September 2012

Asparagus by the plateful

By Jennifer Brule`
Jennifer Brule` is a classically trained chef, food writer and mother. Over the past decade, she has written for newspapers and national magazines such as Cooking Light. Each of her hip and sassy columns feature an ingredient demystified with humor and facts. Contact her at jennifer@thefoodsyndicate.com.

Man, I love asparagus! Although it’s in peak season right now, (February through June) I eat it year round by the plateful. I like the spears best quickly steamed to crisp/tender, al dente perfection. Melted butter is good, but I prefer it plain with just a light sprinkling of sea salt.

Asparagus has so many attributes and just one detractor (that weird stinky-tinkle factor, but I’ll get to that later). It is a powerhouse of nutrients. A heavy 5-ounce serving has only 20 calories, no fat or cholesterol and is low in sodium. Packed into that 5 ounces is 60 percent of the folic acid we need for the day. Folic acid helps blood cell formation, fights liver disease and is thought to prevent neural tube defects in forming babies. Asparagus is also a good source of vitamins B6, A and C as well as potassium, thiamin and fiber.

Asparagus is part of the lily family and is related to onions, leeks and garlic. It was first cultivated in Greece, 2,500 years ago.
It is a plant that takes patience to cultivate. Spears don’t grow for two years after the crown has been planted, but once the plant begins to produce, it will do so, in season, for as long as 15 years.
The rate at which asparagus grows is remarkable. Remember those lapsed time movies we used to see in biology class that showed grass growing in hyper-speed? Asparagus shoots up almost that fast. Depending on the heat of the sun, some asparagus plants can grow as much as 10 inches per 24-hour period.

Preparation of asparagus is as versatile as it is user-friendly. Steaming or simmering is the most common means of it. In a large sauté pan, bring about 1 inch of water to a boil, add trimmed asparagus (keeping the burner on high) and time 5 minutes as soon as the spears hit the water. Remove, drain and serve.

Roasting is a great hands-off way of preparing. Simply spray a cookie sheet with a non-stick spray and place the trimmed asparagus in a single layer (no oil or butter needed). Roast in a 400-degree oven for 6 to 7 minutes. Grilling brings a slightly nutty flavor to asparagus that I love. Simply place plain, non-marinated asparagus on a prepared grill and roll occasionally for 6 to 8 minutes.
Now, back to the stinky-tinkle thing. It seems to be a derivative of the breakdown of amino acids during digestion. Because there doesn’t seem to be any way around it, you could chalk it up to the cost of eating asparagus. Although, curiously, some people don’t experience this side effect.

Asparagus is a unique, versatile and delicious vegetable. It is also one of the most nutrient-packed. Who knew that health food could actually taste this good?

Beware of the BBQ

Most of us love BBQ’ed food. It is also fun to have your friends round for a relaxed BBQ dinner. But barbecueing can pose a risk to your health.

According to a study of the The American Institute for Cancer Research, eating grilled/barbecued meat, poultry or seafood exposes us to carcinogens called heterocyclic amines (HCAs). These substances form on foods as they cook on the BBQ or under the high heat of the grill, whether or not char is formed. And when fat drips onto the heat source, it creates flare-ups and smoke that then deposits on the food another group of carcinogens, called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

A simple way to avoid these carcinogens and still enjoy grilled meats is to put them under wraps. Placing poultry, fish, or meats into foil packets before putting them on the BBQ avoids the problem. In addition, the food gets the flavourful aura of grilling, especially if you leave the top loosely sealed, but it won’t char the food.

Dining Alone and Loving It – Cooking for One

So you’re living alone and you’re hungry. Nobody’s around asking you what you want for dinner. Poor you. Sure, you know your diet is ridiculous and not especially healthy. Maybe you’ve tried cooking for yourself but it’s just you, so why bother? And I know all about you single vegetarians. The cheese sandwich solution, the nachos…Poor you. Poor you.

Hey, wait a minute. Lucky you! Cooking for one is cheaper than eating in a restaurant. You’re saving money. You can afford to buy small portions of the most expensive food. You can even go organic. So set the table and cook your dinner.

You don’t have to go out and buy fancy cooking equipment (except a salad spinner, if you don’t have one). I also know that to get you started, the recipe has to be easy. So what’s easier than a one-dish meal?

But first you need to set the mood. You deserve to be pampered, and if you live alone it’s up to you to do the pampering most of the time. Put on some music and light some candles. Are you feeling frazzled? There’s nothing like Ella Fitzgerald for jangled nerves. She can sing “Why Was I Born?” and leave you feeling uplifted.
When I first got my CD player, just about every CD I had was Ella Fitzgerald. I’ve been gradually expanding my collection and most of it is jazz. Another delightful jazz performer is James Moody, who sure plays a sweet saxophone. He was recently at the Blue Note in Manhattan with the Dizzy Gillespie “all stars.” Of course, you should put on the music you like—whatever makes you happy and feel good. A lot of single folks tend to eat their dinner standing up the kitchen. If I’m talking to you, get over it. That is definitely not treating yourself nicely.

I usually work at home and I tend to cover every flat surface with papers. I’ve found a great way to clear off my dining table—the box top from my 10 reams of paper. I pile everything in it and put it away for the night. That way I have a nice neat table to sit down and enjoy my dinner.

Now break out the nice dishes, cutlery and stemware. Oh go ahead – you deserve it. And there will only be one place setting to wash up, so it’s no huge bother. But using the good stuff will make a huge difference in your mood. It’s so elegant.

If you’re not eating broccoli, you ought to give it a try. Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli are anti-carcinogenic (translation: protects you from the Big C). This recipe can be made vegetarian or with meat. I eat meat, but not as much as I used to. I’ve found that going even partly vegetarian makes me feel better, and meatless usually means lower in calories. Now that I’ve lost the weight I gained on a meat-and-potatoes diet, I don’t want to gain it back.
Enjoy your dinner and remember – you’re worth it.

Sweet Potato, Broccoli and Fill-in-the-Blank Hash

Ingredients:

4 ounces chicken, pork or baked tofu
1 sweet potato – if you have a big appetite get a big one.
Broccoli from 1 stalk (or more if you love broccoli)
Salt and pepper to taste
Lemon juice from ½ (one-half) lemon for the meat or 2 tablespoons of soy sauce for the tofu
Sour cream

Preparation:

Put some water in a pan with the steamer and turn the heat on. Peel the sweet potato. Chop it into big slices or chunks. Steam, covered, for about 4 minutes. Cut whatever you like of your broccoli into chunks and throw it on top of the potatoes for another 4 minutes (a minute or two longer if you don’t like crispy broccoli). In a large skillet, sauté chicken approximately 3 minutes per side. (You want to be able to cut into the thickest part and see only white, no pink.) Squeeze lemon juice over the chicken. (I heat my tofu in the microwave for a minute, but if you don’t have a microwave, you can throw the tofu into the steamer a minute before the broccoli is done.) Cut the chicken, pork, or tofu into bite-sized pieces. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and add the potatoes and broccoli. This is also the time to cut the potatoes and broccoli into smaller pieces, but don’t use metal in a nonstick skillet. Put it all into a big bowl and spread a tablespoon or two of sour cream on top. I really prefer Tofutti’s “Better Than Sour Cream” to the real thing and soy is so good for us—not just gals either. Soy is thought to prevent prostate cancer.