Wednesday, November 30, 2011

I Yam What I Yam: A Short Sweet Potato Story

Sweet Potatoes called "Garnet Yams"
Common name: Sweet Potato, Garnet Yam, Purple Sweet Potato
Plant Family: Convulvulaceae
Genus/species: Ipomoea batatas

It was love at first sight and first bite. I was about four years old and a food fussy. As I glanced up at the Thanksgiving table dressed with a dozen different dishes, a deep clear glass casserole dish caught my eye. It had marshmallows mounded over the top of some pumpkin-colored orangey stuff. The white creamy puffs were slightly golden on top just the way I like to toast my marshmallows over the campfire in summer. My curiosity got the best of me and I stuck my finger into the goop.  When I tasted the sweet orange whatever doused in melted marshmallows, I thought it was heaven. This was my first introduction to a sweet potato casserole my mom made for Thanksgiving. You may make fun of this child-friendly dish but this casserole is a way to get kids to eat one of the healthiest vegetables in the new world. If a “spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down” for Mary, then Lee, my mom, could make this vegetable go down with melted marshmallows.

Simply irresistible - Sweet potato & marshmallow casserole
Listed as one of the top ten of “super foods,” sweet potatoes pack a powerful nutritional punch. My favorite sweet potato, which is found in our local markets, is named the “Garnet Yam and it really is not a yam at all, which is a bit confusing.  True yams, of the genus Dioscorea, are natives to Asia and Africa and are a different vegetable altogether; they have starchy white flesh and are not as nutritious. However, Garnet Yam is the name this deep salmon-colored sweet potato was given, nonetheless, and we must go with it. This special sweet potato, as with other deeply colored fruits or vegetables, promises and delivers amazing health benefits. 

While reading the Self Nutritional Data One information for one (1) cup of a baked sweet potato, I was quite impressed. They are a huge source of Vitamin A with 38,433 IU (769% daily value or DV), included in this Vitamin A figure are the Retinol Activity Equivalent of 1922 mcg and Beta Carotene of 23,017 mcg. Can you say “good for your skin” food?  In addition, they have 39.2 mg of Vitamin C (65% DV), 12.0 mcg of Vitamin B6 (which is 29% DV), along with modest percentages of Vitamin K, Vitamin E, Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, Pantothenic Acid, and Folate. The minerals present in sweet potatoes include calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus potassium, copper, and manganese. As sweet as they are they have only 13.0 grams of actual sugars and contain 6.6 grams of dietary fiber (26% DV). Finally, they are low in saturated fat and cholesterol. Can you say super vegetable? Well, they taste more like a dessert than a vegetable. I believe they are the best darn tootin' tubers out there.

Recipe for Marshmallow Sweet Potato Casserole
1 bag marshmallows
4-5 Garnet Yams cut in half or in thirds (depending on the size)
1 cup milk or half and half
2-4 T. butter
1 T. real maple syrup
Pinch of salt

Steam or boil sweet potatoes in their skins until very soft and tender. Drain and let cool for a few minutes until you can hold them with a towel and remove the skins. Skin should slide off easily. Put them back in the pot over very low heat and mash with potato masher (or use a ricer). Next, add butter, maple syrup, and a pinch of salt. Slowly add in the milk whipping and mashing until you get the consistency similar to icing. Place mixture in oven-proof casserole dish (glass is pretty). Top with all the marshmallows. Bake 350° for about 15 minutes until marshmallows turn a light golden color and melt to form a thick icing-like topping. Serve to children who hate vegetables (and grown children).


Saturday, November 26, 2011

Running around Denver

Yep, another flat tire - Photo courtesy Google Images
I really love bike riding. Do you know the scene in the 1998 movie, “City of Angels,” where Maggie Rice (Meg Ryan) is riding her bike down the street filled with post-love-making rapture from a night spent with Seth (Nicolas Cage); she is experiencing the wind blowing through her hair and on her face, she closes her eyes in joy and stretches her arms out to the side as if she is flying? Well, that is how I feel about bike riding - just skip that next part of the scene where a truck pulls out in front of her and she dies. That happened to me too once, but I am still here. Since my accident, I don’t flirt with vehicular traffic much anymore. Colliding with a car is not something I ever want to do again. I try to stay on the walking/biking trails so ubiquitous and prevalent in Denver; they can transport me along Cherry Creek Trail all the way to Confluence Park downtown and beyond. This wondrous network of trails keeps me pretty much out of harm’s way. 
However, there is another problem that constantly deflates my joy of bike riding – it is the annoying flat tire. It is a gorgeous 60 degree day; I grab my bike in the garage and rush to mount it and before I am halfway down the street I know one of the tires is out of air – hiss, thud, thump, thud, thump. Oh, I know all about the green goop and thorn-resistant inner tubes, but the trouble is the air seeps out anyway (as with all forms of technology there will be mechanical failure at some point). So, at this point in my day, I put the bike back into the garage and start to walk or jog. The only equipment I need is a comfortable sneaker and the willingness to put one foot in front of the other - pretty easy and free of frustration. OK, maybe the wind blowing my hair scenario isn’t the same as bike riding but there’s little danger and no flat tires.  
Start of the 5K Race for Fetal Hope - Photo courtesy of Julie Powell
Denver, Colorado, has trails and parks aplenty for walking, jogging, rollerblading, or biking, and it ranks high on the list of the “fittest cities in America” because of this. The fittest cities list is comprised from several criteria: it looks at the number of recreational facilities available in a community (parks, pools, golf courses, bike paths); public transportation that offers commuters a chance to bike or walk part of the distance to work; obesity, diabetes and smoking habits of the population; exercise and eating habits of the citizens; and access to health care and health insurance. In 2008 and 2010 Denver was ranked first by Travel and Leisure magazine as the “fittest city” in America. Recently, the final report of the American Fitness Index (AFI) and Fitness Magazine ranked Denver 5th. Throw in a few other variables like 300+ days of sunshine a year, a high and dry climate, and the largest park system in the lower 48 states – one can understand why Denver offers its citizens a grand place to get out and exercise. And the “mile high city” even made the list of “top ten cities with the biggest parks in the world” – yes, the world (see! Many Olympic athletes train in the area to take advantage of the red corpuscle-building environment being one mile higher than other cities in the U.S.
For those of you who would like to test your mettle there is always a little race going on at some park almost every week, whether it is a one mile family fun run, a 5K, 10K, half marathon or marathon – there is an event for many levels of training and ability. In Monument, the Nielsen Challenge is 2 mile run held the first Saturday of every month. Here you first establish a handicap time and thereafter run to improve on it. Most folks new to jogging can muster up the strength (or courage) to run for two miles; it is an attainable goal.
A woman I know quite well (I will call herTillie) entered a 5k walk/run for charity held at City Park earlier in the month. Tillie and her husband regularly walk 3-5 miles a day, 6 days a week, so this was not a big deal for either of them. They walked and jogged the 5K and left fulfilled. Two days later, Tillie was dumb-founded when she discovered she had won first place in her age division along with close to $400 in prizes and gifts – one of them was a $100 gift certificate to Mind, Body, and Sole for new running shoes. This race had a small field (around 600 entrants) and she thought it was just a fluke. The following week she entered another 5K with 3000 participants at Washington Park and won that division split as well. Now Tillie says she will run for food (well, prizes really). All this for putting one foot in front of the other. Go girl!
Feels fabulous to finish a race - Photo courtesy of Julie Powell
There are many ways to run (or walk) around Denver, see the list of local parks and the schedule for upcoming races below:

Denver Trails and Parks:

Racing Calenders:


Monday, November 21, 2011

Love Salad ♥

The "love salad"

The other night we had a dinner party that honored one visiting daughter from Florida (my yogini) and also celebrated the birthdays of her brother and sister which fall one week apart in November – my two Scorpios. There were spouses, children and grandchildren; the constant hum of conversations between all age groups melodically filled up the space. 

Prior to the event, I had pondered for days what food to prepare for this gathering; I wanted something hearty yet meatless to please both adults and children that would be affordable. That is a lot to ask of one dish. Italian fare always seems to accomplish those goals whether one chooses lasagna, spaghetti, manicotti, or ravioli. I finally decided on manicotti – specifically a recipe I borrowed from America’s Test Kitchen, a loaf of good bread, and a big mixed salad. It all made me look very together, which I am not, because I made the manicotti a day ahead and was relieved of last minute work and was more relaxed. The manicotti recipe was nothing short of sensational (bravo ATK). It was made from Barilla’s “no-boil” lasagna noodles instead of the breakable manicotti noodles and tasted like homemade pasta. Knowing my family’s appetite, I made enough for four (4) manicotti rolls per person. At the end of the evening, there were only three left, so I knew the food was devoured. The real surprise was that the children had gobbled up the salad and it also had disappeared from their plates. So what was the magic to this salad?

Hands lovingly nurturing the salad
My daughter, who created it, put in everything but the kitchen sink – carrots, cabbage, celery, colored peppers, basil, cherry tomatoes, Romaine lettuce, olives, and white beans. Because of the children, we omitted the onions. During preparation, my daughter had fun as if she was making a craft project or scrap-booking. She cut the carrots into heart shapes and also grated long curly slices; she lovingly sliced red and orange peppers into thin long julienne strips and tore the lettuce into child-size bites. All the ingredients were placed in the big blue bowl. With the heart-shaped carrot slices (and her intention) we dubbed it the “love salad.” Before serving it we whipped together some light-as-air lemon vinaigrette - fresh squeezed lemon, some lemon zest, extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper. This salad reminded me of the people – everyone was so different yet when they are put all together in a room it worked - for a night at least. Like the vegetables, each human possesses an entirely different personality and sometimes this can make interesting interactions between individuals. But I believe the real magic was the little bit of love. As far as ingredients go, that one is invisible but permeates everything and everyone – it should be included in all recipes and never be omitted! ♥♥♥


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

It's November - Cranberries Abound

Cranberries on the vine. Photo courtesy Google Images -
Common Names:  American Cranberry, Large Cranberry
Scientific Name:    Vaccinium macrocarpon
You know it’s November when you are in the grocery store and the produce section is well-stocked with fresh cranberries and Christmas music accompanies your shopping experience. Maybe I should say “Holiday music,” but I cannot seem to recall hearing “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” in the store recently. 
Cranberries are one of those native North American fruits that offer a magnitude of holistic health benefits. I love their tartness and vivid scarlet color. Preparing cranberry sauce is a cinch and makes me feel so “Early American colonial” or something. Let’s glance at a list of fun facts and powerful nutritional properties of the cranberry gathered from my Internet research:
1.    Pemmican was a blend of dried venison, cranberries, and fat and was an important food that sustained Native Americans’ health. They also used the cranberry to treat wounds and to produce dyes for blankets and rugs. 

2.    Rich in Vitamin C, cranberries prevented scurvy in colonial sailors. The berry was easy to keep fresh aboard ship in water-filled barrels due to its waxy coating and its ability to produce benzoic acid, a natural preservative.  

3.    In early North America (17th century), there are many recorded references to a special sauce made from the cranberry and learned from the Indians. It was prepared by boiling cranberries with a bit of sugar (maybe maple syrup) and then eaten with game.

4.    They were first called “crane berries” by the Dutch and Germans settlers because the flower of the vine resembled the head and bill of a crane.

5.    The European settlers started making cranberry juice in 1683.
6.    Tannin found in the fruit, proanthocyanidin, inhibits the bacteria responsible for urinary tract infections (UTI).
7.    Raw cranberries and cranberry juice are abundant in flavonoids which have anti-cancer properties.
8.    Cranberries are powerful antioxidants. Antioxidants neutralize particles in the body called "free radicals" which damage or kill cells. They score the highest points on the USDA’s measurement of Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) with a score of 9,584 units per 100 grams.
9.    Cranberry juice contains a material that inhibits the formation of plaque by Streptococcus mutans pathogens and consequently inhibits tooth decay. 
10. Back in 1917, Elizabeth Lee from Ocean County, N.J., a cranberry grower, took some bruised berries, boiled them with some sugar and spice, and the pectin-rich berries created a thick jellied sauce. It did not become a big seller. It took many years for cranberry sauce to become the iconic complement to turkey that it is today. Later, she merged with another company in MA; they formed a cooperative which is now known as Ocean Spray.

11. Cranberries plants are hearty! They are born on low-growing evergreen shrubs in bogs (an acidic peaty soil) near a good water source. They enjoy low temperatures even in the summer and last a long time, some plants are rumored to be 150 years old.

12. When harvesting cranberries, many growers flood the bog for easier retrieval of the fruit (called water-harvesting), which mistakenly makes many folks think they grow in water.

13. It was discovered that berries that are water-harvested and float on top of the water become exposed to more natural sunlight (in comparison to other harvesting conditions), and they are more likely to develop greater concentrations of anthocyanins, which mean greater health benefits.

14. Wisconsin is the leader in cranberry production, followed by Massachusetts, and New Jersey. Cranberries are also grown in the Canadian Provinces and as far west as British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon.

15. Best pollinator is the wild Bumblebee (Bumble lifts his eyebrow) followed by the Honeybee.

16. Cranberry unit of measure is called a barrel and equals 100 lbs. 

17. Prices for cranberries peaked at $65 per barrel in 1996 and fell to $18 a barrel in 2001. This was due to classic economics - too much supply and not enough demand. 

18. Cranberries are related to blueberries (another super food) and huckleberries.

Whew, enough of that.
I enjoy pairing up certain meats with their common complimentary fruit (or herb) - pork with apples, lamb and mint, or poultry with cranberries. It brings a sense of balance and rhythm like Frank Sinatra crooned: Love and marriage, love and marriage, goes together like a horse and carriage. This I tell you brother, you can’t have one without the other. 
With that pairing in mind - you can't have one without the other - here is my recipe this week for a chicken dish that uses cranberries and a bit of red wine. The fabulous thing about November is that fresh cranberries are always stocked in the grocery store for Thanksgiving and red wines are often on sale in the liquor store. I try to have a Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, or Syrah in my wine rack most of the time. Bumble promised to renew his marriage vows after devouring the dinner. But maybe this was the result of drinking the wine.
Sauteing chicken with wine, cranberries and garlic.

Chicken breasts with cranberries, red wine and garlic

1 bag fresh organic cranberries prepared per instructions
4 "free-range" organic chicken breasts sliced lengthwise into strips (each about inch wide)
½ C. Flour
2 tsp. Salt and 1 tsp. Pepper (to taste) - sometimes I use Lemon Pepper
3 - 4 T. Olive oil or vegetable oil 
2 T. of butter (added to olive oil will reduce smoking)
4 or 5 cloves of fresh organic garlic – smashed or diced
1 C. of any red wine that you love to drink and have on hand
1/2 C. of freshly made cranberry sauce (or more depending on your taste)
Prepare a container or bag of fresh cranberries according to instructions which is usually 12 oz. fresh berries to 1 C. water (or orange juice) and  1 C. sugar or honey – Bring to boil and simmer until all the cranberries pop about 5-10 minutes. Set aside in bowl and allow cranberry sauce to thicken. Note: If you do not like the skins and pulp (I love them) then you can strain through sieve or use a food mill. 

Cut chicken in lengthwise strips (about 1 inch wide). In a shallow bowl or plate add flour, salt and pepper together. Dip and coat chicken strips with flour mixture. Sauté chicken in a deep pan (that has a lid) with a few tablespoons of olive oil (or vegetable oil) and butter until golden. Add the smashed/diced garlic and sauté for a few minutes more - the fragrance should be wonderful. Next, add about ¾ C. of the red wine to pan and stir - deglazing all the browned bits in the pan. Finally, add the cranberry sauce and stir. Cover, lower heat and simmer for about 15-20 minutes. Check dish during cooking - the sauce may need additional wine added during the cooking process (or a little water) if too much evaporation occurs.  Sauce should be a rich creamy consistency with a brownish burgundy color. Chicken should be tender and cooked through (160-165 degrees F on meat thermometer).
Serve with rice or potatoes, more cranberry sauce, and a side salad. Oh, and drink the rest of the red wine.
Chicken with cranberries and red wine sauce served with organic potatoes.