Wednesday, March 27, 2013

How to Make Your Groceries Last Longer

 The average American wastes more than 20 pounds of food every month. This is because 40% of the food in the U.S. goes uneaten. Not only is this a shame in terms of the energy needed to produce that food (manpower, water, electricity, etc.) but it’s a tragedy that so many people go hungry while the rest of us throw away perfectly good food!

What’s really tragic is that more fruits and vegetables are wasted in the U.S. food system than are actually consumed (52% are wasted vs. 48% consumed). I hope at least the mice and cats are eating their veggies!
Let’s face it, many of us buy more food than we need. Either because of impulse buying (we see it, it looks good, we want it), or by trying to avoid multiple trips to the grocery store each week, we buy too much and then just don’t get around to eating everything before it spoils.
I’ve written about it before, but this is one reason why planning your meals is so important: you can cut down on food waste. When you invest the time and money into a trip to the grocery store, you want to be sure the foods you purchase last as long as possible. Below are more than two-dozen tricks I recently found out about to do just that:
1.  Store onions in old pantyhose to keep them fresh for up to eight months (tie a knot in between each one to keep them separate).
2.  Chop dry green onions and store them in an empty plastic water bottle. Put the bottle in the freezer and sprinkle out what you need when you’re cooking.
3.  When storing potatoes, keep them away from onions (this will make them spoil faster). Storing them with apples will help keep the potatoes from sprouting.
4.  Asparagus should be stored in your fridge upright in a glass of water (like cut flowers, cut the asparagus bottoms off first), and covered with a plastic bag.
5.  Store salad greens in a bowl covered with plastic wrap, and add a paper towel to help absorb moisture. A salad spinner will also help remove excess moisture -- a key culprit in wilting leaves -- from your greens.
6.  Mushrooms should be stored in a paper bag in a cool dry place, or in the fridge. Avoid storing mushrooms in plastic, as any trapped moisture will cause them to spoil.
7.  Swirl berries in a mixture of one part vinegar (white or apple cider) to 10 parts water. You won’t taste the vinegar but the solution will help keep your berries from getting moldy and soft.
8.  When storing chopped avocado or guacamole, leave the pit in, spritz it with some lemon juice or olive oil, cover with plastic wrap, and put it in the fridge. This will help keep it from turning brown.
9.  If you spot a rotten apple, remove it right away, as one rotten apple really can spoil the whole bunch.
10.Put plastic wrap around the crown of a bunch of bananas to keep them fresh for days longer (and be sure to store them away from other fruits, as they emit a lot of ethylene gas which accelerates ripening).
11.Store tomatoes at room temperature away from sunlight, in a single layer with the stem side up (don’t put them in plastic bags, which will cause them to spoil faster).

12. Store delicate herbs like parsley, basil, cilantro and chives upright in a glass of water (like you would arrange cut flowers) in your fridge. Put a plastic bag over the top and secure it around the glass with a rubber band for optimal freshness.
13. Bunch oily herbs like thyme loosely together, secure them with a string around the base and hang them in your kitchen for storage.
14. Fill an ice cube tray with olive oil, then add chopped herbs (rosemary, sage, thyme or oregano) to each cube. Pop one out when you’re cooking for instant herb-infused oil.
15. Store fresh ginger root in the freezer. You can grate it frozen (peel and all) when cooking.
Dairy and Nuts
16. Rub the cut side of a block of cheese with butter to keep it from drying out.
17. Cheese should be wrapped in cheese paper or wax paper, not plastic wrap, then put in a plastic baggie.
18. Store cheese in the warmest part of your fridge, such as the vegetable or cheese drawer.
19. Nuts can be stored in the freezer to keep them fresh longer. Ideally put them in Mason jars that have the air vacuumed out with a Food Saver and attachment.
Organization, Gadgets and Other Tips
20. Keep milk and other highly perishable items on the middle shelf in your fridge, NOT in the door where temperatures fluctuate.
21. Avoid mixing produce and meats in the same drawer, as cross contamination can lead to food waste.
22. Avoid over-stocking your fridge, as a crowded fridge will keep air from circulating properly leading to warm spots that can cause spoilage.
23. Avoid chopping up your fruits, veggies and meats before storage, as this will make them spoil faster.
24. Glass mason jars make a great food-storage option, and you can seal them with an automatic vacuum sealer like Food Saver for even more freshness.
25. Remove spoiled food from your fridge promptly to keep mold from transferring to fresh food.
26. Get an ethylene gas absorber for your fridge; they’re available online and can keep your produce fresh up to three times longer than normal. There are many types of bags that can do this. They are typically called “green bags.” One example would be Debbie Meyer Green Bags.
27. A gadget called the Herb Savor, which has a well for water and a plastic cover to keep herbs fresh, claims to make herbs last for up to three weeks.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Is All Butter Created Equal?

Butter. The word brings up feelings of longing. Longing for something forbidden. In the name of health, we’ve given it up, told that eating it would lead to heart disease, obesity and a whole host of modern ailments. But butter is not the enemy. In fact, we should be eating more of it. It’s far better for us than all the industrial vegetable oils and hardened artificial fats like margarine they’d like us to believe are better for us. They simply aren’t. Butter is a natural food product, while all these pseudo-fats are products of the industrial revolution.

There’s a reason people are crazy for butter. Maybe because the stuff tastes like heaven and goes with nearly everything! I mean, what wouldn't be better with some butter on it? I can't think of anything. Can you?

Most of us are in agreement that the nutritional content of the food we eat, be it animal or vegetable, depends on the content of its diet or the way it was grown, and the same goes for butter. Therefore, butter knowledge is important because not all of it is created equal.

Grass-Fed vs. Grain-Fed
The vast majority of the butter we see on supermarket shelves is grain-fed. That is, it comes from cows that were fed a grain-based diet. So, what’s the alternative? Grass-fed. And as the name implies, these cows are fed a grass-based diet, as Nature intended. But it’s more than about what Nature intended. It’s also about the nutritional value and, let’s face it, taste.

Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) Content
CLA is found in eggs, meat and dairy products and though it’s a trans-fat, it’s a good, naturally occurring one. The special digestive systems of grass-fed ruminant animals produce CLA internally. The resulting fat – which has been linked to superior heart health, suppression of tumors, reduced belly fat and greater fat loss in the obese and overweight – is found in the flesh and dairy of the animal. As far as cows go, pasture feeding leads to dairy CLA levels 3-5 times that of grain-fed cattle.

Vitamin Content
Grass-fed vs. grain-fed butter
Brightly colored fruits and vegetables contain the most phytonutrients. In fact, the actual dyes responsible for providing color to vegetation, like the blue in blueberry, are also usually antioxidants. The same is true for butter. If you were to do a comparison, you’d notice how grass-fed butter actually looks like what you’d imagine butter to look like. It’s a deep yellow, sometimes bordering on orange, whereas grain-fed butter is white and waxy. It’s yellow because it has more carotene and Vitamin A. It’s got more carotene because it comes from cows that eat fresh vegetation rich in the stuff. From pasture to ruminant to digestive tract to butterfat to butter to you.

Vitamin K2 appears to reduce, prevent, or even counteract arterial plaque, and it helps the body use calcium correctly and effectively and it’s another vital component of grass-fed butter. Cow stomach fermentation turns K1 (found in leafy greens, like kale, chard, spinach, and, yes, leaves of grass) into K2, which then shows up in the dairy fat. How much Vitamin K1 do you think there is in corn? Not much.

Fatty Acid Composition
Whether it’s grass-fed or grain-fed, butter is rich in saturated (about 2/3) and monounsatured (just under 1/3) fat. The rest is polyunsaturated, but this is where grass-fed and grain-fed really differ. Cows raised on pasture produce milk fat with an omega 6 to omega 3 ratio of 1:1, a balance. Grain-fed cows, on the other hand, produce a ratio tilted toward omega 6. It’s true that we’re talking about relatively miniscule amounts of polyunsaturated fats here, but balanced is better.

Though flavor is usually subjective (what tastes better is entirely a matter of personal opinion), that does not apply to butter. Grass-fed butter tastes objectively better using any parameter. Creaminess? Richness? Mouth-feel? Hands down, grass-fed is the winner.
That being said, grain-fed butter is still a better option than conventional cooking fats, like vegetable oil or margarine, which are so detrimental to health. But fortunately, grass-fed butter isn’t hard to find. It’s more expensive, sure, but it’s still cheaper than exclusively buying grass-fed meat. In fact, for those of us who can’t regularly eat pastured meat, eating lean cuts of conventional meat cooked in quality grass-fed butter is a great compromise.

Look for these brands near you:
An easy-to-find brand is Kerrygold, an Irish dairy whose cows are all pastured and whose butter is incredible. An 8 oz. cube sells for $2.99 at Trader Joe’s, but it’s also in basic and specialty grocery stores (albeit for slightly higher prices). Look for the silver foil (unsalted) and gold foil (salted) packages.

At Sprouts Market, I found one from Humboldt Creamery. One pound is $4.99. I had it on my potatoes last night and put a pat of it on my fish and it was delicious. 

A couple of additional ones I’ve read about but haven’t yet tried:

Anchor butter hails from New Zealand, land of reliably grass-fed lamb, and it can be found at Whole Foods.
Organic Valley has a seasonal pastured, cultured, salted butter that usually appears in spring (now), which is when the grass is at its greenest. It comes in a green foil package. 
Farmers’ markets. If you’ve got a dairy stall, you’ve probably got access to good butter. Talk to the producers about the cows’ diet.

Butter terminology
What is cultured butter?
Cultured butter is traditionally made from fermented, or soured, cream. It’s not actually the butterfat that ferments, but rather the trace amounts of lactose sugars present. Nowadays, though, most commercial cultured butter is “cultured” by the incorporation of bacterial cultures. “European style” butter is cultured butter.
What is “sweet butter”?
Historically, sweet cream butter came from fresh cream, rather than soured or fermented cream. Relative to cultured butter, it’s rather “sweet.” These days, it’s often just another way to describe unsalted butter. Sweet butter is better for cooking, as most recipes assume the use of unsalted butter. Also, since salt is a preservative, sweet butter tends to be fresher (since it has to be, having no preservatives).

What is clarified butter?
Heat butter until it melts, let it cool and settle, then skim off the top layer of whey protein and pour off the butterfat, leaving the casein proteins on the bottom – you’ve got clarified butter.
What about ghee?
Ghee is basically pure butterfat, rendered down and stricken of all lactose and dairy proteins. It’s ultra-clarified butter in that it reaches a temperature high enough to cook off the water and brown the milk solids, which imparts a nutty flavor to the finished product. Properly made, ghee can stay on the counter for about a year without going bad. If you’ve got one, check your local Indian grocer. They’ll have huge tubs of intensely yellow ghee for sale. Is it all grass-fed? No idea, and the rich color isn’t a reliable indicator since the color could come from the browned milk solids. 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Foeniculi, foenicula...or is it funiculi, funicula?

Do you remember that song, "Funiculi, Funicula"? I remember it from my childhood and I vaguely recall my mother singing it. It had happy lyrics with a sing-songy melody. I thought the tune was about fennel, but research reveals it's actually about an Italian cable car. What does this have to do with fennel? Apparently nothing. Except that the Latin for fennel is foeniculum vulgare, which sounds similar. Confused? Never mind.

Actually, fennel is a plant species in the genus Foeniculum. It is a hardy perennial herb with yellow flowers and feathery leaves, indigenous to the shores of the Mediterranean. But it has become widely naturalized in many parts of the world, especially on dry soils near the sea coast and on riverbanks. Fennel is a highly aromatic and flavorful herb with both medicinal and culinary uses. 

Medicinal Uses

Fennel is widely employed as a carminative, both in humans and in veterinary medicine (e.g., dogs), to treat flatulence.  It is often made into a tea to help soothe the digestive system. I love fennel tea for when I'm feeling queasy.

In the Indian subcontinent, fennel seeds are said to improve eyesight. Ancient Romans regarded fennel as the herb of sight.

Fennel may be an effective diuretic and a potential drug for treatment of hypertension.

Syrup prepared from fennel juice was formerly given for chronic cough. As an antispasmotic, fennel acts on the smooth muscle of the respiratory passages as well as the stomach and intestines; this is the reason that fennel preparations are used to relieve bronchial spasms. Since it relaxes bronchial passages, allowing them to open wider, it is sometimes included in asthma, bronchitis, and cough formulas.

Culinary Uses

The bulb, foliage and seeds of the fennel plant are widely used in many of the culinary traditions of the world. The small flowers of wild fennel are the most potent form, and also the most expensive. Dried fennel seed is an aromatic, anise-flavored spice. The leaves are delicately flavored and similar in shape to those of dill, and thus make a lovely garnish. The bulb is a crisp vegetable that can be sauteed, stewed, braised, grilled or eaten raw.

Though fennel is available year-round, it’s at its best from fall to early spring and is usually considered a winter crop. So right now is the best time to eat this vegetable.

If you haven't been brave enough to try fennel because it looks weird and you didn't know what to do with it, give it a try.

Wash the whole thing and cut off the stalks and leaves. What you now have left is the bulb, which tastes delicious roasted, and despite what some recipes say, needs some cooking first. Simply popping the raw fennel into the oven just doesn't cut it in my opinion, so I boil a pot of water and drop in a fennel bulb that’s been quartered, cooking it for about 10-15 minutes to soften it up. With a slotted spoon I then remove the fennel from the water and dry it off with a kitchen towel. Then I place it in a small baking dish brushed with a little olive oil, sprinkle on a bit of salt, pepper and a generous helping of grated Parmesan cheese, and roast it in the oven at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes, until the cheese just turns golden brown. It’s a delicious side dish to roasted chicken or sauteed fish.

I use fennel seeds (that I buy as an herb in the spice section of the market) as a crust for meat, especially pork tenderloin. In fact, my favorite way to prepare pork is to take a few sprigs of fresh rosemary from my herb garden, finely chop the leaves along with a tablespoon of fennel seeds, add kosher salt and pepper and blend all these on a cutting board where I then roll the tenderloin in the mixture until completely covered. The pork goes into a sauté pan and gets browned on the stovetop for a few minutes on each side. Then I pop the saute pan in a 350 degree oven and roast it for about 45 minutes. Easy and unbelievably tasty. The herbs and salt create a lovely crust for the pork and provide assertive flavor. You could do this with beef or lamb as well.

Fennel is also delicious with a mild, white fish and a nice way to marry these together is to use the feathery fronds. Place some chopped leaves under a fish fillet on a piece of aluminum foil, add a pat of butter, salt and pepper, and wrap up. Either bake in the oven or place on a medium grill until done (a thin enough piece of fish shouldn't take but 10-12 minutes). Steaming in this way allows a subtle fennel flavor to infuse the fish. Serve roasted fennel and mashed potatoes alongside it.

My mother has a delicious recipe where she quarters the bulb, cooks it in a little vegetable broth in a sauce pan on the stove top, and then makes a sauce for it out of Boursin cheese and cubed ham. If the sauce needs thickening, she adds a little corn starch to the broth. Once the fennel is mostly cooked, she pours the mixture into a baking dish and pops it into the oven for about 10 minutes. This would make a lovely lunch with a mixed green salad.

Fennel has been calling my name at the farmer’s market lately and I could no longer resist, so I picked one up for myself this weekend. I might try something new with it. I found a recipe for roasting it with olive oil and balsamic vinegar that sounded interesting. If the warm weather we've been having continues, I might chop it up raw and make a salad with it.  Or when I find that recipe from my mother, I'll make that. 

There is so much you can do with fennel. If you're getting bored with the same old vegetables you normally eat, be adventurous and try it.

Print Friendly