I Yam What I Yam

Have you ever wondered about what the difference is between sweet potatoes and yams? Sweet potatoes are also called ‘yams’ — however these tuberous root vegetables are actually from two very different plants. Sweet potatoes are related to morning glories and true yams are related to palms and grasses. When you buy a ‘yam’ at the supermarket, you are really buying a sweet potato. True yams are imported, starchy and dry in texture, and not grown in the U.S. And guess what — sweet potatoes are not related to potatoes! Confusing — yes. But the term ‘yam’ has stuck for sweet potatoes sold in the U.S. and it is used interchangeably.

North Carolina is the largest U.S. producer of yams followed closely by California. Sweet potato varieties are classified as either ‘firm’ or ‘soft.’ Firm sweet potatoes are golden skinned with a pale interior and remain firm and slightly waxy when cooked. It is the ‘soft’ orange-fleshed varieties with purple or coppery skins that are often labeled as yams in the United States.

Also, keep this in mind — if you are making a Caribbean or Indian dish and the recipe calls for yams, be sure to visit an ethnic market for that ingredient. (Here’s a photo of what true yams look like.) Substituting American ‘yams’ or sweet potatoes may not work. A true yam has a rough, scaly, brown exterior and a creamy color flesh. Its flesh is also much firmer, even after cooking. You might be able to get away with using the firm, golden skinned sweet potato — but most likely the fluffy soft texture of the orange-fleshed sweet potato we call a ‘yam’ in the U.S. will not work.

Although generallly available year round, peak season for sweet potatoes is from October through December.

Not only delicious, one sweet potato packs twice the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A, with loads of vitamin C, calcium, fiber, along with a healthy dose of vitamins B and B6, and only 141 nutrient-dense calories.

Store sweet potatoes in a cool dry place for up to four weeks.

RECIPES: Sweet Potato Soup with Maple CroutonsSweet Potato Pecan Pie,  Pumpkin and Sweet Potato Curry, Roasted Sweet Potato Wedges with Yogurt Lime Dip,  Curried Sweet Potato Latkes

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How to Make Fresh Pumpkin Purée

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Which kind of pumpkin is best for baking?

  • Smaller is better – large field pumpkins, which are specially bred for Halloween jack-o-lanterns, are generally too tough and stringy for baking.
  • Choose “pie” or “sugar” pumpkins or other flavorful varieties, such as Sugar Baby. Small and sweet, with dark orange-colored flesh, they’re perfect for pies, muffins, breads and soup.
  • A medium-sized pie pumpkin (about 4 pounds) should yield around 1½ cups of mashed pumpkin. You can use this puree for all your recipes calling for canned pumpkin.

Homemade Pumpkin Purée

Preheat oven to 375°F.

Rinse the pumpkin under cool water to remove any dirt or particles.

Cut the pumpkin in half and discard the stem section and stringy pulp and seeds. (Save the seeds to toast for a healthy snack, if desired.)

In a shallow baking pan lightly coated or sprayed with vegetable oil, place the two halves face down and cover with foil.

Bake pumpkin at 375°F for approximately 1½ hours, or until flesh is tender when pierced.

After baked pumpkin has cooled, scoop out the flesh and mash by hand or purée it by pressing flesh through a food mill or using a food processor.

Place purée in a fine meshed strainer lined with a coffee filter or several layers of cheesecloth and set over a deep bowl. Stir occasionally and drain until the puree is as thick as canned pumpkin, about two hours.

Immediately store in sealed container and refrigerate. Use within three days.

To Freeze:

Measure 1 ¾ cups of drained purée (which is equivalent to 15 ounces of canned pumpkin) and place in rigid containers, leaving ½ inch head space.  Label, date and freeze up to one year.

RECIPE: Pumpkin Pie from scratch!

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How to Prep Artichokes

Artichoke-prep

  • While big artichokes are great to eat and easy to prepare, don’t overlook the tiny ones that can be used in so many ways. The smaller the better! (They are easier to trim, too.)
  • When selecting artichokes, they should be compact without any of the bracts (leaves) spreading widely. The leaves at the center should be tight against one another.
  • Bracts should be plump, never withered or shriveled.
  • Check the stem of the artichoke. It should be full and firm, without any sponginess to it. The cut should look fresh and clean.
  • Carefully, and I do mean carefully, squeeze the artichoke in your hand. It should squeak. This is a sign of freshness. No squeak? Not so fresh.
  • Artichokes discolor rapidly upon cutting. To prevent oxidation, rub the cut with lemon juice, or submerge the artichokes in acidulated water. Your knife will discolor as well, especially if it is carbon steel. Wash the knife right away (use Comet and a cork to scrub carbon steel blades) after finishing with the artichokes. If you use the knife unwashed on other things the bitter flavor of the raw artichoke will transfer to whatever you are cutting.
  • Raw artichokes will leave a bitterness on your hands that easily transfers, and can remain on your hands a long time. Wash your hands well with plenty of soap and water after handling artichokes.
  • Stems are frequently edible. Peel the stem with a knife and then cut off a little piece of it to taste. If it is not bitter it will taste just like the heart, of which it is an extension.
  • Artichokes require trimming, and lots of it. Do not skimp or you can wind up with bitter, tough, poorly-cooked artichokes. Not only that, if you miss the thorns on the bract tips, it hurts!
  • NEVER skimp on scraping out the choke. Check to make sure you removed all of it. They are really unpleasant and the effects of eating some can last days. I say this from experience, which is why you will never catch me eating fried artichokes at roadside stands.
  • Speaking of trimming, this is one of the few times I recommend a cheap serrated knife. Use it for trimming the bottom two-thirds off the large artichokes. Kitchen shears work also. If you use a kitchen knife, use one that has a thick firm blade that is sharp, and that you will soon be getting sharpened again. A short sharp paring knife is good for the rest of the work.
  • Artichokes contain cynarin. This compound is bitter, and has the unique characteristic of making the foods you eat after the artichoke taste sweet. This tends to mess with the taste of the wine that accompanies dinner. Many people say avoid wine altogether, but the consensus is to drink a high acid wine such as a Chenin Blanc or brut sparkler with artichokes.
  • When boiling artichokes, if the meal will have wine with it, I use wine in the liquid to bridge the wine-artichoke gap. I also cover the artichokes with a cloth to keep them in the liquid, or use a smaller pot lid to keep them submerged.
  • If after trimming big artichokes for stuffing or hearts, you have lots of meaty leaves left, steam them until just done and then cool them. You can eat them as is or scrape them with a spoon to get the meat off to use as a ravioli stuffing or mix into cream for a pasta sauce.

RECIPES: Oyster and Artichoke Soup, Braised Baby Artichokes Tuscan Style, Baby Artichoke Olive Salad, Artichoke Sourdough Bisque, Easy Baked Artichokes

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Nadine’s Garlic Aioli

aioli

As a regular customer at the Aptos Farmers Market, Nadine Frush can be spotted there almost every week carrying bags full of fresh produce from her favorite farmers. She also happens to be a wonderful cook — no surprise there!

Garlic aioli is one of her signature condiments that she keeps on hand. When I mentioned that we needed a good recipe for aioli for the Crispy Fried Calamari recipe, Nadine said, “Here’s the recipe I use for my garlic aioli. It’s based on a recipe that appeared in New Recipes for the Cuisinart by James Beard and Carl Jerome — a wonderful little book under 100 pages with great recipes.”

What’s the difference between aioli and mayonnaise? Basically, it’s the same condiment — however, aioli contains garlic.

Garlic aioli is especially delicious served with crispy calamari or shrimp, crab, boiled small potatoes, homemade French fries, or crudites.

INGREDIENTS:

1 large egg
1 teaspoon white vinegar or lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 1/2 cups peanut oil*
1 clove of peeled, finely minced garlic
Optional flavor variations:

  • 8 anchovy fillets
  • 1/4 cup Dijon mustard
  • 6 spinach leaves, 6 parsley sprigs, 4 green onions cut up, 4 sprigs of tarragon, 2 sprigs of dill

METHOD:

In the bowl of a food processor using the metal blade, add vinegar, egg, salt and pepper. Give the mixture two quick pulses and let it sit for 5 minutes. Then process until blended. While the food processor is running, slowly start dripping in the oil. As soon as it starts to thicken (when about 1/3 of the oil remains), you can speed up the pouring. Add the garlic (or other add ins). Refrigerate immediately. Aioli is good for about a week.

* Nadine is French, and she says that where her family is from in France, “Our aioli is always made with peanut oil.” However, if you don’t have peanut oil on hand, you can use 3/4 canola oil and 1/4 olive oil. Don’t use all virgin olive oil for aioli — it overwhelms the flavor of the sauce. If you want to use all olive oil, a better choice is a blend or a very light olive oil.

Here’s a video about making aioli without a food processor. It’s a slightly different recipe, but the method is worth learning.

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How to Make Almond Butter

With a new crop of almonds plentiful at the farmers market this time of year, you can quickly and easily make delicious homemade almond butter using your food processor. Almonds are a rich source of protein and vitamin E. Almond butter can be used like peanut butter on sandwiches or in baking or cooking. And when you make almond butter at home, you can control the salt content.

INGREDIENTS:

1 cup whole natural almonds, roasted
1/8 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons almond or vegetable oil

METHOD:

To roast almonds, spread on a shallow baking pan. Place in a 350ºF oven and bake 7 to 10 minutes or until almonds are fragrant; stir once or twice to assure even roasting.

In food processor with metal blade in place, grind almonds and salt until fine. While running, slowly add oil in a steady stream until mixture is spreadable.

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Cooking Basics for Dried Beans

Dried beans are part of every well-stocked pantry. Here are some basic cooking tips:

  • If you buy fresh dried beans (beans under two years old), no soaking is needed prior to cooking.
  • Soaking beans overnight will speed up the cooking time. No need to change the water — the soaking water now contains vitamins and flavor — don’t throw it out.
  • One cup of dried beans makes about three cups of cooked beans. 1 lb. of beans yields 6 cups of beans.
  • Do not add salt to the beans until after they are cooked to prevent the skins from splitting.
  • Store dry beans in a cool place in a glass jar with a lid or other airtight container. They will be good for about two years. Older beans are still edible, but the quality and nutritional value decline.

How to Sprout Lentils

sprouts

Sprouted lentils and beans are a very healthy source of both protein and complex carbohydrates. Once sprouted, use sprouts for raw salads, batters, sandwiches, and soups. Not only are sprouts more easily digested, they also have an increased nutritional value and fiber content!

INGREDIENTS:

1/2 – 1 cup organic, dried grey green lentils*
1 large glass wide-mouthed canning jar, sanitized
Cheesecloth or mesh screen to cover the jar
Rubber band
Water for rinsing

METHOD:

Sort through the lentils to remove any debris, broken or discolored lentils or small stones. Rinse the lentils very well before soaking.

Place the lentils in a glass jar and cover with water. Put the cloth (or mesh screen) on  the top of the jar and secure with rubber band. Soak the lentils overnight or for at least 8 – 12 hours.

In the morning, rinse and drain them well. There should not be any water left sitting in the bottom of the jar. If water sits and collects, mold may develop and your sprouts will go bad.

Place the jar in a cool place, away from daylight, while the lentils sprout.

Rinse and drain the lentils well about every 12 hours or so. As long as you are diligent about rising them and not leaving water in the jar you should not encounter problems with slime or mold.

Lentils take about three days to become fully sprouted. When the sprouts have reached the  desired length, give them a final rinse and then place them on a paper towel or tea towel to air dry before storing. Place sprouts in a paper-towel lined bowl, cover with another paper towel before closing container, and place in refrigerator. They should stay fresh for about one week.

*Sprouts will at least double in size so sprout only as much as you can consume in a few days.

NOTE: You can sprout many kinds of seeds and legumes including mung beans, garbanzo beans, soy beans, quinoa, sunflower seeds, peas, etc.

How to Make Dried Persimmon Slices

fuyu persimmon slicesDrying persimmons is easy, with or without a dehydrator. Your kitchen oven will do the job just fine. Dried persimmon slices make delicious snacks or can be added to salads, cookies, cereal, or breads.

The trick for best results is to use a mandoline or Benriner slicer to make certain the persimmon slices are even.

INGREDIENTS:
12 ripe, firm Fuyu Persimmons

METHOD:
Peel persimmons. Cut crosswise into 1/8-inch thick slices using a mandoline.

Preheat oven to 175°F. If you have a convection oven, use the convection setting and set the oven temperature to 150°F.

On two baking sheets, arrange the persimmon slices in a single layer. Bake for 8 to 10 hours, switching the position of the baking trays several times. (Note: Convection ovens will take less time.)

After 4-5 hours, turn the fruit slices over on the baking sheets to promote even drying. The fruit will dry to a rich pumpkin color and should be light and leathery, not sticky. If sticky, return to the oven for awhile longer, or until no longer sticky.

Remove the trays from the oven and allow the fruit cool completely. To store, place dried fruit in glass or plastic containers and seal tightly.

10 Tips for Making Perfect Pie Crust

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Everyone enjoys a great piece of pie, especially made with fresh fruits from the farmers markets! It is easily one of America’s favorite desserts. However, the bane of most cooks is making the pie crust. While it’s easy and convenient to turn to store-bought, pre-rolled pie crust, nothing comes close to a homemade, buttery, flaky pie crust.

If you’re a newbie to baking, don’t try to make a pie crust from scratch when guests are expected in two hours! Instead, set aside a half hour and follow the directions carefully. Have your pie filling ingredients ready to go, and devote your attention to the pie crust. Continue Reading →

How to Cook Pasture Raised Meats

Grilled BBQ T-Bone Steak

When it comes to cooking pastured or grass-fed meats, remember that these meats are leaner than the usual grocery store grain-fed meats, so you need to cook them a little differently.

Grilling
For grilling steaks, keep the degree of doneness to medium at the most, although I recommend medium-rare. Use a lower heat and check it sooner than you think you should until you get used to cooking pastured meats.

Dry Aged Meat
With dry aged meat, not only is it lean, it also has a lower moisture content, so low heat is a must that the meat does not dry out. If you are grilling, use a lower direct flame to mark the steaks and get a bit of char on the outside, then move the meat off the fire to the side of the grill and finish with indirect heat.

If cooking on the stovetop, sear the meat in the pan, and then once you have turned the meat and seared both sides, move the meat to the oven to finish at a temperature around 325°F.

Braising
For braises, cook the meat gently. Sear the meat for flavor, then add the liquid. Bring to a boil, skimming off impurities that form on the surface. Lower the heat to a bare simmer, or better yet, place in the oven and finish cooking there at a low heat, about 300°F. For roasting these meats, use a gentler heat, and marinating can be a good idea.

While learning how to cook pastured meat, keep the seasoning fairly simple until you are more familiar with the characteristics of this meat as it cooks, and to also to get a better grasp of the meat flavor. Grass fed meat has little more chew to it, and the flavor, which can be hard to describe, really is “beefier.” The lamb I have had has a fine lamb flavor without the tallow-like funk you find in older, fattier lamb.

Goat tends to have a higher bone to meat ratio it seems, so be prepared. That said, the flavor is wonderful – sort of like lamb, without the gamey quality you can get as a result of the fat, and with a deeper flavor. Be sure not to overcook the goat or it will be quite tough. Remember – you can always throw it back on the heat, but once it is overcooked, nothing will help! Keep in mind that only certain goats give this mellow flavored meat, so be careful where you shop if you are not getting your goat at the farmers markets. Old Creek Ranch carries excellent goat rib chops.

Grass-Fed Meats Superior to Commercially Produced Meat in Every Way
When looking at statistics, it is apparent that meat from grass-fed animals is nutritionally superior to meat from grain-fed animals. In some instances, the differences are astounding:

  • Grass-fed beef is lower in fat and calories, overall. Switching to grass-fed beef can help lose weight.
  • A six-ounce serving of pastured beef has 100 calories less than grain fed beef.
  • Contains significantly higher levels of vitamin E, beta-carotene, omega 3 fatty acids. Omega-3s are the “good fats” that are essential to good health that the body can not manufacture. Omega-3s are necessary for good cardio health, heart rhythm, and blood pressure, fight depression, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer. They also aid in recovery from surgery.
  • CLAs (conjugated linoleic acids), a family of nutrients that have been shown to be anti-carcinogenic and antioxidant. CLAs also are supposed to decrease risk for heart attack and decrease inflammation as well, and there are studies that suggest CLAs have other positive health benefits too.
  • On the whole, grass-fed ruminants (such as beef and sheep) have 300 to 500% more CLAs than grain fed animals. By the way, synthetic CLA supplements don’t have the same efficacy that those consumed naturally do.
  • Did you know cattle use 70% of the antibiotics used in the USA? Antibiotics are necessary for cattle in feedlots to protect them from diseases they get resulting from eating grains, poor manure management, and from being stressed out from living in feedlots. Antibiotics are rarely, if ever, used with grass-fed animals.
  • The benefits of pastured animals in the diet also apply to eggs and milk products. Cheeses and eggs from these animals contain many of the benefits mentioned above, and are lower in cholesterol and saturated fats.