Cashew Butter: Pleasant Surprise

Here’s a new rule from Mary’s Daily Life Playbook: When the rut on our daily grind gets below grade level, check out another path.

I know that could be a metaphor for some deep spiritual truth, but I’m not venturing past the grocery store. A couple days ago I took the radical step of shopping at a different store and was treated to a pleasant surprise: Freshly ground cashew butter (from the Safeway health food section, in case you want to try some.)

Here’s the thing: I had tried cashew butter before, from a jar. It was hard and bland–almost rancid—tasting. Later, our longtime dentist told me how his nutritionist had recommended cashew butter but he pitched the jar after one try. As a healthy eating coach, I didn’t want to contradict his nutritionist, but in secret I had to agree with him.

But now my Safeway experience has me seeing cashew butter in a whole new light. Freshly ground it is soft, creamy and rich. That shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. Fresh is almost always better, whether it’s green beans, freshly baked bread or nut butter. Of course, fresh sometimes has to give way to frozen (as with green beans in the middle of winter), but happily, freshly ground cashew butter can be had year round—and also almond and peanut butter (which are similarly delectable)

There are some nutritional advantages to be had from branching beyond the peanut butter jar, which is why our dentist’s nutritionist recommended it. Likely as not it had something to do with increased nutritional variety. Americans tend to eat a lot of peanut butter. (Skippy reports that the average kid eats 1500 PB&Js during their school years.) Mixing things up a bit with cashew and even almond butter brings some different nutrients to the table.

Without a doubt, cashew butter is pricey at $8.99 per pound (or $4.85 for a 12-oz. tub.) But here’s another way of looking at the cost issue: First, $8.99/lb. pays for an organic variety, so you’re avoiding whatever environmental damage is packaged with cheap peanut butter. Second, it’s very rich, so you eat only small amounts at a time. Third, how much do you spend on pain relievers and other drugs? Buying a rich diversity of foods makes us feel good, too, just in a different and more long-term way.

Also, in case you’d like to try before you buy, Safeway has a nice arrangement: taster cups allow you to sample before you invest. You can also grind whatever amount you want and can afford.

Finally, what do you do with it? That’s where the fun begins. Trying new ingredients offers a sure path out the daily grind. So far, I’ve just been eating small spoonfuls as a snack. I also spread it on toast. But the creative cooking brain is definitely churning. Maybe some kind of sauce with Asian-type flavors? Maybe something with chocolate? I’m open to suggestions. . . .

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Learning from Shoes

A recent Denver Post article explored the new fitness footware on the market that promises the benefits of a workout, just by walking around. Claims run the gamut from “Tones and defines legs” to “Get a workout while you walk” to “Burn more calories with every step.”

Reading the various claims, I had to chuckle. Am I really supposed to believe I’ll get shapely legs just by wearing a particular shoe? Am I not a little smarter than that?

The Post actually consulted with two podiatrists who agreed that there’s no short cut to fitness. Shoes might ease a particular foot condition or add marginally to whatever walking or exercise you otherwise do, but wearing a particular foot piece is no substitute for lacing up the sneakers and hitting the trails.

Seeing this article on shoe claims reminded me of all the food claims I see walking through the grocery store:

  • “0 grams transfat, same great taste,” proclaims the bright yellow star on a box of frozen fish sticks. (Of course nothing in the star mentions the MSG, disodium inosinate, hydrolyzed corn gluten, TBHQ, methylcellulose and 21 other ingredients in those fish sticks.)
  • Another box of breaded fish fillets proudly announces that it’s a “good source of protein.” (Really, it is fish, after all.)
  • Then there’s a pizza “made with 100% cheese.” (Are pizzas made with something else these days?)
  • And what about Popsicles made with fruit juice (I’m sure a product development engineer thought long and hard to come up with that idea. Of course the miniscule, 10% juice content is dwarfed by these confections’ sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors and Yellow 5, Red 40 and Blue 1 dyes.)

Again, am I really supposed to believe that these foods are serious sources of dietary nutrition?

Food claims are so common; maybe we no longer “see” them or subject them to the hard-nosed skepticism they deserve. That’s the beauty of seeing the same kind of game in a different context, in this case, in the context of shoes. It helps make the game more “visible.”

My advice: If you have trouble believing a pair of shoes will walk you into the pearly gates of heavenly fitness, you should have a similar trouble with the claims blazoned across every other packaged food product. Forget all the marketing jingles and slogans and claims. Stick to the one no-nonsense, un-confusing route to a healthy eating lifestyle: The Simple Prescription for Good Eating. More on that later. . . .

Frugal Renaissance

David Brooks of New York Times fame wrote an editorial earlier this month titled “The Great Seduction.” It lamented the corrupting influence of wealth and how wealth has destroyed the very frugal, industrious and ambitious values that are responsible for our affluence to begin with. Based on the imperatives laid out in a recent think tank study, “For a New Thrift: Confronting the Debt Culture,” Brooks sounded a call for the re-embracement of good old-fashioned frugality.

What’s this got to do with food? A lot. If we’re looking to revive the virtue of frugality (not a bad idea in today’s economically uncertain times), the kitchen is a good—and easy—place to start. Statistically, 14% of the food we buy goes to waste. In other words, there is plenty of room for improvement.

Brooks focused on the importance of frugality and debt management for the financial soundness of our entire economy. In the happy coincidence that comes from right thinking and acting, frugality’s benefits extend to many other areas, too: The positive impact on our individual pocketbooks is obvious. Over the course of a year, our average food waste adds up to $590 per year, in 2004 dollars. With food prices soaring, the potential savings are far greater today.

While money savings are unquestionably important, there’s another equally important side to kitchen waste. Maybe it’s my upbringing by Depression-era parents, maybe I took the “starving children in China” thing too seriously, but I get uncomfortable seeing all the food that gets tossed in our culture without a second thought. Food is just a little vital to our survival, which is why it gets my utmost respect, especially when there are so many people living on a few kernels of grain and whatever other morsels they are lucky enough to scrounge up.

I don’t exactly believe in karma, but I figure it can’t hurt to do my best to avoid waste. Even if there isn’t any future payback, maybe the frugal energy I send out will inspire the same in others, and with enough people showing care and respect for food, maybe a way will be found to siphon a little more to those in need.

The environment also benefits by a reduction of kitchen waste. When food is tossed, a lot more goes in the trash can than just the rotted cantaloupe or leftover lasagna that no one ate. Also wasted are the energy that went into growing, transporting, manufacturing, refrigerating and cooking it, the polluting pesticides and fertilizers that went into producing it, and the costs of transporting and landfilling it as trash. May not seem like much for one rotten cantaloupe or a measly corner of lasagna, but environmental degradation is a numbers game. There are thousands and millions of people, all wasting 14% of the food in their households. Things add up. . . .

So how do we prevent waste in the kitchen. There are lots of ways. Stay tuned. . . .

“Radishal” Solutions

I always got after myself about radishes. They’re one of the first fresh vegetables to come from the fields in spring, they’re pretty and plentiful–and almost always cheap. But I couldn’t get myself to eat more than a sliver at a time. I tried them again and again, with hopes of acquiring a taste for the peppery little buggers, but never met with success. Until this spring.

I discovered that their peppery taste could be toned down to a palatable level with a little light cooking. It shouldn’t have taken so long to make the connection. I had always loved daikon in miso soup, slightly crunchy and a tiny bit bitter, just enough to add some interest. But not until this spring did I connect the dots: Hmmm. . . daikon is a radish—a long white Japanese one, but a radish nevertheless. . . . I like it in soup–and stir fries, come to think of it. . . . maybe the cooking is key . . . .

So I began experimenting. First an Asian-themed soup using watermelon radishes, then a hamburger skillet dish featuring plain old red radishes. Once cooked, they added just the right amount of zing. Last night, with no less than four bunches of radishes in the frig, I tried a radish salad based on a recipe included with one of my weekly produce deliveries.

It was delicious! Here’s the recipe, but when you make it, don’t throw out the radish tops as they’re completely edible, too. More on that later. . .

Asian Radish and Carrot Salad

  • 1 small sweet onion (e.g., Vidalia or Walla Walla)
  • 2 tsp. safflower or oil (or toasted sesame)

In a large sauté pan, heat the oil over medium heat until fairly hot, add onions and sauté about 4-5 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent burning.

  • 1 bunch radishes, cut into ¼” matchsticks (2-3 cups of cut radishes)

Add to the onions and cook just 2-3 minutes, stirring a couple times.

  • 4 Tbsp. brown rice vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp. soy sauce
  • 1 Tbsp. agave nectar
  • 1 Tbsp. toasted sesame oil
  • 1 tsp. minced garlic (from a jar is fine)
  • Freshly ground pepper, to taste

While vegetables cook, combine dressing ingredients in a medium-sized glass serving bowl. Stir to combine thoroughly, then pour into vegetables. Cook just 2-3 minutes then pour everything back into the glass serving bowl.

  • 3 med. carrots, julienned, then cut into roughly 2″ lengths

Toss with onion-radish mixture and serve at room temperature or chilled.

Notes:

Onion: Although a sweet onion is called for, a yellow or red would also work; they just take a little more sautéing to remove the raw-onion taste. Also, perfectly in season, would be green onions, which don’t need much cooking at all. Throw them in the pan just before the radishes.

Radishes: I used regular Red Globe radishes, along with a fancier variety called d’Avignion . I imagine almost any kind would do, especially daikon. Cutting the little critters into matchsticks is the only time-consuming part of this recipe, but I can’t think of a good substitute cut. Cut off both ends, then stand the radish up on one of the flat ends. Slice it vertically, then flip it over and cut vertically again to form “matchsticks” about ¼” square. Have them pretty well cut and ready to go before putting the onions on to cook. Otherwise, the onions will get overdone.

Carrots: The fastest way to julienne carrots is with a julienner, a hand tool that costs around $10. Great investment.

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