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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, February 25, 2007

Homestyle Cooking of the East - Part 2 A Taste of Thailand

This three part article (spread out through three blog entries) will include inspiration for the homestyle cooking of Japan, Thailand and India. You'll find simple "formulas" that can be used for a variety of dishes, recipes that utilize these formulas, and suggestions for on-hand pantry items that make home-made Eastern cooking easy and inspirational!

A Taste of Thailand

I'm no Thai chef, but I sure have made my share of Thai green and red curry in this life! To me, there's nothing like the taste of these curries, with their rich exotic flavors of coconut, lemongrass, ginger and chilis.

Many of the ingredients that give Thai food its distinct flavors can be purchased here in the West, and not just in the Asian markets either. True, the really good stuff you'll be able to find only at the Asian stores or online, but decent substitutes for those of us who do not want to drive all over town can be found at natural foods stores and even some conventional stores around the US.

If you can't get (or if you just don't want to get) the fresh ingredients for Thai food at home, sometimes all it takes is to purchase a good jar of curry paste, which contains many of the exotic flavors, like galangal, Kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass and chilis, that give a Thai dish its authentic taste (see recommendation below).

To make it easy for a fast and flavorful lunch or dinner, I created a simple Thai Formula that can be used for a number of coconut and curry based dishes. Once you remember the basics of the Thai Formula, you can't really go wrong. Along with brown jasmine rice with a stick of ginger in the rice cooker, your meal is ready in 30 minutes. And the flavors only get better through time - your left-overs tomorrow will be richer and creamier than your dinner today.

Here's a few of the mandatory pantry ingredients needed for authentic Thai cooking at home:

Thai Fish Sauce - This distinctive sauce is a must-have for Thai at home - it adds just the right flavor to take your so-so curry and make it authentic. Have you ever wondered, "why doesn't my coconut curry taste like the ones I get in the restaurants?" This is why. Fish sauce has concentrated flavors so only 1-3 tablespoons are needed for most dishes. It can be found at most natural foods stores, specialty stores and of course Asian markets.

Thai Curry Paste - Good Thai curry paste should give the dish a rich, pungent flavor without taking over. Not-so-good curry paste will be over stimulating (i.e. your mouth and lips will burn) but the curry ends up lacking depth and overall flavor. Kasma Loha-unchit, Thai chef and cooking instructor from the Bay Area, recommends Mae Ploy brand curry pastes that come in plastic tubs rather than jars or cans. Red, green and yellow curry pastes are the most popular.

Coconut Milk - Coconut milk is a blend of the meat from the coconut with the coconut water (or sometimes plain water). It imparts a very rich, sweet succulently exotic flavor and a creamy texture to Thai and Indonesian food. Choakoh is the milk of choice of many Thai chefs and Cook's Illustrated. Find coconut milk on sale and stock up, you'll need it if you want to start experimenting with Thai cooking.

Thai Coconut Formula
Thai Green Vegetable Curry
Hot and Sour Lemongrass Soup
Favorite Thai Peanut Sauce

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Homestyle Cooking of the East - Part 1 A Taste of Japan

This three part article (spread out through three blog entries) will include inspiration for the homestyle cooking of Japan, Thailand and India. You'll find simple "formulas" that can be used for a variety of dishes, recipes that utilize these formulas, and suggestions for on-hand pantry items that make home-made Eastern cooking easy and inspirational!

A Taste of Japan

Besides tofu, bamboo shoots and soy sauce, Japanese chefs use a plethora of proteins, vegetables, spices and seasonings to create the balance of sweet, sour, salty and pungent that Westerners find so irresistible.

But is it so mysterious? Many people don't even try Japanese cooking at home because they think it requires specialized cooking equipment and exotic ingredients. The truth is, most (if not all) of the cooking equipment used in Asian cooking (woks, cleavers, rice cookers and chopsticks) can either be substituted with Western versions or purchased easily at cookware and department stores everywhere. Asian foods and spices are an arm's reach away at conventional, natural and specialty grocery stores.

To bring exotic flavors and textures to my table on a daily basis for easy dinners and quick lunches, I use a simple Japanese Formula that can be used for anything from stir-fries and soups, to noodles and dumplings. As long as the basic ingredients are on hand, whipping up an authentic Japanese meal with healthy ingredients is as easy as 1-2-3. See Japanese Formula recipe, below.

Here's a list of some of the basic ingredients you'll want to have in your pantry for inspired Japanese cooking at home:

Soy Sauce, Tamari or Nama Shoyu - Tamari is a wheat-free soy sauce, and nama shoyu is a non-pasteurized soy sauce that many raw foodists use to replace traditional soy sauce. Soy sauce should be stored in the refrigerator after opening.

Mirin - This is a sweet and gentle rice wine that is used to spark up flavors, just as one would use wine or vinegar in Mediterranean cooking. It can be found in the section with oils and vinegars. Mirin should be stored in the refrigerator after opening.

Toasted Sesame Oil - This is a very flavorful, roasted seed oil that is used in small amounts to enhance the flavors of Asian foods. It is a favorite of mine in gingery dressings and drizzled over Japanese soups and stir-fries. It can be found in the oil and vinegar section, and should be stored in the refrigerator after opening.

Garlic-Ginger Paste - [get recipe] This is a simple, handy seasoning for a variety of Eastern dishes. You can measure tablespoonfuls into little zip-lock bags or pour the paste into ice cube holders for easy "grab and go" use. It can also easily be substituted with fresh minced garlic and ginger.

Hot Chili Oil - [get recipe] This clear red tinted oil is used as a seasoning for dips and stir-fries. It is not meant for cooking; it is usually drizzled onto food just before serving. It can be purchased at most natural foods stores and Asian markets, and can also be easily made from scratch at home. If you don't have the oil, sprinkle red pepper flakes onto the food as a replacement.

Japanese Formula
Chicken or Tempeh with Bok Choy
Vegetable Potstickers
Japanese Noodle Soup

Monday, February 19, 2007

Cooking and Salad Oils

A good chef will always have a selection of oils in the pantry for a variety of uses. Oils have different flavors and qualitites that can make all the difference when deciding which oil to use, and when.

For cooking, I basically use only two oils: ghee and olive oil.

Ghee is "clarified" butter that has had many of its impurities and milk sugars removed, and is a saturated fat that is very stable at high temperatures. This means that the chemical structure of the fatty acids stay relatively unchanged by heat, leaving it an ideal cooking fat. I use ghee 1-2 times per week for ethnic foods, which flavors may not mingle well with the distinctive taste of olive oil. I also use it when I want the richness of butter and nothing else will do.

Olive Oil has high amounts of mono-unsaturated fats. Although not as ideal as saturated fat for cooking, mono-unsaturated fats remain more stable when heated as compared to the more delicate fats in most nut and seed oils. When used for sauteeing, keep the heat at low to medium. Robin Keuneke, author of the best-selling book, Total Breast Health, recommends adding a tablespoon or so of water into the pan to help buffer the oil from the heat.

Since there have been so many studies of raw olive oil's proven health benefits, make sure to consume plenty of raw olive oil on salads and drizzled over vegetables, meats, dips and sauces.

For vinaigrettes and flavor enhancers, I have all differnt kinds of oils in my pantry. Here are two of the staples I recommend:

Walnut Oil has a rich, yet delicate taste when used alone or with other oils for salad dressings and sauces. I use it mostly for Mediterranean-inspired dishes and dressings. Since walnut oil can be a little pricey, I usually blend it with olive oil. Since it consists of delicate fats that can have harmful effects when heated, it is not recommended for cooking and should be stored in the refrigerator.

Toasted Sesame Oil is a very flavorful, roasted seed oil that is used in small amounts to enhance the flavors of Asian foods. It is a favorite of mine in gingery dressings and drizzled over Japanese soups and stir-fries. I use it in moderation, as this oil has been heated to high temperatures to give it its distinctive toasty flavor. It should be stored in the refrigerator.

Most oils, with the exception to olive oil which thickens when cool, should be stored in the refrigerator, or at the very least in a dark cupboard or pantry. If you notice that an oil is starting to go rancid, throw it out. Try to buy cold-pressed, unrefined and organic oils.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Fennel In Season

Reminiscent of licorice and anise, fennel's fond flavors are commonly used in both sweet and savory dishes. There are two kinds of fennel, both widely used, yet have distinct purposes.

Florence fennel (finocchio or sweet fennel) has a broad bulb that is eaten as a vegetable. The bulb and stalks can be eaten raw in salads or cooked in a variety of ways such as braised, sauteed, or roasted. The feathery green foliage is commonly used as a garnish or flavor-enhancer.

The other is called common or wild fennel, and is the variety from which fennel seeds come. Fennel seeds are used to spice foods and are available whole or ground. They are a common digestive aid, helping to rid the intestinal tract of mucous, gas and indigestion. Try doing as the East Indians and leave a small bowl of fennel, anise and cardamom seeds on the counter to chew after meals to help aid digestion and freshen breath. It also makes a stand-out rub for roast chicken.

Fennel is cultivated in the Mediterranean and United States, and is best eaten in its peak season from fall through spring. The bulbs should be stored in the refrigerator and should keep for 1-2 weeks.

Braised Fennel Bulbs
- This recipe is a pleasant side dish for people who are bored with the usual vegetables... [get recipe]

Fresh Fennel and Spinach Salad with Honey-Miso Vinaigrette - A sweet and tangy salad perfect to kick those mid-season blues. [get recipe]

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Red Hot Chile Peppers

Although the days are noticeably getting longer, winter ain't over yet, and spring (the season for allergies, sinus infections, bronchitis, asthma and spring fever) is right around the corner. From the hottest to the mildest, chiles are the antidote for keeping our bodies healthy, heated and energized into the onset of summer.

Hot on the inside, chile peppers warm our internal temperature. They also have incredible healing properties. Their high content of vitamin C (higher than citrus fruits) is commonly known to aid the immune system, but recent studies show how capsaicin, the compound that gives peppers their fiery flavor, is a major player in the ability to fight cancer.

According to a release from the BBC News, capsaicin directly attacks the mitochondria within the cancer cells, causing cell death without harming the surrounding healthy cells. "As these compounds attack the very heart of the tumour cells, we believe that we have in effect discovered a fundamental 'Achilles heel' for all cancers", states Dr. Timothy Bates, lead researcher for a Nottingham University study.

Although this new development will most likely lead to new drugs that contain this specific cancer-fighting compound, those of us who want to think preventatively by eating a healthy diet of whole foods can start now by adding a daily dose of chiles (the hotter the better!) into our diets.

Can you handle the heat?

There are all kinds of chiles, and each have their own degree of heat. Here is a list of the most common peppers, provided by Whole Foods Market, ranked by their Scoville Units, a measure of the capsaicin content in the pepper which is perceived as heat by the human palate:

Bell peppers (green, red, orange and yellow) have no heat whatsoever nor any chile pepper credentials. They are, though, very high in vitamin C to boost immune health and ward off common ailments.

Anaheim peppers can range from 100 to 1,000 Scoville units. In other words, they're quite mild. Anaheims are long (up to 8 in.), smooth and tapered.

Ancho (dried) or Poblano (green) register between 1,000 and 2,000 on the Scoville scale. What an experienced chili eater would call mildly warm. Anchos are preferred because drying enhances the flavor and they're easier to work with: just reduce them to powder or reconstitute with water and add them to the pot.

Green chiles are a group of several varieties of long, tapered chile peppers that are grown and revered in New Mexico. Their heat can vary widely from variety to variety but most would fall in the 2,000 to 5,000 Scoville Unit range, perfect for the average chile-eater. Fresh green chiles are available in New Mexico and other parts of the Southwest from about mid August to mid September. Canned green chiles are on grocery shelves year round.

Jalapenos are short, tapered, dark green peppers with a Scoville Unit range of about 5,000 to 6,000. Jalapenos are the variety most used to make chipotle peppers. Chipotles, or smoked peppers, are available both dried and in powder form, as well as canned in adobo sauce.

Serrano peppers are short (2 in.), tapered and red with a heat index around 15,000 to 20,000. We're getting into "hot" territory now where only seasoned chile-eaters dwell.

Cayenne peppers are commonly used in powdered form (see below) but may also be used fresh. Long, narrow and red, cayenne peppers are in the 40,000 to 50,000 Scoville range.

Habenero chiles hover in the Scoville stratosphere at about 200,000 or higher. Habeneros are best used in the form of commercially available hot sauces or with other varieties of chiles in commercial powdered mixes. They are not for the faint of heart and should be used with a measure of trepidation.

RECIPE: Hot and Sour Lemongrass Soup

You don't have to run all over town to find exotic ingredients to make this traditional Thai favorite... [get recipe]

RECIPE: Favorite Green Chile Sauce - Real Women Eat Chiles
This is the all-time best green chile sauce... [get recipe] Jane Butel's “Real Women Eat Chiles” is full of spicy Santa Fe-style recipes for healthy, easy meals. And if you order directly from her site, you'll receive a collection of complimentary gifts! Offer expires mid-Feb.