Saturday, June 17, 2006

Greek and Mediterranean Cuisine for Healthy Dining Out.

The Mediterranean Diet has probably focused more attention on Greek cuisine than ever before. And Greek restaurants are becoming much more popular. If you haven't ventured into a Greek restaurant yet, summer is an especially good time.

Mediterranean people love to eat. The sunny climate allows for many social gatherings where food is served. Greek cuisine has been influenced by every culture who battled for, conquered, traded and immigrated there. Many who inhabit Greece and the Mediterranean region are a mix of religions, nationalities and races. Influences include the past Ottoman Empire, Southern Italy, North Africa and the Middle East.

Mediterranean cuisine offers a great deal in the way of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, pita, pasta, olive oil, cheese, milk, eggs, fish and red wine. Less on red meat and processed foods. People of that area have been observed to have less incidences of heart disease and certain cancers, and this has been attributed to their cuisine. And that is also the basis of the currently popular Mediterranean Diet; although you certainly don't need to be dieting to enjoy the food.

Still, if you are basically health conscious and looking for some variety in dining out, Greek restaurants will definitely accomodate many of those desires.

A typical Greek Restaurant offers a wide range of vegetarian style dishes as well as seafood and chicken and of course lamb. You might enjoy a baked vegetarian moussaka with eggplant, parmesan, riccota cheese and zucchini layered, topped with tomato sauce. Other great healthful dishes include Greek Skillet Snapper or Greek Lemon Chicken. There are many lamb dishes offered too, of course. Be mindful, though, that lamb, like any red meat, should be eaten sparingly in accord with many modern health advisories. Mediterranean herbs and spices and traditional ingredients make for a very flavorful cuisine regardless of meat content. Greek Rose wine is wonderful too.

Wild marjoram grows in the mountains in Greece and is often used to flavor meat dishes. The herb is much sharper in flavor than domestic marjorams or oreganos. In Spain it was used to brew fine ales.

Here is a recipe for a Greek salad dressing with marjoram (rigani) to enjoy with fresh greens.

-1/2 cup virgin cold pressed olive oil
-Juice of one lemon (pierce with a fork and heat for a few seconds in a microwave to extract the most juice.)
-1/2 teaspoon of wild marjoram (rigani)
-1 teaspoon minced fresh mint
-1 tablespoon chopped onion
-1 tablespoon parley or cilantro
-1 teaspoon fresh cinnamon basil minced
1/2 teaspoon lemon thyme

Combine all ingredients and chill for a few hours before serving. Great on dinner salads.

Don't forget the desserts! Baklava, Kataifi, Amydgalopita....
That's pronounces bahk-lah-VAH, kah-tah-EE-fee, ah-mag-dah-lo-PETA.

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Saturday, June 10, 2006

Don't Settle For the Same Old Salad, Go Bitter!

Restaurants these days have increased their salad options. Largely, of course, because of our new national nutrition concerns, but also because people are hipper and looking for some variety beyond the same old 'garden salad' fare.

Try eating weeds! Dark green bitter greens are packed with nutrition, and whether you are seeing them on a menu or are preparing salads at home, they are well worth trying.

Dark greens including arugula, nettles, dandelion, watercress and chickweed are the most healthful. Especially for the digestive system. When the bitter dark greens are chewed and eaten, the taste buds respond by increasing salivation. Then gastric acid secretion increases, (and) pancreatic enzymes are primed to respond when the food enters the small intestine, helping to maximize food breakdown and speed waste elimination. In other words your body will appreciate the 'spring cleaning'.

Dandelion leaves are experiencing a resurgence in popularity in restaurants. Chefs are recognizing the nutritional value and zippy taste of these little lawn invaders. Dandelions are rich in vitamin A and C and rank high in overall nutrition. And according to reliable medical resources, dandelion leaves are also a natural diuretic, increasing urine production by promoting the excretion of salts and water from the kidneys. Purchase in bunches at your produce stand.

Arugula also boosts vitamin A and C, calcium and fiber. Tangy arugula contains naturally occurring compounds called isothiosyanates, powerful anticarcinogens particularly effective in fighting cancers of the lung and esophagus (according to Drug Metabolism Reviews 2000, Vol. 32, #3-4.) You can find arugula year round in most grocery stores.

Nettles (Yes nettles, those little boogers in the woods that sting like crazy!) Nettles contain protein and dense amounts of minerals including iron, silica and potassium. The mineral content of nettles supply a basic energy source that helps support the nervous system and provides energy in times of fatigue and stress, according to Keegan Sheridan, N.D. of Beverly Hills, California. To harvest nettles, put on your rubber gloves first -to avoid the inevitable stinging when the leaves touch bare skin. Cooking will deactivate the sting.

Chickweed supposedly grows all over the world, and is well known for its medicinal uses. According to the Journal of Natural Products, Chickweed has calming effects on tissues when applied topically, and it's drying and cooling anti-inflamatory properties heal everything from cuts and burns to puffy eyes. Chickweed is an excellent edible green that is high in fiber, protein, and vitamin A.

Watercress grows partially submerged in creeks and streambeds. It contains abundant beta carotene which converts to vitamin A in your body. It contains more than 100 percent of the daily recommended intake of beta carotene. It is rich in cancer protective isothiocyanates.

Try arugula on a tomato and cheese pizza. Chickweed chopped in a waldorf salad, or with chicken and fish. Dandelion leaves (purchase at market, or grow in a garden at home) are great in salads. You can also saute them. Nettles can be served like cooked spinach, or the leaves dried for a tasty tea. Watercress is great for dressings and dips.

All these greens are best purchased in a produce section of a grocery store-or garden grown. Roadside plants are obviously not your wisest choice. Stinging nettles can be found in the forests - ouch.

The next time you see an offering of any of the above on a restaurant menu - wouldn't you want to give them a try?

A savvy chef knows his greens.

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A Relaxing Afternoon with Pastis

You're in a hammock, gazing lazily over the Cote d'Azur. A glass of pastis in one hand, the other hand dangling in the tall sweet grass. The warm air drifts in from the mediterranean past the ancient stone walls and rustles the silver green sun filtering branches over your head. You have resolved to never set foot in the 'rat race' again.

And even if you can't stick to your resolve forever, at least enjoy the moment with your glass of pastis. It is a drink to be enjoyed leisurely, and since it has a rather potent alcohol content, it should not be rushed. It is best lightly sipped and even put down out of view a time or two, drawing out the ritual.

Pastis, in case you are wondering is a very popular drink in Provence. Seen on many beverage menus of U.S. restaurants as well, pastis is a licorice or anise flavored spirit meant to be enjoyed slowly.

Pastis is descended from the notorious absinthe, a mind numbing distillation popular in France until early this century. Absinthe was banned in France in 1915 and was blamed for murders, criminal unsanity, and even of Van Gogh's hacking off of his own ear. Despite the colorful vintage posters, absinthe is ugly stuff, and although can still be had by foolhardy risk takers, it is advised to stay clear of it. Pastis is the sane descendent.

Pastis is made from alcohol and distilled herbs or herbal extracts. Chief among them is grand wormwood and green anise; and almost always including three other herbs - petite wormwood, fennel and hyssop. Star anise is sometimes substituted for the green anise.

Pastis with its sweet licorice taste should be taken from a tall narrow glass. Add some ice cubes and slowly pour the pastis over the ice. Then add water. The general measurement is 1/3 pastis and 2/3 water. Then you can add more ice as you go along - many prefer up to 4 parts water to one part pastis.

It is considered a daytime drink and a real thirst quencher. It can be mixed with grapefruit juice for a sweet-tart flavor. A handful of crisp almonds is a good accompanient.

There are several brands sold in the United States, many distinguished by the variety of spices added, like cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, pepper and nutmeg. Among the brands available here are Pastis 51 - very viscous and pungent; Ricard, a popular pastis in the States similar to Pastis 51; Baldanis, dry with the essence of anise; and Jean Boyer, a dry aromatic bouquet said to contain 24 herbs and 12 spices. There is also a non alcoholic pastis called Pacific. Pernod is another brand that is handled like pastis but is not really pastis. It is actually distilled from a wine flavored with anise, fennel and other herbs. It tastes similar and is served in the same way as pastis.

Enjoy a pastis on your next afternoon sojourn. If even on your own back porch, sit back, tip your drink and enjoy the scents of the warm mediterranean summer breeze as it slips over the lavendar Provence fields and meandering stone walls just a little bit beyond the horizon.

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Friday, June 09, 2006

MSG, what's it for anyway?

Akin to peanuts on airplanes, MSG has an air of danger about it. Menus everywhere proclaim MSG free!, no MSG used, we never use MSG!!! Ah, but almost all cooks once did, and some still do, and for good reason.

Monosodium glutamate is a naturally occurring form of glutamic acid, an amino acid, that is extracted from certain grains and vegetables. It is long known for enhancing asian dishes. Experts agree that MSG adds a particular zing to many foods. But how this works is probably still a mystery.

The MSG people claim that MSG replaces the glutamates in food that are lost during storage, processing, and cooking. However, it also enhances food like chicken which have no natural glutamates to lose during cooking. In light of this, other 'experts' believe MSG joins with other chemicals and magnifies them. MSG works well with meat, poultry, fish and vetetables, but not with other foods such as sweet, acidic or salty. In addition, some say the MSG brings about a fifth taste to the human palate adding to the well known quartet of sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Japanese have favored MSG since they isolated it from sea vegetables early in this century. They call it 'unami".
In China, MSG is known as wei ching or wei chen meaning 'essence of taste'.

Now, many chefs recommend that this spice be used sparingly if at all. Too much of it makes all the flavors in a dish taste the same. It also has a high sodium content and creates an unpleasant allergy reaction in some people.

A prudent chef relies on the colorful flavors of the food itself.