How Rhubarb Shines Sans Strawberries

Rhubarb, with its edible stalks starting in May, perfecting bridges the locally harvestable dessert gap between maple syrup in April and strawberries in June.

As I’d heard, the rhubarb plant is a persistent perennial, growing back with gusto year after year. Sometimes to the point of overload for some home gardeners.  This year I was on the receiving end of such overload. I happily created garden space for a separated rhubarb plant, and immediately picked a beautiful late May bouquet.

With strawberries in the back and now rhubarb in the front, I thought my yard was ready to provide the tried and true late spring combo, but with most of the berries still unripe, I had to let the rhubarb fly solo on this round.

Rhubarb Yogurt Cups

  • 1 ball jar full of rhubarb stalks, washed and cut into 1″ pieces
  • 1 tablespoon of butter
  • 1 tablespoon orange juice concentrate
  • 1/4 - 1/2 cup maple syrup
  • 1/2 tablespoon beet powder
  • 1 cup of whole milk yogurt
  • generous sprinkling of cacao nibs

Method:

  1. Warm skillet and melt butter.
  2. Add rhubarb pieces, orange juice, half the maple syrup and beet powder and allow to cook down to a sauce (a downside of cooking rhubarb is that it loses its color and turns grey. So I added some beet powder, which does not affect the taste but tints the sauce a deep shade of pink).
  3. Mix the remaining maple syrup with yogurt, and divide among serving bowls or cups. Top with rhubarb sauce and sprinkle with cacao nibs (which on their own can be rather bitter, however combine them with fat such as in whole milk yogurt and they taste like pure chocolate without any added sugar. Cocoa nibs are full of fiber and a good source of potassium, chromium, copper, calcium, zinc, vitamin C and a rich source of magnesium).
  4. Jar up any remaining rhubarb sauce for on biscuits, pancakes, oatmeal or toast instead of jam.
This will help pass the time while you wait for the strawberries to ripen….. and the many recipes featuring the classic pair.

Welcome Probiotics!

You’ve probably heard that yogurt contains healthy bacteria, and have perhaps been swayed by recent ad campaigns treading dangerously close to “tmi”  bathroom talk. You may have tried one of the highly processed, packaged, flavored and sweetened yogurt products in an effort to improve your digestive situation. While it is true that real yogurt (as well as other naturally fermented foods) made with active cultures offer the body unique nutrition called “probiotics“, it is also true that Dannon was sued over unsubstantiated health claims made in their advertisements for “Activia” yogurt-like products and has been quietly reimbursing costumers. So beware of look-alikes.

With 100 trillion bacterial cells from 500 different species, your gut is a veritable microbial zoo teaming with critters, and that’s exactly the way you want it.  These bacteria, when healthy and plentiful, keep you healthy, digesting well, warding off “bad” bacteria, and may well also be the key to protecting yourself from more serious chronic illnesses, including cancer, heart disease and diabetes.  According to this month’s issue of the Life Extension Foundation‘s magazine, your gut contains 70-80% of your body’s immune system, where probiotics work at the molecular level to keep you well.

Their biggest enemy? Antibiotics. Not only are we being prescribed the antis more and more often, but most of our animal foods come from CAFO factory farms where animals are pumped full of antibiotics, and so by extension, so are you when you eat the meat, milk and other animal foods from these sources.  The artificial sweetener aspartame and oral contraceptives both interfere with healthy gut bacteria, and genetically modified foods and chlorinated water very well may too.

A good way to repopulation your gut bacteria, is to frequently eat fermented foods - those  sometimes called “traditional” or “live” which contain natural forms of probiotics. A quick tour around the world of traditional fermented foods include Japanese miso, tamari and natto, German sauerkraut, Bulgarian yogurt, Russian kefir, Ethiopian injera bread, Korean kimchi, Indian lassi drinks, Salvadoran curtido, etc.  For more information and simple recipes for these traditional foods, I highly recommend Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions and Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods.  Though probiotics has been receiving well deserved media attention only recently, they are by no means a new method of maintaining good health.

Since the goal is a thriving community of probiotics in your gut, you have to be a good host. Keep them out of harms way (antibiotics) and nourish them with prebiotics.  Foods such as bananas, garlic, onions, raw honey, wheat, barley, and soybeans naturally contain prebiotics, or probiotic food. For additional support, or in times of therapeutic need (such as during and following a course of antibiotics), you may also want to consider a high quality probiotic and prebiotic supplement.

Since I’ve been focusing on probiotics, no meal feels quite complete without a generous scoop of kimchi or kraut.  A bowl of plain yogurt satisfies a snack or dessert desire, and when thirsty, I reach for kombucha (a fermented tea drink).  A few of my recent favorite “full of life” foods: kimchi in an avocado half; kimchi or kraut quesadilla; sourdough bread with cultured butter; yogurt with raw honey and ground flaxseeds, and miso broth and kombucha to drink. To satisfy my growing thirst, I ordered a scoby (a kombucha “mother”) and have started brewing my own kombucha (a post on that experiment is coming soon).

Hungry for more?  Let me recommend these articles on probiotics:

And if you’re as hooked as I am, you’ll be happy to know this great looking new book is coming out next month: The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World by Sandor Katz with a foreword by Michael Pollan.

But first, my bowl of yogurt:

Planting a Protein Garden

Life Cycle of Bean Plant

For the past five years, I have expanded my vegetable garden by as much as my spade could turn over. I’m now bringing in a decent amount of fresh produce in the summer, with more ripening in early fall, giving me enough to put some food away for the first several colder months.  There’s nothing quite as satisfying and nourishing as feeding your family what you’ve grown just steps from your kitchen table. But, I thought last year, I’m only making a dent in one food group. I wanted to be able to grow a full meal.

I adopted a small flock of hens. Within no time at all, we had a lovely mutually beneficial relationship going: I fed them, and they fed us. Perfect farmhouse symbiosis: organic feed and kitchen scraps for them; incredibly rich, yellow yoked eggs for us.  But huevoes rancheros, one of my favorite breakfasts, also calls for beans.  So, I planted black turtle beans.

Copying a gardening technique practiced by Native Americans, I planted a “three sisters” garden. Beans went around the base of the developing corn stalks, which wound their way up as the stalks grew. The cornstalks offered a convenient trellis for the beans, while the beans provided nitrogen for the corn. Encircling the duo, I planted squash, whose course, prickly vines helped deter animals from snacking on the corn and beans.

Beans, best known for their notable amount of fiber (one cup provides between 9 to 13 grams), are also a great source of plant protein, complex carbohydrates, folate and iron, as well as at least eight different phytonutrients which contribute to their dark color (in the case of black beans), and indicate the presence of valuable antioxidants.

By the end of the summer, my bean plants were mature, the pods were full-grown and starting to dry, and I crawled in to harvest the beautiful, garden-grown black beans.  I had grown my own protein.

As thoroughly satisfying as that was, I was disappointed to see that my numerous rows of black bean plants amounted to merely a pint-sized jar of dried beans - hardly enough to feed a mostly vegetarian family of four until next year at this time.

I’ll have to grow many more this sum mer, but for now we’re digging into a hot bowl of home-grown sweet potato and black bean soup.

Red Velvet Borscht

The beet, like a fist tightly clenching its sweetest, is one of the most brilliantly colored treasures held in the dirt. Once scrubbed (and possibly peeled), it begins to reveal its sweet beauty.  Cultivated in numerous varieties, colors, shapes and designs (if you’ve never admired the Chioggia beet, have a look here), all of which offer an excellent source of folate, antioxidants, manganese, vitamin C, potassium and fiber, among other nutrients. If you like to grow your own, here’s a nice collection of varied beet seeds for a full array.

The wild beet, the ancestor of what we eat today, traces its roots to North Africa. Initially only the greens were eaten (something we would be wise to do more of today). Early Romans began cultivating beets for the roots, and as they traveled through the continent, beets were widely adopted to feed both animals and humans. By the 19th century, they reached the height of their popularity when the Poles built the first sugar beet factory to extract their highly concentrated sweetness.

This versatile beet soup, when served hot, will warm you to the core, and when enjoyed chilled with fresh dill, is wonderfully refreshing.  Blended with an additional splash of water or milk, it becomes an invigorating smoothie.  When I made it for my weekly “Market Day Soup”, I was delighted by the color. This is winter food at its most colorful.

Red Velvet Borscht Soup

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 large red onions, diced
  • 3-4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 3 red potatoes, peeled and cubed (ideally a variety with red flesh such as Adirondack reds)
  • 4 bright red beets
  • 6 cups vegetable stock
  • 1/4 teaspoon dill seed
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • fresh or dried dill weed
  • cream, plain yogurt or sour cream (optional)
Method:
  1. Warm soup pot and melt butter. Add onions and cook for 10-15 minutes over low heat to caramelize. Add garlic, potatoes and beets, stir to coat.
  2. Add stock and dill seeds and bring to a boil.  Cover and allow to simmer until vegetables are soft (approximately 20 minutes).
  3. Turn off heat and add milk.
  4. In batches, puree soup in a blender or food processor until velvety smooth.
  5. Gently reheat, or chill. Serve with a dash of cream or dollop of yogurt and a sprinkling of dill.

I added another splash or two of milk and ended up with a delicious savory smoothie.  Just the thing for a quick lunch.

Make it vegan: Substitute olive oil for butter, and a non-dairy milk for the milk.

Make it paleo/primal: Substitute coconut oil for the butter, and coconut milk for the milk.

Vitamin E: Much More Than Skin Deep

Dry, chapped skin is a common wintertime condition.  You might use a vitamin E lotion or oil to soothe and heal your skin. That would be a great job for vitamin E (which is actually a family of eight compounds called “tocopherols”), although this important vitamin offers you much more.  In addition to maintaining healthy skin, vitamin E is a vital antioxidant, protecting cell walls against the damage of free radicals and supporting heart, brain and circulatory health. It helps the body use oxygen, prevents blood clots, improves wound healing and fertility and helps prevent cancer.

The ideal daily intake to maintain good health is 400-600 IU (international units).  This range is many times higher than both the EC and US RDA.  To reap the many benefits of this essential nutrient, you can focus on vitamin E rich foods (such as nuts, seeds, their unrefined oils, dark green leafy vegetables, avocados, peppers, sweet potatoes, beans, and wheat germ) and consider taking a supplement to meet the optimal daily amount.

Just like vitamins A and D, vitamin E is fat-soluble, meaning that it is best absorbed together with fat.  If you are following a low-fat diet, you may not be benefiting optimally. Vitamin C and selenium also boost vitamin E absorption.

When selecting a supplement look for naturally sourced tocopherols, such as vitamin E from http://hollandandbarrett.com or from your local health food or vitamin shop, and store in a cool, dark place.