About the Fish on Your Plate

One of my firmest health convictions, besides the one about leafy greens, is that fish is good. Here in the desert I won’t be catching my own in any great quantity, so the question is what fish, exactly, is good. My own choice is based on taste and emotion more than reason. I love salmon and admire the way the Alaskan fisheries are managed, so I eat Alaskan salmon. But if you want to be more rational about your fish, please read the great compilation of evidence from Bill Lagakos at the wonderful Calories Proper blog:

http://caloriesproper.com/fish-blog-take-i/

Then make your choice with real information. And my nag for the day is: DON’T OVERCOOK IT. If your salmon is chewy or has a nasty grey layer just under the seared surface, it’s overdone. Sockeye, my own favorite, cooks in nothing flat, usually two minutes each side over a very hot grill or firepit. If the fillet is especially thick, maybe give it an extra minute on the skin side, but no more. If you buy it with the skin on, your dogs get a healthy treat too. Salmon loves assertive seasonings, and I like to brine it in strong salt water for half an hour before cooking. Then serve some leafy greens alongside and you can feel yourself getting healthier. And happier.

Below are some serving ideas that I borrowed from here and there because the photography is better than mine. My own quickie favorite is to take it off the grill, top with a generous pat of seasoned green garlic butter that I keep in the freezer, set it under the broiler just until the butter starts to melt if you didn’t thaw the butter beforehand, and eat with intense gratitude.

I think the beets and citrus shown here should be roasted a good bit longer than the fish, so that you can actually eat them, but it’s a good basic reminder that blood orange is brilliant with salmon.

Grill some nice fat green or Egyptian onions to serve alongside and your health benefits increase.

In a hurry? Take it off the grill and plop it on some dressed leaves and add a slice of lemon. Dinner in 15 minutes, or ten if you pan-roast and don’t take time to heat the grill.

Personally I would use bronze fennel fronds on top, for appearance and for taste and because it grows well in my yard, but if you’re a dill person, go for it. A generous shower of fresh thyme leaves is also a good finish for salmon, and this is one of the places that I love to use orange balsam thyme, which is otherwise difficult to use.

If you’re one of my local readers, the Fishhuggers come to our farmers markets in the summer and sell the salmon that Kenny catches in Alaska, as well as their own superb grass-fat beef and other healthy goodies.

Orange Peel in the Thrifty Kitchen

I’m  an almost-diabetic who uses low-carb food intake to maintain my excellent blood sugar, so citrus juice, which is a pretty concentrated belt of sugar, is mostly out of my diet.  I also love oranges and orange flavored things, and don’t like artificial flavors. So for a while I have been following with interest the analyses showing very high antioxidant activity in citrus peel and wondering how to incorporate it into my diet, and recently I got a chance to test this when I came across a bonanza of 20 large organic navel oranges that could not be sold because they had soft spots. I could have made orange-cello liqueur, but wanted something I could drink with lunch.  So I washed the oranges carefully, cut out the soft spots, cut them into chunks, and puréed  them in batches in my blender with only enough water to keep the purée  moving.  Each batch was blended at the highest speed for over a minute, to make sure it was completely liquefied.  I have a Vitamix, and I don’t really know how well this would work with other blenders, but probably well enough.

Please note that the oranges I was using were seedless. If you try this with seeded oranges, the seeds have to be carefully removed because they are intensely bitter, and this technique will not work at all with lemons because their inner white pith is so bitter.  I haven’t experimented with other citrus. I would say that tasting a little slice of the white pith might be a good test. If it’s very bitter, it might not work to use it this way. I think that blood oranges would work well, and I plan to try as soon as they come into season. Also, organic really matters when you are using the peel.

You end up with a thick smooth purée  that is only very slightly sweet, has a hint of bitterness, and is loaded with orange flavor and all the nutritional value than oranges have to offer. I use two or three tablespoons in a water glass, fill it with sparkling water, and sweeten with stevia sweetener. When you get near the bottom of the glass, be sure to swirl it around and drink up all the particles that settle to the bottom. Overall I’m probably taking in about a tablespoon of pure orange juice per glass, so the carb content is not high enough to worry me. I have also added it to a low-carb coffee cake with good results. Because of the intense flavor that the peel adds, you don’t need much.

Orange trees are strikingly beautiful, and if you live in the citrus zone they are great edible landscaping material.

If you do a web search on citrus peel you will find articles suggesting that there are few diseases it won’t prevent or cure. Let’s not get carried away. The antioxidants that it contains, including  naringinen, hesperadin, and rutin, have some interesting anti-inflammatory activities, and there is no documented evidence that ingesting some amount of citrus peel and pith is harmful. It’s also a superb natural source of vitamin C, which can be a bit short in a ketogenic diet. It makes thrifty use of something ordinarily discarded, and it tastes good, adding strong flavor and a touch of bitterness that makes an adult drink out of a fruit that can otherwise be too sweet to enjoy very much of. You can read about its various possible benefits at the links below, including the interesting demographic information from the REGARDS study that higher levels of citrus consumption correlated with lower levels of ischemic stroke. Make of that what you will.

 

REGARDS study analysis indicating possible inverse relationship between citrus consumption and ischemic stroke:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5086785/

A survey of antioxidants and anti inflammatory activities in citrus peel:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27719891

An animal study showing inhibitory effects on human prostate cancer tissue grafted into mice:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23673480

An animal study showing effects in reducing neuroinflammation:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26423872

There are other possibilities for eating citrus peel. I came across the following recipe while searching, and haven’t tried it yet, but it does look lovely, doesn’t it? Personally I would roast the fruit-veggie mixture first to soften them more, then the salmon by itself, since I despise overcooked salmon.

http://www.cookinglight.com/recipes/roasted-salmon-oranges-beets-and-carrots

 

Snacking Greens

Probably everybody has made kale chips, the delectable snack made by oiling and seasoning pieces of curly kale and baking them at 375 or 400 until they are crisp. They are delicate, and not much good for dipping in anything, but they are quite wonderful by themselves. Recently I was making a batch and began to wonder about using some of my other available greens. Ultimately I used both green and scarlet curly kale,  carrot leaves, and torn sections of collard leaf because that was what was left in the garden.  The leaves were washed, allowed to drain, and 12 mid ribs removed from the larger leaves. In the case of the small carrot leaves, the stem was snapped off just below the lowest leaflet. I drizzle them with olive oil and seasoned with salt, finally grated Parmesan, nutritional yeast flakes, and a sprinkling of roasted ground garlic. If you want an exact recipe, there are dozens on the Internet. This is something you can do in a very improvisational way as long as you don’t oversalt.

Lesson learned:  don’t put them all on the tray at the same time, no matter how pretty it looks. The three greens finished at very different times.  Collards needed the least time, and despite several experiments I never did get them quite right. They go from olive-green and ready to eat to brown and burnt-tasting  in under a minute. Also, they don’t cook very evenly despite your best efforts, so ultimately what I ended up doing was just picking out the brown leaves, which taste burnt, and throwing them away. I still think there are real possibilities here but I did not get them to work as a satisfactory chip.

The carrot leaves were astoundingly good, with a perfect delicate crunch and a mild flavor. Even the stems had a good texture, lost their toughness, and tasted just fine.  I wish I had discovered this earlier in the year when I had more carrot leaves. But this is a good reason to keep a blog, or a written record of some kind, because if you don’t you end up “discovering” the same things every few years.  I am recording it so that I won’t have to discover this again. It’s a handy thing to know if you buy carrots with the leaves on. Remove the leaves as soon as possible before storing in the refrigerator, because they seem to go limp more quickly if still attached to the roots.

Curly kale was delicious, as it always is when baked this way.  I just love the stuff, and have no idea how large a bowl of kale chips I could eat, but I guarantee that it would be a big one.  If you live in a snowy climate, it is very likely that you can keep curly kale in good shape through much of the winner in your garden. Here in the high desert it does not get all that cold but we don’t have any snow cover and we have a lot of drying winds,  so by this time of year the curly kale that is growing uncovered looks pretty tattered. Also, for reasons I don’t know, there is an invasion of aphids in early December, and they are hard to wash off. But this year I did plant a row of curly kale and put frost blankets over it in early November, and that row is looking great and has no aphids.  So I have at least a few more batches of homegrown kale chips coming.

Incidentally, if you are cooking a meal and have the oven at 375 or so for something else, a few kale leaves out of the garden in a little pan make a great cook’s treat to tide you over until the meal is ready.

Fall Summation VI: the Magic Molly Potato

For various reasons related to my blood sugar I choose to eat a low carbohydrate diet most of the time, but a few splurges a year help keep me on the straight and narrow. This year my chosen splurge was purple fingerling potatoes, which I haven’t grown in many years. Fingerling potatoes are a little waxier and less starchy than standard potatoes, and purples have more antioxidants than other colors, but don’t kid yourself that you’re doing this for your health. If better health is what you want, eat greens instead. This is for a rare treat.

I got my seed stock from Moose Tubers,a wonderful source for all kinds of potatoes. I planted them whole, and only planted five hills and gave the rest of the seed tubers away. I was using newly broken ground and my soil is heavy clay and extremely alkaline, so I amended heavily with kelp meal and gypsum pellets to moderate the alkalinity. I watered deeply once a week, and other than that ignored them except to mulch a bit once they were about 6 inches high. I dug them in mid-fall, and each hill produced about six potatoes 1-2 inches long. I hasten to add that under halfway decent conditions the yield would almost certainly be a lot better. I was not interested in increasing yield. The last thing that I want is more potatoes around to tempt me.
As far as how to cook them, there was no doubt in my mind what to do. My favorite way to use fingerling potatoes is to boil them for 10 or 15 minutes, just until a knife tip penetrates them easily, then drain. When cool, I lay them on the cutting board and press/smash them carefully with the flat bottom of a glass until they are about half an inch thick but still hold their shape. Then salt, and fry in olive oil or bacon fat until they get lovely and crusty on the outside. There is simply nothing better. Mindfully enjoy every mouthful, because if you have any blood sugar problems you are not going to eat them again for a while. But oh, are they delicious. And if you have normal blood sugar and no family history of diabetes, these are a healthy side dish that you can enjoy a little more frequently. Back before I had blood sugar problems I used to enjoy smashed fried fingerlings as the center of a vegetarian plate, surrounded by other vegetables chosen  according to the season.
Incidentally, under my hardscrabble conditions the plants were compact, maybe a foot tall and 18” wide, and the leaves were tinged with purple. They would have looked fine among ornamental plantings, as long as they were in a place where perennials would not be disturbed by digging up the tubers at the end of the season. In the plateful above I threw in a standard fingerling from the Co-op to see if it tasted better than the Mollies, and the answer was that it tasted more bland, so I would only bother with the Mollies in future seasons.

Green Slaw, and notes on salt-curing greens

Right now my garden is full of savoy cabbage and collards, the cold-hardiest greens around, and I’m trying to eat them in as many forms as possible. There are no greens more nutritious, and after a few hard frosts the texture is excellent. One way I really love to eat them is salt-wilted or salt-cured, which makes them more tender and gives them a velvety texture. The slaw shown above was designed to go with Mexican flavors and makes use of cilantro stems, which are often wasted but shouldn’t be. They have pure cilantro flavor and, unlike the leaves, will stand up to marinating or cooking.

For two people, I used one giant outer leaf of savoy cabbage and cut the midrib out. I then rolled the leaf halves up and cut them into thin strips less that 1/4” wide. Half a red onion was cut into very thin slices. The cabbage and onion strips were put in a bowl and salted generously. I didn’t measure the salt, but the idea is to use somewhat more than you might sprinkle on at the table, not to drench them with salt. Half a teaspoon for this small salad would probably do it.  Then- this step is important- I massaged the salt in with my fingertips for about a minute. The bowl was then put aside for half an hour. Meanwhile, I chopped a small clove of garlic finely and cut a handful of cilantro stems in fine cross section, as well as getting the chicken breasts and sauce ready. While the chicken breast was cooking, I squeezed out the greens to get rid of excess liquid. Then I tossed in the cilantro stems and garlic, squeezed the juice of half a lime over the leaves, tossed with couple of tablespoons of good olive oil, and finished with a few grinds of black pepper and a generous sprinkle of ground toasted cumin. The most important final step is to taste and consider the seasoning before serving. It may need additional salt, since much was lost when the liquid was squeezed out. And after considering the flavor balance, I ended up tossing in a light sprinkle of stevia, probably equivalent to about half a teaspoon of sugar.

This basic technique can be taken in many other directions. For a more Chinese take, leave out the cumin, use rice vinegar instead of lime juice, and add some grated ginger with the garlic and finish with a final drizzle of roasted sesame oil.  A sweeter take that can accompany Korean food or barbecue with equal facility can be achieved by tossing the wilted veggies, garlic, and cilantro stems with quasi-Korean sauce.  (Incidentally, when making that sauce, remember that oligofructose is not an essential ingredient and, if you aren’t low-carb, you can just use a smaller amount of sugar.) If pursuing an Asian flavor, use a neutral oil like macadamia oil rather than olive oil.  Rather than cilantro stems, you can use finely chopped parsley stems or a handful of finely sliced celery. You might want to salt-wilt the celery with the cabbage and onions if you use it, to make the texture blend in more harmoniously. You can dress the wilted veggies with wine vinegar or tarragon vinegar, add some finely chopped fresh thyme, and finish with a very good olive oil to have the slaw accompany more traditional western flavors. Parsley stems, lemon juice, oregano, and a final sprinkle of feta on top makes it more Greek, which is where I learned the salt-wilting technique in the first place. You can of course use part of a cabbage head rather than outer leaves, and red cabbage turns a lovely scarlet when salt-wilted and dressed with something acidic.  The point is that salt-wilting is a way to make thick cabbagey leafy greens more tender and chewable so that they can readily be eaten raw, and then you can take the flavor in any direction you want.  If you absolutely don’t have time for the salt-wilting step, you could try just massaging the finely sliced veggies with your fingers for an extra couple of minutes, and depending on your greens, this may soften the texture enough to make them very tasty, although the plush texture achieved by salt-curing won’t be there.  And if you don’t want to serve it as part of your meal, a small portion from half a large leaf or  so made in the kitchen while you do other things is a great cook’s treat  to eat while you work and prevent overeating later on.

I never tire of harping on the fact that leafy greens form the basis of the Cretan diet, the diet that nourished some of the healthiest and longest- lived people in the world. Also, they are full of soluble and insoluble fiber and very filling, so you have half the chicken breast left over to eat the next day, providing economies of time and money in addition to the health benefits.There is a meme going around that says

“How do you reset your body back to its factory settings?

It’s kale, isn’t it?

Please don’t say it’s kale”

Substitute “leafy greens” for “kale” and this becomes fairly accurate, and can be made delicious. If you grow your own greens, it’s also dirt-cheap. So there just isn’t a downside.

 

Food Diatribe I

I grow some winter vegetables under frost blankets so the growing season is never completely over for me, but it is certainly a lot slower than it was a couple of months ago, and I have some time in the evening to read and even, occasionally, to think. One of the things that I think about most is the future of agriculture and American health. I am hardly indifferent to the health of other countries, but I like to start at home, and the fact is that by many parameters we have worse health outcomes than most first-world countries and many third-world countries. I have put a few references below, but the short version is that you name the health parameter, from overall longevity to infant mortality to rates of cardiac death to obesity and diabetes, and we’re not doing well. I will only be addressing factors that have some well-established link to diet and therefore to agriculture.

This is the article that provoked this post:

Why Small Local Organic Farms Aren’t the Key to Fixing Our Food System

This article is an example of the stuff going around in the popular press right now, because a great way to get clicks is to attack the current mantra whatever it is, and “organic and local” is the current food mantra.  And I believe that this article is partially correct: the production of grain, legumes, etc. does benefit from some economies of scale because of the land and equipment involved, and even raising grassfed large livestock requires a lot of grass and, therefore, a lot of land.

This is where I disagree:  the article does not address the fact that what small local organic farms are producing, mostly produce and small livestock, is exactly what most of us would benefit from eating more of, and the environment would be better off if we did.  I believe that in many ways American agricultural thinking is still stuck in the old model of maximum calories per acre, even though nobody would ever talk about it that way anymore.  Corn, for instance, can produce a huge number of calories per acre, and therefore a huge amount of food, most of it not good for us. The only reason to grow so damn much corn is to produce a huge number of calories. So I invite you to just look around you, and figure out how many people of your acquaintance or visible in any public place are suffering from a calorie deficiency.  I am not talking here about nutrient deficiencies, but about simple calorie deficiencies. Calorie deficiencies  exist in America, definitely, but they are not common. I follow a lot of lifespan, healthspan, and mindspan research,  and much of it looks at what has nourished healthy populations, not for a part of one lifetime, but for generations and even millennia.  Vegetables keep emerging as a theme. One of the things that I think could benefit every single American without necessarily changing anything about cooking techniques,  overall diet, specialty ingredients, etc. is simply to think in terms of removing half of what is on an average plate and replacing it with more vegetables. Not the starchy sweet ones but the real ones, especially leafy greens. Nobody is in a better position to help you with that than your local small farmer.

Another issue arises when it comes to the question of how your local small farmer can make a living, because the organic local produce that he or she produces clearly has to be more expensive than most other factory-farmed produce, so that farmers can stay in business. So how can low-income people with  little ability to spend flexibly make better food choices? I think this might be the place to use government subsidies creatively. Right now, subsidies make it possible for Big Ag farmers to make a profit producing huge amounts of GMO corn that go into feeding animals in unhealthy ways and making corn-based sweeteners that make us fat and sick. If, instead, farmers were subsidized for things like employing local labor and using good employment and environmental practices, this would be the beginning of a solution. With topsoil erosion a huge agricultural problem and steadily worsening, subsidizing the farmers who don’t contribute to it could make a real difference.  If low income consumers were also subsidized for using local farm resources, say for example foodstamp dollars would buy one dollar at a grocery store but two dollars at a farmers’ market, it would become more possible for low income people to eat high quality produce. And yes, I would advocate taking away the subsidies that make GMO corn profitable. Cheap beef is sick beef, and cheap sweetener is the basis of an obese society. It is unclear to me why taxpayers should pay for the privilege of making people and animals fatter and sicker. Some people don’t believe in any subsidies at all, but if we’re going to have them, I’m in favor of using them for long-term improved health of soil, animals, and people.

I can’t resist adding (because, after all, it’s what this blog is about) that if you have just a little bit of land, you are in a good position to help yourself.  Put in a vegetable garden and plant a few fruit trees,  or identify fruit trees in other places that you can harvest from (many people don’t want the fruit from their trees or get a lot more fruit than they can use,) and you are in an excellent position to make a salutary change in your diet at minimal expense.

WHO stats of life expectancy by country:

(1) https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_life_expectancy

We are 31st per 2015 statistics. Really.  And remember the China and its administrative region Hong Kong do not participate in the world health organization and are not in their statistics, but both have significantly greater longevity on average than America. So if they were added in, we would drop further.

Stats of rate of cardiac-related death by country:

http://www.worldlifeexpectancy.com/cause-of-death/coronary-heart-disease/by-country/

In cardiac death rates we look okay at first, down at number 107 among countries for which stats are available, but then you notice the long list of countries, including some third-world nations, that have lower rates than we do. You may also notice that France, Italy, the UK, Germany, Switzerland, and most first-world countries generally are doing a good bit better than we are, with notably lower rates of cardiac death. It is very legitimate to ask what we need to do better.

Prevalence of diabetes by country:

https://www.indexmundi.com/facts/indicators/SH.STA.DIAB.ZS/rankings

Here, too, we look okay at first, down at 42nd place in percentage of people age 20-79 diagnosed with diabetes. But then notice Spain down at 89th place, Canada at 95th, Norway at 130th, France at 143rd, the UK at 152nd,  and in fact all developed and many undeveloped nations showing diabetes rates well below ours, and it is imperative to ask how we can do better.

The Fall Summation V: Summer Squash

At this point, in this area, I have given up on standard zucchini. No matter how disease-resistant the variety is touted as being, it succumbs to icky yellow wilts. This summer I tried three vining types which proved totally resistant to bugs and wilts and were alarmingly healthy. The three were trombocino, Thai bottle, and serpiente. My hands-down favorite was the serpiente, which is shown above. It produced three-foot-long “zucchini” all summer until killed by hard frost, with nary a bug or yellowed leaf in sight. I should note, though, that two plants covered an area about 20’x20’ so thickly that nothing else would grow.  Next year I will limit myself to one plant and prune it a bit to control its ambitions.

The trombocino squash  had healthy vines but seemed to have some pollination problems, and many of the young squash withered and dropped off unpollinated. There were plenty of pollinating insects, so I don’t know what the problem was but I don’t think that I will grow it again.

The Thai bottle  squash was a very prolific producer but I did not find this out until the end of the season. Throughout the season I thought that it was not producing more than a few squash, but when the first hard frost killed the leaves back, I found 24 fully mature squash that had been invisible under the thick leaf cover.  Since they are only edible when rather small, I would not grow this one again unless I had a very large trellis or some other arrangement where I could reliably see the small squash.  But if you do have a large trellis and want one plant to cover it in a short period of time, this is your candidate.  But do note that it has to be a big, really strong trellis. This squash is probably capable of covering the side of a building, given a very large trellis and half a chance.

I should note that if you love squash blossoms, as I do, the serpent and bottle squashes have small fragile white flowers, not the great golden trumpets that gladden our hearts.   I might put in one hill of pumpkins just for the gorgeous and delicious blossoms.

When it comes to flavor, all three were the equal of any zucchini I’ve ever eaten. Personally I think that too much is made of flavor nuances in zucchini, and they all taste much alike to me. Same with these vining squashes, all of which have a mild flavor when young and a texture just slightly firmer that zucchini. Get them young, when a thumbnail goes right through the skin with no particular effort. I think that all summer squash are best when cut in pieces of the size you want for the dish you’re making, salted generously, and left for an hour. Excess liquid can then be squeezed away with a dish towel. I just don’t think there’s any substitute for this step, although I do skip it if my decision to cook squash for dinner was impulsive.

The mature fruits that you inevitably find when frost kills the leaves are not usable as squash, but when cut in half with a pruning saw, the chickens relish the insides.