This is the time of year when thinking about fresh local foods in Minnesota can be a little dismal, so I’m going in the other direction and embracing citrus from the southern US - and WOW - are they glorious right now.
Murcott tangerines, pixie tangerines, ruby red grapefruit, Meyer lemons, Cara Cara oranges, Valencia and navel oranges: all juicy and delicious, all very opposite of a grey Minnesota day.
Citrus fruits are a fantastic way to get your daily Vitamin C, and are an excellent source of flavonoids as well as B vitamins, carotenes, pectin and potassium. When we eat the whole citrus fruit - which is much preferable to drinking the fruit in a juice version, we’re getting a good source of fiber, too. Even the membranes surrounding the juicy flesh as well as the pith (the pale white inner peel) are loaded with good things for us: it’s where the highest concentration of flavonoids are located, which are plant-based compounds that provide a broad array of antioxident and positive biochemical benefits. Flavonoids work in conjunction with Vitamin C, an antioxident vitamin that is essential for tissue growth and repair, maintaining the immune system, keeping our skin, joints, gums and connective tissues healthy, and contributing to our overall health, especially in times of stress.
It doesn’t really seem like an accident that citrus fruits hold so much allure in the winter - and not just because of their vitamin content. How about the vibrant colors and that incredible aroma released when you peel or cut into the skin of an orange? Doesn’t it just make you think of sunshine and positive thoughts? In fact, the essential oil of sweet orange and other citrus is proven to improve mood and decrease anxiety, and is finding widespread use in palliative care programs in mainstream medical institutions, including the Penny George Institute at Abbott Northwestern Hospital here in Minneapolis.
When you’re buying citrus, pick the fruits that have a sweet fragrance and seem heavy for their size, which is the best measure of a juicy, sweet insides instead of dried out flesh. Opt for organic whenever possible - citrus fruits are one of the most heavily sprayed fruit crops - especially if you plan on using the zest, or the brightly colored outer skin. Pesticide residues on conventional oranges can transfer to the flesh when cutting or peeling, and the peel can contain artificial orange color, Citrus Red No. 2 which is a possible carcinogenic and can cause allergic reactions.
Whether it’s an orange, grapefruit, tangerine or mandarin, make sure to enjoy plenty of citrus this season - in the year of Tangerine (as determined by Pantone, the color experts) - to stay healthy, look young, and to feel better all the way around!
On our last night of a wonderfully relaxing two week holiday in Colorado, my refrigerator looked just like it should before we take off for the long drive back to Minnesota: empty. What I did have on hand was a dozen local and truly free-range organic eggs, organic flour, a big chunk of Parmesan, a roasted organic sweet potato, homegrown garlic (thanks Mom and Dad!) and a great neighbor, Kim. What Kim had was a pound of her freshly made organic fromage blanc - a fresh cheese that is similar to ricotta - as well as a big handful of fresh rosemary clipped off of her plant and a chunk of Pecorino Romano. She also had salad greens to share with our meal.
Together, the ingredients combined to make two kinds of freshly made ravioli - the fromage blanc/parmesan/rosemary ravioli and a sweet potato/parmesan ravioli, which I cooked and then tossed in a sauce made with 4 heads of chopped garlic, olive oil, and sea salt, then topped with fresh Parmesan, a little fresh rosemary and a pinch of Aleppo pepper. The fromage blanc ravioli burst in the mouth with salty, tangy, juiciness that contrasted nicely with the earthy sweet potato-stuffed ravioli.
These resolution-busting ravioli were not gluten-, dairy- or calorie-free, but they were local, homemade and organic - and utterly delicious. Even better was sharing the decadence in our cozy cabin with dear friends for a great send-off and a wonderful reminder of all things that make for a perfect meal: simple food, incredible ingredients, and the company of those you love.
Fromage Blanc Ravioli
1 pound fresh pasta dough, rolled to the second to thinnest setting
1 pound fromage blanc or organic ricotta
1 organic egg yolk
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, minced
1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Combine all of the ingredients and taste for salt and pepper; adjust if necessary. Fill each 2 1/2” x 2 1/2” ravioli square with 1/2 tablespoon filling; brush the edges with water, top with a second square and press to seal. Set aside until all of the pasta squares are filled. Boil the ravioli in salted water until they float, about 1 minute. Transfer with a slotted spoon to a pan of sautéed garlic in olive oil. Toss and serve immediately with freshly grated Parmesan, a little chopped rosemary and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Serve with a crisp white wine, like an organic Grüner Veltliner, and a big green salad.
No matter which end of the trend you fall on when it comes to choosing to eat more local and seasonal foods, I think more of all of all good - in fact, I think more talk and action around all of it is great. Local foods are fresher, having traveled fewer distances to arrive on our tables, have higher nutrient values having spent less time in transit, they come from local growers who live and work in our economic region and contribute to the health of our communities, and most of all - they taste better. Taking a step toward choosing more foods from local sources couldn't be easier or more delicious than right now.
At the heart of it, eating seasonally means preparing vegetables picked at their prime in way that makes the most of their flavor and freshness by simply elaborating on the perfection that’s already there.
Lately the corn has been so good - both in Minnesota and in Colorado. Sweet, juice-filled and loaded with flavor, local sweet corn is still without any starchiness or toughness to the kernels. As part of a healthful diet that is loaded with a wide variety of colorful vegetables, corn is a delicious addition to celebrate the height of summer flavors.
To find the best sweet corn from a local stand or at the farmer’s market, ask the farmer when it was picked - you'll ideally want corn that was harvested within the past 24 hours for maximum sweetness and tender kernels. You don’t need to peel back every cob to get the best pickings - rather, gently squeeze the cob through the husks to feel for bruising or denting in the middle of the cob. I don’t worry about imperfections at the top of the cobs - once peeled back those can easily be cut off before preparing.
Once you get your sweet corn home, one of the easiest ways to prepare it is to simply pan-fry the freshly cut kernels in the best organic butter you can find, seasoned with a little sea salt and some fresh basil: it couldn’t be easier or more delicious. Enjoy it alongside your meal along with a big, fresh green salad and a plate of perfectly ripe locally-grown tomatoes drizzled with great olive oil and you’ve got the makings of a fantastic, seasonally-maximized dinner. Enjoy!
Fresh Summer Sweet Corn in Butter with Basil
kernels from 5 ears of sweet corn, preferably organic
3 tablespoons best-quality organic butter
several pinches of fine sea salt
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
freshly ground black pepper
Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat and add butter. Allow the butter to melt and brown slightly. Add corn kernels and sauté for 4 minutes, or just until warmed through and hot. Season with sea salt, fresh basil and black pepper. Serve immediately or at room temperature.
I recently took some time away in Colorado for a little getaway – one week by myself, and one week joined by my husband. For the first week, I made a priority to take care of myself - an intentional stretch of a few days without a schedule, computer, phone or any electronic intrusions of any kind. I also made it a priority to eat healthfully without spending a lot of time in the kitchen – since food of all ways - preparation, recipe creation, and teaching has become such a big part of my daily life.
So I planned ahead. I took with me 3 pounds of organic greens (baby greens mix, spinach and arugula) from my two CSA shares - Uptown Farmers and Burning River Farm. I brought two pints of MN grown cherry tomatoes and some MN grown hydroponic cucumbers; radishes from my CSA share; a head each of organic broccoli and cauliflower; and a variety of freshly cut herbs from the gardens of my mom in MN and my friend Austine in Denver. Planning was important because the nearest grocery store was a 45 minute drive each way from my cabin, and fresh, local vegetables wouldn’t be possible.
My non-cooking meal plan was simple: to have good ingredients on hand, prepare a few key items ahead of time that could be mixed or matched and seasoned to taste, to use different vinegars, oils, miso, tahini or yogurt to create a variety of salad dressings, and to have the rainbow of nutrients thought out in advance and available so that meals could be optimally balanced without needing to think about it when I was hungry.
Once I arrived at the cabin, I roasted a large sweet potato, cooked a pot of quinoa, soaked and cooked a pot of Colorado-grown borlotti beans (similar to a pinto bean), and cooked up a pot of lentils seasoned with onions, garlic and carrots. For lunch and dinner I ate big salads topped with a changing combination of all of my available ingredients: I never ate the same salad twice because I always varied the crunch and texture of the mix and I made micro-batches of different salad dressings.
My point is this: preparing healthful meals in minutes is possible with advance planning and cooking to minimize kitchen time and to avoid take out or packaged meals. Salads are a great option for minimalist eating this time of year because they fit with our natural inclination to eat lighter during warmer weather, they make the most of local and seasonal ingredients, and they supply our bodies with loads of Vitamin A and other nutrients. To use them as the backdrop for a meal ensures that we’re eating a nutritious, fiber-rich meal that can be adjusted to be a light or substantial summer main dish. In my case, I prepared a few items to have on hand, but a salad can be built around whatever is easy and available, such as leftover grilled meats or vegetables, baby new potatoes, or fresh sweet corn cut right off the cob.
I find the biggest key to a delicious and successful salad is homemade salad dressing: without additives, preservatives, emulsifiers and texture or flavor enhancers, salad dressing goes from being a nutritionally zero calorie bomb to being a healthy and flavorful key element of a delicious main-dish salad. We need healthy fat to be able to absorb and utilize the fat soluble Vitamin A-rich leafy greens and other vegetables and a good homemade dressing can provide just that, without all of the unwanted gunk.
Even if eating a main dish salad for every meal isn’t on your radar, it is certainly possible to enjoy a main dish salad a few times a week as a way to increase vegetables into the diet - and uncooked vegetables at that. In my case, they payoff was worth it. When it was all tallied I ended up with 10 days and 20 different salads: I felt great, I was able to throw together meals in a flash when I was hungry, I had plenty of energy for my 3 hour hikes and extra walks, and I lost a few pounds to boot.
Not bad for salad days.
Chop Salad with Creamy Basil Dressing
Dressing: (makes enough for several salads)
1-2 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1 1/2 c. organic whole milk yogurt
1 cup of fresh basil leaves, loosely packed
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
generous grind of black pepper
pinch cayenne pepper
Blend until green and smooth in blender or with immersion blender.
Salad for One:
2 cups of leafy greens or arugula
1/2 cup chopped cauliflower or broccoli
1/4 - 1/2 cup halved cherry tomatoes
1/2 cup cooked garbanzo beans or black beans, drained
1/2 tablespoon raw sunflower seeds
1/2 tablespoon raw pumpkin seeds
freshly ground black pepper to taste
What’s standing in the way between you and a good dinner most evenings? If you’re like most people, you’ll say some combination of time, expense, lack of skills and a shortage of ideas.
So, what can we do about it?
We can’t get more time in the day, but we can free up more available time by simply shifting our attention. Maybe it doesn’t exactly mean killing your television, but by turning it off or allocating more time to making real food we have the potential to have a real impact on our health. One of the best things you can do for your health and the health of your family is to make it a priority to prepare real, whole foods meals with nutritious ingredients that are organic, locally and sustainably sourced as much as possible - this week, next week, and all year.
Why cook? Because you were born with one amazing machine, my friends - emphasis on one - and the best way to fuel your machine is with nutritionally-dense real, whole foods. Period. We may get extra chances now and then to clean up our act and shift our eating style, but most of us wait until something drastic is staring us in the face to make those tough decisions about doing the best thing for our bodies. (Nutritionally dense foods are essentially foods or ingredients that are as close to their original state as possible as when they were grown or harvested - unprocessed, unrefined, and with a correspondingly high nutrient value.)
You may need a few more resources to help you on your way if you’re ready to get started right now. By asking friends whose healthy lifestyle inspires you to share a few recipes, subscribing to pra approachable food magazines like Real Food or Whole Living, taking a cooking class, or following a healthy food blog, you’ll get access to new ideas and tested recipes to start moving in the right direction of learning how to prepare great food.
To keep things affordable, consider shopping for staple items in bulk at a co-op grocery or at most grocery stores. Foods purchased in bulk allow us to buy more without paying extra for packaging, plus we contribute less garbage to the waste stream and we can buy just what we need, eliminating excess food being thrown away or not used. To save money while keeping it local, shop for pantry basics when they’re on sale, sign up for a CSA share this summer and plan to frequent a farmer’s market throughout the growing season to make use of fresh foods while they’re in season. Learn how to preserve foods for later – by freezing or canning fresh foods when they’re at their peak of flavor and nutrition – to eat fresh and locally on a budget throughout the year. If your family eats a lot of meat, consider sharing a portion of a large animal to freeze to have access to top quality, ethically-raised meats without paying the highest prices in the grocery store.
No matter what, using any of these thoughts to help shift us toward adopting a more nutritious way of eating will have us spending more time in the kitchen. That’s not a bad thing. The kitchen is typically the heart of any house, so let’s bring it to life and start cooking up some better stuff for our bodies with the goal of simply living better.
Curried Red Lentil and Sweet Potato Soup
adapted from the Cafe Brenda Cookbook
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large red onion, diced
6 - 7 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1/4 cup fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1.5 tablespoon curry powder
1 cup carrots, diced
1 jalapeño, minced (optional)
1 cup red bell pepper, diced
5 cups sweet potato (choose one with deep orange flesh), diced
1 14-oz. can organic coconut milk
2 cups dried red lentils, sorted and rinsed
8 cups vegetable stock or bouillon
juice of one lime
1 bunch cilantro, minced
Sauté red onion, garlic and ginger in olive oil for 15 minutes in a large soup pot. Add curry powder, hot pepper, carrots, bell pepper, and sweet potatoes. Sauté another 5 to 10 minutes.
Add coconut milk, lentils, and the stock. Simmer, covered, until lentils are done and sweet potatoes are tender, approximately 45 minutes. Add lime juice and cilantro and serve.
To make this in a crockpot, prepare soup on the stove through the addition of adding coconut milk, lentils and the stock, then transfer to a crockpot on low to cook for 6-8 hours. Reduce stock by 1 cup and add lime juice and cilantro just before serving.
We should be worried, but we’re not. We should care about what we put in our bodies, but we don’t. I am guessing that many of us know what we should be eating, but decide that we can't or won't do much about it and continue to eat junk.
Well, we are becoming exactly what we deserve, as a nation, on our current diet: overweight, patched together with drugs, unhappy, and sick.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention came out with a study this month which reveals that Americans still aren’t eating their vegetables, in spite of a decade of campaigns designed to bring awareness to the importance of a healthy diet. The New York Times article that details the report shows that we’re eating fewer salads than we were 16 years ago, and only 23 percent of our meals include a vegetable.
In order to meet the recommended guidelines for 9 servings of fruits and vegetables per day, or 41/2 cups for a person who consumes 2000 calories each day, that means eating at least two vegetables or fruits at each meal, plus snacks in between. If we were eating that many veggies, we wouldn’t have room in our bellies to be hungry for the bad stuff.
Except that all we want is the bad stuff. As a nation, we are addicted to sugar, fat, hyper-salted foods, caffeine and artificial flavors. And it is making us sick.
Of course we want someone to blame when we become sick. We want a pill when our blood pressure is too high, when our cholesterol is out of whack, and when we get heartburn every time we eat. We accept Type-2 diabetes as if it were inevitable. We don’t want to prepare a meal with fresh foods: we want convenience and instant satisfaction.
Of course it’s all our fault - no one is shoving those fried, sweetened, microwaved, chemical-laden food into our guts. We are. Until we can wake up and take ownership for our health before our desire to eat another meal of junk takes over, nothing will change. We have to make a commitment to our bodies that will require carving out a little extra time to treat ourselves better.
I have no illusions that a frustrated rant against the S.A.D. (Standard American Diet) will change anything, but I am passionate about helping people who are interested in making a change for their health by seeking out ways to learn more about it. I teach healthy cooking classes, I lead healthy living retreats and I do one-on-one food coaching where I help clients by designing custom food plans, complete with shopping guides and recipes.
At the end of the day, I believe that there is hope. I know how good it feels to eat well, get exercise, and sleep for at least seven hours per night. I also know that the basics of what I'm talking about are completely achievable for everyone, no matter where they live. Barriers exist for all sorts of reasons - I am aware of that - but if something is important enough, there is always a way to make a difference at any level.
Recipe for Making a Personal Change
A commitment to a change in lifestyle takes more than just thinking you want to change. In order to find success, following a series of steps is the surest way to reach your health goals.
1. Decide exactly what you want to achieve for your personal goal.
2. Write it down CLEARLY and in as much detail as you can.
3. Set a specific deadline. If it is a large goal, break it down into subdeadlines and write them down in order.
4. Make a list of everything you can think of that you are going to have to do to achieve your goal. As you think of new items, add them to your list.
5. Organize the items on your list into a plan by placing them in the proper sequence and priority.
6. Take action immediately on the most important thing you can do in your plan. This is VERY important.
7. Do something every day that moves you toward attaining of one or more of your important health goals.
8. Share your plan with the world - the more people who know what you’re doing, the more support you’ll gather, plus you’ll increase your accountability – and you’ll probably even inspire a friend or two!