August 2012

Culinary Curiosity. Oysters: Maybe aphrodisiac, definitely delicious

By Jennifer Brule`

Jennifer Brule` is a classically trained chef, food writer and mother. Each of her hip and sassy columns feature an ingredient demystified with humor and facts. Contact her at

Oysters have forever been the object of myth and intrigue. Coveted by some because of their crisp, delicately salty, oceanic flavor. Repulsive to others because of their gelatinous, gray appearance. And of course, who can discount the bivalve’s infamous, if not altogether dubious aphrodisiac reputation.

When live oysters are eaten raw, eager diners wedge the shellfish open, drizzle them with a bit of lemon, cocktail sauce or maybe sauce mignonette (a classic French sauce of vinegar, shallots, parsley and peppercorns), and slide them off the shells into their mouths where they ease down the gullet and into the gastric abyss. A brief, but addicting experience for those who favor them.

But oysters are also lovely grilled right in their shells on top of a hot grate. Or heaped into a wet burlap bag, as southerners like, and roasted outdoors. There’s the cornmeal-dredged and fried recipe with a side of tartar sauce. The Native Americans perfected oyster stew. And a colonial Chesapeake Bay treat was the oyster pie. There are a thousand ways to enjoy eating oysters.

The Romans are credited with first discovering oysters in the cold waters of Britain, bringing them back to Rome where they cultivated them in the 4th century B.C.. It is thought that they appreciated the oysters legendary properties of l’amour and paid a premium for them, in gold. One could say that the oyster was to ancient Romans, as Viagra is to American baby boomers.

The oysters’ famed aphrodisiac qualities seem to be a mix of fact and fiction. Oysters do contain a high amount of zinc. Zinc controls progesterone levels in men, a lack of which can cause male impotence. And the word ‘aphrodisiac’ came about when the Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, popped forth from the sea on an oyster shell and gave birth to Eros. The combination of fact and fable seem to have forever imbedded into our minds, the oysters’ reputation.

Today, in the U.S., oysters are mainly cultivated off the shores of Long Island, the Gulf coast of Louisiana, the Chesapeake Bay and in the waters off Washington state.

A female oyster releases between 10 and 100 million eggs annually. Of these, only a very few will live to become larvae and grow into mature oysters. Most will be eaten up while in the larvae stage by fish.

After 1 and ½ years (in warm water) or 5 years (in colder water) the oyster will be between 2 and 6 inches in length and be ready to harvest.

When looking at a shucked oyster it’s hard to imagine that it is actually an animal, but it is. It breathes much like a fish does, it has kidneys, and a heart that pumps clear blood through blood vessels. It even has a male or female gender. It is at this point though, that the oyster takes a sharp U-turn in the ‘normal animal’ road. You see, although every oyster is either male or female, at least once in an oyster’s life span, it will switch genders (their little oyster parents seem to be okay with this, though).

Ah, oysters. You may love to slurp them down, raw by the dozens or prefer them grilled, fried, baked or broiled. You may avoid them altogether, or devour them for the aforementioned side-effects. No matter how you feel about them, oysters are anything but boring.

Do you like smoked food? There are things you should know about

Mesquite wood is used in barbecuing and smoking foods. It gives foods a slightly sweet smokey flavour. Mesquite is the common name for several small spine hardwood trees or shrubs of the genus Prosopis in the pea family. They are native to the southwestern U.S., Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean Islands.

Although you may like smoked foods, they contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons which are known carcinogens. Smoked foods are known to be carcinogenic when eaten as a regular part of a person’s diet. Most people do not eat enough smoked foods for this to be a major concern.

HOWEVER, the hotter the wood or charcoal burns, the more polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that are produced. And mesquite burns hotter than hardwood charcoal, and produces much more of these dangerous hydrocarbons.

According to a study on the subject, in meat cooked with mesquite as opposed to hardwood charcoal, the cancer causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons is 8 times higher and the benzopyrene – the most dangerous hydrocarbon – 40 times.


The Restaurant Rat : Fast-Food Entree Salads: New Leaf or Fig Leaf?

By Kathryn Martin
Kathryn Martin has covered dining and entertainment from coast to coast – Los Angeles to South Carolina – for more than a decade. She admits to being picky about what she eats, and where she eats it.

Fast-food restaurants have taken a lot of heat recently about their contribution to the nation’s growing obesity problem. Consumer advocates have criticized these eateries for the preponderance of fat-laden choices on their menus, their “super-sized” portions and lack of nutritional guidance to diners.

In an avowed effort to become part of the solution instead of part of the problem, McDonald’s Corporation has taken a first step toward turning the tide of obesity in America – or at least, of its own bad press on the subject.

Last month, the fast-food giant launched a line of entree salads, paired with actor Paul Newman’s signature salad dressings. Patrons at Golden Arches outlets nationwide can now get a choice of Caesar, California Cobb or Bacon Ranch salad, with or without meat, and a selection of Newman’s Own dressings.

For those who rely on fast-food outlets because of time or budget constraints, the news of some healthier menu choices seems encouraging. But has the world’s leading food retailer really turned over a new leaf ─ or merely a public relations fig leaf?
The numbers tell the story, and as usual, the devil is in the details. A plain McDonald’s Caesar salad contains 6.7 ounces of crisp mixed greens, tomatoes, shaved carrots and grated Parmesan cheese and weighs in at 90 calories, with 4 grams of fat. Take the grilled chicken version and you gain about 20 grams of protein, along with 120 calories and 3 fat grams. The chicken, served warm, is tender and pleasantly spicy. Skip the creamy Caesar dressing that comes with it (190 calories, 18 fat grams); instead, ask for the light balsamic vinaigrette dressing (90 calories). The result: a healthy, decent-tasting light lunch for under 300 calories. Not bad for fast food.

Opt for the bacon ranch salad and it’s another story. The basic model, mixed greens topped with cheddar and jack cheeses and bacon bits, has 140 calories, 10 fat grams. Take the grilled chicken option and you’re at 270 calories; go for crispy chicken and it’s 370 (21 fat grams). Toss on a packet of ranch dressing and you’re at 660 calories with 51 grams of fat.

You might as well have a Big Mac (590 calories, 34 grams) or – what the heck? – two slices of pepperoni pizza at Domino’s, a mere 560 calories and 20 fat grams. Salad? No thanks, I’m on a diet!
The pickings are no better – in fact worse – at other fast-food eateries. Burger King’s sole entry in the salad sweepstakes is its chicken Caesar. With Parmesan cheese, croutons and creamy dressing, it weighs in at 495 calories and 27 grams of fat.

Taco Bell gets the prize, however, for least healthy salads. Its express taco salad with chips has 620 calories (31 grams of fat); or go for the taco salad in a fried tostada shell, a whopping 790 calories and 42 grams of fat.

McDonald’s deserves credit for at least trying to offer more wholesome choices. But for those trying to eat a sensible, healthy diet, it’s still a case of “buyer beware.”

Cutting the empty calories in your baking. Includes a sugar-free muffin recipe

By Mona Blaber, writer for the FoodSyndicate

Take everything you hear about sugar with a grain of salt.
It’s probably not as bad as a lot of people think, but it might be more damaging than most people realize.

Those of us who blithely munch on muffins at breakfast and Pop-Tarts at lunch don’t seem to pay much heed to refined sugar and its many vehicles, including non-sweets such as peanut butter and bread.

Those of us who have read William Dufty’s “Sugar Blues” – or any number of other anti-sugar rants – avoid it like the plague, which was caused by sugar, according to Dufty. If the mayonnaise in our cole slaw contains high-fructose corn syrup, we fear the imminent onset of gout, acne, dropsy, scurvy, depression and premature death. Which is silly, because sugar has only been linked to acne, dropsy, scurvy, depression and premature death.

If only it was that easy to indict, or acquit, sugar. According to most experts, it has only one direct negative effect that has been reliably documented: tooth decay. But even at its most benign, refined sugar is the only food that provides calories but no other nutrients. (Refined, or processed, sugar is added sugar, as opposed to those that occur naturally in, for example, fruit and milk; they come alongside folate, calcium, fiber, Vitamin A and other nutrients.)

According to Barry Popkin, nutrition professor at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, “Americans consume up to one-fourth of their energy from added sugar. Either this added sugar is in the form of empty calories and affects issues such as poor bone density, etc., or it increases total energy,” and therefore contributes to weight gain. “So my feeling is that this is bad but there is not a lot of evidence for a specific direct linkage of one calorie of sugar to anything.”

In other words, we often eat sugar calories in place of those that carry the good stuff that helps us fight osteoporosis, cancer, etc. Or we eat sugar calories in addition to the nutritional sort and start packing on pounds. But a brownie will not kill you, or even give you dropsy.

However, some doctors (including diet guru Robert Atkins) maintain that refined sugar can be seriously harmful. What to do? Who to believe? Well, even the most sugar-friendly experts recommend replacing many of those empty calories with more nutritious energy vehicles. Soft drinks and commercial cakes, cookies and muffins are the all-stars of the nutritional void, according to the United States Department of Agriculture and many health organizations. But if you bake at home, you can moderate what goes into your treats. It’s not very hard, once you try, to make everybody in your house happy and sneak in all kinds of vitamins and minerals while nobody’s looking.

This moist, tender and unique muffin won raves from my whole family. The peppers are fairly subtle, but they can be omitted if you have kids who don’t like spices.

Mona Blaber, a freelance journalist who lives in Santa Fe, N.M., with her husband and three stepchildren, puts extensive research, and trial-and-error, into her fantastic (refined) sugar-free baking recipes. Her mom never let her have the cereal with sugar in it when she was little.

Spicy Blue-Corn Apple Muffins

Ingredients: (makes 12 muffins)

1 1/4 (one and one-fourth) cup unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 (three-fourths) cup whole-grain blue cornmeal
3/4 (three-fourths) teaspoon baking soda
1/4 (one-fourth) teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground chipotle pepper
1/2 (one-half) teaspoon nutmeg
1 pepper, such as habanero or jalapeño, with pods removed and finely chopped in food processor
1 large egg
1/2 (one-half) cup nonfat plain yogurt
1/3 (one-third) cup 1 percent milk
1/3 (one-third) cup thawed apple-juice concentrate
1/2 (one-half) cup tart apples (Granny Smith and Golden Delicious are in season year-round
2 large, very ripe mashed bananas


Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease a 12-muffin tin. Sift together flour, cornmeal, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg and chipotle. In separate bowl, beat egg. Mix in milk, yogurt and concentrate. Add mashed bananas, apples and pepper. Mix egg mixture into flour mixture, using as few strokes as necessary. Immediately spoon batter into muffin tins. Bake for about 15 minutes. Cool for five minutes and remove muffins from tins while warm.
In each muffin, there are about 118 calories and 0.6 grams of fat, about 0.13 of which is saturated.

Indulgent “health products”

.. not the answer for the calorie conscious consumer.

Low fat and reduced calorie snacks, cakes and biscuits are becoming increasingly popular and a new study by market analysts Mintel has found that weight conscious consumers are increasingly turning to these indulgent “health foods.” Nutritionists insist however that such products are only helping people to mislead themselves about dieting and the role of “health foods.”

Mintel discovered that around a quarter of British adults are struggling with diets, and from the British Nutrition Foundation, Sarah Stanner warned dieters not to mislead themselves about the benefits of eating low-calorie versions of their favourite snack foods. She added that eating fruit and vegetables and taking plenty of exercise is the only way to get in shape.

Medical experts believe that the proportion of the public who are clinically recognised as obese has tripled over the last 20 years.
The range of products available for the calorie conscious dieter has increased dramatically since the late 1990s, adding to the creation of a market worth £1.4bn a year.