Monday, April 27, 2009

The Mediterranean Diet

In a time where new diet fads seem to come and go daily, there is one constant that never seems to fade, namely the health benefits of the “Mediterranean” diet. For centuries civilizations surrounding the Mediterranean have survived on a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, lean proteins and olive oil. The rich soil and moderate climate of countries such as Spain, Morocco, Italy and France lends itself to the production of a myriad of fresh produce. People in these regions eat seasonally, taking advantage of whatever happens to be in the marketplace on any given day. But what makes the Mediterranean diet so healthy compared with other diets like Atkins, South Beach or the Zone?? The key is diversity.

Typically people within these countries don’t eat meat at every meal as it tends to be costly and most homes do not have refrigeration in which to store perishable items. Fruits and vegetables, however, are always abundant. The key to making the best use of these fruits and vegetables is the use of herbs and spices to enhance the flavors to their fullest potential. In Italy, basil, rosemary and oregano are used to make sauces fragrant and unique, while in Spain and North Africa, cilantro and parsley are added to almost every dish. Most of these cuisines are not spicy in so much as hot and spicy, but rather spicy as in flavorful. Paprika, cumin, ginger, cinnamon and saffron are carefully added to dishes in surprising new ways to make them pop.

So how can we adapt some of our own food habits to incorporate some of these healthy principles? We too live in an area where fresh seasonal produce is abundant. Why not try adding some flavor to basic vegetables by learning to use some of these herbs and spices. Lighten things up by using a high quality extra virgin olive oil to cook your next meal. Eating light and healthy is not difficult, nor does it have to be boring. Take the example of the Mediterranean diet and you’ll see that healthy doesn’t have to equal bland.

Homemade Tomato Sauce

3-4 Tbl extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 celery stalk, diced
2 lbs peeled and chopped roma tomatoes or 2-24 cans whole peeled tomatoes, crushed
Pinch Salt and Pepper
¼ tsp crushed red pepper
3-4 Tbl chopped fresh Italian parsley
2 Tbl chopped fresh Oregano
1-2 tsps chopped fresh thyme
1-2 tsps chopped fresh rosemary
Handful torn fresh basil
1-2 Tbl Sugar

To peel tomatoes, boil a pot of water. Place tomatoes into the boiling water for approximately 30 seconds and remove. Allow to cool and the skins should slide right off. If you are not able to get fresh tomatoes, use a high quality canned tomato like San Marzano and crush the tomatoes by hand before using. In a large saucepan, heat olive oil. Saute onions until they soften and begin to turn slightly golden, approximately 5 minutes. Add garlic and sauté for one minute or until fragrant. Add carrot, celery, red pepper, salt and pepper. Continue cooking for about 10 mins or until the carrots and celery begin to soften. Add tomatoes. Bring mixture to a boil. Add fresh parsley, thyme, oregano and rosemary. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook uncovered, stirring frequently, for approximately 45 minutes to an hour or until the sauce has thickened and most of the liquid has evaporated. Add fresh torn basil and sugar to taste. Puree sauce in a blender or use an immersion blender to puree the sauce in the pot. Note: Allow the mixture to cool before using a blender to puree or it will explode and you could burn yourself.

** Immersion blenders are available at almost any retailer and they are a fantastic tool for use with pureeing sauces or soups.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day Promotion

Includes: One Room Night in the Blue Room or Federal Room, Dinner for Two using locally available seasonal fresh produce and locally sourced meat, One Dozen Farm Fresh/Free Range Eggs. Make a reservation any time between April 10 and May 31 and qualify for a one-year subscription to Rodale's Organic Gardening Magazine (6 Issues). $174.20 Total Cost Including Tax

Monday, April 20, 2009

The History of Chocolate

Chocolate was first consumed by Central and South American peoples sometime around 2000 years ago. The seeds of the cacao tree which grew in the rainforests of Mesoamerica were ground and used to make a bitter hot beverage which was used for both medicinal purposes as well as a vehicle for various religious and cultural rituals. Chocolate first made its way to Europe sometime around 1521 when the Spanish conquered Mexico and discovered its use amongst the peoples of the area.

When first introduced to European people chocolate was primarily considered a commodity largely used by the wealthiest and most elite of European nobles who could afford to import it. Soon Europeans began adapting the hot bitter beverage by adding sugar, cinnamon and other spices to sweeten the concoction.

Commercial use of chocolate didn’t develop until the mid-1800’s when the first candy bars were developed. The Industrial Revolution brought mass production to the chocolate industry and today chocolate is a multi-billion dollar industry with chocolate being produced all over the world.

Most people will be interested to know that ground chocolate nibs, the final derivative that is removed from the chocolate bean, are separated into two forms, cocoa butter and chocolate liquor. These two forms are subsequently mixed with other ingredients in varying proportions to make the various types of chocolate, i.e. dark chocolate, milk chocolate and white chocolate, which isn’t chocolate at all, but rather cocoa butter mixed with milk, sugar and vanilla.

Choosing chocolate for a recipe is a matter of determining what type of chocolate you are looking for. Most recipes call for semi-sweet chocolate while dark chocolate, chocolate which generally has 70% chocolate liquor in the chocolate with limited sugar and no milk products, is usually reserved for consumption as candy. Always look for a high quality chocolate that comes from a reputable chocolatier and has less preservatives, sugar and milk by products. Many gourmet chocolates are now available at grocery stores. While these chocolates are more expensive than basic baking chocolates, the difference in the final products obtained by using them are well worth the price.

The following is a recipe for a dessert that will be served at a special chocolate dinner being hosted at the Chestnut Street Inn on August 25, 2007. These custards are smooth, not too sweet and absolutely delicious!!

Chocolate Espresso Pots de Cremes
Serves 6
Prep Time: Approx. 20 mins.
Cook Time: 35-40 mins.

6 Egg Yolks
2 Tbl Granulated Sugar
2/3 cup heavy cream
1 1/3 cup whole milk
2 tsp instant coffee
1 tsp vanilla extract
6 oz. semi sweet chocolate
Pinch Salt

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

Place cream, milk, coffee, vanilla, chocolate and pinch of salt in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Melt chocolate and heat until the milk and cream mixture begins to simmer around the edges. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg yolks with the sugar and a pinch of salt. Slowly whisk in the chocolate/cream mixture, being careful not to scramble the egg yolks. Strain the egg/chocolate mix through a fine mesh sieve into a large measuring cup. Let the mixture sit for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to keep the mixture from coagulating. Line a large pyrex baking dish with paper towels. Place 6 ramekins in the baking dish. Pour the mixture into baking dishes, spreading the mix evenly until all the mixture is used up. Fill the baking dish with boiling water approx. 1/3 full. Cover with aluminum foil in which small holes have been punched with either a fork or a skewer. Place in the oven and let bake approximately 35-40 minutes or until the pots de crèmes have just set. Remove from the oven and uncover. Let sit approximately one hour or until cooled. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator at least 3 hours.

These can be made approximately 3-5 days in advance.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Buying and Finding Seasonally Fresh Fruits and Vegetables

As the summer progresses, a bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables become more readily available in stores as well as farmer’s markets. When searching for fresh fruits or vegetables, the best guide to picking them is your nose. As a rule of thumb, if it smells like the fruit or vegetable, it is ripe, if it doesn’t, don’t buy it. Another good indicator for ripeness is touch and color. Most fruits and vegetables should be slightly soft to the touch, not hard as a rock, and generally the brighter the color, the riper.

For example, when picking a cantaloupe, choose one that is slightly soft at the point where the stem connected to the fruit. Then smell it. It should smell sweet and like a cantaloupe. For tomatoes, the tomato should be fragrant, darker red and there should be a slight pliability to the skin, unless of course you are looking at a green zebra, orange or yellow tomato, in which case, you’ll have to go by feel to see if they are ripe. Avocadoes are always a perplexing fruit to pick. Again, the avocado should be dark green, almost black, and slightly soft to the touch, but not mushy. For herbs, make sure the leaves are still dark green and not turning black.

Taking the extra time to make sure your fruits and vegetables are ripe when you buy them is worth doing. Ripe fruits and vegetables not only taste better, but are generally higher in vitamins and nutrients. Often unripe fruits and vegetables will never ripen properly once they are brought home, thereby ruining their flavor and nutritional value.

The best way to ensure you are getting the highest quality fruits and vegetables while they are in season is to buy from local farmers. Many of them participate in local farmer’s markets while others also offer CSA’s or community supported agriculture programs. These programs rely on individuals purchasing a share of a farmer’s crop. Generally you pay half the share at the beginning of the season and half at the end. Every week you will receive a box of the freshest produce that is available within that season. And the price is generally as reasonable or more so than purchasing produce at a standard grocery store. It is a great way not only to support your local economy, but to get the best possible product around.

One more note about organics. Organic produce is fantastic and if available you should always try to buy organic despite the increased cost. However, many purveyors of “organic” foods are not entirely clear on what is truly organic. Organic foods must be produced without the use of pesticides, no genetic modification, no fertilizers, no growth hormones and no ionizing radiation. Very few farms can actually qualify completely for organic certification because even those farms that do not use pesticides may be located near other farms that do in which case the pesticides may contaminate the soil in which the produce is grown. Unless a product in a store is labeled “certified organic” it is not organic and should not be purchased.

Buying good quality seasonal produce isn’t brain science. It is simply a matter of committing to careful shopping habits. Shopping isn’t everyone’s favorite hobby and in fact may be more drudgery for most people than entertainment. What we should all remember, however, is that there is no more important activity that we can do to increase our health and life expectancy then to eat healthy. But eating healthy doesn’t have to be boring or tasteless and one of the key ingredients to healthy and tasty eating is buying ripe, seasonal fruits and vegetables. Why not take advantage of locally available produce and enjoy the bounty of what our earth produces. Take pride in the foods you purchase for your family. They will thank you for providing them with foods that are not only delicious but healthy for them.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Gluten Intolerance: Living with a Wheat Allergy

Gluten Intolerance, or celiac disease, affects one out of every 133 people in the United States. People afflicted with this disease are unable to consume wheat, rye, barley or oats. Symptoms range from general abdominal discomfort to severe malnutrition. People afflicted with Celiac Disease are often misdiagnosed as having mild to moderate anemia and other gastrointestinal disorders. While diagnosis is difficult, awareness has been growing and more and more doctors are equipped with the appropriate testing supplies to test individuals suffering with these types of ailments. The only solution for an individual suffering from Celiac Disease is to maintain a completely gluten free diet, which can be far more difficult than it sounds.

Many items that would seem to be otherwise safe contain wheat gluten in them as wheat gluten is a common additive in preservatives. Items such as distilled vinegar, sour cream, mayonnaise, yogurt and even hot dogs may contain wheat gluten in them and therefore can cause discomfort. What is gluten?? Wheat gluten is a protein found in most cereals that creates the elasticity necessary to leavening. While many types of flowers can be used for baking, i.e. rice, potato and chickpea, these often produce dense or tough dough that is not suitable for baking bread or cakes.

While Celiac Disease is one of the most common forms of a wheat allergy, there are others. Most wheat allergies are not as common as other food allergies, namely peanut, dairy or seafood. However, they can be just as severe. Again, the most effective way of dealing with a wheat allergy is simply to avoid eating the foods that cause the reactions as anaphylactics do not help to avert the allergic reaction when these foods are consumed.

How to deal with cooking for individuals with Celiac Disease or other wheat allergies? It is simply a matter of reading the ingredients in common household items you use. One of the main culprits of allergic reactions in many foods is modified food starch. Look for products that are labeled “natural” or “certified organic.” Often these products are produced with little or no preservatives. Also, be careful of anything containing alcohol, including vanilla extract. Most alcohols are distilled with grains, most of which contain wheat glutens in them. Finding gluten free ingredients in stores is becoming easier and easier as more and more food manufacturers are becoming aware of the specifics of wheat allergies.

For those individuals following the South Beach Diet or other low carb diets, gluten free products can be a great indicator of foods that are naturally low in carbohydrates and starches. Eating gluten free doesn’t have to be boring or restrictive. It just requires a bit more creativity in the kitchen and the use of more flavor additives such as herbs and spices to liven things up. Below is a recipe for a gluten free chocolate cake. This flourless cake is delicious for both those with wheat allergies and those without. One final note: When eating out at restaurants, be careful to ask about items that specify they are “flourless.” Some restaurants label items, particularly desserts as “flourless,” when in fact they contain trace amounts of flour in them to bind the dessert. Even a trace amount can make the difference between a nice meal and a really bad stomach ache for someone suffering from Celiac Disease or a wheat allergy.

Flourless Chocolate Cake

Yields: Approx. 12 Servings

8 oz Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips
¾ cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract (Organic)
1 tsp instant coffee
4 eggs, separated
Pinch of cream of tartar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9 inch spring form pan. In a small saucepan filled ¼ full with water, bring to a boil. Place chocolate, butter, vanilla and coffee in a heat resistant mixing bowl and place over boiling water, reducing heat to low. Melt chocolate and butter completely. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly. In a separate bowl, beat egg yolks with half the sugar until the eggs become pale yellow and creamy. In another bowl, beat egg whites with cream of tartar, gradually adding remaining sugar until stiff peaks form. Carefully fold the cooled chocolate mixture into the egg yolk/sugar mixture, making sure not to scramble the eggs. Slowly fold the egg white mixture into the egg yolk/chocolate mix. Pour cake mixture into the spring form pan and place on a large baking sheet. Place in the oven and bake approx. 40 mins or until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. Remove from the oven and run a knife around the edges of the cake. Allow to cool completely before removing from the spring form pan. Serve with whipping cream or vanilla ice cream.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

About Garlic

Did you know that garlic is actually stronger, the smaller you chop it?? Garlic intensifies in flavor the smaller the pieces because more surface area is exposed to oxygen, which actually brings out the flavor. If you want a really pungent garlicky flavor, put the clove through a garlic press. For the mildest garlic flavor, use it whole or better yet, roast it. Peel as much of the outer paper off as possible and place on a sheet of foil. Drizzle with olive oil, wrap tightly and place on a baking sheet. Roast at 375 degrees for approximately 45 minutes and voila!! Sweet, mellow garlicky flavor. The roasting process brings out the natural sugars of the garlic and caramelizes them creating a subtle, sweet flavor that works perfectly in mashed potatoes, hummus or will make the best garlic bread you have ever had. Spread the roasted garlic onto a half a loaf of crusty italian bread. Add freshly grated Parmesan Cheese and place onto a baking sheet. Put into a 350 degree oven for approximately 10 mins to just melt and brown the cheese a bit. It's to die for. And soooo healthy. Garlic is super high in anti-oxidants and don't worry about the after effects. If everyone eats it, nobody will be offended.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Mother's Day Brunch

Join us for a special Mother's Day Tea at 11:30am. $18 Per Person Plus Tax. Included one mimosa. Menu includes: Cherry Scones, Apple Spice Cake, Herbed Goat Cheese and Cucumber Finger Sandwiches, Turkey and Pesto Finger Sandwiches, Hummus and Roasted Pepper Aioli Finger Sandwiches, Strawberries and Cream.

Cinco de Mayo

Join us for a special Cinco de Mayo dinner. Menu Includes: Homemade Guacamole and Corn and Black Bean Salsa, Albondiagas Soup, Mole with Chicken and Spanish Rice, Flan. $27 Per Person Plus Tax.

Easter Lunch

Join us for our Easter Luncheon at 1pm. Menu includes: Tomato Bisque, Mixed Greens with Pear and Gorgonzola, Pot Roasted Lamb with Herb Roasted Potatoes and Roasted Asparagus, Creme Brulee. $27 Per Person Plus tax.