Thursday, March 31, 2011

Eat Your Carrots!!

Spring is here and soon it will be time to think of Easter and bunnies, and so, carrots come to mind. My mother has told me that as a child I ate so many carrots I turned orange! Other veggies have since replaced carrots as my favorites, but I still love them.

Carrots are a real super food. They contain a high concentration of beta-carotene, a substance that is converted to Vitamin A in the human body. A 1/2 cup serving of cooked carrots contains 4 times the recommended daily intake of Vit. A in the form of protective beta-carotene. Beta-carotene is also a powerful antioxidant, effective in fighting against some forms of cancer, especially lung cancer. Current research suggests that it may also protect against stroke and heart disease and that the beta-carotene in vegetables supplies this protection, but not in vitamin supplement form. Again, a good reason to eat those 5+ servings of fruits and veggies each day. Carrots are also a good source of dietary fiber, vitamin C, vitamin K, folate and manganese, B6, and several minerals.

Carrots come in a wider variety of colors today, as often seen at better grocers and farmers markets (see photo, right), which makes for more interest on the plate, though I find that there isn't a big taste difference. Carrots are tastiest when slightly undercooked, or "al dente", with a little bite. Though most often used as part of a base of flavors along with onions and celery for many soups and stews, carrots don't get to shine this way. The baby variety are excellent glazed in butter in a saute pan and sprinkled with parsley (a personal favorite). Of course, they are also a great addition to raw vegetable salads or cooked and then pureed. Sometimes carrots even appear in sweets.

Here I wanted to share two recipes for carrots, one savory, the other sweet.

This first one is great served as an appetizer. It could also be served as a side dish alongside your main entree but that would not be how it would be served in Algeria or Tunisia.

North African Carrot "Compote"

1 pound carrots, peeled and thickly sliced
1 large russet potato (about 1/2 pound), peeled and diced
1-2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
2 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. fresh lemon juice
2 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp. freshly ground caraway seeds
3/4 tsp. freshly ground coriander seeds
1/2 tsp. Harissa*
salt to taste
imported black olives
Romaine lettuce leaves
flat bread

Steam the carrots and potato until very soft, about 15-20 minutes. Place in a food processor or put through a ricer. Add the garlic and process. Stir in 2 Tbsp. of lemon juice and 2 Tbsp. of the olive oil. Add the spices, taste and adjust with salt.

Mound on a platter or in a wide bowl. Mix the remaining lemon and oil together and drizzle over the puree. Decorate with olives, lettuce leaves and serve with warm flat bread. Delicious warm or at room temperature.

*Harissa is a fiery paste that is added to soups and stews and even in salads for a little kick and is used extensively in Tunisian cuisine. It's made with chiles, garlic, caraway and coriander seeds, salt and olive oil. You can buy a jar of it, ready made, at Crate and Barrel. It lasts a long time in the fridge.

Though I'm not a big fan of cake, I sometimes get a longing for carrot cake. I find it great comfort food; delicious with finely grated carrot and warming spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves, and a little crunch added by tossing in some walnut pieces. I think these flavors work really well together.
Goopy frosting
I've tried a number of carrot cakes in my time and I must say that most of them are too sweet for me, and are usually heavily laden with goopy frosting, or lack the right amount of spice, or are otherwise boring. I like the right amount of carrots for moistness, a little more spice than most recipes call for, and a less obtrusive frosting. Here's my favorite time-tested recipe.

Christina's Carrot Cake

1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. total of either ground mace, or a combo of allspice, nutmeg and cloves
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup (2 sticks) soft butter
2 cups sugar
4 large eggs
1 1/2 cups finely grated carrot
2/3 cup chopped walnuts
2 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
3 tsp. double-acting baking powder
1/3 cup hot water
Brown Sugar 7-Minute Frosting (see below)

Minimalist frosting is best,
instead let the cake shine thru
Mix together first 4 ingredients. Gradually add sugar, mixing well after each addition. Beat in eggs, 1 at a time. Stir in carrots and nuts. Sift flour with baking powder and add alternately with the water. Beat batter 1/2 minute. Turn mixture into 2 well-greased, lightly-floured, 9-inch round layer cake pans. Bake in a preheated 375F. oven for 35 minutes or until cake tester inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pan 10 minutes. Turn out onto wire racks to finish cooling.

Now, you can either put these two layers together for a double layer cake, or take one of the cakes and give it to a neighbor as a nice gift, or freeze it for later use. If you make a layer cake, make a filling such as with dates and nuts. Works particularly well with this cake. Or, just make the frosting below. I spread it on very thinly.

Brown Sugar Seven-Minute Frosting

3/4 cup brown sugar (light or dark)
1 large egg white
2 Tbsp. water
1/4 tsp. ground mace
1/8 tsp. cream of tartar
dash of salt
1 tsp. vanilla extract

Carrot cake sans "goop"
Place all ingredients in the top of a double boiler. Set over the bottom of a double boiler filled to a depth of about 2 inches with boiling water. Beat with an electric beater until frosting stands in soft peaks, keeping the water boiling rapidly. Remove from heat and continue beating until frosting stands in very stiff peaks. Spread over cold cake. Makes enough for the tops and sides of a 2-layer cake, or just the tops of two single layer cakes.

 If you're celebrating Spring, make this carrot cake for a nice dessert. Those who otherwise might shy away from it might very well like this one. I know I do.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Time for Spring Cleaning

I've always wondered why most of us choose January 1st to be the day we embark on our new health and exercise programs. I've always thought it would make more sense to start in the Spring. It is, after all, the season of rebirth and renewal. Seems logical to start then.

If you're still committed to your new eating plan and exercising like you said you would on January 1st, good for you. Statistically, however, most of us have fallen off the wagon. But since it's spring, here's your chance to begin anew.

This is the ideal time of year to "clean house". Just like that old ritual of spring cleaning around the house, the same thing can be done with the body.  The liver and kidneys are our main filters and they have important work to do. The liver alone has over 800 functions. There is no way you can live without it. If you imagine that this poor organ has been filtering all sorts of toxins, drugs and environmental hazards from your system since Day One, it's been working hard. Give it a break.

I recently heard my naturopathic doctor speak about allergies and her advice was that if you are suffering from them, are feeling a bit sluggish, or feel a cold coming on, it's a good idea to "unclog the filter". Like a car gets an oil change every 3,000 miles, the body's filters should ideally get a chance to get a rest every so often.

The best way to do this is to commit to a period of time, like 2-3 weeks, during which you avoid things that clog or require a lot of energy to break down. Things that are considered clogging are dairy, wheat and most of the processed grains, and sugar. Try focusing on fresh fruits, beans, clean protein and organic vegetables, as well as fresh vegetable juices and "green drinks". My folks used to make a really delicious green drink at home. These rich sources of cleansing nutrients can help us get more of those fruit and veggie servings we aren't getting. You'll need a juicer to make them yourself, or of course you can head to your favorite juice bar and order one to your liking.

Green drinks are getting a lot of press these days in health magazines. The reason for this is that they are just packed with nutrients. Basically the juices of a variety of green things like spinach, kale, chard, wheatgrass, celery, cucumber, kiwi, bell peppers, zucchini, you name it. I like to add something a little sweet to it to round it out, like carrot or pineapple juice, but if you're wanting to cut out anything with sugar, you'll want to forego them and stick just to the greens. Enormously beneficial, you will have loads of energy after drinking them.

But to clean the filters, any type of change you make will be beneficial. Even modest cutbacks can help. Maybe you drink too much soda or eat too much processed food. Simply cutting these out for a while can make a difference. Try replacing them with pure water flavored with lemon or lime, or eating whole grains instead of "the white stuff" It doesn't have to be radical or be nothing-but-juice-for-3-weeks (unless you want it to be). It can be just making better food choices. The important thing is to start somewhere. You will see the benefits.

If you've done any detoxing before, you might find this helpful. One of the best books I've found on the subject is called "The Detox Diet". It offers a variety of detox diets to choose from, depending on what you're comfortable with, from radical water fasts (not meant for most of us), to smoothie and fresh squeezed juice plans, to raw fruit & veggie plans, to avoiding SNACCs. To explain, here is a quote from Dr. Elson Haas, author of "The Detox Diet":
"Most people have daily habits of one or more of the SNACCs--Sugar, Nicotine, Alcohol, Caffeine, and Chemicals (in foods, environment, and medications). We use all of these substances to deal with life’s stresses, but they also tax and weaken the body and its functions, including our eliminative and immune systems. Thus, our cells and tissues can’t keep up, and we become congested and toxic. Many symptoms and problems relate to this, from stuffy noses and skin rashes to most inflammatory disorders. This in part comes from these SNACCs and refined foods, and a heavier, animal-based diet that is more acidic and contains more chemicals. This acidic, congested, and inflammatory condition causes the degeneration and aging in the human body. Thus, detoxification is the missing link in balanced health--and a key healing therapy for the common disorders that most of us experience as we age."
A cleanse is a great way to clean the filters and super-charge your cells to get some vitality back into your life. Perhaps the first step to feeling better is to do some spring cleaning. Now's the time.

To your health!

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