Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Tomato, Tomatl, Solanum Lycopersicum!

The tomato is a fruit of many colors, shapes and names, and summer is the time to revel in its heady acidic sweetness. Though greenhouse tomatoes are available year round, a tomato in winter is but a pale imitation of robust fruit grown in healthy soil under the hot summer sun. 

Tiny wild tomatoes were native to South and Central America and were first cultivated by the Inca and Aztec peoples around 700 CE.  The Aztecs learned to breed large flavorful specimens which they called "tomatl" meaning "fat fruit" or "plump fruit" and "xitomatl" meaning "plump fruit with a navel" in the Nahau language.

Spanish explorers introduced the fruit which they called "tomate" to Europe in the sixteenth century; eventually it gained extensive culinary use throughout the continent and beyond. The Italians named it "pomodoro" or "golden apple" and the French call it "pomme d'amour", "apple of love". In Russia, home of the famous heirloom Black Krim,  the fruit is called "pomidor".

Known botanically as Solanum lycopersicum, tomatoes belong to the large family Solanaceae which includes potatoes, eggplants, peppers and tobacco. The etymological roots of Solanaceae are unclear, but Lycopersicum  as translated from Greek means "wolf peach", "lyco" meaning "wolf" and "persikon" meaning "peach". The "wolf peach" name may stem from early European folklore involving witchcraft and werewolves. Tomatoes were long thought to be poisonous since they belong to the nightshade family, which includes some deadly varieties.

Far from being poisonous, tomatoes are dense with valuable nutrients, especially lycopene, a powerful antioxidant which gives tomatoes their deep color and is thought to offer protection from several types of cancer and coronary artery disease. Tomatoes also contain plentiful amounts of vitamin C, potassium and fiber, and a 100 gram serving provides nearly a gram of protein. 

Tomato, tomatl, Solanum lycopersicum; whatever name you give it, the plump fruit of the Aztecs and Incas is one of the finest simple pleasures of summer. 

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Farmer's Markets: Where the Real Food Is

One of the great luxuries of life in Northern California is the accessibility of quality produce year round. Even in winter, a variety of fresh vegetables and fruits are available from regional farms. In San Francisco, neighborhood farmer's markets provide urban residents the opportunity to deepen their understanding of seasonal growing cycles and to become familiar with a broad range of produce which is seldom available commercially.

In our earliest millennia as a bipedal species, our primary occupation was to search for and gather our food. Anthropologists observe that foraging peoples walked an average of three to five miles a day in search of a remarkably diverse selection of edible plants, roots, nuts, berries and fruit. Our ancestor's survival hinged upon their knowledge of where each of many varieties of food was located in its season and the ability to gather it. Energy, intelligence and perseverance were critical to this task; our motivation was hunger. Homo sapiens succeeded in this endeavor well enough to reproduce and pass on the human genome from generation to generation.

Many thousands of years later, this essential human project has turned upside down. Moderns have little need to gather their own food, and little time to prepare it. Most of us spend our days (or nights) earning money with which to purchase our food, much of which bears faint resemblance to that of our forager ancestors. A vast assortment of what Michael Pollan calls "edible food like substances" is readily available in supermarkets and few calories are consumed in the effort to acquire it.

These changes have created a deep disconnect between humans and their sources of food, a decline in food intelligence and a troubled relationship between the instinctive drive to eat and an oversupply of aggressively marketed low quality calories. There is much confusion surrounding food choices and eating styles which has engendered a huge proliferation of widely variable and contradictory information about nutrition and health. Lost in the deluge of advertising and misinformation are the essential unprocessed foods which once were the sole components of our diet.

Farmer's markets offer honest commerce on a human scale. They bring farmers and shoppers together in venues where an abundance of the real food which truly nourishes and sustains us can be found. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Stone Fruit: The Naked Truth

Although San Franciscans are still sporting fleece and down jackets, the arrival of the first stone fruits in Bay Area farmer's markets hints that summer is near. Apricots, peaches, nectarines and cherries are already brightening foggy market days. There is much to look forward to in the coming months for those who cherish the fragrance, flavor and beauty of the fruit of the trees.

Fresh, raw and naked is the best way to enjoy summer stone fruits. Quality fruit is bred for flavor, not shelf life or cosmetic perfection. Smaller fruit with a few blemishes may be far superior in taste and nutritional value to oversized picture perfect commercial produce. Farmer's markets provide the opportunity to sample different varieties of fruit and to consult with the vendors about how to select, ripen and store it.

Transport your fruit home from the market with care. Separate very ripe or slightly bruised specimens immediately; fruit salads and smoothies can be made with them in minutes. Many stone fruits can be held at room temperature for a few days or more. Don't wash the fruit until you are ready to eat it. Place fruit on a clean dry surface, leaving a little space between each piece.

Check the fruit daily and set aside the ripest to be eaten that day. With proper handling, your collection of stone fruit can be savored all week at peak flavor. Simply wash and nosh! When the next market day arrives you will be eager to replenish your supply of some of nature's finest creations.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Spigariello? It's not an opera!

With the current proliferation of local farmer's markets across the country comes the opportunity to discover unusual varieties of produce which one would not find in commercial markets. A recent revelation is this lovely Spigariello, an heirloom Italian kale in the brassica family. Its full name as listed in seed catalogues is "Cavolo Broccolo Spigariello Foglia Riccia".

Like Lacinato kale (above), Spigariello is tender and uniquely flavorful, with small dark blue-green leaves. It can be sauteed, steamed, eaten raw in salad and smoothies or added to soups and stews. Both varieties are subtle in taste with no hint of bitterness and are more delicate than the common curly kale which has become popular of late.

There is nothing mysterious or difficult about preparing leafy greens. Lightly sauteing them in olive oil creates a flavorful nutritious dish in minutes. The only tools needed are a knife, a cutting board and a skillet.

How to saute a dark leafy green vegetable in olive oil:

Rinse the greens and shake off or blot excess water. If the leaves have thick central stems, cut them away from the leaves. Chop the stems into small pieces. Then stack the leaves and slice; thin slices will cook more quickly than thick. Remember that the volume of the greens will reduce greatly during cooking, so judge the quantity you begin with accordingly.

Heat some olive oil in a heavy skillet-  just enough to cover the surface of the pan. Add the chopped stems first, since they are denser and need a little more cooking time. After a minute or two, add the leaves and continue to saute over a medium flame, stirring occasionally until just tender; this should take only three or four minutes. Taste the greens. If they are not tender enough, continue cooking another minute or so. Add a bit more olive oil if the greens are sticking to the pan.

Serve sauteed greens immediately in a preheated bowl, sprinkled with a little sea salt to taste and perhaps some freshly ground black pepper. 

Cavolo Broccolo Spigariello Foglia Riccia


Thursday, February 18, 2016

Black Orca? Calypso? Vaquero? It's a bean.

Black Orca, Calypso, Vaquero, Yin Yang; these are all names for this attractive black and white speckled heirloom bean which is a member of the Phaseolus vulgaris family.  In recent years many varieties of heirloom beans have become widely available and are prized for their beauty, smooth texture and subtle flavor.

Humans have cultivated beans since the advent of agriculture millennia ago. For many cultures they are the primary source of protein and other essential nutrients and are eaten at almost every meal. In subsistence farming communities, beans are cooked daily under very rudimentary conditions, often over an open fire. To create richly flavorful beans, all that is needed is a pot with a lid, a source of heat and a few simple ingredients.

Home Cooked Heirloom Beans:
Soaking time: Overnight or 6-8 hours.
Assembly time: Less than five minutes.
Cooking time: About one hour.


2 cups dried heirloom beans, soaked and rinsed
5 cups fresh water
2 bay leaves
3 cloves garlic
1 medium onion
1/2 teaspoon sea salt (or to taste).


Sort through beans and remove any foreign matter.  Place beans in a heavy bottomed pot and add enough water to cover. While soaking they will absorb some of the liquid so there should at least one inch of water above the level of the beans.  Soak overnight or for 6-8 hours. (You can skip the soaking and plan on extra simmering time.)

Drain beans and add fresh water. Cover and bring to a boil. Lower heat, add bay leaves, garlic cloves and onion. (The garlic and onion can be peeled before or after cooking.) Simmer gently until the beans are tender but not mushy.  Stir occasionally and make sure beans are not sticking and are mostly covered in liquid; add a little water if necessary. Cooking time is roughly one hour depending on the freshness of the beans.

When beans are tender, turn off heat. Remove bay leaves and garlic cloves. Mash garlic cloves in a bowl with some beans and their broth, mix well and stir back into the pot. Add sea salt, taste and adjust seasoning. Serve warm beans in their savory broth, garnished with freshly cracked black pepper. Any steamed or braised leafy green will compliment this dish.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Winter Miso Soup with Shiitake Mushrooms, Ginger and Greens

This miso soup is almost a stew, thick with slices of pungent ginger root, dried shiitake mushrooms and dark leafy greens surrounded by a savory broth. The white miso paste which is the basis of the broth is mildly sweet and not too salty; rice vinegar and rice wine add a subtle sweet- sour dimension.

Ginger root is classified as one of the most warming herbs in the traditional Chinese herbal pharmacopeia. Shiitake mushrooms are strengthening and beneficial for healthy immune function. Together these two ingredients transform this soup into a fortifying meal for cold winter days.

The recipe can be made in ten minutes or less. It does not require precise measurements but the quantities noted below will yield two generous servings.


6 dried shiitake mushrooms
3 cups fresh water
1/3 cup thinly sliced leek
1/3 cup thinly sliced celery
3-4 slices fresh ginger root
1+ 1/2 tablespoons white miso paste
1- 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon mirin rice wine*
2-3 handfuls baby lacinato kale leaves (or baby arugula, spinach or other leafy green)

1.  Place mushrooms in a ceramic bowl. Boil about half the water and pour over the mushrooms. Cover the bowl with a plate and allow mushrooms to rehydrate while you slice the vegetables.

2. Slice  ginger root into slabs and then into matchsticks. Thinly slice the celery and leek.

3. When cool enough to handle, remove mushrooms from bowl one at a time and squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Reserve the soaking water. 

4. Slice the mushrooms with a sharp knife.  If the stems are tough, slice as thinly as possible; they will soften with further cooking.

5. Place the sliced vegetables into a pot, add soaking liquid and remaining water.  Cover and simmer gently over a low to medium flame for five or six minutes.  Add more water if there isn't enough to just cover the vegetables.

6. Place miso paste, rice vinegar, mirin and a few tablespoons of broth in a small bowl and stir until fairly smooth.  Add mixture to the soup.

7. Stir the greens into the soup, cover and turn off heat. Allow to rest for three or four minutes until greens wilt. Taste broth and adjust seasoning.  Reheat the soup very gently before serving but do not boil.   

*Note: Mirin rice wine is a traditional Japanese product; it is a versatile staple to have on hand and is commonly available in natural food markets. 

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Grasping the Stinging Nettle

The sting of the nettle (Urtica dioica) is caused by three substances contained in its tiny hollow needles: acetylcholine, histamine and 5 hydroxytryptamine. Contact with the needles can create an unpleasant burning, itchy skin rash in most people. The Latin verb urere means "to burn" from which  the nettle derives its botanical name.

A common wild plant found throughout North America, Europe, North Africa and Asia, the nettle's sting has not deterred humans from gathering it for use as food, tea and medicine for thousands of years. Its fibers have been woven into cloth; today there is renewed interest in uses for this plentiful fiber.

Like many edible wild greens, the nettle plant is highly nutritious, containing valuable antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and an unusual quantity of protein for a leafy green. Brief cooking neutralizes the sting; thus the nettle becomes edible when steamed, sauteed, added to soups or other cooked dishes.

Nettles are now being cultivated by growers in California and I recently discovered some beautifully fresh ones at my local farmer's market. I prepared them using a simple technique which takes no more than five minutes and can be used to cook many varieties of  leafy greens.

Cooking the Nettle:
Heat a tablespoon or two of olive oil in a cast iron skillet, and using tongs or chopsticks to handle the nettles, pile them into the pan over a medium flame. Although an entire produce bag of nettles may look like a lot, they will quickly reduce in size as they heat.  Keep adding more nettles until they all fit into the skillet, pressing them down gently with the tongs.

With a kitchen shears roughly cut the longer stems into manageable segments. Stir the nettles and sprinkle with a tablespoon or so of rice wine and a few tablespoons of water; the resulting steam will quickly complete the cooking process. By now the nettles will be tender and much reduced in volume. Immediately transfer them to a warm serving dish. Garnish with sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste.


"Grasping the nettle" means to confront a problem head on. Linguists posit that this expression is derived from the notion that one is less likely to get stung by the nettle if it is grasped firmly in the hand rather than handled timidly; this flattens the tiny needles making it less likely that they will puncture the skin and inject their irritants.