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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.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Nuts and Seeds - Nature's Powerhouses

Considered some of nature's "booster foods", nuts and seeds come power packed with essential fats, proteins and minerals to help keep the body warm and supple throughout the cold, dry winter months. Just like a squirrel gathering his loot before the snows hit, bringing nuts and seeds back into our diets now helps prepare our bodies for the season ahead.

Nuts and seeds of all kinds have within them the power and energy to turn them into living plants. That's a lot of energy inside such a small area. Because they have such a concentrated amount of nutrients in such a tiny space, only a small amount needs to be consumed for a large amount of nutrition. An appropriate serving is the size of the inside circle of your palm, about two tablespoons.

To bring them to their full potential, soaking raw nuts and seeds in water several hours before eating will activate the enzymes within them and bring their nutritional capabilities to life. Without the proper environmental conditions, such as water, the enzymes naturally lay dormant within the seeds, waiting for the most efficient time to trigger the seeds to come forth and sprout into full living plants. When these enzymes are activated by water, the seeds are literally bursting with energy and life force, and are much easier to digest. (For soaking procedures, see below.)

Unfortunately, many of the nuts and seeds we find on the shelf are not living up to their full nutritional capacity. The good essential fats and enzymes within them need to be kept at cooler temperatures to stay alive without becoming dull or damaged. Most commercial nuts and seeds (even raw ones at the natural foods markets) have been stored and transported in temperatures above ideal, or have spent too long in transit time from the farm to the consumer's table. Truly raw nuts, seeds and nut butters should always be kept in the refrigerator to ensure that the fats, vitamins and enzymes are functioning at full value.

This doesn't mean that we have to turn our noses away from the nuts and seeds we find at the store, or even from nuts that have been toasted or cooked. Many nutrients cannot be heated out of foods - protein, minerals vitamin E and fiber, for example, stay in tact when cooked and are found in ample quantities inside nuts and seeds of all kinds. Just be mindful to get them into the refrigerator as soon as possible and try to incorporate a larger ratio of raw versus toasted nuts into your seasonal diet.

The popularity of raw foods has brought many natural foods markets to add raw, vacuum-packed nuts and seeds to their inventories. Vacuum packing ensures that they are not exposed to air, which can eventually damage some of the vital nutrients within them. These specially packaged nuts are generally more expensive, as the companies who produce them have taken the extra care to keep these raw nuts really raw. Special equipment and cooler packaging procedures ensure that the nuts are still alive by the time they reach your table. They can be found on the shelf at some natural foods markets and can also be ordered directly online. Raw Guru has a handful of raw vacuum-packed nuts and seeds, as well as many other raw products:

Nuts and seeds are the perfect food for the holidays. They contain the good, essential fats that actually help lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and have high-quality proteins, minerals and fiber. They have a high concentration of B vitamins to stabilize the nervous system during the stressful holiday season and vitamin E to keep immunity at its peak. Along with a variety of animal and vegetable proteins, whole grains and root vegetables, nuts and seeds of all kinds provide us with the steady grounded energy needed to keep us strong and thriving through the long cold months of winter.

Soaking Nuts and Seeds

It usually takes about 8-12 hours of soaking to activate the enzymes to aid digestibility. The easiest way to soak them is to put the nuts in a bowl and cover them completely with room-temperature water at the end of the evening. In the morning when you get up, rinse them off and pat them dry and they're ready. They can be kept in the refrigerator for 2-3 days. If you have a dehydrator, the activated nuts can be dehydrated to give them a crunchier texture without the high heat. Dehydrated soaked nuts can be stored in an airtight container on the shelf for several days to several weeks, depending upon their moisture content.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Herb-Infused Oils and Vinegars - A Perfect Holiday Gift

Herb-infused oils add sophistication to any recipe and romance to any kitchen. They are easy to prepare, and when presented in decorative bottles or jars, make impressive gifts for just about anybody.

Infused oils can be used for sauteeing, but retain most of their aromatics when used as a base for salad dressings, marinades and sauces. Drizzled with a little aged Balsamic vinegar, they make a flavorful dip for French and Italian breads, and add pizzazz to vegetables and meats. Likewise, the vibrant flavors of steeped vinegars bring fresh salads to life, and give marinated meats and tofu an intense depth of flavor.

Aromatic herbs such as thyme, bay, rosemary, marjoram, oregano, sage and tarragon work well as they easily impart their distinct fragrances into the oil or vinegar. Herbs can be used alone or in a mixture. Spices such as garlic, chilis, cinnamon, anise and peppercorns are also commonly used. Their strong essential oils can easily overpower, but if used sparingly, they add fragrant highlights that go hand in hand with the oil and herbs.

Oils and vinegars can be infused in two ways - a hot-infusion or a cold-infusion. The cold-infusion method does not require any heating of the oil, but it does need about 2-3 weeks for steeping. So if you're in a pinch for last minute gifts, you'll be better off with a hot-infusion.

Oils steeped in herbs have a tendency to go rancid more quickly than oils on their own. Some herbs carry molds and bacteria that can transfer into the oil and ruin the batch, or worse yet, can be harmful if injested. Follow the guidelines below to ensure that your oils stay safe for consumption:

• If intended to be used for culinary purposes, infused oils should always be stored in the refrigerator.

• Consume steeped oils and vinegars within 4-8 weeks of steeping time.

• Remove the herbs once they are not fully covered by the oil.

• Steep your oils and vinegars in very clean, tight sealing glass jars. The jars also need to be completely dry, without a spot of water.

• If giving as a gift, include a tag with the first three safety guidelines along with the oil.

For an attractive presentation, choose lighter colored oils and vinegars that will allow the herbs to show through in the bottle. White wine vinegar, sherry or cider vinegars work beautifully, as well as light olive oil, sunflower and grapeseed oils. Look for pretty bottles at specialty shops like Pier 1 or Cost Plus Imports. If they do not come with corks, your local hardware store is sure to have them in many shapes and sizes.

Always start the steeping process in large, wide-mouth jars so that the herbs can easily be removed after steeping. When ready, place fresh sprigs of herbs into the decorative bottle, using a funnel to pour in the oil. Cork it, tie a ribbon around it and it's ready to go.

Article References:
Herbs, Joanna Farrow
Science of Cooking

Garlic-Infused Oil
[print recipe]
Yield: about 4 cups

This fragrant oil makes a perfect base for herb infused oils, but is more than sufficient on its own. For a smaller batch, use several cloves of garlic and fill the oil just to cover; decrease the poaching time to 20-25 minutes only.

16 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed with the side of a knife
4 cups good quality oil

Place the garlic and oil in a medium saucepan over the lowest heat setting. Keep the pot uncovered and poach the garlic very gently for 30-35 minutes. Stir frequently (every 5-10 minutes) to ensure that the oil does not scorch.

Let cool to room temperature, then strain out the garlic, preferably through a muslin cloth or cheesecloth.

Fill clean, completely dry bottles with the oil, or do a second infusing with fresh herbs. Store in the refrigerator and use within a couple months.

Aromatic Vinegar [print recipe]
Yield: about 4 cups

2 tablespoons mixed peppercorns
4 lemon slices
Two small handfuls fresh herbs
6 bay leaves
4 cups good quality vinegar

Divide the peppercorns, lemon slices, fresh herbs and bay leaves between two clean, dry pint-sized bottles with wide mouths.

Bring the vinegar to a boil in a medium saucepan. Let it cool slightly and pour it over the herbs and spices in the jars. Let the vinegar cool to room temperature, cover tightly and steep in a cool place for three days.

Strain the vinegar through a muslin cloth or cheesecloth.

Place fresh springs of herbs and peppercorns into decorative bottles. Fill the bottles with the vinegar and cork up the bottles. Store in a cool, dry place for several months; the flavors will continue to develop over time. Remove the herbs once they are not fully covered by the vinegar.

Herb and Spice Oil [print recipe]
Yield: about 4 cups

Several large sprigs rosemary, basil, sage, thyme, marjoram, oregano ortarragon (or a combination)
Small handful dried chili peppers, cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, coriander seeds or pepprcorns (or a combination)
6 bay leaves
4 cups good quality oil

Cold-Infusion Method - Divide the herbs and spices between two clean, dry pint-sized bottles with wide mouths. Pour the oil over the herbs and cover tightly. Store the bottles in a cool place for 2 weeks, checking once a week for flavor development. (Skip to Straining and Storing, below.)

Heat-Infusion Method (Crockpot) - Place the herbs, spices and oil in a crockpot on the lowest setting possible. Steep for two hours, stirring frequently, about every 10-15 minutes. (Skip to Straining and Storing, below.)

Heat-Infusion Method (Stovetop) - Place the herbs, spices and oil in a medium pot over very low heat. Keeping the pot uncovered, poach herbs very gently for 30-35 minutes. Stir frequently to ensure that the oil does not scorch. Cool the oil to room temperature.

Straining and Storing - Strain the oil through a muslin cloth or cheesecloth. Strain a second time. Place fresh sprigs of herbs and a small handful of spices into decorative jars. Pour the oil over the herbs and cork the bottles. Store in the refrigerator and use within a couple months. Remove the herbs once they are not fully covered by the oil.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Fresh Winter Salads

As we wend our way through the cold winter months, an intuitive desire for heavier foods starts to dominate our mood. This is a natural and normal process as our bodies need the extra fat and protein for moisture and insulation, and to give us the deep seated energy that will endure throughout the long cold season.

But this of course doesn't mean we should forgo fresh seasonal vegetables and fruit salads. No no no! In fact, we absolutely need the vitamins, phytonutrients and fiber from these fresh whole foods, especially now throughout the holiday season.

It is easy to swing over to a high fat, high carbohydrate diet during the holidays. Too much meat, sweets and butter can bring us there quicker than we think. A little more of these is one thing, but we all know that when we give ourselves an inch, it doesn't take much before we are taking a mile.

Lucky for us, there is a plethora of fresh veggies and fruits available throughout the winter. Keep in mind to buy locally if you can (fresh is best), and to eat the varieties that are naturally in season throughout the winter: roasted root vegetables make a naturally sweet topping for fresh salads; cabbage, kale, spinach, collard greens and other cruciferous vegetables are hearty and healthy winter favorites; fresh or braised fennel with roasted vegetables gives a festive kick; and fruits of the season like pomegranate, persimmon, cranberries, citrus, and guavas add color and pizazz on top of fresh greens.

In addition, experiment with warming spices like curry powder, cinnamon and cayenne added to dressings, and top salads with toasted nuts and seeds. Deeper, richer flavors make the body feel nourished and warm, even if they are mixed in with the fresh and cooling qualities of a green salad mix.

So we don't have to swing all the way to the heavy side during these colder months. Keeping fresh, seasonal veggies and fruits on hand will ensure that we stay balanced and healthy all winter long.

Baby Spinach Salad with Curried Apples and Onions

[print recipe]
Yield: 4 servings

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 yellow onion, sliced thin
1 apple, sliced thin
1/2 teaspoon mild curry powder

4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Pinch salt
6 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons walnut oil (or use more olive oil)

1 cup pecans or walnuts
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons maple syrup

4 handfuls of baby spinach
2 ounces goat feta

Heat the olive oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add the sliced onion and apple. Saute for 2-3 minutes then turn down the heat to medium-low and cover. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 35-45 minutes, until the onions have released their natural sugars and have begun to caramelize. They should be a nice caramel color.

In the meantime, prepare the dressing and candied pecans. For the dressing, whisk all of the ingredients together in a small dish. Let the dressing sit at room temperature for at least 15 minutes to allow the flavors to develop.

For the pecans, heat a medium skillet over medium heat. Place the pecans in the pan, stirring and flipping constantly, until the pecans are lightly toasted, about 8 minutes—watch out, they burn fast at the end.

Add the spices and salt; mix about 30 seconds to toast the spices. Turn the heat to low and add the maple syrup. Stir constantly, cooking until the mixture has thickened and is very sticky, about two minutes. Remove to a plate and cool completely.

Place a handful of spinach onto four salad plates. Drizzle with the dressing. Place 1/4 of the warmed caramelized onions over each of the plates of spinach and top with the candied pecans and feta. Give each a grinding of fresh black pepper. Serve while the onions are still warm.

Green and Orange Salad with Cinnamon-Maple Vinaigrette (pictured above)

[print recipe]
Yield: 4-6 servings

2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
1-2 tablespoons maple syrup
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch salt
4-5 tablespoons walnut oil

3 oranges
1 head romaine leaves, chopped
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
6 dried figs, sliced thin
1/3 cup toasted almonds, chopped

Mix all of the dressing ingredients in a small dish. Let the dressing sit 10-15 minutes to allow the flavors to develop.

Slice the stem and bottom off of each of the oranges. With a cut side down, use a sharp knife to cut away the skin in sections from top to bottom, being careful not to cut away too much of the juicy fruit. Slice the oranges cross-wise into 1/4 inch slices.

Place the romaine leaves on a decorative plate or salad bowl. Toss the greens with a bit of the dressing. Arrange the oranges and red onion slices on top of the greens and garnish with the sliced figs and almonds. Drizzle the top with a little more of the dressing and give the salad a grinding of fresh black pepper.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Gingerbread Houses - Step by Step

There's no better way to spark up the holiday cheer than to create a gingerbread house with the whole family. My mom, brother and I made them every year that I can remember as a child. My mom would make the dough from her old authentic German recipe handed down from her grandmother, and we'd cut out the patterns, assemble the houses, frost them and adorn them top to bottom.

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Things have changed a little since then... I adapted the dough so that it is easier to work with, and I always make sure to use all-natural, organic ingredients, and candies that have no high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils or food colorings. I'm not saying that these houses are "healthy" or "good for you", but possibly better than the houses of the 70's. It's my hope to see dried fruits, nuts, seeds, goji berries and banana chips on top of these little houses everywhere!

Since the icing has to hold all the candies in place throughout the weeks before Christmas, it uses about one ton of powdered sugar that allows the icing to get rock-hard within about 30-45 minutes of being exposed to the air. I generally do not recommend powdered sugar since it is goes through such a vigorous refinement process, but for such a specific purpose, there may not be any other way around it.

HERE'S AN IDEA! I thought of grinding coconut flakes into a flour and whipping them into the fluffed egg whites. Cooking chemistry can sometimes be a science, and I'm not sure if the egg whites need the sugar to harden up. I haven't tried this, but if any of you are up for experimentation, I'd love to hear comments about the results. I'd try at least 2 pounds of coconut with the eggs (see Royal Icing recipe, below).

Plan to set aside at least 3 hours for making your gingerbread houses, from start to finish. The dough and frosting can be made several days in advance (see storage techniques below). The dough or baked cookies can be frozen for several months until ready to use.

I have included three house templates for a large, medium and small house that can be downloaded for free (links below) or you can get creative and make your own! The houses pictured below are House B and House C (medium and small).

Download house templates here!

Enjoy and have a very merry Christmas!

Gingerbread Houses - Baking, Assembling and Decorating [print recipes]
Yield: 1 large house (House A)
OR 2 medium houses (House B) and 1 small house (House C)

This recipe makes a crisp cookie that can withstand the test of being frosted, adorned with candies and oogled over for weeks during the holiday season. The extra dough can be rolled and cut out into ginger people, but know that the cookies will be a touch harder than a typical gingerbread cookie.

1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 cups organic soft brown sugar
1 cup light organic sugar
1/4 cup molasses or sorghum syrup
4 eggs
4 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon allspice

1/2 cup light organic sugar

MAKING THE DOUGH: Blend the butter with the sugars and molasses in an electric mixer on medium speed until light and creamy (put the molasses into the mixer before turning it on or you will have molasses everywhere but in the dough). Add in the eggs and blend another 1-2 minutes.

Whisk the dry ingredients together in a large bowl and gradually add them into the mixer, scraping down the sides until incorporated. The dough will be slightly crumbly.

Remove the dough to a large bowl or a flat work surface. Bring the dough together with your hands, working it until the dough forms a smooth mass that holds together easily. Wrap the dough in plastic and refrigerate at least 30-60 minutes before rolling.

ROLLING: Divide the dough into five pieces. Roll each piece out on a flat, floured work surface to 1/8-inch thickness. Cut out the patterns for the house using the templates. Work quickly, as the dough is easier to cut and shape while it is still cool. Using a pastry or pizza spatula, carefully lift the pieces onto sheet pans lined with a baking liner or parchment paper (or double up two sheet pans) to keep the cookies from burning.

BAKING: Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Bake 10 minutes, until golden, rotating the cookies halfway through baking. Cool on the pan for 1-2 minutes before removing them to a cooling rack to cool completely before assembling.

SUGAR GLUE: Heat the 1/2 cup sugar in a medium sauté pan over medium heat until it bubbles and turns a very dark brown, 8-12 minutes.

ASSEMBLING: Have ready a sturdy surface on which to place your house (inverted sheet pan, wooden or plastic cutting board, sturdy cake board, etc.)

Prepare the sugar glue, keeping it on low heat while working so that it doesn’t harden up.

Have ready a house side panel and a front or back panel. Place them together to get an idea of how they will fit. Dip the edges that will come together into the sugar glue and very quickly hold them together, assembling them at the proper angle. It should hold within 10-20 seconds. Adhere the back panel and the other side panel in the same fashion.

To assemble the roof, very quickly drizzle the sugar glue onto the top edges of one side of the house. Place one of the roof cutouts on top of the house, letting it adhere to the glue. Repeat for the other roof cutout. Drizzle glue along the top of the roof where the two panels come together.

Assemble the chimney by dipping the edges of the pieces into the glue and holding them to the roof. Assemble the door, leaving it slightly ajar. You can do the same for window panels, if desired.

Royal Icing
Yield: for 1 large house (House A)
OR 2 medium houses (House B) and 1 small house (House C)

This icing gets rock-hard in order to keep the candies on top of the house and to hold throughout the weeks before Christmas. If you plan to decorate a snow-drifted yard with your house, make a double batch of the icing. This recipe uses raw egg whites, but if you are hesitant, they can be substituted with meringue powder for the same affect (use recipe from any packaged meringue powder).

3 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 pound organic powdered sugar, sifted or
whirled in a food processor

Beat the egg whites and cream of tartar until stiff peaks form. Gradually beat in the sugar until the frosting stands in firm peaks and is stiff enough to hold a sharp line when cut through with a knife.

STORAGE: Place a piece of plastic wrap over the frosting so that the plastic is in direct contact with the frosting. Wrap the bowl in plastic and store refrigerated for up to 2 days.

While working, keep the bowl of frosting covered with a damp towel to keep it from drying out. Once spread onto the house and exposed to the air, it will harden up within 15-25 minutes. Decorate one panel at a time and work quickly!

Decorating Ideas:
Nuts and seeds
Dried fruits
Chocolate dipped dried fruits
Candied ginger slices
Banana chips
Pretzel fences
Panda brand red licorice
Sunspire "MnM's"
Shredded coconut for icicles and frosty trees
Ice cream cone trees

Friday, December 01, 2006

Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Range

Before the early 1900's, chestnut trees were one of the major native forest trees on the East Coast of the United States. But due to a fungus introduced from the imported Asian chestnut, the entire forest of our native trees was reduced to mere shrubs.

According to the American Phytopathological Society, American agriculturalists have been working for decades on a breeding program to restore the native chestnut trees in the West. Future generations may indeed see the magestic chestnut back in the forests once again. Although the new tree is a hybridization of the original American chestnut, it is one that is resistant to the fatal fungus from the East (no relation to the Wicked Witch of the West).

Unlike other nuts, chestnuts have a rather high carbohydrate content and are relatively low in fat, making them more like a grain than a nut. The carbohydrates give them their nostalgically sweet taste that can be employed in both sweet and savory dishes. When mashed and added to potatoes, their sweet taste gives a rich, rounded flavor to this traditional holiday dish.

The most common way to prepare chestnuts is to roast them, but they can just as easily be boiled. My preferred way is roasted. I like the toasted flavor, but most importantly, the dry heat hardens the shell and skin, making them easier and cleaner to open.

Pick fresh chestnuts that have smooth brown shells that are not too dry or brittle. They should be stored in the refrigerator and used within a week.

The New Whole Foods Encyclopedia
American Phytopathological Society

Roasted Chestnuts
Dorothy McNett

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Deeply score an 'x' onto one side of the chestnuts and place them, slit side up, onto a sheetpan. Roast for 35 minutes, until they have popped open and browned a bit.

Line a large bowl with a damp kitchen towel. Place the chestnuts into the bowl, cover them with the towel and let them steam about 15 minutes.

Peel off the shell - the shell and the fuzzy skin should pull off fairly easily.

Roasted Chestnut Croutons
Yield: 1 cup

Heighten holiday flavors and add a festive garnish with these sweet and spicy croutons. Try them on top of creamed winter squash soup, green bean casserole (a healthier alternative to canned fried onions), vegetable dishes, meats and stews. Leave out the savory spices and parmesan cheese, and it becomes a rich and rewarding topping for holiday pies, tarts or ice cream.

8 roasted chestnuts (recipe above)
2 teaspoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon garlic granules or powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
Pinch cayenne
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons maple syrup

Chop the chestnuts into course 1/4-inch pieces.

Heat the oil in a medium saute pan over medium heat. Mix in the chestnuts and spices, cooking 30-60 seconds to bring up the flavors in the spices.

Add the parmesan cheese. Stir constantly, cooking for another minute, until the cheese has softened. Stir in the maple syrup and cook another minute.

Transfer the chestnuts to a plate and let them cool slightly before serving. They can be stored at room temperature for up to three days. Store in the refrigerator for a week or longer.

Chestnut Puree
Yield: 6 servings

This is a flavorful and rich puree that can be extended with mashed potatoes or mashed sweet potatoes (my favorite). The puree can be dolloped over meat or tempeh, and is delectible on top of holiday pies and tarts. The chestnuts can either be roasted or boiled.

1 pound chestnuts
Milk (any kind) cream or water
Salt and pepper, to taste
ghee or butter (optional)

Roast the chestnuts (see above recipe) or simmer them in water to cover for 35-40 minutes, until softened. Cool to room temperature, and peel off the shells and skins.

Place the chestnuts in a food processor with about 1/4 cup of your choice of liquid, and salt and pepper. Blend until smooth and creamy, adding more liquid for texture and salt and pepper to bring up the flavors, as desired.