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Whole Gourmet Natural Cooking

Alison Anton's Natural Cooking Blog offers healthy recipes, inspirational food articles and culinary advice for the natural chef, and features dessert recipes from her upcoming cookbook, Desserts for Every Body.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Presentation is Everything...

Istock 000001080562Small...Well, almost. Good food is good food. But good food taste that much better when it is presented in a tantalizing and attractive way. Presentation sets the stage, making the event a more pleasurable and successful experience, whether it’s a formal party or a casual dinner with your family.

Simple yet decorative plates, an attractive place mat and real cloth napkins work wonders for bringing your guests or family into the dining experience. Even take-out spaghetti and meatballs served on a nice plate and cloth napkin will help the food come alive. But it won’t happen served right out of the styrofoam with a plastic fork and paper napkin. It really does make a difference!

Next is the garnishing. People really appreciate that extra little touch of color. It gives the food a splash of life and helps it pop out on the plate. It accentuates. Much of the time, people don’t even notice the actual garnish. What they do notice, though, is that the food somehow looks incredibly appetizing.

Even kids will subconsciously notice the difference. They see attractive colors, an interesting arrangement, and most importantly, the extra love and care that went into their plate of food. They may not say so on the outside, but they know it and remember it on the inside.

I always have sprigs of fresh herbs in the crisper to use as simple garnishes. But the garnishing possibilities are endless. Grated lemon or orange peel work beautifully.

If you have a garden, edible flowers are always attractive. Colorful ground herbs such as mild paprika or turmeric sprinkled around the plate edges add a contrast in color. Even black pepper or a drizzle of oil can be a quick fix to a drab dish.

Chive Garnishing Oil
1-2 bunches fresh chives
Olive oil

Place the chives in a food processor or blender and purée. While the machine is running, add a little olive oil through the feed tube to form a desired consistency for drizzling. Drizzle over soups, entrées, or around plate edges for a bright green splash of color.

Infused Flame Oil
1/4 cup olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoon mild paprika
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
6 whole cloves
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1 bay leaf

Gently heat the oil over low heat in a small sauté pan. Add the remaining ingredients. Keep the oil warm, but do not over-heat, as the spices will become bitter and the oil rancid if it gets too hot. Infusion is complete in about 15 minutes. Strain the liquid and discard the solids. Use as a drizzled garnish over soups, entrees, or around plate edges for a red splash of color. This also makes a delicious flavor enhancer for steamed vegetables and meats.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Hazards of Microwaving?

MicroYes, microwave ovens are convenient and energy efficient. That’s why over 90% of American households and restaurants use them.

Although no FDA or officially released governmental studies have proven microwave usage to be harmful, history does shows that the validity of governmentally-funded food safety studies can be limiting, and sometimes we even find out later that they are altogether inaccurate. European countries have also run studies, and, contrary to the US reports, have reported negative effects of microwaved food.

Swiss, German and Russian studies have shown that microwaving proteins, grains, vegetables and fruits can cause the formation of well-known carcinogens. They also reported a marked acceleration of structural degradation leading to a decreased food value of 60-90% in all the foods that they tested. They’ve found that microwaving food does have an effect on various biological levels in our bodies.

So how is it that microwaving is any worse than conventional forms of cooking food? In a nutshell, the microwaving process interacts with the molecules inside the food in a way that changes the molecule’s polarity from positive to negative with each wave cycle, which happens millions of times per second. All this agitation creates friction inside the molecules, which then heats up the food.

This unusual type of forceful heating causes substantial damage to the molecules, often deforming them or tearing them apart altogether. We can’t see it on the outside, but on the inside, the cellular structure of the food (where the nutrition resides) is dramatically altered.

Other forms of heating, like baking, sautéing and boiling, also alter the chemical structure of foods; this is why so many foods are recommended by naturalists to be eaten raw or just slightly cooked. But, for me, the way in which the food is cooked via the microwave is what is bothersome. Microwave cooking begins within the cells in a way that can, for some, be construed as a form of radiation.

My mom, also a chef and cooking instructor, has been cooking foods in the microwave for decades. She is a gourmet chef, and by far makes use of her Viking range and convection oven over the microwave, but touts the use of microwaves for lightly cooking vegetables, for basic heating and reheating, and even to prepare certain chicken dishes and desserts. She is of the ilk to encourage convenience and ease in the kitchen (who wouldn't want that?) and microwaves certainly fulfill that role.

So should you throw out your microwave? I don’t know. I don’t think reheating a frozen burrito or melting butter once in a while is going to cause cancer, but it may be worth reconsidering if microwaving is your choice means for cooking food on a daily basis.

Seared Asian Salmon Scallops
Yield: 4 servings

2 tablespoons tamari soy sauce
1 tablespoon mirin (Asian seasoning wine)
1 teaspoon grated ginger
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1 pound salmon filet
1 cucumber, peeled and thinly sliced
6 radishes, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons brown rice vinegar
1 teaspoon unrefined sugar
Salt and pepper
Oil for searing

In a wide shallow dish, combine the tamari, mirin, ginger and a grinding of black pepper. With a thin, sharp knife, slice the salmon into four thin, broad slices by cutting almost parallel to the surface of the filet. Drop the scallops in the marinade as you go, letting them marinate for at least 10 minutes.

In a small bowl, combine the cucumber and radish slices with the vinegar, sugar and a pinch of salt.

To sear the scallops, heat a little oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Cook the scallops for 1-2 minutes on each side. Transfer to plates and top with the cucumber mix.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Merries of Marinades

Marinating is an exciting way to transform meats and veggies from an everyday so-and-so into an exotic and inspirational dish. And it couldn’t be easier to do because the marinade does the tenderizing and the flavoring for you.

The acid (lemon juice, wine, ginger, etc.) is the potent substance within the marinade that acts to chemically soften the connective tissue in meats. Most meat marinades, then, will call for some type of acid ingredient to produce a nice, tender piece of meat as the end result. The vibrant acid base will also bring alive certain flavors in the foods, so even if you are marinating tofu or veggies, it’s still a good idea to include some kind of acidic component.

The effectiveness of tenderizing meats with a liquid marinade is also due in part to the amount of time allotted for marinating and by how much the meat is covered by the liquid. If you have a large piece of meat, this would normally require a large amount of liquid to cover it completely. An economical way to marinate large cuts is to place the meat in a tightly sealed plastic bag. This reduces the amount of marinade needed, and, as a bonus, can easily be turned upside down every once in a while to coat the meat with the juices. Your hands stay clean too!

Some cooks prefer rubs to marinades. A rub is a mixture of flavorful ingredients such as garlic, spices, herbs and salts. Since, thanks to the acid, a liquid marinade is superior for tenderizing meats, a rub will generally not give meats that extra-tender result in the end. It will, however, tend to leach out fewer meat juices while cooking. On average, the juice that is lost from the liquid marinated meats is made up for by the significant gain in tenderness and flavor.

Marinating isn't one of those high gourmet art forms. You don't have to know a lot to create a satisfying dish that everyone will like. You don't have to do a lot either... just sit back and let the marinade do the work for you.

Satay Peanut Chicken Skewers
Yield: 6-8 servings

This favorite Thai sauce makes both a marinade and dipping sauce. Try it as a dip for Thai summer rolls or even as a dressing for a grated carrot and raisin salad.

1/2 cup peanut or almond butter
1 cup coconut milk
1/8 cup toasted sesame oil (see note)
1/8 cup minced shallots
6 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
1-inch piece ginger, peeled and minced
1 teaspoon tamari soy sauce
2-4 tablespoons unrefined sugar or honey
1/8 cup fresh lime or lemon juice
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
Pinch cayenne pepper or red chili flakes

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts
Pineapple cubes, optional
14 6-inch skewers

Mix all of the marinade ingredients in a large bowl, mashing the peanut butter with a fork until there are no large chunks remaining. If you’d like more of a creamy texture, you can blend the ingredients in a food processor, adding a little more coconut milk if the sauce becomes too thick.

Cut the chicken into 1-inch wide strips that are 2-3 inches long. Toss the chicken into the bowl with the marinade and refrigerate for at least 2 hours (preferably overnight) to allow the flavors to develop and the acid to soften the meat.

Heat the grill. Skewer the meat onto the sticks, spreading the strips out along the sticks, allowing as much meat as possible to be open to the heat. Add a chunk of optional pineapple between each strip, if desired. Grill 3-4 minutes each side.

To use the left-over marinade as a dipping sauce, you'll need to cook out any bacteria that is left behind from the raw chicken juice: Bring the sauce to a boil over medium heat for 30 seconds, reduce the heat and simmer for another 3-5 minutes. Serve chilled or at room temperature.