Turnips, Kohlrabi, Radishes and Other Odd Vegetables

Picture of Kohlrabi

Strangely Beautiful Kohlrabi (photo courtesy of Vermont Food Bank)

The Key to Survival:  Odd Vegetables?

Last week, we got kohlrabi in our CSA boxes for a second time in a row. Chatting with a fellow CSA* member she complained, “Why did we get kohlrabi again? Can’t they just give us vegetables we know?”

Our personal vegetable kingdoms are frequently divided between “vegetables we know” and “everything else.” The former category includes perennial favorites like tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers and peppers. The latter is a dumping ground for those vegetables we never buy or that don’t have instant taste appeal–like kohlrabi, collards, radishes, turnips, parsnips and celeriac.

Why go to the effort of growing, buying and cooking all these odd vegetables? If we can go to the store and buy easy things like carrots and spinach, why bother with produce that presents such preparation and palatability challenges? It’s a fair question, and I’ve often asked it of myself, especially since our classes frequently use vegetables from the “everything else” category.

The answer can be summed up in one word:  Diversity.

Potato blight–not a pretty sight.

I recently attended Food: Our Global Kitchen, the Colorado History Museum’s current exhibit.**  Two juxtaposing displays really drove home the point of diversity.  The first described how, at the time of the tragic Irish Potato Famine, millions of Ireland’s population subsisted largely on just one crop, the potato. To make matters worse, they relied on just one variety of potato. So when the pathogen P. infestans (a/k/a potato blight) struck in 1845, it “spread alarmingly quickly, cutting yields from that year’s harvest in half. By the next year, harvest from potato farms had dropped to one quarter of its original size.” In the ensuing famine, over one million people died of starvation.***

Picture of Peruvian Potatoes

The wild diversity of Peruvian potatoes (courtesy of MikeJackson1948.wordpress.com)

The second display described a very different situation across the globe, where native populations in the Andean highlands had developed nearly 4000 potato varieties over thousands of years, each capable of withstanding different diseases, pests, water availability, soil conditions, etc.  So even though P. infestans is believed to have originated in Peru, the Andean region was spared its devastation.***

My great grandmother was a Potato Famine emigrant, so these displays really left me shaken.  Monoculture, the practice of planting acres and acres with a single variety of a single plant, leaves us so frighteningly vulnerable–just one disease from disaster. Sadly, we haven’t learned much. Not many years after the Irish Potato Famine, American farmers continued planting fields upon fields with just a few varieties of potatoes.   These became an “ocean of breakfast” for the next potato scourge: the Colorado potato beetle, which has been a continuing pest epidemic ever since, kept in check only by massive and multiple applications of pesticides.

At my CSA Farm, Monroe Organic Farms, over 100 produce varieties are planted on just 20 or so acres! Not only do the Monroes grow a huge number of produce items from asparagus to zucchini and carrots to watermelon. In addition, they juggle four different varieties of carrots, five kinds of zucchini, five of watermelon–did you even know there were five kinds of watermelon, all quite different? Here, 4th generation farmer Kyle Monroe sells asparagus and strawberries.

What’s to save us? Diversity. It’s the “technology” Nature has always deployed to keep disease and pests in check. Faced with a riotous mix of species and varieties, insects and pathogens can’t multiply and adapt to dangerous levels.

Which brings us back to turnips, kohlrabi and radishes. The more odd things on our farms, the less we are vulnerable to massive crop failures. And should pests or hail or a water shortage bring down one crop, there’s a good chance the damaging condition will have little or no affect on other crops or varieties.  Last year, for instance, our CSA farm was hit by fury of hail that sheared the tops off most crops–but all the root crops were safely buried in the ground. So we rued the loss of Monroe’s famous melons, but cheered at the bounty of carrots, potatoes, beets and celeriac.

Diversity yields benefits on a personal level, too. As we eat a greater variety of foods, our bodies benefit from a wider range of nutrients. In fact, Jacquie, our CSA farmer, says this is an important reason for including vegetables from the “everything else” category, i.e., so members get a chance to try and benefit from new foods.  And there’s nothing like a variety of tastes–from the sweetness of peaches to the earthiness of turnips–to create a dish with deep, well-rounded flavor.

Carrot Diversity

Diverse Varieties of Carrots:  Buying at Farmers’ Markets featuring locally grown foods from diversified farms is an excellent way to support an environmentally sound food system.

Finally, many “odd” produce varieties are what grow best in Colorado. While finicky tomatoes and cucumbers can only be grown in our hottest months, sturdy crops like kale, chard, and yes, radishes, kohlrabi and turnips, can be grown in our chilly, unpredictable springs and autumns as well. So while waiting for the hot weather crops to (finally) produce, several rounds of cold-weather crops can be harvested and eaten–and many can be stored through the winter months.

In a world where easy and familiar vegetables are shipped in to your grocery store no matter the month, it’s easy to ignore the odd vegetables. But perhaps you want to help transition us to an environmentally sound, resilient food system, where tomatoes aren’t shipped in from places 1000 miles away and we aren’t dependent on drought-ravaged California for 90% of our food supply. One of the best ways to contribute is also one of the easiest: simply buy, use and create demand for the odd vegetables.

And don’t worry about the taste. Over time, our taste buds grow and develop so that we come to treasure the “unique” flavors of each member of the vegetable kingdom. Our classes are a perfect way to gain some exposure, experiment and learn tricks and tips to make the odd vegetables a natural part of your diet.  And see the following posts on How to peel and cut a kohlrabi, quick ideas for using kohlrabi, and a recipe for Slow Cooker Kohlrabi Gratin.

Notes

*”CSA” stands for Community Supported Agriculture. Having a CSA is essentially like buying a one-season share in a local farm; in return, you get a box of the farm’s produce harvest each week.

** Food: Our Global Kitchen is open through September 1; well worth a trip to downtown Denver

*** Information drawn from Smithsonian.com, Scientists Finally Pintpoint the Pathoget that Caused the Irish Potato Famine, May 21, 2013;   http://cipotato.org/potato/  and  Smithsonian.com, How the Potato Changed the World, November, 2011.

The Beauty of Relishes

Want a Good Way to Save Time, Money and Stress?  Relishes Make for Easy Meals and Great Taste

I’ve been wanting to experiment with relishes ever since reading A Thousand Acres, a novel profiling the lives of  several Iowa farm familyies.  While the novel itself was pretty unsettling (although masterfully so), the summer harvest always brings to mind its description of Iowa food preservation rituals.  It puts my paltry canning efforts completely to shame.  The novel’s women didn’t settle for putting up a few jars of plain old tomatoes and peaches.  They preserved almost everything from their gardens–much of it in the form of interesting sauces and relishes.

I remember thinking that seemed like a ridiculous lot of work!  But as the months and years passed, I realized those Iowa gals may well have something on us.  Sure they worked hard for a couple of months each summer, but think of the benefits their investments yielded:

  • Mealtime Speed  Need dinner in a hurry?  Fry up pork chops and top with a flavorful relish.  With the relish providing the pizzazz, side dishes can be super simple.  Get a totally satisfying meal together in practically no time.
  • Stress-Relief  No need to worry all day about what to make for dinner.  Just pull a relish from the shelf, mix ‘n match with different meats, sandwiches, wraps, salads, etc.
  • Affordability  We all know that seasonal produce is the best in terms of taste–but its also very reasonably priced.  So preserve those savings for year-round enjoyment.

It took a couple years, but this summer I dug up some of the relish recipes I’ve been saving and took the plunge, making a gingery beet relish.  I feel like I struck gold!  Beets are so plentiful and cheap right now.  Make up a batch and it stores for a couple months.  Pull it out and use with abandon on meats, sandwiches, salads, rice dishes–you name it.  Get not only color and flavor but a valuable nutritional boost.

I’m excited to share the many joys of relish with you–and to relish some as well.  Join us for one of our Farmers’ Market classes this week to, cook, learn, taste and chat relishes.

Q & A: How to Heat Oil for Sauteing

Kitchen Tip (+ a Little Kitchen Wisdom)

At a recent Cooking Get Together we were preparing to saute onions for a healthy risotto.  As always, the recipe said, “heat oil until hot but not smoking.”  That directive led one of the participants to ask:

Picture of Heating Pan for Sauteing

When sauteing, first heat (a/k/a "condition") the pan, then pour in the oil and heat until oil is shimmery and very thin, but not smoking.

Q.  When heating oil to saute, do you heat the pan first, then pour in the oil?  Or pour in the oil then heat the pan?

A.  The technically correct sequence is heat the pan first, then pour in the oil.

Q.  But what if you forget?  Is it ok if you mistakenly pour in the oil before heating the pan?

A.  It is ok.

While that’s the short answer to the oil heating question, I have begun sensing a deeper side to questions like these.

The Rise of Fear-Based Cooking  For example, did you feel a slight twinge of uneasiness when I just advocated a flagrant violation of “The Cooking Rules?”  I did so because I have frequently made the “mistake” of pouring in the oil before heating the sauté pan, yet I’ve still ended up with a perfectly fine dish–and perfectly fine dishes are the sum total of what’s required of everyday cooks.  However, for many everyday cooks, there seems to be an underlying uncertainty–maybe even a fear–about all the cooking rules floating around these days and whether we’re following them adequately.  This is likely the result of the cooking shows and competitions proliferating on TV and elsewhere.

Of course there is nothing wrong with being informed and educated about cooking rules, as long as we maintain perspective.  In other words, cooking rules do not define the line between good food and bad.  Rather, they simply identify ways to make food taste better or bring out flavors more fully.  We should never feel inadequate or cowed by rules that are oftentimes repeated with religious fervor.

Professional Cooks and Everyday Cooks  Bear in mind that the cooking rules are developed and propounded by cooking professionals, i.e., people who are paid and have all day to produce the spectacular food.  This does not accurately describe the everyday cook, who is throwing together meals after a long day of work, without any compensation, on a budget, around household chores and bill paying, with particular health needs,  and maybe with kids underfoot or  in between a variety of kid activities.

Permission to Relax   I cooked for years without ever knowing proper saute technique–or much or any other technique for that matter, yet both family and friends were perfectly delighted with the results.  This was before the days of cooking shows, so I think there was bliss in ignorance.  What counted for more than anything was the care and attention I gave meal making.  Gradually, I did begin to pick up pointers here and there as I could, and bit by bit my meals became better.

Think Guidelines, Not Rules  I’d like to recommend this more relaxed approach to anyone who counts themselves in the “everyday cook” category.  First, put your heart, care and attention into meal making.  This counts for as much or more than anything.  Then, think of cooking rules more in the vein of “guidelines. ”  Instead of feeling stressed about knowing  and following them perfectly all the time, just try to pick up one or two at a time and gradually incorporate them into your routines.    You’ll find that few, if any, merit “end of the world” status, rendering a dish inedible if they are not followed.  Following them simply adds up, bit by bit, to better and better meals.

Enjoy  Finally, don’t let anything stand in the way of enjoying your food and those you share it with , which is the point of it all anyway, right?

More on the topic of cooking fear:  Using Fresh Herbs at 11,000 Feet

Hope!

A Little Inspiration for Everyday Cooks

Ever feel like good meals are as likely to show up on your table as $1000 checks in the mail?  Meal making has been made out to be so hard, so difficult and so impossible.  More than cooking skills, new gadgets and more recipes, I sometimes think what we need most is just a dose of plain old hope, i.e., a deep-rooted belief that making good, wholesome food each day is entirely doable.

As an example, I received this email from Carol right after she had registered for a Whole Kitchen Cooking Class:

“Looking forward to the class. I don’t know much about cooking. I try to eat healthy but it requires WORK.”

So it warmed my heart when, after class was over, Carol emailed again.

“Subject:  soup!!

Hey Mary,  Just wanted to share with you that I made the tastiest healthy soup this evening using leftover chicken breasts and good veggies from the fridge. It was quick, easy, and delicious, and I couldn’t have done it before your class. I’m so proud of myself!”Tulips

While the many skills, tips and strategies we learned in class undoubtedly contributed greatly to Carol’s confidence and enthusiasm, I have no doubt that a newly blossomed seed of hope will keep her cooking long into the future, and enjoying it, too.

Need a dose of inspiration?  Join one of our cooking classes where fun and inspiration are definitely main menu items, and cooking is cool again.

Building Your “Tasting Muscles”–and Putting Them to Good Use

Fast Food Hamburger Picture

Fascination with fast foods has led to more than flabby abs. Homogenized flavors have left our tasting muscles flabby, too.

The ill consequences of our couch potato culture aren’t limited to flabby abs and saggy triceps.  All the homogenized foods that comprise the bulk of our diet have gradually eroded our “tasting muscles,” too.

Never knew you had tasting muscles?  You’re not alone. I am just now discovering them from several pieces of evidence that have come my way.

  • First, I made a couple recipes that I developed a couple years ago.  I distinctly remember liking them at the time, but was disappointed in their lack of flavor when I revisited them.   Seems my tasting muscles had grown to desire more and fuller flavors.
  • Next came a wardrobe makeover.  Seems totally unrelated but hear me out:  My first exercise was holding up each item in my wardrobe to see if it was complimentary or not.  After the first few tries I was completely frustrated.  “Why can’t I tell the difference between complimentary and awful?” I complained to my personal “closet transformation” expert.  “Be patient,” she told me.  “Over time you build the ‘muscle’ to distinguish between the two.”  Sure enough, over a year or so, I developed the ability to see how her color choices were just right for me, and why my former black and white wardrobe was all wrong (even if it was convenient.)
  • The final piece of the taste puzzle came from our Whole Kitchen Meal Making Classes over the last year.  We do a lot of tasting and evaluating in those classes.  We taste dishes with a little spice and more spice, we taste vegetables cooked al dente and on the softer side, we taste with and without a sprinkling of  lemon, and we taste dishes that could use a little work and decide what to do with them.  While these exercises are very empowering for class members, they also reveal how we often lack the skill–or muscle–to wield this newfound power.

Piecing together these pieces of evidence has led me to a theory:  Could we have been spoon fed processed and prepared foods for so long that we’ve lost the ability to discern tastes, know which ones we like, and play with them to suit us?

One of the “greatest” food innovations in the last few decades has been the ability to homogenize foods across vast regions, so you can experience the same Big Mac flavor whether you are in Paris, Beijing or Denver.  While eliminating all risk from a food outing has some advantages, there are plenty of disadvantages, too,  like being unable to savor the magnificent array of tastes that lie outside the narrow, “processed foods bandwidth.”

But why bother training and building our tasting muscles to savor the flavors of the rainbow if we can just be spoon fed processed and packaged foods?  Because, simply put, those processed and packaged foods are killing us!  And we all know those sugar-laden yogurt cups, energy (a/k/a candy) bars, diet sodas and frozen meals are wreaking havoc on our bodies!

Not only do we know this, most of us would love to replace those havoc-wreaking foods with vegetable-rich meals filled with whole grains, nuts, beans and lean proteins.  That can’t happen, however, as long as we’re slaves to our flabby tasting muscles.    Having been stunted and malformed by a homogenized diet, those muscles won’t allow us to venture forth and relish and be happy with the taste of real, wholesome, healthful foods.

Sure we could go on a “diet,” forcing ourselves to eat just salads, dried out chicken breasts and toast with half a teaspoon of butter.  That route is no fun at all, however, which explains why “diets” routinely fail.  Who wants to live in a way that isn’t deeply pleasurable?

Alternatively, we could develop our tasting muscles to delight in the goodness and taste of real foods.  Trust me, there is a miracle waiting to be experienced here.   Local, seasonal foods  produced with care are magnificent–if your tasting muscles have been let loose to love them.  Learn what flavors make you feel good and how to apply those flavors in ways that make you feel deeply satisfied and happy with a meal.  Very quickly, you’ll no longer want the security of bland, homogenized, processed foods.  Instead you’ll want all the pizzazz and rewards of adventurous–and far more healthful–real foods meals.

Want to begin developing your tasting muscles?  Ready to begin challenging your taste buds with new, pleasurable flavors?  Join any of our cooking classes or demos and open the door to a lifelong tasting adventure and all its delicious rewards.

Take It From the Expert

Heart Box of Strawberries

“[Our] fast-paced, fast-food, fast-exercise lifestyle closes a doorway of perception that decreases our pleasure threshold.  We become acclimated to low-health, low-pleasure, mass-produced food.  Our pleasure vocabulary decreases and we live, unaware, in a world in which our experience of joy never measures up to its true potential.”

Marc David, The Slow Down Diet, Eating for Pleasure, Energy, & Weight Loss

Marc is a nutritionist and eating psychologist who has researched and written extensively on the possibility of pleasure in eating to transform and improve metabolism.  Listen to my interview with Marc on the importance of Vitamin P(pleasure) in our diet.

Bad Boy Bacon VS. The Cheese Danish

What a way to stir up controversy, angst and anxiety:  At a health fair last week, we demonstrated Spinach Sauteed with Pears and Bacon.  Yes, you read that right.  We made a dish featuring none other than bad boy bacon.  Not turkey bacon, not a vegetarian imitation, not a special lean variety, just good old pure bacon.

As the smell of frying bacon wafted through the exhibit area, people started drifting our way, sheepishly yielding to the scent of a food at once reviled and adored.  Arriving at our booth, their bacon stories and angst poured forth.  It was an interesting window into the conflict and confusion that permeates our food and health thinking.  As we’ve all been taught, bacon is supposed to be a clear cut bad boy, and yet . . .

  • I used bacon grown on a small family farm where the pigs are not confined to live in their own excrement, are fed a wholesome diet and aren’t pumped with growth hormones or antibiotics.
  • The bacon had only four ingredients:  pork, salt, spices and sugar (and the sugar and salt were nominal, just enough to accomplish the curing process.)
  • I combined the bacon with two other pure, whole, real foods (pears and spinach) for a dish rich in nutritional benefits.
  • The bacon was so lean it barely rendered enough fat to saute the pears and spinach, plus I used only 3 ounces of bacon to generously serve four people so each full serving contained only 3/4 of an ounce.)
  • Because the bacon was so flavorful, no fancy preparations or ingredients were needed for great taste, i. e., this is a vegetable dish anyone could make on a weeknight
  • And because the bacon tasted so good, the whole dish was irresistibly good, meaning that vegetable eating became a delightful experience and getting us exactly where we want to be: eating lots of vegetables and fruits because they taste so good.

Far from being a nutritional disaster, then, this scenario represents a nutritional success!

The moral of this story: real, whole foods were never and are not now the source of our nutritional problems.  Manufactured and adulterated foods are the problem.  And at the health fair, there was a perfect example of manufactured, adulterated food in the central exhibit area.  There, as official foods of the fair, were grapes, orange segments–and trays of cheese Danishes that were being eaten without any conflict or angst.  In fact, some visitors to our booth were munching a cheese Danish as they debated whether to partake of our bacon.

Did those pastries really deserve an honored position at the fair?  Did they deserve to be eaten without at least a little angst?  Take a look at the ingredient listing for a typical Danish:*

Enriched flour (wheat flour [translation: refined white flour], malted barley flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate (vitamin B1), riboflavin (Vitamin B2), folic acid), water, vegetable margarine [palm oil, water, soybean oil, salt, mono- and diglycerides, artificial flavor, annatto (color), calcium disodium EDTA (preservative), Vitamin A Palmitate], sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose, coconut, corn syrup, palm oil, raspberry puree concentrate, yeast, egg yolk, whey (milk) wheat starch, soy flour, mono- and diglycerides, modified cornstarch, raspberries, salt, tapioca dextrin, soybean oil, natural and artificial flavor, orange juice concentrate, soy lecithin, pectin, sodium stearoyl lactylate, corn flour, maltodextrin, citric acid, gellan gum, calcium sulfate, potassium sorbate (preservative), calcium carbonate, xanthan gum, black currant juice, hydrogenated cottonseed oil, malic acid, nut paste, sodium citrate, cellulose gum, agar, sodium acid pyrophosphate, baking soda, egg whites, cornstarch, calcium citrate, artificial color, caramel color, sorbitan monostearate, glycerol monooleate, spice and color, azodicarbonamide, sulfiting agents (preservative)

Seriously?  We’re supposed to eat things that contain stuff like this?  They’re just manufactured products, like crayons, Play Doh, and craft glue.  No one would suggest that you eat those things.  So why eat manufactured products just because they are made with food grade commodities and shaped and colored to look like a food?

  • Food grade commodity wheat is processed, refined and adulterated just like the filler material for Play Doh.  The wheat is stripped of its natural nutrients, leaving a lifeless calorie material which is then sprayed with artificially created nutrients.  Like Play Doh, the rich yellow color in Danish dough comes as more from artificial color than egg yolks.
  • Like red crayons, the “raspberry” filling is mostly just industrially processed corn syrup colored with fruit juice concentrate and food dye.  There’s maybe a thimbleful of real raspberries in the entire Danish.
  • The snow white frosting drizzled artfully over the top is just white sugar in another form.  Maybe it is less harmful than white glue, but it is no better for the body nutritionally.

This sounds so radical.  Can it really be that all our yummy, supposedly healthy breakfast pastries aren’t really that good?  Could it really be better to simply eat one or two real eggs, an ounce of pure bacon plus vegetables and fruit?  Try and see for yourself!   I’ve gravitated toward vegetable and protein breakfasts followed by a mid-morning, whole grain granola snack.  I feel much better.  Get easy ideas from my Tweets and remember this “radical” takeaway:

Healthful eating for wellness is a lot easier than you think:  Eat just real, whole foods.  Ditch the boxes unless they contain products made with only real, whole foods.  Easy.

Next Time:  But cheese Danishes taste so good!  How do I resist?

Parsley Is the New Superfood? No Surprise There

Week after week, headlines roll, announcing with great flourish how different foods are good for us:  Acai berries!  Kale!  Blueberries!  Quinoa!   I just read an article from the Land Animal blog, describing  the many nutritional benefits of parsley.  Yes, you read that right.  Even lowly parsley has now been recognized as a nutritional powerhouse.  That’s what got me thinking there should be an article with this headline:

Sound odd and surprising?  It really isn’t.  Why wouldn’t all the fruits of the earth be good for us?  They were all designed to be our nurture and nourishment, and our bodies were designed to put them all to good use.  Just like every other critter on the planet, we’ve been given a perfect food source.

What’s actually odd and surprising is how impressed and awed we are when a “scientific study” discovers the obvious.  Equally odd and surprising is that despite the obvious rightness of real foods, we knowingly feed ourselves food-grade  factory products that bear no resemblance to what the earth gladly supplies us.

Parsley is just one more example in a long string of evidence that the earth will gladly take care of us.  All we have to do is eat what the earth gives us instead of sugar-laden, fat-filled, over-salted, additive-addled factory products.   With all due respect to all the scientific studies, healthful eating  just isn’t as hard as we’ve been led to believe.

Parsley Bouquet

More parsley benefits: It's always cheap and always available. Keep some on hand and store in a vase so it can double as nice winter greenery.

Another interesting thing happens as you begin eating consistently from the seasonal fruits of the earth:  When a study comes out proclaiming the benefits of, say, beets, or celery, or millet or grassfed beef, the chances are good that you’re already eating the latest miracle food!  You don’t have to run out to the store and e.g., buy a bushel of parsley then gag it down in smoothies.  Instead, you’ve already been buying parsley every week or two, sprinkling it over casseroles for color, adding it to salads for flavor, or turning it into pestos (like the one in the next post.)

Shopping Tip:  If you’re ready to start weaving parsley into your diet, try the flat-leafed, or Italian, variety (pictured to the right.)  I prefer it’s taste to curly-leafed parsley, the other main variety available in stores.

Cooking Tips: Wash parsley well in advance of using so it can dry completely.  (I wash right when I get it home from the store, then let it dry in a colander for 30 minutes to an hour before bagging and refrigerating.)    Also, don’t throw out the stems.  See how they are used in Parsley Pesto.

Come find out more about how easy it can be to eat in rhythm with nature, which is healthful automatically.  Whole Kitchen Cooking Classes are all about learning to easily cook and enjoy the cornucopia of food the earth supplies us:  from fruits, vegetables and grains to proteins, nuts, beans and all sorts of herbs, spices and flavorings–like parsley!  Next session begins Thursday, January 13.

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