnips, which have better flavor, and remove the woody core if it seems necessary. Parsnips also do nicely roasted, pureed, in soups, the usual.

Beets: When I first began working in natural food stores in college, I only ate a few vegetables: carrots, corn, potatoes, and iceberg lettuce. I remember one of my fellow cashiers coming through my line with a bag loaded with beets. "How do you cook them?" I asked. "Any way! I just LOVE beets!" My memory of beets was pickled at Sunday dinner on my grandparents farm (next to the gray green beans and pitcher of "chocolate" milk made with one spoonful of Quick). I'm happy to say that over the past decade+, beets have become one of my favorite vegetables. Try cutting them into quarter-inch matchsticks and roasting them at 420 degrees in a bit of oil until they reach the perfect stage of crispy and flavorful (but before they reach that unfortunate state of burnt). No salt, pepper, or other seasonings needed. It's a great accompaniment hearty autumn/winter dishes or placed atop greens with goat cheese and a squeeze of fresh citrus. You can also roast beets whole, let them cook slightly, then peel and slice them - they store well this way to toss with salad or other dishes. Also try grating fresh beets (solo or along with a bit of carrots and radish or daikon root) for a colorful salad; dress it with sweet citrus juice or maple syrup and toasted sesame oil, topped with toasted sesame seeds. I prefer red beets for their insanely gorgeous hue, but golden beets work better in dishes that you don't want everything stained red. Beets will store for weeks, if not months, in the fridge, but they will lose flavor and sweetness over time.

Radishes & Diakon Root: These are some of the few vegetables that I have still not learned to love (even though radishes are sooo pretty, and that usually counts for something my my book). But, for those who like veggies that bite back, they are definitely worth trying. Consider them thinly shaved into ribbons or grated into raw dishes and salads, or very lightly cooked in a stir fry, to perk things up. Radish lovers enjoy them nibbled whole or dipped into dressing. They also pair well with beef and are mellowed with mayo and cream much like horseradish would. Their peppery flavor mellows a bit when combined with sweets and sesame as in the aforementioned beet salad. I will never forget the produce code for diakon root, which was turned into a jingle by 20-somethings in the produce department at one of my old jobs: "94258, diakon root's long hard and straight!" (Sorry, couldn't help it!)

General Root Vegetable Tips
  • If your root veggies come home with the greens still attached, it's a great sign that they're fresh, but you'll want to remove the greens before storing the roots. They'll keep and taste better. Save the greens for cooking, too! Beet greens are like chard, turnip greens like mustard greens, and celery, well... you can probably figure that one out.
  • Store your root vegetables as dry as possible.
    • In the fridge in a loosely sealed plastic bag: turnips, rutabegas, celeriac, parsnips, beets, carrots
    • In the pantry in mesh bags/baskets or loose: potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, garlic
  • Almost any root vegetable can be roasted. Toss it in an oil that will withstand high temps (like organic canola or grapeseed), lay them out on a baking sheet with adequate spacing, season as desired, and cook at 420 degrees, tossing occasionally, until caramelized and tender (about 20 minutes).

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Bring Home Sunshine: Citrus Primer

by Maria Noël Groves, Clinical Herbalist & Co-op Wellness Educator

Local fruit may be scarce this time of year, but seasonal citrus from warmer climates offers fresh flavor to help us refresh and slim down after the heaviness of holiday fare. Most citrus is at its peak *right now,* so stock up and enjoy!

Did you know that most of the citrus we eat – oranges, grapefruit, lemon, and limes – are actually varieties of the same species, Citrus sinensis? All citrus is loaded with the antioxidant powerhouse vitamin C as well as complementary bioflavanoids that help vitamin C work better in the body. Citrus lends a “degreasing” property to meals, helping you better digest fats. Freshly squeezed citrus – whether tart or sweet – immediately livens up the flavors in a dish with few calories added. Grate the zest (always use organic!) from the outer peel to flavor soups, dressings, marinades, and desserts. The bitterness of the peel primarily comes from the white pith, which is easily removed for recipes even though it’s loaded with healthy bioflavanoids.

The Co-op's exact selection of citrus varies day to day depending on what's available, prices, and quality; however, here's a primer on some of the common and specialty citrus you might find at the Co-op on a given day. Be sure to keep an eye out for good deals on bagged citrus!

Navel Oranges are the “gateway” citrus for most of us. Affordable, sweet, tasty, seedless, and usually easy-to-peel, navels are a simple snack or salad ingredient. They’re easily identified by their telltale navel belly buttons. Look for fruits that feel heavy (they’re juicier) and are completely orange without any greening of the skin, which indicates that they’re not fully ripe. Smaller navels generally taste better.

Valencia Oranges are prized by juicers. They’re loaded with seeds and are more difficult to peel, but they’re usually sweeter, more flavorful, and less expensive than navels. Use a good hand-juicer or throw them into a standard juicer after slicing off the peel: cut the ends off, then slowly slice down the strips off the side. Valencia peels may turn greenish in warm weather. Unlike navels, this usually indicates a sweeter, riper fruit.

Satsumas are one of the most delightful types of citrus, and the small fruits are worth the extra cost. Much like their relative mandarin oranges and clementines, satsumas are easy-to-peel, usually seedless, and super sweet. The flesh has a delightful a candy-like floral undertone. They’re delicious as a simple dessert of sections served alongside dark chocolate. Save some of your peels to dry and add to potpourri and tea. Look for fresh fruits with bright orange, plump peels that hasn’t gotten too mushy or hard – sure signs that they’ve been sitting on the shelf too long. Get a bunch. Even though they have a shorter shelf life, you can easily eat two to four in a sitting!

Clementines come in the big box, a classic for a quick snack. Easy-to-peel, seedless, sweet, and perfect for kids! Watch out for mushy and moldy fruits, though.

Blood Oranges are rich in anthocyanins, the red pigment that gives them their bloody hue and enhanced antioxidant properties. Blood oranges may have orange or red-tinged skin; red skin usually indicates redder flesh. The flesh can range from deep red throughout to tie-dyed orange and red. They’re slightly bitter and tend to be harder to peel. Serve them as slices or segments with the pith removed to show off their color in gourmet salads like arugula with manchego cheese, or as a dessert sprinkled with cinnamon. Try freshly squeezed blood orange juice as dressing for roasted beets and chèvre on mesclun greens. The blood orange season can extend all the way into May.

Tangelos are a hybrid, usually of tangerine and grapefruit, and they have vivid orange flesh with a knob on the end. They’re a bit larger, somewhat sweeter, and have just a few seeds.
Tangerines are smaller, deliciously sweet citrus that are usually easy to peel but may have a lot of seeds. The flavor tends to be brighter and less tart than other oranges.

Red Grapefruit is sweeter, pinker, and much more common than white grapefruit nowadays. The flesh is tart and somewhat sweet, but the white pith is very bitter. Squeeze some into seltzer water for a refreshing beverage (for a hint of bitterness, toss in the whole wedge). Slice it up as a snack after meals. If they’re too tart for you, drizzle with honey, or warm a bit and try maple syrup. Toss the fresh fruit or juice into avocado, salmon, chicken, and shrimp dishes or marinades.

Lemons provide classic tang for salad dressings and Italian dishes, especially when added just before serving. Bakers love to add the fresh juice and zest to recipes, too. Seek out Meyer lemons when available, which were made famous by gourmand Alice Waters and Chez Panisse. Meyers are a cross of lemon with  orange or mandarin. They’re sweeter with none of the bitterness of a standard lemon, and their tender, bright yellow peels can be eaten straight or candied. I enjoy eating fresh slices and also throw wedges of any kind of lemon into ginger tea with honey on cold, dreary days.

Limes, with their unique sour flavor and aromatic oils, are crucial for Mexican, Caribbean, and south Asian cuisine. The zest and fresh juice are used in meat marinades or added at the end of cooking to curries and soups for fresh flavor. They marry well with spearmint, cilantro, and coconut. Wedges are essential for mojitos and Mexican beer.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

What Do I Do with Leftover Herbs?

by Maria Noël Groves, Clinical Herbalist & Co-op Wellness Educator

So, you're trying to eat more healthy foods. You've got some new cookbooks or are looking on websites for recipes, which inevitably brings you to purchase one of those bunches or clam shells of fresh herbs from the produce section. You chop your fresh tablespoon or so of herbs for the recipe (and, wow, it really does taste better!)... but, now, what do you do with all the leftover herbs?

Rosemary: This is one of the most versatile of culinary herbs! Toss whole sprigs into soups and stews, removing the woody stems before serving. Toss needles or whole sprigs with winter squash, potatoes, or other roasted vegetables. Tossing something on the grill? Use rosemary twigs as skewers to infuse flavor into vegetables, lamb, chicken, or other meats. I particularly like to toss rosemary needles and ground turmeric, salt, pepper, crushed red pepper, and olive oil with roasted chickpeas (great snack!), scrambled into eggs, or pan-fried with whole grains and veggies for a side dish. Tuck sprigs under the skin of chicken before roasting. Adventurous taste buds will enjoy steeping thinly sliced ginger, a lemon wedge, and a rosemary sprig, sweetened with honey, as tea. Still have leftovers? Lay the sprigs on your counter to air dry, then remove the needles and store for future use.

Parsley: Add fresh, finely chopped parsley to almost any savory dish (just at the end of cooking) to perk up the flavor. Add a handful to juices and smoothies, hummus and pesto. Still have leftovers? Puree parsley leaves with enough olive oil to make a paste, and store it in the freezer. Pull out a hunk to add to future recipes.

Thyme: You can use this herb almost exactly as you would rosemary (above), though the flavor is of course different. It offers a more hearty provincial flavor for peasant soups, classic vegetable and poultry dishes, and beans (especially white beans). Thyme is particularly nice with the ginger-lemon-honey tea.

Fennel: After you use the bulb in the recipe, save some of the stems and fronds. They made a fantastic herbal soda. Simply place a few stalks in a one-liter bottle and cover with plain seltzer water. Let sit for about 30 minutes or more, and enjoy within 24 hours. It's wonderful alongside Italian dinners and helps with digestion as well. You can also simmer the stems and fronds in the cooking liquid for fish and shellfish (especially alongside lemon and/or garlic), carrots, and other veggies that benefit from a sweet anise flavor.

Basil: One word: eggs. Scramble your eggs with basil and (another word:) mozzarella. Of course, you can also use excess basil to make pesto - feel free to add other herbs, spinach, kale, etc. along with it - to use immediately or freeze for later use. Toss basil or pesto with pasta, tomatoes, vegetables, chicken, mozzarella, etc. Still have leftovers?  Puree basil leaves with enough olive oil to make a paste, and store it in the freezer. Pull out a hunk to add to future recipes.

Mint: The mint you find in stores is generally spearmint or a similar variety. This is perfect for herbal sodas.  Simply place a few sprigs in a one-liter bottle and cover with plain seltzer water. Let sit for about 30 minutes or more, and enjoy within 24 hours. This goes great with Mexican, African, and Middle Eastern/Mediterranean fare and, like fennel, is great for digestion. This type of mint pairs very well with lime. Combine them for a mojito or "mockito" (sans booze). Put your mint leaves in a class with ice, shake together to release the flavor, add seltzer or soda, a wedge of lime, and light rum (optional). Try a leaf or two in your favorite spring roll, too.

What's YOUR favorite way to use up extra herbs? Let us know by leaving a comment.