The Benefits of Nibbling

Nibble while you cook.  Dieting gurus might not approve of this recommendation, but it’s the only way to root out potential meal time spoilers.

Here’s a case in point:  I was making a simple green salad tonight with green leaf lettuce and shredded red cabbage.  Casting about for a quick accent, I came upon several Asian pears ripening in brown paper sack on the counter.  The idea was perfect; the pear wasn’t.

Unfortunately, however, I had diced and sprinkled it over the salad before taking a nibble.  Oddly enough, it was sour.  I’d never tasted an Asian pear so sour and two earlier pears from the same batch had been delicious.  Didn’t matter.  This one was a bad “apple” that was going to ruin the whole salad.  So I plucked the pieces from the salad and diced up a second pear–but not without trying it first!

Any good cook will tell you that tasting is often the difference between an OK dish and a stellar dish, just because recipes have a tough time working every time, exactly as written.  There are too many variations in produce, meats, spices and other foods.  Tasting allows you to make the necessary adjustments to work around the variations.

I’m going to expand the tasting rule to include the raw ingredients, too (to the extent they can be eaten raw.)  Zucchini is another case in point.  About every sixth zucchini I run into is a bitter one.  Fail to eliminate it and the entire dish will be punctuated by bits of bitter zucchini.  So before cutting one, I slice a little taste from the end.  Both bitter and flavorless ones go to the composter for reincarnation, hopefully as happier zucchini.

I do this for practically all the vegetables and fruits I put in dishes, as well as pastas, beans, grains and meats once they are cooked.  Only about 5-10% of foods are ones I want to keep out of a dish, but I’d rather pitch just one zucchini than suffer an entire saute with bitter accents!

Sounds like I nibble a lot?  I probably do, but to appease the dieting folks, I only take small nibbles.  I don’t want to ruin my appetite.

Also, know that a lot of your nibbles are upping your fruit and vegetable counts for the day, which is certainly not a bad thing.

Q & A: Are Carrots and Peas Too High in Sugar?

That was one of the questions from a talk I gave the other night.  A young woman had heard that peas and carrots should be avoided because of their high sugar content.

Do I try to answer her question from a scientific, technical standpoint:  Put peas and carrots in the witness stand and cross examine them?  Or do I step back and ask, “Where did that question even come from?”

On average, we consume 142 POUNDS of sugar each year (that’s as of 2003, up 19% from the 119 pounds we consumed in 1970.)*   Every day, on average, we consume 13.5 teaspoons of sugar, just in the sodas we drink.  A quick perusal of Starbucks’ nutritional information shows that we get another eight to 15 teaspoons in our morning coffee drinks.  The morning muffin we wolf down–even a “healthy” Whole Wheat Honey Bran one–has another 6 or more teaspoons of sugar.  That’s a total of 27.5 to 34.5 teaspoons of sugar–and we haven’t even gotten to lunch yet.

Ever wonder how tough and rough stalks get turned into pure white crystals?  Image from

Ever wonder how tough and rough stalks get turned into pure white crystals? Image from***

Given these facts, does it not seem just a little preposterous, a little audacious, to criticize peas for having 1 tsp. of “sugar” per 1/2 cup?  What’s more, peas’  “sugar” is a far cry from the white stuff we spoon into our coffee, or the high fructose corn syrup we gulp down in our sodas.  It requires none of the test tube processing required to mutate a stalk of sugar cane into crystals of white sugar or an ear of corn into a sweet syrup.  And unlike those sweet mutations, the “sugar” in peas isn’t void of nutrients but comes bundled with an amazing assortment of valuable vitamins and minerals (**see below for details.)

A Goggle search pulled up an article that might be prompting these kinds of questions.  That article pronounced peas “high” in sugar based on comparisons to spinach and broccoli (having 8.2 grams, 0.13 grams and 1.5 grams per cup, respectively, but with no mention made that a cup of spinach is one sixth the weight of a cup of peas.)   The article warned that consuming foods high in sugar, even from fruits and vegetables, is likely to cause weight gain and an increased chance of developing diabetes.  It cautioned against eating peas “unless you really enjoy them.”

All I can think is that we should be so lucky if people would eat peas!  In a nation where only one person in ten eats the recommended number of fruits and vegetables and where we consume toxic amounts of processed, refined foods in oversized portions, it would be tremendous if we would eat whole, natural vitamin-and-mineral packed food like peas–and carrots, too.

Maybe, instead of dissecting and worrying about the sugar and calories in peas and carrots, we should be looking at their sweetness as a little gift from nature–so we aren’t stuck eating bitter dandelion greens and bland spinach all the time.  Maybe we should say “thank you,” instead of being horrified–and then sneaking in the freezer for a dip of Chunky Monkey (7 teaspoons of sugar in a 1/2 cup serving).

The bottom line:  Eat your peas and carrots, just like your mother said!

* From GOOD, October 8, 2007, drawing on statistics from Center for Science in the Public Interest. By the way, 142 POUNDS of sugar is the equivalent of 13,995 teaspoons of the stuff–another reason to wonder why we would worry about the 1 teaspoon of sugar in a serving a peas that would amount to only 365 teaspoons annually if we only would eat a serving a day

**From  Green peas are a very good source of vitamin C, vitamin K, manganese, dietary fiber, folate and thiamin (vitamin B1). They are also a good source of vitamin A, phosphorus, vitamin B6, protein, niacin, magnesium, riboflavin (vitamin B2), copper, iron, zinc and potassium.

***Transforming sugar cane into sugar also has serious environmental and social justice implications according to an article in Seedling, July 2007

Don’t Pitch that Browned Rice

I’ll be the first to admit it:  I’ve “browned” a lot of rice.  In this case, “browning” is not like “browning chicken breasts until golden,” or “toasting nuts until brown and fragrant.”  No, browning rice means I forgot about the rice simmering on the stove so the stuff just kept simmering until a thick brown, hard crust formed on the bottom.

Fortunately, that brown crust emits a pretty fragrant smell, so I usually catch the rice before it burns completely, at which point the whole batch would have to be pitched.  As long as it’s only brown on the bottom, even a serious brown, the rice on top is fine.  Just scrape it off and enjoy.

As for the crust of hard browned rice on the bottom, I used to pitch it.  Until now.  Quite by accident (the way a lot of good cooking secrets are uncovered), I found a delicious use for it:  After scooping away the good rice from yet another browned batch, I poured in a cup or two of water to help loosen the bottom crust.  Since I forgot to turn off the burner, the mixture continued cooking.  Lo and behold, when I checked back in a few minutes, the hard browned rice had fluffed up and the intense browned flavor had been diluted and evenly dissipated by the water.  Always game for a new flavor, I tried a bite and it was quite good!  So the whole batch got thrown into a pot vegetable soup for an interesting flavor enhancer.

Yesterday, I went one step further.  Faced with yet another hard brown rice crust, I simmered it in a couple cups of chicken broth instead of just plain water.  Then I added diced kohlrabi stems and, after they had simmered a bit, chopped kohlrabi greens.  Salt and pepper were the only seasonings necessary for a delicious lunchtime soup.  Apparently, browned rice has a lot of flavor.

Here’s an even better ending to the story:  You’ve heard of self-cleaning ovens.  Cooking browned-on rice self-cleans your rice pan.  Just be sure to scrape the sides and bottom of the pan as the soup boils–which you’ll want to do anyway to scrape in all that flavor.

Of course, I’m just waiting for the comment from some clever reader who never browns (or burns) her rice because she uses a rice cooker.  Go ahead and advise me that I need to get a rice cooker–but you’ll never get to taste Browned Rice Soup!

(P.S. for kohlrabi, you can substitute the stems and leaves of any green, like kale, chard, collards, beets or even just spinach; just adjust the cooking time up or down depending upon the tenderness or toughness of your greens.)

Mutant Produce Now Comes Complete with Stickers

Hybridized fruit now sports brightly colored, impossibly sticky skin growths

Hybridized fruit now sports brightly colored, impossibly sticky skin growths

Do you remember when you could buy a pear, wash it, then eat it?  Not anymore.  Mad scientists have successfully hybridized every last produce species.  Shortly after harvest, fruits and vegetables now develop a brightly colored, impossibly sticky scab on the outer skin.  Being highly toxic, the scab must be removed before eating, presenting consumers with an annoying conundrum: Gouge the little devil out with a fingernail (if you have one), and risk packing your nail with pear pulp?  Or slice off the scab, losing a good part of the fruit and dirtying a knife in the process?  Whichever route you follow, the best part is saved for last:  tossing the scab into the trash, there to join millions of others, further clogging already overflowing landfills.

So I’m back to gouging one of those darned stickers from my pear this morning, wondering why a paper sign attached to a box of fruit can’t adequately identify the contents?  Guess it’s another reason to buy from the farmer’s market. . . .

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