Monthly Archives: August 2017

Brussels Sprouts

Throughout history, conquering armies have frequently taken their popular foods into other countries and, depending on the climates and growing conditions, cabbage took on different colors and appearances. Regardless of who gets the nod for discovering this popular vegetable, it was widely accepted in Europe and frequently sliced and fermented. (Once again, explorer Marco Polo lost out discovering cabbage in his travels but possibly ate it in his native Italy.)

Cabbage made its appearance in America around 1700 and was probably grown and eaten by the colonists, as well as some Native Americans. Although usually cooked, in the 1700s the Dutch created a raw “cabbage salad” which became what is now our modern day coleslaw. Centuries before, cut up and originally eaten with vinaigrette, the Dutch took coleslaw to a new (and less healthy) level by adding egg, some type of fat and dairy, usually in the form of our mayonnaise. This version has been referenced in American literature as far back as 1785. Some adventurous chefs added shredded carrots and jazzed it up a bit, but the basic recipe still dominates American menus. Because it was highly perishable and messy, it certainly wasn’t packed into the bags of military soldiers or cowboys, but it has thrived as a popular side dish with all-American sandwiches, hot dogs and hamburgers, and a popular salad with barbeque and fried chicken.

When the wildly popular fast food restaurant which specializes in chicken eliminated it from their menu, there was a national uproar (including from this author). They replaced it with a kale salad, but that just didn’t cut it for coleslaw fans, which attests to its popularity. Kentucky Fried Chicken still continues to serve it as a popular side, and no self-respecting deli would dare keep it off their menu.

And speaking of shredded cabbage, the Germans, Czechs and Polish all have their beloved fermented sauerkraut, which is usually served as a hot vegetable. Jewish delis
serve it cold as a side for sandwiches and a major filling in Reuben sandwiches.

So where does this leave our Brussels sprouts? Over 90 percent of the U.S. supply of these miniature cabbages are grown in the cool climate of San Francisco and
agricultural areas just south of the Bay. Estimated total United States production is well over 35,000 metric tons annually. For all you Brussels sprouts haters, you can blame the French settlers who brought them to the U.S. around 1800. Production began in the Louisiana delta and eventually found its way to the West Coast where the growing climate was more favorable.

Know Your Mushrooms

While mushrooms presumably date back to the cavemen, the earliest documented usage goes back to ancient China, where mushrooms were consumed for medicinal as well as culinary purposes. (Long before explorer Marco Polo trekked over to China.) Always on top of the latest food discoveries, Romans enjoyed them as a food, but since all mushrooms are not edible, those inventive emperors employed food tasters to determine which might be poisonous. (Certainly not an enviable job. You never knew which meal might be your last.) Throughout history, mushrooms have been dried and then eaten all winter, which placed them highly in demand.

Asians in particular value mushrooms as a medicine, like the reishi, maitake and turkey tail, and they ingest them frequently for health issues, either cooked or as a tea. With over 65% of the world’s production, China tops the list, followed by Italy and Poland. At 5%, the U.S. is no slouch, cranking out 390,000 tons a year. (That’s a lot of soup.)

Among many ethnic cultures, mushrooming or foraging is a popular pastime. Not only can you find some tasty varieties, but you get fresh air and exercise at the same time. Just make sure you recognize the ones to pick and the ones to pass up. (And if you’re in wooded areas, make sure you also recognize poison ivy when you see it.) Charming drawings and stories throughout history depict fairies and other small creatures sitting under or on top of toadstools, hence the name’s origin. Were they edible or just furniture? No one knows for sure. Probably both.

So unless you want to hire a food tester, it’s best to stick to the grocer or farmers’ market rather than plucking toadstools out in nature. You want to enjoy that homemade mushroom soup rather than land in the emergency room. And don’t even think about noshing “magical mushrooms.” The psychedelic trip might not be worth the trip.

The author Dale Phillip grew up in a mushroom-crazed family. Her father often went mushrooming with his brother, expertly choosing the edible varieties, a skill he learned from his family. Wild mushrooms were pungent and tasty, and her mother dried pounds of them for her winter stews and soups. Ms. Phillip, on the other hand, wouldn’t know a cremini from a zucchini out in the wild! She sticks to reliable farmers’ markets in her California community, and enjoys mushrooms weekly in many different dishes, both at home and in restaurants. She invites you to explore her many articles on Food and Drink and is a self-proclaimed foodie.

Small in Size, Big in Nutrition

They are mentioned frequently in the Bible, both Old and New Testament, and of course who can dismiss the venerable olive branch which symbolizes peace. Hebrew cuisine valued the fruit as well as the oil, which was considered holy and had many uses, including oil lamps, personal grooming and religious ceremonies.

The island of Crete made a major impact in the olive business several thousand years B.C. but has been dwarfed in modern times by larger and more populated countries. Case in point, Spain takes top honors for introducing olive trees to the Americas, where they showed up around the time Columbus raised his sails and headed West. (Who knows, maybe Columbus had something to do with it.) It is believed that Spanish missionaries in the 18th century brought the olive tree to U.S. territory as they traveled up through Mexico, finding their way to the rich soils of California before it was settled and achieved statehood. Still a major industry in Spain, they boast the largest production with approximately 6 million tons per year. Italy and Greece place second and third with 2.5 to 3.5 million tons annually. There’s no question that the Mediterranean countries lead the pack, as 90% of all olives are pressed for their precious oil, while the remaining 10% left whole. In California’s Central Valley 27,000 acres of olive trees are farmed yearly. Overall, more olives are produced than grapes, worldwide.

No doubt about it, the U.S. uses a hefty share of the yearly yield, not only the California crop but imports as well. And since the healthy benefits of olive oil are touted, we buy it by the gallon. We may not have brought them over on the Mayflower, but once the influx of immigrants began, we were quick to adopt them. Now many food stores feature an olive bar, priced by the pound. Years ago, it was even a popular female name (and who can forget Popeye’s girlfriend Olive Oyl).

The olive tree is remarkably hardy, and many have been identified throughout Mediterranean countries as over a thousand years old and still producing. They favor sun and hot weather and don’t get thirsty as often as other agricultural crops, thus making them well-suited to Southern climates. Ancient Roman Emperors ordered them to be planted in the Forum. Greeks treasured their Kalamata variety, indigenous to the region that bears its name. They graced the dining tables in Israel, Syria and Turkey, featuring their own regional favorites.

The First Health Food

The word yogurt originated in Turkey, where the practice of fermenting milk caught on in a big way. Recorded history tells us that Genghis Khan, leader of the Mongol Empire, and his armies lived on yogurt. (So for all you men out there who think yogurt is for sissies, think again.) The first references to yogurt are in Turkish writings during the 11th century, but it is believed that yogurt was eaten with honey since the early Bible times. Other countries seasoned it with spices and seeds, enjoying its smooth creamy texture. There are as many versions as there are countries, and its popularity spread long before its health benefits were totally understood. Middle Eastern countries used yogurt in many dishes centuries before it found its way to Western Europe.

Because yogurt contains good bacteria, it was believed to have curative powers especially for digestive and intestinal abnormalities. Francis I, a powerful late fifteenth century French monarch, purportedly was relieved of his chronic diarrhea by a physician who prescribed a daily helping of yogurt, and word soon spread throughout Western Europe.

In the country of India, a similar version called da-hi is a popular accompaniment to native spicy entrees. Frequently made from yak or water buffalo milk, it is also consumed in Nepal and Tibet and considered a staple of their simple diets. Iranians love yogurt as a side dish, often combined with cucumbers and other vegetables, and a popular substitute for sour cream. Lassi and kefir are other forms of yogurt in a liquid form among Indian and Middle Eastern cultures. Americans still prefer their own versions of yogurt and rarely venture out of their comfort zone. They have welcomed it into their diets, frequently as a substitute for vegetables oils, salad dressings, sour cream and mayonnaise.

Turkish immigrants brought their beloved yogurt to North America in the 1700s but it didn’t gain much popularity until the mid-1940s. Did Thomas Jefferson serve yogurt at state dinners? Probably not. Virtually confined to major cities and ethnic communities on the East Coast, it certainly would not have been a big hit out on the frontier, either.

By the early 20th century, it was viewed strictly as a “health food” and consumed by those who had digestive challenges. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg served it daily at his Battle Creek Sanitarium, where people flocked to experience his cures eating a restricted diet. Because of the lactobacillus component, it promoted healthy probiotics in the intestines and stomach, and boosted digestive enzymes. Presumably the first commercial yogurt enterprise, a small mom and pop business called Columbo yogurt set up shop on the East Coast in 1929.