Sunday, June 22, 2014

Who doesn’t like fresh figs? Well, maybe Cleopatra…*

One of my teacher colleagues has a fig tree that produces copious amounts of fruit each year.  Of course, this attracts lots of birds and animals that often get to the figs before the humans do.   So my friend goes out early in the morning before school to harvest figs each day they are in season, filling whatever containers she has at hand—baskets, bowls, colanders, paper bags—you name it.  We, her lucky colleagues, get to feast on the fresh figs she brings to school to give away.  Nice lady, right?  

My students are always curious about the foods I have with me at school and the figs proved to be no exception.  I was surprised (and saddened) to realize how many of my high school students had never laid eyes on a fresh fig.  Their comments about the alien, purple-skinned “things” on my desk ranged from an enthusiastic “What’s that?!” to an eye-rolling “Eewww.”  Of course, these responses shouldn’t be surprising considering far too many young people eat processed, packaged, and frozen “food” instead of fresh items.  I happily offered to share my stash of figs with the kids who were intrepid enough to try one.  Once they had tasted a real fig, my students were forced to reconsider their opinions about Nabisco Fig Newtons cookies—the only other fig food known to most of them.  

Need more evidence regarding fresh versus packaged?  One medium fresh fig contains 37 calories, 8 grams of natural sugar, and zero fat according to the Nutrition Data website we like to use:
One serving of Fig Newtons (two cookies) will set you back 110 calories, 12 grams of sugar, plus 2 grams of fat.  But wait—there’s more.  Yes, Fig Newtons are a better snack choice than, say, a fudge brownie because the “fig paste” filling itself isn’t so bad—but—the outer cookie part is where the empty carbs and sugars are lurking, just waiting to attach themselves to your thighs.  Read more here:

If you’ve never explored the Nutrition Data website, you might find it interesting.  The information on the site comes from USDA's National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference and is supplemented by listings provided by restaurants and food manufacturers. It sounds boring but it's quite the opposite.  Colorful and well organized information is easy to find and easy to understand.  You can search data for fresh foods as well as brand name items—anything from raw figs to Krispy Kreme doughnuts.  Caveat: If you love Krispy Kremes, don't read it.  The data will break your heart. 

Sadly, our own young fig tree didn’t survive the freakish winter we had this year.  Michel and I were so excited late last fall to find dozens of baby figs starting to form on its branches but the fruits didn’t have time to ripen before the pre-polar vortex besieged us.  And now in mid-June this once promising little tree shows no signs of life.

Before, after.  Thanks, Winter 2014. 

*Speaking of no signs of life, I’m breaking a fundamental rule of teaching: Never assume anything. However, I am assuming you are familiar with the story of Cleopatra and the figs.  Some accounts of her demise maintain that she met her end as result of a bite from an asp that was hidden in a vessel of figs.  Others say the asp was in a basket of flowers.  Some say there was no asp at all and that she somehow poisoned herself.  It's not important, really, because it’s a great story no matter how she died.  But--I can never look at a container of fresh figs without thinking of Elizabeth Taylor. 

Now for the recipe:
Cannellini Beans with Rosemary, Almonds, and Fresh Figs. 

Curious?  It’s a brand new ingredient combo for Michel and he’s very pleased with the results.  One ingredient he used for this dish is Fig Balsamic Vinegar from the Zi Olive shop at Westport Village.  It’s not necessary to use this particular vinegar, but it’s really, really delicious.   (Thanks, Georgette!)   
Here is the Zi Olive link for more information:

Ready to cook?  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

fresh rosemary

You will need:
·        1 ¼ cups dried cannellini beans, soaked overnight
·        5-6 fresh figs, cut into quarters lengthwise (maybe more depending on size)
·        1 cup fresh almonds, finely chopped
·        ¼ cup fresh rosemary, chopped
·        1 heaping teaspoon red pepper flakes
·        1 teaspoon salt
·        1 tablespoon fig balsamic vinegar
·        1 teaspoon regular apple cider vinegar (organic with “the mother” if you have it)

In a 3-quart saucepan:
·        Combine beans, rosemary, salt and pepper with enough water to cover.  Bring to a boil.
·        Reduce heat but not too much. There should still be “movement in the water.”
·        Boil for about an hour, adding water as needed to keep mixture covered.
·        During the last 30-45 minutes add chopped almonds. Continue cooking until beans are  done, taking care that the water does not boil over because the almonds make it “act  like milk.”  
before baking: bean-almond-fig mixture drizzled with fig balsamic vinegar 

When beans are done, transfer mixture to a 9 x 13 baking dish, or whatever baking vessel you like.  Add quartered figs. Drizzle with fig balsamic vinegar and apple  cider vinegar.  
·        Mix together and bake for 20-30 minutes.

after baking
Serve with salad and/or grain of choice or this fig-related side:

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Fresh Figs and Baby Kale

Michel used the remainder of the fresh figs to make Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Fresh Figs and Baby Kale.  His original Brussels sprouts recipe is among the January 2014 posts but, for this dish, he used figs and drizzled with fig balsamic vinegar.  He also added some cut-up baby kale to the mix before roasting. Yum!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Gluten Sensitive? Kamut Point.

Michel is quite the storyteller.  He has a lifetime of stories about people and places and things that are sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, and always memorable.  For example, there’s the one about the time he played his way out of a traffic ticket on Lakeshore Drive in Chicago when the police officer saw a violin case on the back seat of the car.  Michel just stood there next to the road, playing Bach and waiting for the cop to wave him on with a warning.  There’s also the one about the TSA agent in the Detroit airport who scanned the cello case Michel was taking on a business trip.  Upon looking at the x-ray screen as the case inched its way down the security conveyor, the agent said “Oh, so you got a piano in there.”  Now you feel safe flying, right?  Not so much. 

I love a good story as much as the next person, but I find the saga of the origin of kamut rather implausible, despite the fact that I found it on a Purdue University horticulture website. (And for all you Purdue people, Boiler Up!)  The article reads in part: “Following WWII, a US airman claimed to have taken a handful of this grain from a stone box in a tomb near Dashare, Egypt. Thirty-six kernels of the grain were given to a friend who mailed them to his father, a Montana wheat farmer. The farmer planted and harvested a small crop and displayed the grain as a novelty at the local fair. Believing the legend that the giant grain kernels were taken from an Egyptian tomb, the grain was dubbed ‘King Tut's Wheat.’ But soon the novelty wore off and this ancient grain was all but forgotten.”

Oh yes, there’s more to this tale if you’d like to continue reading.  It’s a little too “Indiana Jones” for my taste but it’s still an interesting account.  Time to suspend my disbelief about how precisely thirty-six kernels of grain made their way from an Egyptian tomb to a Montana farm.   Full account here: Kamut: Ancient Grain, New Cereal
Meanwhile, the bearded wellness guru Dr. Andrew Weil claims on his website that the Egypt story is untrue and that another false legend holds that kamut was “the grain Noah brought with him on the ark.”  Right. 

What’s the big deal about kamut?  It has far more protein than regular wheat, for starters.  It’s also high in minerals and lipids, according to the good people at  All of these things are supposed to give you more energy than other carbohydrates.  If you are gluten-sensitive, you’ve probably done some research about it already.  Some findings show that it’s better tolerated than common wheat by those who have allergies or other sensitivities.  However, warnings appear for those who have celiac disease or absolute gluten intolerance.  Not worth the risk, I would say.  

Kamut is a wonderful option to have in your arsenal of grains for healthful eating.  Its nutty, chewy texture adds a satisfying meatiness to vegetarian dishes.  Definitely plays well with others.  On its own, the grains of kamut look just like the cereal that “Sugar Bear” used to sell us during Saturday morning cartoons--well, at least that's what I see.  Remember that Dean Martin-like cartoon bear in a turtleneck sweater?  He crooned a little jingle about “Can’t get enough of that Sugar Crisp.”  Note:  Sugary cereals are bad.  Cartoon bears are harmless.  And fictional. But I digress…sorry. 

Kamut or Sugar Crisp?  Hmm?

Here’s the delicious, healthful kamut recipe. 

Chickpeas with Kamut and Preserved Lemon

You will need:

  • ¾ cup chickpeas
  • ¾ cup kamut
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • ½ an onion, chopped
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon smoked paprika (pimentón)
  • 1 heaping teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon coriander
  • ¼ cup preserved lemon, chopped (recipe in a previous post)
  • 1 carton vegetable broth
  • 1 teaspoon salt
Preserved Lemon
In a stock pot:

  • Heat olive oil—“not too hot”
  • Add garlic, stir “until it gives off its perfume.”
  • Add onion and let it sweat 3-4 minutes over low heat.
  • Add herbs and preserved lemon.
  • Add chickpeas and kamut.
  • Cover all ingredients with vegetable broth, adding more as needed during cooking.
  • Cover and cook over medium heat until chickpeas are soft, about 1-1½ hours.
  • Peek at the mixture now and then to make sure you have enough broth.
  • Serve with quinoa, polenta, or other grain of choice.  Also nice with kale salad.
Relax and enjoy the lively lemon and cinnamon aromas while you wait for the chickpeas to cook. 

Sunday, June 8, 2014

A Broccoli Dish Even Bush 41 Would Like

Former President George H. W. Bush made a lot of friends when he famously proclaimed: “…I’m President of the United States and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli.”  Remember that one?  Not quite as noble as his “thousand points of light” or as enduring as his “read my lips” promise, but it was a landmark statement for all the broccoli haters, to be sure.  There are plenty of people who hate broccoli but they don’t have the public platform of the Oval Office to declare war on vegetables. 

It turns out there could be a genetic reason behind a person’s dislike for broccoli and its cruciferous relatives.  Some people have a high degree of sensitivity to bitterness because of a gene identified as TAS2R38.  It has to do with our evolutionary need to avoid bitter, poisonous plants in order to survive.  If you’re looking for a simpler ‘out’ to avoid eating broccoli, just tell people you have a problem with dimethyl sulfide—the stuff that gives off that lovely sulfur smell.  It’s all here in this Huffington Post article if you’re curious:  Why Do Some People Love Broccoli, And Others Hate It?

Broccoli’s image problem is not lost on New York Times reporter Michael Moss.  He wrote an article for the magazine last November describing his adventures with real-life ad agency Victors & Spoils as he challenged them to create a campaign to get people to eat broccoli.  The firm has generated ads for big corporations selling processed foods but, until Mr. Moss posed the question, the idea of selling broccoli or any fresh fruit or vegetable had never been considered.  The article is an interesting read about the marketing process.  My favorite campaign slogan:  “Broccoli: Now 43% Less Pretentious Than Kale”  

Broccoli's Extreme Makeover

New York Times

If you lack the time and/or patience to read the article, you can watch the Times video here:  Video: Creating the Broccoli Craze

On a personal note, I’ve never had a problem getting along with broccoli.  In fact, I was the weirdo in my circle of childhood friends because I liked it.  (Admittedly, I was a weirdo for lots of reasons but my preference for broccoli over mashed potatoes was right there at the top of the list. I can see you nodding ‘yes’ right now.)  In my defense, I did not like the newfangled Birdseye frozen broccoli with the lumpy orange “cheese” sauce. Ugh.  Michel never had the typical American supermarket/frozen food experience while he was growing up in Holland.  Someone in his household would go to the cheese shop or the bakery or the green grocer or the butcher every day to buy fresh items. No crazy bulk purchases, no ‘big box’ shopping for potato chips and a lawnmower à la Costco.  He still makes frequent trips to various food stores during the course of a week, buying only what’s needed for a day or two.  This method makes sense because it cuts down on waste of both food and money.   It also makes food selection and preparation a more immediate, conscious experience rather than a ‘what-can-I-find-in-the-freezer’ ordeal.

Whatever your approach, I’m sure you will find Michel’s broccoli recipe delicious and easy to prepare.  Here you go:

Broccoli with Fresh Basil and Garlic

You will need:
  • 2 “good sized” broccoli crowns
  • 4 cloves garlic—but don’t do anything with it yet
  • 3-4 tablespoons olive oil
  • a small bunch of fresh basil
  • grated parmesan cheese
  • salt and pepper
  • garlic press
basil chiffonade
In a large skillet:
  • Cut the thick stems off the broccoli, allowing the flowerets to separate.
  • Slice the stems into ¼ inch pieces to expedite cooking.
  • Heat the olive oil--“but not terribly hot.”
  • Add sliced broccoli stems, cook covered over low heat for 5-6 minutes, turning with tongs every couple of minutes.
  • Add broccoli flowerets.
  • Press garlic cloves directly over flowerets.
  • Add salt to taste and a few grinds of pepper.
  • Stir broccoli-garlic mixture and cover.
  • Cook over medium-to-low heat for about 10 minutes, stirring every couple of minutes.
  • While broccoli cooks, ‘chiffonade’ the fresh basil, i.e. roll up the leaves and cut into narrow little ribbons.
  • Place broccoli in serving dish and top with basil chiffonade and grated parmesan cheese. 
  • EAT.